An Open Letter to Parents Considering Home Education 

An Open Letter to Parents Considering Home Education Dear parents,

Firstly I hope that your journey to this point hasn’t been too traumatic. I’ve heard so many horror stories, and my heart breaks for all involved.

Only you will know if this is the right move to make, but I’m sure many have given you their opinions on the matter.

‘You’re bonkers for even thinking about it.’
‘I could never do it.’
‘You’re braver than I am.’

Sound familiar?

I’m going to be straight here, home education is no walk in the park. In fact it’s been the biggest challenge of my life, and believe me I’ve had my fair share over the years. Although home ed may be the best option for your child, have you given full consideration to the impact it will have on you?

You must, absolutely, factor yourself into the equation you see. It’s not all about them, you are vital to this being a success. If you aren’t fully prepared, it could end up being disastrous.  

The big questions to ponder…

Are you mentally strong enough to cope with the additional responsibility? Can you cope financially if it means taking a pay cut? Do you have a support network in place? How are you going to feel about having no separation time from your child(ren)?

I thought I’d asked myself all this prior to pulling my then-6yo daughter Polly out of year two in 2015. I can now see, however, that there were bases I didn’t have covered. Don’t make the same mistakes I did. Go over these questions again and again until you know for certain what the answers are. 

For Polly, home education has been the best move, because she desperately needs the flexibility that it provides. She was drowning at school, masking her autism and trying so hard to fit in that she couldn’t cope. She has grown and flourished since being at home. Gone are the two hour meltdowns every night, and slowly but surely the challenging child is becoming a lot less so.

The thing is, getting my girl on track came at a very high cost: my mental health. Already severely sleep starved and chronically stressed, it pushed me to my absolute limits last year.

I very nearly fell over the edge.

Been there, done that. Twice. Mental breakdown is not pretty, and I never want my children to have to witness it

I realised that if I didn’t take action about my frame of mind, one of my worst nightmares could become a reality. Getting back to super clean eating and having a break from the booze is working wonders for me now, but it’s a shame it had to get as bad as it did for me to recognise that a disaster was on its way. 

It’s all too easy to get engrossed in the vicious cycle of negativity though, isn’t it? My kids’ challenging behaviour was too much for me to bear. The fighting and screaming and shouting made me want to run away. Having a drink became my only guarantee for quietening down the ringing in my ears.

When Polly dug her heels in, and refused to do any learning, I’d take it personally and get upset with her. My internal monologue became toxic, full of unhelpful comments. It told me I was a useless mother and crap wife. I wasn’t cut out for home education, and I was going to mess it all up. 

I felt helpless and trapped by the circumstances I’d created.

I started thinking that putting Polly back into school was the only solution

Which was ludicrous, because even throughout the toughest moments, it’s been clear that we did the right thing. The positive changes in her can’t be denied.

I’d like to say that alone makes it all worthwhile, but it’s not. I’m a mama of three, and at points, home educating Polly has come at the detriment of her brother and/or sister. It’s not a pleasant thing to admit, but it’s the truth.

I’m not writing this to put you off, quite the opposite. I wanted to share my story with you just in case there were holes in your plan. Just in case it made you think of other complexities that you might have overlooked. So you can cover all bases before taking the plunge.  

A few tips

Touch base with your local authority, and see if there’s any assistance available. You could be surprised. We are in contact with the home education team and the ASD service, and have only met lovely people. They can see that we’re providing a safe, varied and engaging learning environment for Polly, and we more than tick their boxes. They’ve offered us behaviour strategies that I might not have come across independently, and I’ve been grateful for their expertise. You have nothing to hide, so you have nothing to be afraid of from them.

Don’t fret about how much work the kids are doing, as long as they are learning. We aim for an hour of maths and English each day, which we do first thing. We have workbooks, games and computer-based programmes. Once we get the basics done, we are free to do the fun stuff: science experiments, baking, art work, trips out. I aim for Polly to keep up with where she would be if she were still at school. Some days she breezes it, others it’ll take hours to complete a simple task. No two days are ever the same, and some days are best written off and forgotten about.   

Focus on their emotional learning. I feel that far too much emphasis is put on a child’s academic abilities, and not enough is done for their mental health and emotional well being. This should be a priority, especially if they’ve had a bad school experience that they’re recovering from. Yoga, meditation and mindfulness are all great to counter their anxieties. Getting them to keep an emotions journal or draw pictures of how they are feeling, might also help them process those feelings.

Have faith in yourself and your abilities. If you’re anything like me, you will have torn yourself into pieces agonising over this decision. Don’t be afraid to follow your instincts, if you know it’s the right move to make. Be bold, be brave, and have faith that no-one else knows your child(ren) the way you do. 

Also remember that home education isn’t for everyone, and that’s just fine.  

Wishing you the very best of luck!  

 

Polly Tries: Making Salt Dough Christmas Tree Decorations

Polly Tries: Making Salt Dough Christmas Tree Decorations**This post has been written by my 7yo daughter Polly.**

Yesterday our kindness challenge was to make salt dough decorations. We made the dough, then cut out shapes with our cookie cutters. 

Afterwards we sprinkled them with glitter and baked them in the oven on a very low heat. We let our decorations cool down over night, and painted them with our special pens this morning.

Which was lots of fun.

It was mostly very easy, but mummy mixed the ingredients and rolled the dough for me. I really enjoyed this activity, my favourite bits were squishing the dough, cutting the shapes out and decorating them.

salt dough decorationsHere’s what you’ll need to make your own decorations (batch of 20)

2 cups of plain flour
3/4 of a cup of cold water
1/2 a cup of table salt
1 tbsp of oil
Glitter if you like sparkles
Fabric pens such as these 
String

Here’s how you make them

  • Pre-heat your oven to 130C
  • In a large bowl mix together the flour and salt
  • salt dough decorationsThen pour over the water, oil and mix well
  • Bring the mixture together into a  ball shape with your hands
  • Roll the mixture out on a flat surface
  • Cut your decorations out with cookie cutters 
  • Don’t forget to poke the holes in the top  for the string to go in (we used a chop sicks)
  • Sprinkle a bit of glitter if you wish
  • I made letters out of the left over dough for my name, and my brother and sisters names
  • Put your decorations onto a baking tray and bake for 2-3 hours
  • Let them cool down completely 
  • Decorate as you wish
  • Thread your string through the hole
  • Now they are ready hang them on your tree

On Autism and Hard Work Finally Paying Off

on-autism-and-hard-work-finally-paying-offMy family’s struggles have been well documented, in a brutally honest way, here on the blog. I sometimes look back at our most desperately unhappy times, when no amount of hard work seemed to be working, and hope that my kids won’t hate me for over-sharing later on down the line. 

I hope they’ll understand that writing my way through the toughest days was my coping mechanism, and words on the page was medication for me. The older I get, the more I realise that cathartic writing is my Prozac. 

Breaking point

Last October, we were on our knees. With sleep deprivation, and meltdowns and overwhelm. With in-fighting and name calling and screaming and throwing and hitting. With evenings that rendered me unable to do anything but stare into space, and will the ringing in my ears, and white noise in my head to quiet down. I had a strong gut instinct that we needed to make dramatic changes to even have the slightest chance of surviving.

broken-quoteWhen I wrote this open letter to other autism mama’s, I had a feeling it would resonate, but never in my wildest dreams did I imagine it would hit home the way it did. That people would get in touch and tell me that my story was their story. Or that until they read my letter, they’d never felt that anyone else understood them and their challenges. 

A week after writing it, my husband and I made the decision to pull our then-6yo high functioning autistic daughter out of mainstream school and home educate her. You can read more about our journey here.

When your hard work finally starts paying off

freddy-and-polly-making-a-volcanoRemoving the stress and anxiety that school was causing had an immediate effect. We had a flying start, and saw an end to the two hour long meltdowns, which had become a daily occurrence. Our girl was sleeping better than she had ever before, and she was noticeably happier within herself. 

Unfortunately the flying start came to an abrupt end shortly after Christmas. Easter was a low point, then we waded our way through the months (think treacle) until the summer holidays. During this time we took a step back from traditional learning, which was a leap of faith but fortunately the right thing to do.

We’ve never had concerns about Polly’s academic abilities, it’s her emotional intelligence that needs working on. 

inside-out-emotions-groupAt points this year it’s been absolutely grim, watching as Polly took out her frustrations on her younger siblings Clara (4) and Freddy (2). I won’t go into detail, as I wrote all about it here, but addressing this became top of our priority list as a family. 

Essentially we needed to break the bad habits before they became too ingrained, and intervene early enough for past hurt to be forgotten (no mean feat with children like mine, who have memories likes elephants). It didn’t come easy, or happen overnight, but in the last couple of weeks (dare I say it out loud) we’ve noticed a dramatic difference in the right direction.

‘Mean mama’

Yes, she’s autistic, but Polly is also extremely bright. She knows right from wrong, and doesn’t treat anyone else the way she does Clara and Freddy. So for months now, she’s been given an immediate consequence for violence or spitefulness towards them. The banned list includes hitting, kicking, punching, slapping, pinching, throwing things directly at them, and getting up close in their faces and calling them names.   

Although it felt for a long time that she would never get it, eventually she joined the dots. She began to understand that her behaviour would lead to her not getting the thing that she covets the most: playing out with her friends.

autism-mum-quoteWe’ve had tears, screaming fits, fists thrown, punches, slaps, scratches (to me). I’ve had to lock all the internal doors and windows so she can’t run off, and listen while she called me names. We’ve had a hundred rounds of ‘I hate you’, ‘you’re mean’, ‘you’re the worst mummy in the world’.

If there’s one thing I’ve learnt through this, it’s that I’m here to be a parent, not my kid’s best friend.

It absolutely had to be done this way, it wasn’t fair on Clara and Freddy to be used as Polly’s punching bag any longer. It’s been soul destroyingly tough at times, but I know it’s for the best. Polly is learning, and things are improving. Slowly but surely, I can see that all the hard work we’ve invested is paying off.

Here’s what we’re doing to break the bad habits that have caused our family so many problems

pops-monopolyFind the thing that your child responds to. The removal of privileges discipline technique is not new, but everyone does things differently. It might seem harsh that Polly has had to lose her playing out time, but it was the only thing that she cared about enough for this to have the desired effect. For other kids it might be taking away their tablet, or not getting a bedtime story that evening. Keep the rules super simple: do this thing, have this thing taken away.

P & C. I can’t make promises of course, but I can say from personal experience, that perseverance and consistency have been absolutely key for us.

The right frame of mind. I know only too well how challenging autism can be, and how easy it is to get caught up in putting out the parental fires, and just surviving through the day. It can feel like nothing we are doing is working, but you must have faith in your own abilities. If you’re struggling with your own mindset, you might find my book Become the Best You useful. I’ve had to recently go back and take my own advice – you can read about my struggles here – and have to say it’s helped massively.

Concentrate on tackling one thing at a time. For years our top priority was getting Polly sleeping better (my next autism related blog will be on this topic). Once we’d finally succeeded with that mission, we could direct all our efforts towards breaking the bad habits I’ve mentioned.

Don’t use ‘if’ statements, remember there is no room for grey in the eyes of an autistic child. Never threaten to punish, especially if you have no intention of following through. Instead give a clear and immediate consequence, come what may – expect a blow up and be prepared for it.  

Pick your battles. Try to let the little things slide, because less is often more. As hard as it sometimes is to bite my tongue, it can be the difference between defusing the situation quickly, or it escalating and having a full scale riot on my hands.

Separate identity. Give the bad habit/behaviour an identity of it’s own, as we did here. Make it clear that it’s the habit/behaviour causing problems and not the child.

Cool as a cucumber. Try and stay calm. This is my biggest challenge, but I’ve learnt the hardest way that our lives are made a hundred times tougher when I lose my temper.

Don’t give up. It can feel so disheartening when nothing seems to be working, but keep at it. It can take months to properly see results.

Best of luck to you! You’re doing an amazing job, never forget that 💗

Open Letter to Autism MamaBTBY stack of booksthe-trouble-with-autism

 

How I am Making Myself a Much Happier Mama

much happier mamaI’ve been very vocal in the past about how hard I find motherhood. With three kids under seven, no wider-family support, autism and home ed to contend with, I’m massively up against it.

I don’t think many would argue with that.

But, ultimately, our happiness does largely rest in our own hands. Do you want to know the most effective thing I have done lately to boost my happiness?

I stopped caring so much!

I took a huge step back from all areas in my life and stopped trying so hard to get it all right. You know what? I’m getting much better results.

Parenting. There’s no easy way to say this, but my kids are going to be stressful regardless, and focusing 100% attention on them 100% of the time just makes me miserable. I need down time, I need me time and I’m not afraid to admit that. Giving them a little more screen time so I can do some writing/exercise/cooking/staring into space is helping make me a better mama, which in turns makes me a happier one. 

I have come to believe that caring for myself is not self indulgent. It's an act of survivalSelf-care. Which brings me nicely on to my next point. If we can’t look after ourselves, we can’t take care of anyone else. It’s why they tell you to put your own oxygen mask on first in the event of an emergency on an aeroplane. Think about that.  

Home ed. We are flying high with our home education, because I’m not putting pressure on any of us to ‘succeed’ or ‘achieve’. In fact I’d go as far as saying I’m redefining the meaning of these words, that have a habit of causing so much negativity. Winning in our house comes in the form of the kids sleeping more than a few hours at a time; or P wanting to get her workbooks out completely unprompted; or all three children playing together for a whole thirty minutes without it kicking off.

Writing. Draft one of Kate’s Story is now with my editor for a manuscript critique, and I’m enjoying sitting back and taking time away from the book. It’s quite refreshing to have a break from it, and apart from the odd Facebook Live broadcast, I’m not working on it at all. Hopefully when I pick it back up again I’ll be able to look at it with a true fresh pair of eyes, which will help massively with the next round of edits.

Blogging. Although I blog less than ever before, and am not glued to social media 24/7, Mummy Tries is going from strength to strength. I’ve taken on some fabulous collaborations recently, with Huggies, a2 Milk and Amazon to name but a few. Every week people get in touch telling me that they’ve read a post, or my self-help book, and that my words have made a real difference to their lives. I shall continuously be blown away by this feedback, but for me, that’s what it’s all about.

Social life. It’s been amazing to get a little piece of the old me back again, and I’ve had so much fun going out and about with my besties this year. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: friendship is a tonic for the soul, and for someone like me without extended family, absolutely vital to my happiness. I’m heading off this weekend for a three day break without the kids and hubby for the first time since becoming a mum, and cannot wait. Think it’s safe to say I’ve earnt the holiday, and while jetting off to Ibiza isn’t essential to your happiness, it sure does help 🙂

Tweet me your happy parenting tips @mummytries

 

 

 

 

Our Home Education Story and a Three Month Update

home ed three month updateIt has been three months since my husband and I made the decision to not send our high functioning autistic 6yo daughter back to school after the half term break. Although her autism wasn’t diagnosed until last year, I’d long had my suspicions that something more than the usual was at the bottom of her incredibly poor sleep and challenging behaviour.

Lots of well meaning friends told me that school had been the turning point for their kids, the magic cure that equated to a happier child. One who was so exhausted from all the learning that their sleep problems disappeared overnight. That external discipline was just what they needed to nip those challenges in the bud.

The lions den

To be honest I had a strong haunch that this wouldn’t be the case for us. Also being a July babe and significantly smaller than her peers (children do most of their growing while they’re asleep after all) it felt like we were throwing her into the lions den in September 2013 when she joined reception.

It probably didn’t help that this was the year the government raised the expectations of reception aged kids. These four and five year olds would now be doing a lot of the work that wasn’t previously being done until they went into year one. I remember her teacher at the time telling me that the days of reception being an extension of nursery were long gone.

We sent her to school in good faith though, and I mostly kept my mouth shut about my reservations. We weren’t in a financial position for me to stop working until quite recently anyway, so I wouldn’t have been able to home ed back then even if I’d wanted to.

It’s worth saying that I believe for some families school is a wonderful thing, and I can see it might be the magic bullet for minor problems. Unfortunately for us, it quickly became apparent that school was too overwhelming for our girl. Being so high functioning and sociable, her autism largely slipped through the net, but even after diagnosis it wasn’t taken very seriously.

Bullying, safety and other concerns

Reception year was tough, but we also had our third baby mid way through, so put most of our difficulties down to that. Then came the bullying issues – in year one, involving two mean boys, and in year two involving one of her so-called best friends. She was forever being pushed over in the playground and coming home with injuries, and the week before we pulled her out she’d been pushed off a tall climbing frame and hurt her back.

She’s a bright spark who coped with the work for the most part, and was capable of holding it together while she was there, but she would take out her frustrations on us when she came home. Her behaviour got steadily worse – the pinching, name calling and spitefulness towards her younger brother and sister broke my heart on a daily basis. The post-school meltdowns became all consuming, and would last up to two hours.

We were in a perpetual cycle of sleep and behaviour slowly getting worse as the end of term neared; then hubby and I would plough all our energies into getting her back on track during the holidays, only to dread sending her in again. We were living our lives in anticipation of what state she would be in come 3:30pm, and her mood dictated the happiness of the entire family.

Ultimately, with two younger children to factor into the equation, and her getting more violent with them with each day that passed, we’d all had enough of dealing with the fallout of school.

What to do when you’re part of David Cameron’s ‘squeezed middle’, earning too much to qualify for help, but not nearly enough to pay for a private education?

The answer is exactly what we did. Our story wasn’t nearly as horrendous as others that I’ve heard, but there was only one way it was heading, and we weren’t prepared to stand by and watch it happen. As the writing had been on the wall for as long as it had, it gave me the chance to orchestrate voluntary redundancy from my part time job. We also carried out a ton of research, so should we go down this road, we were fully prepared.

As soon as the decision was made it felt like a weight had been lifted from my shoulders. The first few weeks took me by surprise with P pushing to do her work, and being very willing to learn. It didn’t last long though, and over the course of the following month it got to the point where even the mention of learning was causing her anxiety, so I declared Christmas holidays almost two weeks before the schools broke up.

It was a lesson in flexibility for me, and recognising the need to change tact. I’m very pleased to report that a nice long break was what we all needed, and since resuming our learning at the beginning of January, we’ve had a whole load of ups as well as downs on this little roller coaster of ours.

Don’t get me wrong, we’re still having plenty of moments. P is still autistic, and I still have two younger children to also care for, but progress is being made in the right direction, and that’s all we can ask for. I’ve found reading other parents stories invaluable, so I thought it might be useful to share some of my main insights.

Trust your gut

Home ed certainly didn’t limit Ryan’s career options

First and foremost trust your instincts, and do not let anyone rail road you into not doing so. My daughter is smart, outwardly confident and articulate, yet she has only recently been able to put into words how difficult she found school. I truly believe that our parental instincts are one of our most valuable tools, and we should listen to them more often.

Don’t let others opinions influence your decisions

As soon as I put it out there that we were thinking of home ed, everyone had an opinion. From worries about socialisation; to concerns that we would limit future career options. Being six, four and two, we aren’t even thinking that far into the future. We have always been a sociable family, and are blessed with lots of great friends who have children similar ages to ours, so there are certainly no qualms there. Our biggest priority right now is repairing the damage that has been done to our family, and encouraging the three children to play and bond as much as possible.

Don’t disregard or under estimate the need to de-school

If your child was previously attending mainstream education, chances are they will have issues of some description which must be considered. You’ll always have an adjustment period, and pushing them to achieve academically during this time can do even more damage. Everyone is different, but avoiding sensory overload at all costs is hugely important for us at the moment. What’s working is keeping life low key, slow paced and often child led. Absolutely nothing is as important as their mental health well being.

Kindness

Which brings me onto my next point. It is vital to be gentle on yourself and everyone else, while the whole family gets to grips with their new situation. Regardless of the family dynamic, the need to be kind to ourselves and each other will be a common theme. Eating well and being mindful helps us tremendously.

Focus

As any parent will know, you can’t give your child/ren undivided attention every second of every day, but you can give it to them in short bursts. I’ve found this is the best way to aid learning, and sitting with P while she is doing her workbooks helps with her productivity.

Create the rules together

P likes to know what’s coming next, so we sat down together, along with my husband, and devised a timetable which has been a real success. Like many other children her age, if she helps to create the rules she’s more likely to stick to them. We don’t have times on our schedule, which means we can be flexible. If we’re having an off day we can compress all the core learning into the morning, and chill out and watch films in the afternoon, or go and run around in the park. This is the beauty of being able to do things on our own terms.

So, what do you do all day?

We spend around two hours doing focussed learning spread across the day; prioritising numeracy and literacy which is done first thing in the morning. As well as workbooks to progress P’s understanding of the English language, we’ve been spelling useful words such as months and days; practising her handwriting and she’s been getting to grips with typing emails. She did do a touch typing lesson but said it made her hands hurt, so we scrapped it for the time being.

We’ve signed up to computer based maths lessons, which P loves and could sit and do all day (but I limit to an hour max). If she’s having an off day though, I prefer her to stay away from the screen, and we have maths workbooks and games we play instead. 

We then alternate every other day between Spanish, places in the world, people of the past and animals. This was borne from going through her old school timetable and picking out her favourite things, because we want her to be as engaged as possible. As well as this, all three children help me in the kitchen and we’ve just started prepping the garden for seed sowing. It’ll be our first attempt at growing food, and I want them to be as involved as possible.

What we do is very basic – for example I printed a Spanish memory game that I found on Pinterest where you have to match two cards; one is a picture and the other is the Spanish word. We have various printouts stuck around the house – such as Spanish numbers 1-20 – and the kids love listening to Spanish songs. It’s all very simple, yet very effective, and the bonus is that everyone is learning not just P.

Hopes for a happier family

Ultimately, my main priority and biggest goal right now is to get our family working more harmoniously together. We were in a terrible way three months ago, and have made huge leaps forward since we’ve been home educating. It’s still early days for us, and life isn’t perfect – but honestly when would it be with three kids?

If we continue making this sort of progress for the rest of the year, I’ll be one happy mama!

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