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Saturday, November 23, 2013

Rethinking Homeschooling as a Boy Becomes a Man

Eight grade is a transitional year for many students, Jackson included. So as I entered our 3rd year of homeschooling, I decided to shift my homeschooling focus from my lesson preparation to Jackson's new found wants and needs as a young man.  The majority of homeschooling lesson planning resources that I have encountered seek to ensure that I, as the teacher, am fully equipped with all the materials and tools that I need to present the best content, coupled with the most appropriate educational technique to meet the needs of my child.  And while this has worked wonderfully for Jackson's 6th and 7th grade years, I was feeling a longing for a simpler and more student focused approach.  I felt a lot of stress regarding my readiness and teaching aptitude - meaning that way too much of his success depended on my success as a teacher.  Not a good formula for an effective and peaceful school year!

So as the summer began to wind down, instead of ramping up as the teacher for the school year, I slipped on an attitude of a student and spent that time learning as much about Jackson as I could.  And what I discovered was that my little boy had turned into a man before my very eyes, and I needed to stop treating him like a child and respect the wants and needs of this young man. He needed more say in his daily educational experience.  He needed to feel more in charge of his body and mind.  In short, he needed more freedom, like all teenagers need as they begin the transition into adulthood.

We decided that his anxiety had become too overwhelming and was beginning to consume his daily life.  So we added a mild blood pressure medicine (Intuniv) that has helped tremendously with his angry outbursts and over reaction to stressful and confusing situations.  We also felt that as he stormed full steam into adolescents, he needed to spend more one-on-one time with his father.  So we added 30 minutes of weight lifting to his schedule - EVERY morning at 6:30, the 2 of them watch SportsCenter and lift free weights in our manly, but unfinished, gym space in the basement.  The combination of these 2 things alone, has been remarkable.  But his school-life had to also be adjusted to fall in line with his new wants and needs as a young, proud and confident man. 

So instead of a rigid daily schedule that stressed consistency and continuity of topics and activities, I decided to give him more autonomy over his courses.  We stuck with a loose outline of the day, but gave him a lot of options within that structure that looks something like this:

6:30-7:00  Weight Lifting with Dad
7:00          Make Coffee
7:30          Make Breakfast
8:00          Treadmill
8:20          Shower
9:00          Book on CD & Devotional
9:30          Starbucks & Shopping

10:30-12  Activities
12-1         Lunch
1-3           Activities

After we get back from our daily coffee run and shopping, which includes everything from the grocery store to the cleaners to Target, we begin going through the 5-7 activities that he chose that morning.  After following this schedule for a few months now, I have discovered that he has definite preferences. This has been very eye opening, and has helped me learn more about what he perceives his strength and weakness are. He loves:

1.  Cooking
2.  Baking
3.  Piano
4.  Science
5.  Puzzles
6.  Cards
7.  Social Studies
8.  Photography
9.  Chores
10. PE/Yoga

He is a cool mix of left and right brained strengths.  He is not "an autistic savant" in any one area (like every other TV special on autism likes to glamorize), but a nice, healthy mix of creativity and analytics. He grown in both physical and mental strength, as he can settle his body and mind much more effectively than ever before.  And while I would not go so far as to say he has mastered the art of self control (as I have not even achieved that feat yet), he has come a long way since the school year began.  I attribute his progress to our shift in perspective from how we want to parent/educate him, to how he needs to be parented/educated, as a new and growing young man, who one day might just surprise us all and be an independent and impactful man that this world could learn so much from.  

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Friday, September 13, 2013

My Most Honest Confession

Their faces say it all. What starts as judgemental stares quickly change to desperate concern as they watch Jackson go from angry and frustrated to full blown wild animal. The flash point is so intense that it scares people and while they move away, I have to charge in to try and rescue him from himself. It is heart breaking to see him suffer and in that moment onlookers can finally see his pain as I do.  I pull him close as he bites me, pulls my hair and scratches my face because he needs love to recover and heal and while it hurts me, it hurts him more to feel so out of control not knowing why his mind fails him when he needs it so desperately. My anger at autism quickly moves to anger at God as I struggle to understand why He doesn't charge in to help Jackson. 

Friday, June 14, 2013

Our One Year Homeschooling Experiment Take-Away

Now that our time as a true homeschool family is coming to a close, I have had more time to reflect on the ups and downs, victories and failures, and lessons learned.  With Caroline going back into public middle school this fall, our homeschool will once again, be just Jackson and me.  And while I love and miss our special one-on-one dynamic, there will be a huge hole in our hearts without her here, because the biggest take away I got from this year, regarding both my kids, is that quantity of time always trumps quality of time with children, especially adolescents.

A great analogy for this truth is the dreaded power outage.  I spent the past two days fretting over losing power during the latest derecho warnings in the D.C. area.  We lose power at the drop of a hat in our neighborhood, as it is filled with large, old trees and overhead power lines.  But as I reflect on the times we have lost power for extended periods (blizzards, hurricanes, tornadoes, Oh My!), there is always that sweet point where having no power frees everyone's mind and schedule to just sit and enjoy each other and slow down to reconnect.  That is what this year of homeschooling felt like to me...a prolonged sweet spot to reconnect with both Jackson and Caroline, and for them to reconnect with each other.

In this day and age, there is article after article about the need for quality time with your children.  Go on a "date" with your kids so they will feel special.  Carve out 20 minutes once a week to really discuss their feelings over an ice cream sundae.  Make their favorite meal to draw them out of their bedroom for some one-on-one time.  And while all of these are great ideas, that I have done in the past, and are sure to achieve some level of connection, what I discovered was that the most meaningful relational moments occur after spending 2 hours lounging on the couch reading or in the daily routine of running errands together.  These are the unsung moments where connection seems to organically sprout.  A comment about a sports star coming out as homosexual, naturally leads to a causal, but meaningful hour long dialog about gay marriage.  An eye roll over a friend's overly dramatic Instagram post while eating lunch together on the couch, spurs an afternoon spent discussing the parameters and pitfalls of social media in the 21st century, as well as how to manage our own emotions when we feel out of control.

For Jackson, these elongated moments of connection have occurred in a similarly authentic fashion. Before he was homeschooled, he could not bath or dress himself.  He relied on me for every daily need.  His development was hindered by his lack of independence and freedom.  His communication skills were limited to addressing his immediate needs only.  But after 2 years of quantity over quality of time together, our connection has transformed from caregiver/receiver to mother/son...which, to those of us in the autism community, we realize is a significant emotional milestone to be recognized and celebrated.

After spending a year getting to know Jackson and Caroline on a much deeper and more personal level,  I can honestly say that I really like them both.  Caroline is witty and charming, thoughtful and tender-hearted, fearless and ambitious, obedient and trustworthy.  Jackson is entertaining and endearing, hardworking and disciplined, strong and brave, affectionate and loving.  And while it was by no means all sunshine and roses, I hope and pray it was enough to lay a solid foundation for the inevitable rocky teenage years in our future. These special bonds were not created during the big splashy moments of childhood, but in the tedium and trenches of daily life that was spent together, arm in arm, during a year with "no power" other than each other, our books and our coffee shops!

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Teenagers with Autism are Awesome!

So what have we been up to the past few months?  Not blogging apparently...  The addition of my 5th grade daughter to our homeschool day has made for very little writing time!  And thanks to my husband's Christmas gift of an Ikea chaise lounge for our bedroom, any down time I get, I find myself curled up on there with a cup of tea and a good book...this introverted mama needs some alone time after all:)

As spring desperatly tries to bloom here in Virginia, I find myself watching Jackson grow into a man before my very eyes.  He just turned 14 a few weeks ago and seems older and wiser with each passing day.  He is tall, strong, handsome and charming.  He is funny, gregarious, extroverted and friendly.  He is musical, athletic, comedic, and techy.  He is moody, loud, disruptive and angry.  He loves YouTube, Netflix, Sports Center and The Colbert Report.  He is 14 and acts more "neuro-typical" everyday...for better or worse.  

His academics are still a work in progress, with math success continuing to outpace language arts.  But he diligently does all the work asked of him and seeks my guidance and approval in all areas.  His mastery of geometry is fascinating to me as it was always such a weakness of mine growing up.  We will tackle fractions after spring break, grades 4-6 is our target level for this unit, and finding good materials is proving to be a challenge, too basic or too advanced seems to be the theme in my search so far.  

I have also really enjoyed our recent science & social studies units on the skeletal system and world geography.  As a professed map-geek myself, I've loved using an interactive globe to learn over 150 countries with him.  He is creating a World Fact Book as well, including a page per country with information such as capital, population, area, distance from United States, continent, flag, etc.  I also loved using the iPad games, Stack the Countries and Bone Scan Bob for these units.  We would love to travel with Jackson once Caroline goes off to college and use that time as a type of advanced degree for him.  

But the most essential and rewarding part of our winter homeschool season has been our community involvement.  Jackson is extremely social and outgoing.  He loves talking to people and trying to make them smile or laugh.  He can walk into a room full of strangers and have them all smiling by the time he leaves.  He has absolutely no inhibitions or awkwardness which makes he a natural charmer and motivational figure in our community.  He can work a room like a seasoned politician.  He randomly gets gifts from people who desperately want to give back to him, because he gives so much to them without even realizing it.  He is so generous with his joy and affections that people look to him for encouragement and rely on him for a "pick-me-up" on a regular basis.  "Where's my Jackson?" is a frequent question I get if I dare go somewhere without him these days.  I love the fact that so many people refer to him as "my Jackson".  There is a special ownership of him and pride in that relationship. 

So while he can drive me up the wall some days with his moodiness, I am thankful that I have a teenager who is making such a positive impact on his community that is not driven by forced volunteerism, adult manipulation for a reward, or college transcript bullet points.  I might not know where his place in the world is yet, but I feel more confident everyday that the world needs him a lot more than he needs the world! 

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