Hindsight is 20/20. I could never have known at the time, but my oldest daughter has had anxiety since the day she was born. If the screams during the car ride home from the hospital were a clue to how bad her separation anxiety was, I didn’t get the hint.
My daughter spent her first two years in a baby carrier and co-sleeping, never more than a breath away from me nearly 24 hours a day. She was bright, energetic and full of tricks. She could dance and sing by seven months old. She was doing downward dog and a full yoga sun-salutation at a year old. She was speaking in full sentences by about 14 months.
There came a point when all of my mom friends were enrolling their toddlers in mother’s day out programs or preschool. The sound of a couple free mornings a week sounded amazing. I took recommendations and found a small church program with sweet teachers and small classes. My just-turned-two-year-old could learn her ABCs and play with other kids while I did the grocery shopping or ran errands two mornings a week.
Homeschooling and Childhood Anxiety
Dropping of your first child at preschool is not for the faint of heart. The first couple weeks were pretty rough. Some of the kids were screamers. Some were like little monkeys who wouldn’t detach from mom’s leg. Others cried big crocodile tears at the sight of mom walking down the hallway.
I wasn’t sure which scenario we would fit under but I was fairly confident that walking away while I left my daughter in a classroom with strangers wouldn’t be an easy task. To my surprise, she walked right in, sat down at the table, and started coloring without a peep or a glance in my direction. I did a little happy dance all the way to the parking lot. Parenting success! Or was it?
It wasn’t until about halfway through the school year that I realized there was something different about my daughter’s experience at school. Once the initial drop off craziness had subsided, most kids would run into the classroom excited to explore and start playing with friends right away. Every day that year, my daughter walked slowly into the classroom, walked to the same seat at the table, sat down, and colored. If her seat was occupied, if the crayons weren’t there, if anything was out of place, there were silent tears.
School pick-up was full of loud, energetic two-year-olds clamoring for the door showing off crafts and worksheets and asking for snacks. But I’d find my daughter at her same spot at the table, coloring, exactly where I left her hours earlier. Her eyes were glazed over, her face expressionless. She moved slowly and methodically to stand up and walk out of the classroom.
My gut was telling me that preschool was stealing her spirit. One day at a time, a little bit of the girl I knew- the one who constantly begged to perform shows for me, who loved singing and dancing and running around, who gave the best hugs and was so caring to everybody she met, was slipping away. It took 18 months, but that’s what ultimately led to our decision to homeschool.
Two years later, we moved and were expecting a new baby, and I started to think about enrolling her in school again for more social interaction while things were busy at home. Our second try at school was an eerily similar experience to the first time. Drop off was smooth as long as the exact same routine was followed. Pick up was uneventful. No smiles, no showing off projects, no interaction with anyone at all.
After a quiet car ride home, my child finally came back and came barreling out the door. Smiling from ear to ear, she’d tell me all of the awesome places they explored at school, chat about her friends, and show me the sweet crafts she made that day. The dichotomy of her behavior was not lost on me.
It took a few months and late nights of desperately searching on Google to find out what she was trying to tell me since that first car ride home from the hospital at three days old.
My daughter has anxiety. She has a rare form of anxiety called selective mutism that prevents her from speaking or sometimes even moving in certain situations. Selective mutism is not shyness, nor is it an intentional refusal to speak. Children with selective mutism experience such distress that they are physically incapable of speaking. Selective mutism is most commonly diagnosed between 3 and 6 years old when a child begins school.
Children with selective mutism are often described as a chatterbox at home, yet at school, they may not speak to any teachers or peers. Selective mutism is often accompanied by social anxiety causing awkward body language, stiffness, or a frozen appearance.
This diagnosis is rare and finding professionals who have heard of the disorder and treated it successfully is a challenge. Exposure therapy is the evidence-based standard treatment for selective mutism, but there are few experts in the field.
Our family traveled from Texas to New York City for a week of intensive behavioral therapy in the spring of my daughter’s kindergarten year. With the right team of therapists and experts on board, she made tremendous gains during that week. It was a week filled with incredible firsts: she ordered her own food at a restaurant, she spoke to another child outside of our close circle of friends, she did a show and tell in front of a group, and so much more.
Parent training was an essential component of the therapy so that we could continue working on exposures once we returned home. We worked so hard to conquer the anxiety.
Because the treatment for selective mutism requires exposure to whatever is causing the anxiety, our therapists highly recommended considering a traditional classroom setting going forward. We explored our options, visited many schools, and weighed the pros and cons of several different schooling scenarios.
Students with a disability in public school can receive a 504 and IEP to receive services and accommodations, but that comes with wading through the red tape and having to fight. Smaller private schools are often willing to work with children with disabilities but may lack the resources to provide the individual attention a child needs. A university model hybrid school would allow for some learning to take place in a traditional classroom setting, but the parents lose many of the freedoms of homeschooling.
The Decision to Homeschool
Ultimately, we decided that homeschooling was the right choice for our family. As parents, we have the biggest stake in our daughter’s success. I’m certain she would succeed in a traditional classroom setting, but it wouldn’t be without fighting what would likely be an uphill battle to get the help we need for this rare and often misunderstood diagnosis.
Homeschooling with selective mutism requires persistent and calculated efforts to continue exposing the child to what causes anxiety. Children with selective mutism can be selective in a range of different ways. Some cannot speak to anyone outside of the home, some cannot speak to adults, some cannot speak to peers, or some might create their own rules.
My daughter’s selective mutism seemed to be related to certain places and people we do not know well. In a classroom, she would be with the same students and one teacher for most of every day, with little chance to broaden her ability to talk in different locations and with new people.
Our doctors and therapists seemed to have the stereotypical idea that homeschooling means isolation and little contact with peers or other adults, which if it were true, would be the worst situation for a child to overcome selective mutism. Homeschooling does not mean isolation, and many homeschoolers have a full calendar of social dates and extracurricular activities.
In choosing to homeschool, we’ve committed to making therapy an important part of our homeschool curriculum. Getting out and visiting new places and talking to new people is an essential part of our homeschool, and thankfully not hard at all to do. Between a homeschool co-op, Girl Scouts, nature group, visits to the library, field trips, and play dates with friends, we’ve found plenty of opportunities for talking in a variety of scenarios.
Homeschooling a child with selective mutism isn’t the easy way out, but without a doubt, it is what’s best for our family. When we can spend our days learning and exploring the world together, I can be sure that we’re conquering selective mutism one brave word at a time.
Meghann is a writer, blogger and proud lefty who enjoys living the simple life of a homeschool family on 6.5 acres in the Texas hill country with three children, two dogs, and a flock of chickens. She inspires others to create a life of simplicity and joy by decluttering and establishing rhythms that allow for the greatest gifts of time and connection with family. Find more from Meghann at Practically Hippie.
This article is part of the I Homeschool Because . . . series. Click here to read other articles in this series, download the free eBook, You Can Do It, Too: 25 homeschool families share their stories, and enter a giveaway from Kiwi Crate valued at more than $200.