While looking at my calendar a few days ago, I realized that we are coming upon our sixth homeschool anniversary. Six years.
Six years ago, Katie was in third grade at the local public school, and she was struggling just as she always had. Born weighing less than two pounds at just 26 weeks gestation, she had already been through quite an ordeal. Doctors were honest and straight-forward with her prognosis and predicted that she would have developmental and learning challenges.
Visits from a hospice nurse and an early intervention specialist began the same week she came home from the hospital. She was monitored closely and diagnosed with mild to moderate learning disabilities and developmental delays before her second birthday. As she grew and developed, she was easily frustrated, often anxious and stubbornly resistent to change. During her first year of kindergarten, she developed an unusual coping mechanism: she stopped talking at school.
That may not sound particularly alarming. After all, who hasn't known timid peers who were happiest tucked safely out of sight or on the sidelines of life. But this wasn't shyness. The following summer, she was formally diagnosed with social phobia and selective mutism.
We will never know what happened--if anything--that caused her anxiety to progress into full blown phobia. One theory is that the change in expectations from preschool to kindergarten made Katie more aware of how different she was from her peers, which heightened her anxiety and caused her to switch off while at school. Another theory is that dealing with the resident class meanie (who was not quite a bully, but not very nice either) was just stressful enough to send her verbally packing. We did indeed rule out physical abuse (which was my worst fear). Even so, I obsessed for quite some time over what could have happened and why no one could have predicted this outcome, but as the years have gone by, that seems less and less important. Time passes so quickly, and it is much better spent trying to create a better future than fretting about things we cannot control.
Some resources describe selective mutism as a disorder. Others approach it as an indirect effect of or coping mechanism for a larger disorder like anxiety. Our search for answers was long, frustrating and led to appointments with specialists, loads of conflicting information and several dead ends. What eventually became apparent to me was that, regardless of what caused the anxiety in the beginning, it was important to remove my daughter from the situation that caused her the most fear (school) in order to allow her to learn to cope with and overcome her anxiety.
Home education was the answer for us, but it was slow going at first. During instruction, Katie would shut down and stop speaking to me. Then, she'd resume conversation when "school" was over. When she'd stop talking, I'd stop talking too, and we'd write notes back and forth until she'd completed her school work. In retrospect, I know I pushed too hard that first year. My (naive) goal was to get her caught up with her peers in time to put her back in school. One day, it dawned on me that sending her back would likely undo all the hard work we'd done and plunge her back into a silent existance. At that moment, I became a homeschooler for life.
Rather than overprotecting or sheltering her from the World of Stress, I believed that a homeschool enviroment would allow us to rebuild her confidence, rekindle her sense of curiosity and then gradually reintroduce her to the World of Possibilities. Our hard work has paid off in spades, and although she is still awkward and uncomfortable in many social situations, she has learned how to handle herself, make friends, hold conversations and be happy.
Now, I am homeschooling my younger daughter, Dagny. Although I hesitate to call her typical or average, she has none of her sister's challenges. They couldn't be more different. Although we started this journey to help a silent little girl find her voice, I continue to homeschool because I'm convinced that I can give my children a better, more realistic and more useful education based on reason.
Most of all, homeschooling not only empowered my daughter, it has empowered me.