*NOTE: PDA stands for Pathological Demand Avoidance or Pervasive Drive for Autonomy and can be a feature of autism.
So perhaps things weren’t going so well at school (or maybe a handful of schools) and you decided you needed to pull your child out and try homeschooling. ‘Once things calm down and we reset we will get it all figured out.’ But the weeks turned to months and as time goes on, it feels harder and harder to get started and you are not really sure what to do at this point. Getting your child to brush their teeth may be an enormous challenge already….how are you ever going to get them to do math every day? It is easy to feel daunted and overwhelmed and find yourself stuck in the ‘freeze’ mode of the nervous system.
The good news is that homeschooling does not have to be an all or nothing scenario. It is likely to go better for the whole family if you phase it in gradually in a way that honors your internal rhythm and that of your child. There’s no way you can create the perfect plan ahead of time anyhow, because it is going to take some trial and error to figure out what will or won’t work for your child. By asking for their input at each step and continually offering them numerous choices for how to get things done, you will start to figure out what is helpful for them and what isn’t. The hardest part is getting that ball rolling again, so below are some pointers on how to make that happen:
Have Clear Expectations. Especially if you have been reducing most demands at home, it’s going to be important to help them understand that some demands are unavoidable and are things that everyone has to do (like going to school). Make it clear that while going back to school is going to be necessary, there will still be a lot of choice involved and that you are going to do whatever you can to do it in a way that works for you all. Knowing what the expectations are and what kind of support they will have will reduce anxiety in the long-term.
Start with creating a new habit, not hard material. At first you are just trying to get them back in the habit of doing school work, so make the school work easy and short. Don’t worry if they’re not learning something new yet, just get the idea of the new routine in place. If they’re not big on reading, start with you reading them a book or them listening to some kind of audio book. Anything. Even having them read one word to you is a start. Just get comfortable with the new routine at first.
Start with tiny steps. For example, instead of handing your child an entire math worksheet to complete, have a whiteboard that you write 1 to 3 simple equations on. 1+1 is a start. Keep taking tiny steps to build capacity. When you are ready to move on to worksheets, fold up part of the worksheet so that only one column is shown at a time. Seeing too many equations to solve all at once can be an instant overwhelm trigger.
Rewards! Your initial rewards will have to be the most enticing as getting started is the hardest part, and then you can pull back ever so gradually over time. Be sure to give the reward immediately so that they associate it with the task. It can be stuff they want, but also privileges like getting to spend more time playing a video game or maybe not having to do a certain chore.
Always give them choices. You might set out 3 different kinds of things for them to choose from so they feel in control of what they are doing. For example, playing an educational game, doing a little math, or some kind of reading. Keep it tailored to their special interests whenever you can. If there is a subject they are highly resistant to, give them choices about how to do it (online class, work alone, work with you, etc.).
Create a Routine and Stick with it. Remember that having routine and structure will ultimately reduce confusion and anxiety (even if they resist it initially). You can still put a lot of flexibility into it. For example, if every day you have Morning work and Afternoon work, they can get to it on their own clock. Keep using phrases like “whenever you’re ready” and realize that there will be some days it doesn’t all get done and that’s ok. Write or draw the daily schedule going from left to right like a timeline and keep it somewhere it is visible to them at all times (if you write it like a to-do list it may feel to them like everything has to get done at the same time and trigger panic). Use magnets/markers (bonus points if the magnet is Spiderman and that’s your kids special interest) to keep track of where you are in the day. For example:
Breakfast — Morning Work—Break— Lila stops by—Lunch—Afternoon work—Walk
Accept that you can’t prevent all outbursts. Chances are you have been doing a lot of work to keep your child in a calmer state more often, and doing everything you can to avoid them getting triggered. That is critical work, but it will also need to be balanced with very gradually increasing their distress tolerance so they become thriving and resilient adults. Try encouraging them to occasionally just be with something that is hard for them for a moment, then stop. Don’t keep pushing and don’t rush them. Remember that you can’t prevent all outbursts and that sometimes an outburst comes before a big breakthrough because it can be frustrating to learn how to do something new. Accepting that we will have discomfort sometimes is hard but important work. I like to use the metaphor of a baby learning to walk. If the first time they tried and fell down they just gave up and never attempted walking again, where would that baby be now? It wouldn’t be able to even get to its room on its own! Falling down doesn’t feel great, but the first time that baby is able to walk on its own, it’s going to feel amazing! Remember that PDA is also called ‘Pervasive Drive for Autonomy’ and that once they get past the initial frustration of approaching something hard, reaching the goal of having greater autonomy is going to help them be calmer in the future. This is not easy stuff, so try not to be too hard on yourself when you hit a rough patch.
Keep the long term view. It can be so hard to get through the day that we can lose sight of the bigger picture. You can help yourself and your child by talking to them frequently about what they want to be when they grow up and how you want to do whatever you can to prepare them for that. If they don’t know what they want to do, you can use their schoolwork as an exploration to help them discover more interests. Keep telling them that you want them to have as many choices as possible when they are older and that’s why you’re helping them prepare for that with the school work. Remember that they have a deep desire for autonomy and see if you can use that to motivate them to get good at things on their own.
Be informed. If you don’t yet know what requirements your state has on homeschooling, you are likely able to find out your state’s Homeschool Laws in a matter of minutes with the right Google search, and this is a really good thing to do to avoid surprises down the road. Some states require annual assessments, for example, which is something you would definitely want to know about ahead of time.
Go at your own pace, but keep going. As long as you get the ball rolling again, you will get where you need to go eventually. So do whatever it takes to get the ball rolling! Let the first few steps be ridiculously small because that is likely to be the key to starting up again. Celebrate and encourage even the tiniest step!