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As she bounced out the door for her first day of college, I cradled my warm coffee cup and smiled.  Success!  Who would have ever thought this day would come?  Homeschooling saved her young life.  Of this, I am utterly convinced.

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My oldest daughter came to us as a five-month-old infant, abused and neglected.  Wearing rose-colored glasses, my husband and I set out to love her back to wholeness.  Four years later we could no longer deny that something was very wrong.  I slid to the floor, sitting against the wall as the first explanation came through the phone-line: pre-natal drug and alcohol exposure. Permanent brain damage. Lifelong behavioral and emotional challenges.  The unbidden tears lasted four days, until I realized that my daughter had not changed one whit.  Only my understanding had changed and it was time to get to work.

So began the years of research, trial and error, and further diagnoses.  Sensory processing disorder, ADHD, and bi-polar disorder are the labels used to describe the challenges my daughter and our family faced together over the years.  I learned that these too are common for many children with pre-natal drug and alcohol exposure.  She received occupational therapy, appropriate medications, and intensive behavioral intervention, but I firmly believe it was homeschooling that saved her life.

In spite of a hot-tempered mom, a cluttered house and plenty of days that felt like perfect failures, homeschooling was the right choice for her.  When no one could tolerate her behavior and volatility, her imperfect teacher loved her and her siblings surrounded her.  When friendships were out of reach, understanding homeschooling families embraced and included her, seeing her gifts in the midst of her broken-ness.  When peers could not connect with her, adult friends came to her side.   When a ten-minute lesson took a half-hour, we owned the half-hour to spend. When family healing surfaced as the most important subject, it was the lesson we taught.  An education especially tailored and re-tailored to her unique and always changing needs made a very difficult life, as manageable as it could be.  On the days when everything fell apart, at least our children saw us begin again the next day.   On those days w e could only hope that they would absorb lessons in perseverance and unconditional love, if not reading and writing.

Because she was at home I could monitor my daughter’s medications and see when she was becoming unstable.  For my daughter, the beginning of instability looked like bratty teenage behavior, and could escalate into far more serious behavior if not caught early.  In a school setting she would have received a lot of discipline.  However, I might have found out too late that we were dealing with a mental illness and not just challenging behavior.  Children with her set of diagnoses are at very high risk for drug and alcohol abuse, promiscuity, crime, dropping out of school, and becoming victims of violent crime.  None of these have been even a slight issue for her, to the amazement of every professional who reads her chart.  Instead, I have a slide show on my computer, and in my heart, of her educational activities.

My complex at-risk daughter is so much more.  She is an accomplished horsewoman, tutored by a wonderful neighbor lady when others were in school.  She is a gifted tutor of primary-school students.  She is a published author and poet.  She is an amateur fencer and martial artist. She is a soprano in the select Chamber Choir at the local community college in her very first quarter.  She is a knowledgeable naturalist and a leader in our church youth group.  She has paid for, planned and enjoyed a three-week trip to England and Ireland, and hopes to return to study abroad.  She is loved by a wide group of peers and adults for her enthusiasm, energy, thoughtfulness and servant heart.  While she stills struggles with higher level thinking, memory, abstraction, and delays, she is working her own way through our community college. While I see plenty of challenges ahead, I am glad that we chose homeschooling for the first ch apters of her adventure story.

At twenty she knows and understands her challenges, and encouraged me to share them in this letter, in the hope that it would encourage other mothers.  As a child, however, she never bore the burden of a label or stigma.  She grew up happily unaware of her differences and content with who she was, delighting in life and learning.  Isn’t this why we homeschool our children?

In this column, I will be sharing more stories with you about homeschooling successes and strategies for children with special needs.  After receiving a degree in special education, I worked with adults, children and infants with special needs for over twenty-five years in multiple settings.  During that time, I have homeschooled my five children some of whom have special needs as well.  While protecting their privacy, I will be sharing stories from my personal and professional experiences. So grab a cup of coffee or tea and relax.  Smile.  Together we will find some new answers and walk this path together.  Wishing for you, your child’s unique success!

©2006 Virginia Lawrence of Home School, Inc.; used by permission

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