3 Ways to Help Kids from Hard Places Succeed in a Homeschool Setting

Trauma from a child's earlier life experiences can seriously impact the ability to learn and participate in homeschool. Here's how to cope.

Elizabeth Curry November 08, 2015

There are many reasons people choose to homeschool. For us, it was because I wanted the joy of watching my first child learn things, and the flexibility that came with homeschooling. Our reasons grew from there, but that was the beginning. For others, the decision to homeschool comes after years of trying to make traditional school work for a particular child. And, of course, there is the whole spectrum of reasons in between. Like children, there is not one single reason for homeschooling.

There are many reasons to homeschool and many ways to homeschool, and each homeschooling family tends to find its own unique blend. However, despite the wide variety of homeschooling experiences, one kind of experience can be unsettlingly similar: homeschooling children from hard places. When a child has experienced trauma, he or she develops a host of behaviors which have resulted from having to deal with that trauma.

These behaviors tend to affect the child’s learning in ways that seem almost universal. Defiance, an unwillingness to do work, hyperactivity, inattention, working far below ability, memory issues, an inability to organize anything (thoughts, writing, papers, etc.), and huge gaps in learning. These are some of the things a child from a hard place will present to anyone teaching him. And they are difficult things to navigate whether you are a veteran homeschooler whose entire family structure is built around homeschooling or you are trying it out as a last-ditch effort to have something work for your child.

I get it. I’ve been there. Heck, some days I’m still very much there. Homeschooling is not an easy choice, but for us I believe it has been the best one. Having homeschooled quite a few of my biological (and emotionally healthy) children, I thought I had figured out homeschooling. As a result, when we brought our first adopted son home, I was more than a little unprepared for what his needs would mean to our homeschooling practices and assumptions.

It has taken a lot of trial and error and more than a little patience and humility on my part, but there are a few things I’ve figured out. While I wish I had answers for every difficulty, this may be a place for you to start to figure out what works best for your own child.

Look at the big picture. I know that it can be a little scary to think your child is behind in a subject. The reality is that they are behind in more than just academics. Because of how trauma affects a child’s brain, they are also behind emotionally. We decided that helping our children heal is our first order of business. If they are at a better place emotionally, then catching up with book learning seemed as though it would be easier. Consequently, for our hurt children, we focus on helping them heal. If that means we hold back on academics a bit (or even drop them all together for a time), then that’s okay. It also means it’s okay to go back and do toddler-type activities that a child might have missed.

Remove yourself if needed. More often than not, hurt children have difficulties with trust and building relationships. This can make it tricky for a parent who is homeschooling. How can you teach math if your child absolutely refuses to do anything you say?

My solution was to create an intermediary system which would buffer the relationship between me and my son. Using a file box, I created four or five folders which would hold his day’s assignments. (Yes, this is a modified work box system for those of you who are familiar with the system.) In preparation for each day, I would fill these file folders with various activities. Some would have index cards in them asking him to play the piano or to read for 20 minutes. Others would have a maze or coloring page or other low-stress activity. And at least one would have his math book or grammar book. I had chosen these so he could work on his own. If he wanted help, I was always willing to give it, but only if asked. When he had completed each folder, he was done for the day. We did this for a year.

When we first began, he could do no bookwork without serious anxiety and consequently anger. By taking all pressure off, both academically and relationally, he was, over the course of the year, able to approach schoolwork with less anxiety and more success. The next school year, when I asked if he wanted to continue, he expressed a desire to do a more traditional schedule.

Fill in the gaps. Our children come to us from less-than-ideal backgrounds. Many were not nurtured and cherished as babies and missed out on key activities and learning as toddlers. As research in education and brain development continues, we understand more and more the important roles these things play in the development of a child. Peek-a-boo is not just a game. Playing in water is not just a way to entertain a child. Running, jumping, swinging, hopping, and crawling are more than ways to move and get the wiggles out. All of these activities play key roles in the development of a child’s brain and consequently their ability to learn when they get to school. If a child has missed these things, learning is going to be that much more difficult.

There is no law which says a child has to be finished with school by age 18. By homeschooling, we have the gift of time. If a child needs to take a year or so and nurture her inner two-year-old, then we are able to do that. Give your child this gift of going back and filling in the missing gaps. Play with your child so that they can learn how, then allow them time to play by themselves. Make salt dough and let your child knead and roll and squish. Fill things with water. Play in the sand. Run, climb, swing, catch bugs, build tree houses, hit things with hammers, draw with chalk, sing songs, bang pans together, go to museums, stop and look at things and talk about them, read stories. Do everything you would naturally do with a two-year-old. It will be good for both of you. I absolve you of guilt for never opening up a workbook for a year if this is what you are doing.

Education is so much more than about filling in the blanks or turning to the next lesson. Education is the process of becoming a whole and compassionate person. Our children need us to help them heal, not just to cram information into them. If we can spend our time on the deep inner healing, then the bookwork will be a breeze in comparison.

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Elizabeth Curry

Elizabeth Curry is mother to 12 children, five of whom were adopted: two from Vietnam and three from China. She hopes that by sharing the experiences of her family she can encourage others in the trenches. When she is not taking care of children, Elizabeth writes, home schools, sews, teaches piano, and loves reading. You can follow along with her loud and crazy life at her blog, Ordinary Time.


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