Recent reports of parents being jailed for home schooling their children in Germany have made me think how greatful I am for our government (a rather rare moment).
Six years ago we removed our children from school and began home educating them. We did this because at the time our eldest son who has Aspergers Syndrome was not coping with school and school was not coping with him. The RTLB’s solution was to assign him a teacher aid who basically took him into the library where Christian would roll around the floor all day. By age 8 Christian could not really read, refused to write and never drew pictures.
Knowing that Christian was bright, the children’s psych department had tested his IQ and told us he scored in the genius range, we were not happy with this at all. Equally we were not happy that our eldest child, Sheridan (then 11), was often pulled out of her class to calm Christian down because she was the only one in the school who could; she was be teased horribly for having the retard brother. Christian would hide in his wardrobe and quietly cry after school about how bad he was. He was horrified at his own behaviour and quite depressed. Sheridan developed an eating disorder. It was heartbreaking to watch. So, to the horror of the psychiatrist, psychologist, RTLB and our family members who were state school teachers (but I suspect to the relief of Christian’s teachers) we removed Christian and Sheridan from school and began home educating them.
What about their social skills? Someone with Aspergers desperately needs social interaction. How will you teach them science and maths and english at high school level? How will you cope having these apparently difficult and irritating children around you 24/7?
We didn’t know the answers to those questions when we first began but we knew that we would find them. All we knew for sure was that the situation at school was doing far more harm than good and that our children needed their parents.
The home education community told me to give both kids a break of at least 6 months to recover, that many peer reviewed studies show that it only takes 2-4 years to learn enough to enter life. I thought they were insane. Both kids were “behind” so I did not listen to begin with.
For the first 6 months Sheridan acted like she was in state of relief, liked she had survived a near miss. I had not fully appreciated the stress she was under at school until I pulled her out. She threw herself into all the work I set her and never looked back. However, Christian would scream and throw his work accross the room if I asked him to do anything and seemed to be going backwards so I decided to take the home educator’s advice.
They said to limit his TV and computer time and to make sure that I read to them and talked to them and did fun learning actitivities with them where I integrated learning into life experiences. Pretty soon car trips would involve discussions about the different cloud formations we could see and the purposes of farming and forestry. Shopping would see me getting the kids to help calculate the discount in percentage off sales and I would have them calculate the best value in terms of price and quantity in the supermarket. I began to notice that Christian was trying to read billboards and would say things like “oh, now I know what that word looks like written down.” Sheridan’s eating disorder disappeared as we worked through the latest studies in nutrition.
Christian had begun reading thin books with pictures but would not progress to chapter books. One night Matt pulled out the Magician’s Nephew, first book in CS Lewis’s Narnia series, and read the first chapter. In typical Asperger style Christian appeared to not have been paying attention at all but we knew by then to ignore that and hope that he was. We put the kids to bed and watched a movie. As we were tidying up the kitchen and locking up, Christian walked into the lounge with the Magician’s Nephew in his hand, he said, “I’ve just finished it.” From there we couldn’t keep his head out of books.
We went on from there to develop our home education method in the following way, borrowing from the Trivium. Up til age 10 we encourage phonics based reading, basic facts in maths and critical thinking/logic and we foster a love of learning accross a broad range of subjects by talking to them about it and reading to them about it and doing practical things like science experiments. We also teach them to ask questions and how to find out the answers. We work with the child’s readiness and we do not stress if they are 8 and cannot read. The term “behind” is not used. We find that the kids will spontaneously write stories and push themselves.
Between 10 and 12 we get them doing some written work, we focus on punctuation and sentence structure and we begin to really up the logic/critical thinking stuff and we start doing maths exercises written down. We teach them how to find answers from primary sources and encourage them to read widely and all sides of a position. No other subjects are formally covered beyond English, Maths and Critical Thinking/Logic. Our phisosophy is that if you can structure and understand an argument and can clearly express yourself and you know how to research you can study anything.
By 13, if they want to, they can choose 1 or 2 other subjects that they find interesting. We found with both our teenagers that they had gravitated towards different subjects anyway; Sheridan is into Ancient History/Archeology and Biology and Christian is into Computer Animation and Science.
Since moving to Auckland we have put 3 of our kids back into school. As Matt’s mother was dying we needed the babysitting that school afforded and now as we both work we can really only have Sheridan at home as she is very self-motivated and will go through her work on her own whereas Christian, being Aspergers, likes his days to be structured by someone else and the other two children are too young to be home alone anyway. Hopefully in the near future we will be in a financial position to remove them all from school again but in the meantime school is it.
This is where each of them are at currently:
Noah, aged 6, has struggled to settle into school, he really is not a kid for whom school is a good option as he is a bit of a rascal and like a lot of boys he has taken a while to be ready for school but he is a very bright kid whose curiousity constantly has him in trouble and now his reading is coming on (thanks to us pulling our phonics readers out and largely ignoring the ‘guess it from the pictures books’ the school sends home).
Brittany, aged 8, was promptly put up a class where she is the youngest in the room. She too is a deep thinking, bright cookie. She has settled well and is the sort of kid who settles easily into any environment.
Christian, aged 13, is academically doing very well. We received a letter home from his science teacher informing us that after exams he was the top student in his form. His maths teacher tells us he has to set Christian harder work than the rest of the class and he is doing great in art and technology and in his other subjects. The guidance counsellor is incredibly impressed with his social skills as he is now well ahead on that score than most Aspergers kids his age.
Sheridan, turned 16 in May (the only one still homeschooled), has just this week been accepted by Auckland University despite her lack of NCEA or Cambridge qualifications. She will complete a foundation certificate and then go on to do an undergraduate degree. As she is really into Ancient History and Archeology so a BA seems to be the way to go but she really enjoys Biology too so she may do a double degree.
We turned to home education not because we wanted to shut our kids away from the world, far from it. We always believed that home education was the superior form of education because it meant you could open the world up to your children, that due to the one on one nature of home education you could really help your children learn at a pace suitable to their ability and to a depth that the dumbed down education system in NZ just does not go to.
When the education system failed out special needs child (though Aspergers is really more of a gift than a disability) we were able to step in an help him to excel. I am horrified to think that families who observe their children stuggling with the school system or who have bright kids that the school system does not cater for enough do not have the option in Germany to assist their children. Worse of all though is the blatent disregard for human rights that the German government is exercising in denying parents the right to educate their children.