Regular readers will know my youngest son Sullivan was diagnosed with Autism back in December 2016. This was a long process with a multi-agency type approach including his pre-school, primary school, educational psychologist, Speech And Language and Occupational Therapy services. I have talked about this in my previous posts, most recently in my post about mental health awareness and anxiety in children, all of this lead us to take the big step that we had always held in our minds as parents of an autistic child with social anxieties; home education.
Why home educate?
I'm a firm believer that individuality needs to be embraced in every part of our society. It's a simple fact that the traditional education system doesn't work well for all children, so those that it doesn't work well for should be allowed the chance to try something else. It's really that simple for me. We tried. It wasn't working for Sullivan at this point in his life. Without going in to too much personal detail, the school were fully supportive of our decision and knew that with the financial restrictions placed on them that Sullivan would receive a more suited education away from a traditional setting at this time. The law reads:
'The parent of every child of compulsory school age shall cause him to receive efficient full time education suitable a) to his age ability and aptitude, and b) any special educational needs he may have, either by attendance at a school or otherwise.'
Now, 'otherwise' in our situation is home education. It is legal and recognised as a perfectly valid way to make sure your child is receiving the education they are both entitled and legally obliged to have. There are many ways people choose to home educate. It is sadly another trait of our society that only the extreme situations are covered (often badly and extremely biased) by news teams and social media, so people's views of home education can be very outdated, negative and forced in to a big box of dangerous taboo. I personally have no knowledge of un-schooling or families who have never entered in to any type of traditional-type schooling system so I won't be talking about that, just my own experiences. I will, however, state that I will not put down any families who participate in that kind of lifestyle just as I will not put down any families participating in traditional education system lifestyles.
We de-registered Sullivan on the 29th September 2017. It has been just over a calendar month now, so we are still relatively in the home education honeymoon I suppose but the difference in Sullivan has been, without doubt, amazing. It was as if the stress fell away from him, like the Autumn leaves from the trees. We follow structure and routine at home, alongside the general curriculum for KS1, pretty much as his previous school would be doing. This works for Sullivan but again many families choose to do their own version of education which doesn't follow traditional curriculum or 'sit down' work.
We have found some lovely local groups of families home educating children of different ages and regularly meet up to socialise. The local library has been an amazing source of support, not only for my Home Educator library card (which allows me to borrow up to 12 books at a time for 2 months - great for topics and long projects!) but for socialising too. We attend Stay And Play every week, then each weekend there is either Lego Club or Craft club, each time Sullivan gets to bond with peers and other adults in an authoritative role too. The pressure release from not attending full time traditional setting school has allowed him to start to embrace making friends and socialising rather than cower away from it, which is such a pleasure to see.
A practical benefit for us has been being able to focus more on the areas he needed help with on a one to one basis, which the school couldn't provide. His handwriting has improved tenfold and so has his ability to concentrate on tasks. He is choosing to do dexterous activities and is gaining confidence each day rather than it trickling away.
will we ever go back?
We'll never say never. We de-registered Sullivan with the idea of bringing him back in to school when we all feel he is ready to transition. When this will be, we are not sure yet. We've only been home educating for a month so time will tell I suppose. My main realisation as a parent was that we weren't actually tied to a situation that was making life horrendous for us all. There are other options out there and it's valid, legal and a-OK to try them out. If we decide to move Sullivan back in to a traditional school setting as a family, then that is also OK.
We're off to do some learning now. Sullivan has been fascinated by the use of fireworks for Diwali and Guy Fawkes night so we are researching into these topics this week, alongside some core curriculum work and a healthy dash of parks, soft play and socialising! We're both excited for a fab week and this makes me happier than I've been in a long, long time.
It's world mental health day today.
Chances are you've seen a plethora of posts on social media raising awareness about today specifically and of course mental health importance throughout our lives in general. I am always overwhelmed at the outpouring of love and raw honesty most wonderful people on my friends/follow lists show at this time of the month. I recognise that there are still massive stigmas surrounding mental health and for some it's still a taboo subject to talk about but I'd like to think that things are getting better, more open, people are becoming more supportive and understanding. Perhaps I've been luckier than most. I have been able to access counselling through my GP when needed, I had friends and family who were supportive even if they couldn't understand my situation, workplaces have been flexible and kind, my online community have been amazing. I still felt alone, scared and awful at times but I also felt a lot of love.
What about the kids?
One thing I have personally noticed is the idea and opinion of children's mental health seems to be a lot more changeable. As some of you may know our youngest son has Autism. We decided to home educate him a few weeks ago. This may seem like a sudden decision but believe me it's been a long time coming... we just didn't feel like we could talk to many people about it properly.
Back in the day, most toddler groups we went to with him were a disaster and would begin or end with a terrified or stressed out meltdown of emotions and tears.
For most mornings of his year of pre-school sessions he was a crying anxious mess. This only began to change slowly in the very last weeks before we left for him to start his journey into Reception but most of it was a raw and hard emotional roller coaster.
For most mornings of his just past Reception year he was again a crying anxious mess. He hated going in to school and slight changes to that routine would be yet another thing to tip him over the edge. We knew what to expect this time but it didn't make it any easier. He started to form a few friendships but for the most part was pretty solitary and very quiet at school... and easily overlooked due to that. In a busy class of 29 other children, merged with another class of 30 other children and often only two or three amazing but stretched adults looking after them all, he was easily missed when upset or injured. Some of the friendships forming were not of his choice, nor positive due to his social communication issues. He was having most of his work done by other children, he had to leave a lunchtime SEN club due to the disorganisation stressing him out more than it was supposed to help, he was coerced in to social play situations he was not comfortable with repeatedly, he withheld toileting, becoming obsessional about more and more things and his mood swings were severe at home. Without guidance and support all of this and more was continuing and severely impacting his mental health. We had the summer holiday break and it was like we got our little boy back. He was so stress-free, the anger and tears subsided within a few days, his anxious routines fell away from his brain, his body relaxed, his health and energy increased. It was a joy to see.
Going back into Year One after the holidays was nothing short of horrendous. We had to miss his first week back due to him suddenly coming down with a severe and terrifying 'allergic reaction' a few days before the start of term which now seems to be related to stress levels (we've got an emergency appointment with an allergy specialist at the local hospital in December) which left him like this for days, even with steroids and antihistamines on the case:
When he eventually did manage to go back, it was so rough. Practically every night was filled with begging not to go to school the following day, him trying to explain to us how it makes him feel and how desperate he was not to go back, the walk to school feeling like every step came with a ton of concrete attached to us, each morning filled with tears and prising his little gripping fingers off of every available part of my body/hair/clothes. Both my husband and I would spend all day worrying ourselves sick about him, riddling our hearts with guilt-fired texts between ourselves about how he's doing, what we should be doing, what other people think etc filling our brains with research, techniques, coping, ways to help him. It was driving us all in to the ground as we knew it wasn't working. We knew it wasn't right.
If it was happening to me...
The thing my husband and I both kept coming back to was it if was happening to either of us, we would be taking serious steps towards self-care, seeking support and trying to change our situation to get us out of something so emotionally toxic. A lot of the feedback we received however when talking about our son and his experiences of severe anxiety relating to school and social situations was that it was just a phase and that we should all have to persevere through it and wait for things to settle down. Kids will be kids and most of them don't like going to school, they just have to suck it up. When you've already felt like you've been doing that for two and a half years, and your child becomes so ill with mental anguish that it physically alters their body, it feels like a bit of a kick in the teeth to say keep calm and carry on.
what about friends?
In the fortnight we have been home educating, we have joined some smaller groups with children similar ages to our son. We have also been out to situations which would have been very difficult for him just a few short months ago. Having someone there in a smaller group to guide him with positive communication and social interaction is boosting his confidence above and beyond my expectations and it's joyous to see. He handled a very loud and aggressive younger girl a few days ago with just a little guidance (and a cuddle!), I can 100% say a few months back this would have been a breaking point for him and would have ruined his whole day, possibly longer due to his obsessional thoughts. He bowled in to soft play with confidence and made friends with another boy his age, also on the spectrum, due to being allowed the space, time and freedom to do so. He is asking to do work rather than hitting himself in frustration. He is finding absolute happiness in learning and life right now and my heart couldn't be more sure that we've made the right decision just by seeing this alone! Yet, we still have the odd few people claiming this isn't right for him, mainly due to the fact he's not away from us and with 29 other kids 9am - 3pm Monday - Friday.
This is an important decision and I can't stress how much we have researched, asked for help, gone to meetings and courses, spoken with school and outside agencies and just tried to 'wait it out' before making our decision (and having school agree with us, which was really lovely actually) but I would always urge any parent of a child struggling with mental health, especially revolving around attending mainstream school, that possibly wants to think about home education or other alternatives but is too scared due to taboo and opinion, to consider that there are alternatives out there. You don't have to just put up with a hard and potentially damaging situation for your family and your child if you feel it's not right for you.
I'd like to add too that if you do choose to stay in school when faced with similar issues to us then absolutely all power to you, too. I feel no way is wrong, just like when handling adult depression, anxiety and mental health issues. One of the reasons we have a mental health awareness day is to be more open about what you're going through and what works for you (as long as it is within the law, everyone is consenting etc) and to let others know they are not alone. It's OK to feel like this and do something about it, It's OK to feel like this and do something else about it. It's OK. Lets all try and support each other in the way we'd love to be supported ourselves. Lets build ourselves and each other up instead of finding ways to pick on ourselves or those we deem weaker or wrong, less important or making different decisions to what we'd personally make.
Who is Julie?
30 something, mother of two gorgeous boys, lover of one gorgeous husband, perpetually living in a dream world full of wine, chocolate and artsy crafty things.