Lessons from Our first Year of Homeschooling with a Chronic Illness

It’s officially the end of our first year of homeschooling! Hooray! Also, can I have more coffee? And cake? We are definitely going to bake and decorate cupcakes this coming weekend.

First year of homeschooling
Tillea LOVES dandelions!

Like many parents, we started our homeschooling journey by withdrawing our child from playschool. It was her second one, and she simply wasn’t happy there. That, in addition to her daddy’s health issues at home made her feel left out, to the point where our talkative little butterfly had very little to say.

We got a play therapist involved and made quality time with her a priority. She quickly returned to her old self, happy to be part of what was going on at home, even if it wasn’t always easy.

As a working mom, I started out with a routine of homeschooling an hour or two in the morning after breakfast, and then spending the rest of the day working. Homeschooling generally included reading a Bible story, some poetry, a book on animals, and then some work on practicing letter and number recognition and phonics.

Other days the lesson was spent on baking cupcakes or gardening. We got a helper to help supervise the children after the lessons, which is a great help so I can get work done.

Homeschooling with a chronic illness

Initially, it was going well. Business was growing and for a few months I was fully booked. Then in March of this year, South Africa entered a heavy lockdown. Most of my clients all stopped their projects. I kept busy with two or three remaining clients who could continue, and worked on building websites.

In between, my partner has had some serious bouts of his illness, the most recent being about 7 weeks ago. Homeschooling with a chronic illness is definitely no easy journey, particularly not if the illness involved is so rare that there is no treatment statistics or information, or anything predictable to base your planning on.

That said, Tillea has coped very well with it all for the most part. She is a sweet-natured and sensitive child who would rather be part of what’s happening than be told everything is fine. She copes with the resilience of innocence and unconditional love that comes with her age. Each year, her concern grows a little more, and we take it as it comes, prayerfully.

What my daughter enjoyed most about homeschooling

My daughter enjoyed the quality time. That’s her number one answer. Time with us. Doing things, having conversations, making things, being silly, going to the library, hanging out with dad in the garage.

She loved learning about animals, about how things work and, of course, learning on apps like Reading Eggs, Khan Academy, Rivet, and Teach Your Monster How to Read.

Eliezer, her little brother who is turning 3 in a few months, began noticing his sister’s learning activities and slowly began joining in. He is an enthusiastic little boy, eagerly exploring crayons on our (unwashable!) walls, and repeating everything he hears.

What Tillea (aged 6-7) learned in her first year at home

Obviously, we worked on basic letter and number recognition, then phonics and basic addition and subtraction. We go very slowly on the math. Reading is now progressing nicely.

She learned a huge variety of other things like about the human body, the heart, the lungs, the digestive system, how babies develop, the skeleton, the skin, how we breathe, and the structure of the brain.  

Lessons from first year of homeschooling
Swimming lesson – she did so well.

Other topics included:

  • Life cycles – frogs, butterflies, mammals, plants. 
  • Different types of animals – mammals, insects, reptiles, birds, amphibians, nocturnal animals, fish.
  • What different animals eat, where they live in the world, and what kinds of nests they live in.
  • The air we breathe – oxygen and carbon dioxide, and how plants supply oxygen.
  • Space and the planets
  • Seasons
origami homeschool lesson
Origami lesson – paper hats.

Life skills included:

  • Learning how to swim
  • Tying shoe laces
  • Taking care of her pet rat and pet rabbits
  • Cleaning skills, making her bed, folding laundry
  • Making a toasted cheese sandwich
  • Baking
  • Spool knitting
  • Recently started learning crochet – still working on a basic chain
  • Helping others, obedience and patience, taking turns, sharing, table manners
  • Working with money
  • Reading time
  • Gardening – propagating succulents
  • Making popcorn, playdough and helping me cook occasionally
  • Independent play and learning
life skills homeschool lesson
My favourite succulent, heehee…

What surprised me about this first year

  1. The number of questions my child can ask. Good heavens! I have always known she’s a little chatterbox, but her constant curiosity about how things work is astounding. 
  2. I was surprised by how simple homeschooling can be if I let it. The amount of learning that could come out of simple conversations if I simply made a point of answering her questions as well as I could and then looking up answers with her, was incredible.
  3. The amount of energy and patience it takes to give one-on-one attention. Don’t judge, I know I’m not the only one! In our situation where my partner has a life-threatening and disabling condition, I have had to learn to work (and accept) with the actual capacity I have, rather than what I dreamed of doing.
  4. How much help I needed from the homeschool community. I’m a type A person who is driven by getting things done and seeing progress. I thought I would be okay. Do some research, try some things, and get on with it, right? Wrong. My daughter is the opposite – a dreamer who takes her time with everything, and at her tender age, she has yet to find her passionate interest or innate talent. That’s totally okay, but it presented some challenges in terms of focus. Other homeschool moms with more experience have graciously helped me to approach homeschooling more from the angle of my child’s wonder, rather than my to-do list.
Homeschool fun
Making a bird feeder with peanut butter and birdseed. It worked like a charm.

What worked in our first year of homeschooling

  1. Keeping notes of whatever counted as learning on a daily basis and writing a monthly summary has been extremely helpful (for myself) to keep track of our progress. I made notes of various things – not just her learning progress, but as a developing person whose character is still developing as well. It helps so much to have a holistic approach, rather than just a typical “school” approach.
  2. Using apps to help train my child to work more independently. I don’t feel bad about it. It’s another form of help that forms part of our homeschool picture and it really works.
  3. Using animals as a topic of interest for learning – things like how animals build different kinds of nests, what different animals eat, various bugs, etc.
  4. Keeping it simple. I’m going to say it again. Simple. Example: Choose one single learning activity for lesson time and focus on that. On days where exhaustion wipes me out, doing this makes me feel like we still did something useful. Taking the pressure off everything I wanted to do, and working with what I could do with my child, before attending to my work responsibilities.
  5. A routine – having everyone have a clear idea of knowing what to expect when and from who. Communication and routine go together – this way, everyone is able to get some things done.
  6. Board games and card games. Playdough. Fingerpaint. Free play in my parents’ huge backyard. Looking at bugs. Watching NatGeo videos about animals. Lots and lots of popcorn!
  7. Involving the grandparents – thank God for the grandparents! We are blessed to have families who support homeschooling and happily do things with the children in their own way. I get to hear my daughter tell the stories afterward and I treasure it. Letting the kids spend regular time with them also meant mommy and daddy could have a much-needed rest.
  8. That brings me to taking breaks. Taking breaks works. Breaks from working on numbers or the alphabet or reading. Breaks from writing practice or whatever is not working for my child right then. Breaks from the entire schedule to just change things up a bit.
science lesson homeschooling first year
We made a spectroscope!

What didn’t work in our first year of homeschooling

  1. Book work didn’t work. My child is not very interested and will take a full hour doing two pages on a bad day, and it’s work that could easily be done in ten minutes. Pushing it was not a good idea. So I gave it a break and lessened that kind of work.
  2. Starter reader books didn’t work. My child wasn’t interested, motivated, or ready. I let it go, and focused instead on telling my child all about how the ability to read lets you travel anywhere with your imagination. I told her how reading lets you learn anything you want without having to wait for someone to show you. Explaining the incentive and letting that seed take root is more important right now.
  3. A reward chart. It didn’t work because even with daily incentives of things she liked (like stickers), she simply couldn’t keep it up for even two to three days. It left us both demoralized and it was far more effort for me than I had time and energy for. I swapped it out for a routine chart where she can see the day’s general sequence of events and what’s expected. 
lessons from first year of homeschooling
Playdough never fails.

What we will change in our second year of homeschooling

We will continue to work on the basic foundations of reading, writing, and math, until those are well-mastered. We may explore some other curriculum resources as well. We’ve not yet used any specific curriculum.

We will focus on more fun – both as motivation and as part of learning. 

More lessons around Science and STEM-based activities, since these really interest her. (I was terrible at Science in school, so this is a real challenge for me. Maybe I’ll get it right this time!)

Thanks to the challenging experiences of 2020, we will DEFINITELY be buying more books! Not being able to access the library for nearly 5 months now is ridiculous, and digital books are just not the same for my little kids.

We’ll meet and make friends with more homeschool families and somehow figure out how to do this around my work schedule. This is so challenging, but it’s a must.

Homeschool sibling lessons
Reading lesson for baby brother. Tillea is a good teacher!

Most important things I’ve learned about myself this year

I have learned that as a homeschooling and full-time working mom, I’ve taken on a LOT. But, it’s not impossible. Yes, I get tired. Yes, I have days that feel overwhelmingly hard. But it’s my calling and my privilege to serve my family and my husband. 

He worked insanely hard for as long as he was able to, and now I must do my part to make it work. I’m grateful that he is still here for the children and able to laugh with them, spending quality time. It is the one thing many moms don’t get to see very often. 

I’m not going to lie, I’m not a saint by any means, there are days I do wish things were different. It’s a challenge that drives me to pray constantly for more grace to fill up where my patience, energy, ability, creativity and resourcefulness are lacking. Sometimes I cry and worry about the impact of everything in this last year on our children.

Doing what I can for my family, taking care of myself, and trusting in God are enough, even when it doesn’t feel or look like it. Comparison doesn’t do me any favours.

home education for toddlers and grade 1
Finger painting aka fine motor skills…

Most important things I’ve learned about homeschooling this year

Learn from others, and take what can work for me and my family. Children are incredible, joyful, enthusiastic, and eager. Just point them in the direction of something interesting and be there to celebrate the learning moments and answer the questions.

Stop with the pressure. It sucks the fun, energy, and life out of everything. Life is crazy, but homeschooling involves our children in this tough year, and we can all learn together what to make of it.

home education without pressure
Those were supposed to be for counting and colour sorting. Always up for a laugh…

Goals for the next year of homeschooling

Truthfully, I find it difficult to think of the next homeschool year in the middle of a present that feels so full and demanding. The temptation to get anxious is there, but I won’t give into it.

We’ll keep on keeping it simple. Lots more reading together, learning life skills, maybe helping Tillea start up her own income stream, and helping Eliezer learn to read along with his sister as fast as he likes. 

More laughter, more gratitude, more grace, fun, peace, and love. We would like our children to learn that there is hope no matter how tough things can get. 

Homeschooling with a chronic illness is not easy. It can sometimes feel very limited, but it’s a real-life lesson that makes all of us grow.

Whatever we may face in the coming year, at least we’ll be together and that’s what counts.

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