The Unwritten Curriculum of the Homeschooling Lifestyle
by Melissa Dean
“The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps.” (Proverbs 16:9, ESV)
The initial decision to homeschool was mostly academic for me. My training as an educator and my instincts as a parent both impressed upon me the value of individualized instruction, something I still strongly advocate both professionally and personally. Academically, I saw fruit of that in all three of my oldest children who have graduated and are achieving “success” by society’s standards, but when I think back over my years of homeschooling, the academic benefits don’t rise to the top of the list of what I value most. Instead, I think about how homeschooling allowed us to face the unexpected challenges that came our way, teaching unwritten lessons with lifelong value.
Flexibility in the Face of Challenges
When my two oldest daughters needed to recover from major double jaw surgery for six weeks of their high school, they could keep up with their coursework despite the horrific swelling and required liquid diet that made leaving the home unthinkable for at least two weeks. When my son decided that letting go on the upswing at the YMCA playground seemed fun, we managed his concussion recovery by adapting our school days to include more audiobooks, low lighting, and minimal reading and screen-time until the headaches subsided. The same flexibility got us through tonsillectomies, back injuries, and a myriad of other sicknesses and injuries.
In addition, homeschooling allowed our children to participate in life events they would have otherwise missed. Our entire family was able to travel to New York together to meet the infant we were adopting. When he became unexpectedly hospitalized for over a year, our homeschool lifestyle allowed us to incorporate visits to him into our school day and taught my children more about medicine and the human body than any curriculum or course I could have provided them.
When a nor’easter flooded our home and took out our power for many days and our heat for weeks, we experienced firsthand what it felt like to live in eras without those modern conveniences, and amazingly we did so in a home that was over two-hundred years old! Three years later, when a mini-tornado devastated our property, our children were able to experience and be a part of a community-wide effort to clean the debris from our yard. They saw the news crew film the event and recognized the power of helping others through catastrophic events. That same year they saw family after family visit the hospital, prepare meals, clean our home, and stand in for their parents through their brother’s extended hospitalization. Through those experiences, our kids learned the value of our family’s church community.
When our family suffered the death of a child and the devastation of a marriage, the lesson I hope they learned was that they can trust God in every circumstance. There is no curriculum that teaches grief, overcoming fear, letting go, staying calm under pressure, and persevering through unthinkable circumstances, but those are the lessons being learned in our home these days. They are hard lessons, and there is no instructor for them other than a gracious God guiding our steps, catching our tears, and carrying us day by day. In the end, I believe these will be the greatest lessons of all of our years of homeschooling because they are the lessons of life. And because of the homeschool lifestyle, my youngest children and I can experience and testify to them together.
My three oldest children have graduated from homeschool, and my fourth has moved on to public school. I am in a new season of homeschooling three children with significant special needs. The flexibility of the homeschool life, while valuable in those first fourteen years of homeschooling, is essential now. Life with children with special needs is anything but predictable, and the value of being able to respond to the children’s needs on a day-to-day basis cannot be quantified.
I once heard an HEAV convention speaker compare kids with special needs to cell phones—sometimes they just don’t have any bars. When they are out of sync, no amount of coercion works, and lessons just need to be paused to readjust sensory input, gain or expend energy, or take care of physical needs that supersede learning at that moment. But the beauty of the homeschool lifestyle is that no bells signify the end of the school day. If one of my kids has more bars after dinner at 6pm than he or she did at 1pm, we can move our math lesson to the time that it will truly be attended to and absorbed.
Medical and therapy appointments also consume a lot of the “traditional” school day for kids with special needs. Medical appointments are non-negotiable and must occur during the workday, and therapy appointments are a crucial part of education for children with challenges, but thanks to the flexibility of homeschooling, they don’t need to replace educational time, just shift it.
One of the most helpful facets of the homeschool lifestyle that facilitates this is the ability to school year-round. While most co-ops and structured homeschool programs and courses follow a traditional school year schedule, the summer months can still include basics like reading and math instruction, therapies, and fun educational field trips. Schooling year-round, even if just on a part-time basis fosters retention, prevents backsliding, and allows progress to continue rather than being stalled or even lost over the summer months. Then when those unexpected hospitalizations or vacation opportunities or other out-of-the ordinary events occur, they have minimal impact on schooling, which reduces stress for everyone.
“There is no curriculum that teaches grief, overcoming fear, letting go, staying calm under pressure, and persevering through unthinkable circumstances, but those are the lessons being learned in our home these days.”
I have loved my almost-fifteen years of homeschooling for so many reasons—some academic, some familial, some spiritual, and some practical. I have found that individualized homeschooling provides unsurpassed ability to maximize the potential and nurture the talents of both gifted learners and those with significant special needs without the pressure of test-driven curriculum or structure-bound school policies. But life sure threw its share of curveballs to our family during these years.
Some challenges were chosen and even welcomed; others were completely unexpected and unwanted. Just as home education allows parents to look at the gifts, interests, and needs of each child and choose the appropriate curriculum, courses, experiences, and supports that child needs for the his or her future, it also allows families the flexibility to respond to life’s unexpected challenges and even integrate them into the educational experience. My ultimate hope is that my children witnessed a resilient life of trust in the ultimate goodness of the Lord, the greatest lesson I could hope to impart.
Homeschool mom, Melissa Dean, lives in Chesapeake with her family. She teaches AP English Language and Composition for Pennsylvania Homeschoolers, serves as a Master Teacher for HSLDA Online Academy, and is pursuing her doctorate in special education through Liberty University. This article first appeared in TVHE, Winter 2020.