Real Talk From Parents Homeschooling Children With Disabilities

Parents of children with disabilities are already some of the strongest, fiercest and most exhausted parent advocates for quality schools during regular times. So sure, add on a national pandemic, e-learning with no training, and, oh yeah, prohibit physical contact with people! 

In this latest episode of "Are you Kidding Me?!?," parents of children with disabilities are being asked to "teach" their children at home. Luckily, parents like us are used to making the impossible … possible. As a parent who has had several breakdowns, and is finally coming to the "acceptance" phase of our new reality, I turned to my fellow parents for help. 

Teachers are fantastic, but when it comes to the intricacies of navigating special education, my experts are other parents. So of course, with all these new challenges at hand, I reached out to my network of warrior parents to hear their tips, obstacles, and support to help me cope. In this unprecedented moment, I truly believe the only experts worth listening to are other parents of children with disabilities.

Below are some of the responses I got from my beloved warrior parent community. Most of my fellow parent warriors simply offered raw truth from the trenches.

My middle-schooler does not use his Chromebook at school because electronics trigger him. They make him anxious, depressed and aggressive. Why? I don’t know. We tried to use it today but—OMG. Screaming, crying—from a kid who normally gets his stuff done in just a few moments.

I’m a nurse, so my mom is tackling my kids’ e-learning while me and my husband are at work. I made a daily visual schedule for my ASD son and it seems to help. His resource teacher also gave us ideas on how to adapt his work.

My daughter is [in pre-K] and today we followed the activities sent home. It was rough though. She got really frustrated. I feel like the relationship between teacher-student and parent-child is different enough that she threw a big fit she probably wouldn’t have thrown for her teacher. I tried to power through the entire thing all at once this morning. I think tomorrow we’ll spread it out a bit more and take some breaks. I kinda don’t want to do that because I don’t want to do school allll day. [Pre-K] is only half-day anyway. It doesn’t help that my 3.5-year-old is neurotypical and whizzed through the same activities while her big sister struggled.

The obstacles are many. My husband and I both work and are expected to get our work done from home. The [homework is] a bunch of random links to articles and assignments. My child cannot read or write on grade level, and none of the articles have audio accessibility features. So I have to hunt down the material, read and scribe everything for her. Her specialized reading instruction is gone. No live online instruction, just practice packets. No audio support, no video lessons. I’m shocked at how few accessibility tools are on the school iPad. She is supposed to have assistive tech. Sure, there’s “Learning Ally,” but none of the content in the lesson plans is on it. All the parents of neurotypical kids are saying, “This is no big deal, the kids will be fine.” Well, we’re dealing with an illiterate fourth-grader. There needs to be more support.

If I could ask for help with anything, it would be something for supplies. I’m afraid of what my daughter’s dyslexia remediation will look like. I wish I had the opportunity to get the parent training. For other parents, I would like to see additional minutes for families who rely on the free cell phone service … to ensure they can stay in contact with loved ones and the schools. One of the schools is offering a Chromebook to each student, but many families may not even get the message.

We’re trial and error over here. I was going to try to do a class at a time and take breaks—like changing classes in middle school—but he’s losing focus so badly that tomorrow I’m starting at 7:00 a.m. and banging through it. He can then do whatever he damn well pleases for the rest of the day. I’m modifying curriculum as I go. He’s mostly in resource classes where the curriculum is already modified. For [general education classes], we’re doing the best we can. It’s science and about sound waves. He pretty much understands a wave. Haven’t tried math or art yet.

The Bright Spots

Give yourself time! Kids who transfer normally to homeschooling need a week of gear-shifting to the home environment. Don’t worry about things learned. Particularly for kids on the spectrum, or with ADHD or anxiety disorders, this is going to be a hard shift. 

Heck, the neurotypicals are dysregulated! Our unicorn kids are bound to be all over the place! Go back to old standbys:

1) Weighted blankets or pillows, fidgets, chewies, swinging or jumping, lots of deep hugs.
2) No new material. Only things they have mastered independently at 75% or more. Start the week with a feeling of “I can do this!”
3)  Everyone is totally overwhelmed. Lots of breaks and snacks and physical movement.

One day at a time. I’m trying to get my own brain in a better place to tackle this because I think this is a long-term problem—not two weeks. We kept to our usual routine and I had the kids get “ready” like they usually do. On his own, J. got his school iPad out and started typing. Then we switched to worksheets his teacher had sent home. We did one of those—front and back—and then I had to get on calls, so he had “free time.”

After my calls, we took the dog for a walk and caught snowflakes with our tongues. Back home, he had a snack and then we worked on math for a while. When I could see he was maxing out, I stopped and he had another break. Then we worked on some chores around the house. I had another call. We did “gym” for about 20 minutes. Then I collapsed in bed for 45 minutes. When I woke up, he was doing more work—reading on Education.com. That was enough for the day. I worked about a total of three hours for my job and didn’t stress out about it. I heard the advice about going slow and easy in the first week of homeschooling. 

Now, one week into “e-learning” I have “learned” some things myself.  

  • Parents are a wealth of wisdom and resources. Some of the “best teachers” on how to make accommodations work at home are the parents who are experts at navigating how to make special needs accommodations work at school.  
  • My child is unique and not designed to function with a “standard mode.” A generic lesson plan wouldn’t work for my child at school, so why I would expect it work at home?  
  • Social-emotional success is more important than academic success. By first addressing my child’s social-emotional specific needs, we can make academic learning possible.  

I am so grateful that in a country with nationwide shortages on services and specialists for special needs, we are abundant with parents who are true specialists themselves—and they/we are always willing to share our lessons with each other.

Parents of disabled children: I know this is a hard time. But I am so grateful that we have each other. Let’s continue to love, support and “e-learn” with our special children, and share those lessons with each other. I can think of no better way to build an inclusive school community than what we are already doing.

ShaRhonda Knott-Dawson
ShaRhonda Knott-Dawson is the mother of two free-spirited, strong-willed girls and has a husband who should be appointed a saint for co-existing in the madness that is their life. She writes on politics, education, current events and social justice. She is also a taco enthusiast, a proud member of the Bey-hive, and truly believes that she will be receiving her letter from Hogwarts any day now.

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