Thursday, June 26, 2014

Homeschooling a Child with Chronic Illness - Part III

Homeschooling a Child with Chronic Illness

Part III: Implementing Adaptations

Accepting, analyzing, and setting goals to help a homeschooled child with chronic illness are all important steps to bettering the life of the child and the family.  However, a detailed plan to achieve those goals is needed to have the best chance for success.    This is how we will be adapting our homeschool from a classical style education to one that makes learning more enjoyable and successful for our chronically ill daughter.

Goal 1: Less work, more learning

  • Daily Schedule Flexibility: Amber seriously cannot function without her 10-12 hours of sleep.  This month, in particular, since she has started growing again it is closer to the 12 hour mark.  We always allow her sleep as long as needed, yet our school schedule did not reflect her needs.  Our "published" school schedule now will have lessons starting at 10 am, with plenty of buffer time throughout the day to account for a slightly later start if the need arises. Our school will continue all day until we are finished, mentally drained, or it's time to make dinner. We tried this method out the last month, or so, of school and things went much smoother than requiring 9 am school start with a jam packed day.

    This does decrease the amount of time available for school each day and therefore each year too.  Yet, when we pushed for longer school days every subject took more time to complete and Amber's comprehension and retention was less than when her time was more relaxed.

    Amber is also willing to work on changing the scheduled subjects on days when she feels poorly.  As long as I can give her a new verbal sketch for the day, that we do not deviate from, she thinks we can successfully re-arrange our daily schedule to include subjects more suitable for sick days.

  • Yearly Schedule Flexibility: We have tried several different yearly schedules in the past.  The parochial school schedule created too much burn out, so we never did try to follow the local public or private schools.  We attempted 4 day school weeks, with 3 day weekends.  It still did not prevent burn out, but with a schedule like that we couldn't take longer breaks very often.   Our most successful schedule has been 6 weeks on school, 1 week off.  Thanksgiving and Christmas usually create a small hiccup in that schedule, but we resume it again in January.  Overall this works, but at times it feels like we are barely making it to the 7th week each session.

    Amber's many doctor appointments are difficult to schedule entirely in our weeks off, considering she was seeing doctors more often than every 6-7 weeks.  There were weeks that it seemed like we did very little school and spent most of it at a doctor.  Since it wasn't a break week though, we tried our best to cram some school work into the days.  In the end, we found it was easier to skip lessons, for the most part, on doctor days. (It's not a short distance to some of the doctors).

    This year we have the addition of our homeschool co-op classes to factor into the schedule.  They will be utilizing a 7 week on, 1 week off schedule. There is no way that we could function with that schedule and the co-op classes start a month after our new school year.  We really would like to match up to their weeks off for a complete school break.

    Our new schedule this year will be 5 weeks on, 1 week off.  This allows us, because of different start times, holidays and a co-op Spring Break, to match all but one of the co-op weeks off. It also provides more frequent refreshing breaks from school and a more convenient interval for Amber's doctor visits.  She doesn't go to as many doctors or as often any more, so we are hoping to schedule the majority on our regular breaks this year.

    Sick days can hopefully be kept at a more manageable number this year since we have a better handle on the food issues, but that is not a guarantee.  Unless Amber is truly sick, as with the flu, we hope to be able to school a little bit each of those sick days.  If, in the end, we find ourselves running a bit short on time, there is always the month of June to catch up a few needed hours. 

    This schedule decreases even more the number of hours per school year that we have available.  Amber has, every homeschool year so far, earned more hours than required by our state.  Usually she has roughly 300 more hours total and 150 more in the core subjects.  This does not include the summer months, which could be counted if necessary.   The number of hours that she normally earns is also 200 more than required for public schools in our state.  And for those who do question it, homeschool hours are a lot more productive than public or private school hours.   So, while it was nice to have the huge buffer of hours in our schedule, it was not working for Amber and we need provide her with the flexibility that a reduction in school hours provides.
  • Fewer Subjects: Amber truly enjoys learning - when she isn't overwhelmed. There are so many topics that she is interested in pursing.  There are countless lovely homeschool curriculum options for all those subjects.  We always had ambitious schedules and always had to drop a subject or two. Sometimes they became only weekly subjects.  We don't have the time available anymore for a scheduled block of time to dedicate to every topic known to man.  We've had to prioritize, combine and be creative in covering topics that are of interest to Amber while still covering the basic (and somewhat required) subjects.  Amber's 7th and 8th grade years are also serving as practice for our high school schedule.  This means we need to account for the types of lessons she will study to earn high school credits.  (Because really, did anyone think she'd be able to function in a standard high school).

    Our main method to accomplish this task is to combine various topics into one subject.  For example: we don't need to study art history or music appreciation separately, as fun as it is.  Art history / appreciation can be woven into our main history lessons along with some music appreciation.  Amber takes music lessons, and thus is exposed to additional music there. 

    Amber has completed years of grammar with diagramming and is fairly solid in this aspect. I decided a change in curriculum would be beneficial and Analytical Grammar would fit our needs perfectly.  It has various options to complete the three "seasons" in the curriculum.  We are choosing to complete one season per school year.  The first season, which we will use in 7th grade, calls for 10 weeks of daily grammar, then grammar refresher assignments one day every two weeks.  That's all.  This will lighten our Language Arts load significantly and allow Amber time to alternate poetry and creative writing after our 10 weeks of grammar are complete.  She is still able to enjoy the various aspects of Language Arts without the overloaded schedule.

    We are also going to drop formal spelling or vocabulary lessons.  I had fully intended to move into vocabulary this school year, using the curriculum recommended in The Well Trained Mind.  I even had it priced out.  Yet, I remember from high school our vocabulary lessons coming from the literature we were studying at the time.  So, that is going to be our plan for Amber too.  Instead of a separate subject, vocabulary / spelling will be a part of literature.

    Since Amber is in confirmation at our church this year, it seems a bit redundant to have daily religion classes at home.  Confirmation requires weekly Sunday school attendance (which she does anyway), but also has regular religious homework.  Instead of guided religion instruction at home, we will just work on living our faith and all that is required for confirmation.

    There will be additional changes to reduce our subject count, but I'll address those in the next section because they really apply more to a change in education style.

Homeschooling a Child with Chronic Illness
A food reaction day - watching a Netflix history video.

Goal 2: More topic application, less book work

Amber thrived with the Classical style of education so much more than using workbooks and the other methods utilized in her parochial schools.  But with her illness, we lost our way in trying to keep up with the recommendations for a Classical education.  We have not entirely given up on Classically educating Amber, but our new style is... well hard to define.  The best I've come up with is Classically Influenced, Project Strong, Adaptable Education. 

We've been trying this new style over the summer with our study of the Philippines.  As an aside, we are in the process of hopefully adopting an older girl from the Philippines and therefore are studying the country and culture of our future daughter.   Throughout this study Amber's attitude toward the lesson time has been greatly improved. She even has a much more positive outlook during her math lessons.   This, along with feedback from Amber about adjustments we made toward the end of sixth grade, give me confidence that our new style is going to be a better route in the coming year(s).
  • History:  We are still using a Classical history curriculum as our outline, or spine, for the year.  However, we will only use it to guide our path and provide some suggestions for writing, outlining, and reading selections.   We are also adding in resources from Heritage History.  They have wonderful classical and living books available on most history eras.  Some of the Heritage History resources will replace recommendations from our primary curriculum, others will be back up options for low productivity or sick days.  Instead of writing an outline from an encyclopedia reading, why not just read a few chapters in a classic book on the topic.  We can orally discuss it while relaxing together later in the day. 

    We have also acquired, and are excited to use, a couple of Project Passport sets from Homeschool in the Woods.  We absolutely love their products.  The Project Passport sets have a broad range of projects on the time periods as well as fun topical writing assignments.  There are also audio "tours" that we will save for sick days or the car rides to the doctors' appointments. 

    We included some videos on Netflix or Amazon in our school last year when Amber was so sick.  However, it was not well planned and mostly last minute ideas.  This year we will have videos lined up for use, sick or not.  Amber will be able to watch topically relevant videos while working on craft projects relating to her history time period.  Ideally, we could save these for food reaction days or exhaustion days.

    Finally, research report writing will be part of a larger history project.  I have been so inspired and awed by the accomplishments of Claire's children (at that we will be taking a cue from her blog.  Our intent is to have two major presentations a year.  It's an intent.  If we only manage one this coming school year, then that is great too.  Amber will be responsible for researching and writing a complete report on a selected topic. She also will be giving a presentation with visual aids on a related topic.  I do not expect her to read her research report, but to give us an oral presentation. The visual aids will consist mainly of the many projects Amber will complete as part of her regular lessons.  The scope of the presentations will be defined as we work through the school year.
  • Literature: In the past we have done anywhere from eight to ten literature studies per year.  There were always many more books that we wanted to study, but never had the time.  Some of the books we did complete were rushed and not as enjoyable as they could be.  This year Amber will be assigned to read a moderate selection of books which mostly relate to her history studies. Some will be historical fiction, and others literature from the time.  We have chosen only three (and possibly a fourth) books from this list to study.  The rest will be read by Amber as related history reading, no more. 

    We will include projects, discussions, vocabulary, and even movie versions of the few books we have chosen for in depth study.  This will not be a daily subject in our homeschool, as it was before.  Instead it will alternate with the new foreign language that Amber has requested to study. 

  • Science:  This one was difficult.  We honestly like our classically styled science curriculum. However, it was not always flexible enough for Amber when she was having a rough day.  She either had the brain power to read, take notes (or outline), and work on her weekly sketch, or she didn't.  Science experiments were not good for days with reactions either.  They required too much understanding and effort.  This will probably be one of the subjects often moved when there is a sick day.  However, some food reactions can cause entire sick weeks, and in those cases we need to have a way to accomplish some science.

    We have decided to continue with the classical curriculum this school year and re-evaluate next year.  We have greatly slowed our science pace and will not complete as many topics prior to high school as originally planned.  I think with the slowed pace we will have time to add in videos and projects for low productivity days, while still completing the remainder of the curriculum on healthy days.  We also have science only two days a week, but for a larger block of time.
Roman Day lessons - a day dedicated to learning & playing like a Roman child

  Goal 3: Increased personal interactions

This one is a bit more complex than simply planing different assignments or even a new overall learning style.  Amber's food sensitivities and reactions make her feel so very isolated from others.  This is already a difficult age for girls and Amber has the added strain of being unable to join in any food related activities.  We now actively combat Amber's feelings of isolation and help her have a more positive view of herself.
  • Pruning Activities: Possibly the hardest part of this is to reduce activities that do not meet multiple needs.  The activities must provide Amber with positive interactions, be an activity she enjoys, be scheduled on days that allow recovery (if necessary) before another activity, and hopefully not require more energy than Amber can expend.

    Amber had been a dancer from the time she was three years old. She was even a competitive dancer for a few years.  However, due to her illness, low energy and weight loss she had to be removed from dance in January.  We fully had the intention of returning her to dance when she gained some weight.  After all, it was good exercise, she loved it, had very positive peer relationships at dance, and it increased her self-esteem.  Seemingly, this is a perfect activity.  Only it isn't.  Amber is still always on the edge of exhaustion.  The amount of effort required for a ballet dancer leaves Amber sick for days afterwards.  Not to mention the overheating issue that has cropped up with Amber.  So dance is officially a no-go for the foreseeable future along with a few other activities that Amber quite enjoyed.
  • Encouraging Activities:  We have always allowed Amber to have activities that were positive influences.  But sometimes, our actions did not make it appear that we (the adults) valued those activities.  For example:  we love the new homeschool group that we joined in January to replace dance.  We even joined their co-op classes.  However, I did not always make it seem a priority to me.  There was other school work to complete in the morning if Amber wanted to attend co-op.  We did not always make the homeschool group outings or field trips because of other events or tiredness that could have been avoided.  

    I need to show Amber through not only words but my actions that her attendance and enjoyment of homeschool group activities and co-op are important.  The activities that are a priority to Amber need to be a priority to me as well.  If we are going to go through the effort of being selective with Amber's activities, we also need to be entirely supportive of them.

  • Balance Independent Work: Amber had become quite an independent student; the joy of homeschooling parents everywhere.  Yet, this changed with her illness.  I might be only 15 feet from her, in the same room, but she often feels isolated when my attention is elsewhere. The computer, the laundry, the cats, housework, even phone calls all make Amber feel alone.  Amber's attitude and mental state have been much improved when I again began to spend more time each lesson with her, like when she was in fourth grade.  On sick days Amber is even more desirous of my attention, and understandably so.  While capable of being a very independent student, Amber benefits from more regular interaction with me.

    However, I can't spend all day working with her on each assignment.  This is another place where the verbal discussions and project work will help our girl.  Undoubtedly the projects will require a good deal of my input and they are an area where I can work with Amber, but not be involved in every aspect.  The planned presentations also work toward this goal in allowing Amber to show off her work with others, even if it is only family. 
  • Break Week Activities:  While we do not need to plan each day of our break weeks, and in truth that would be counterproductive, I would like to have some activities for Amber with friends or family those weeks.  She might have a break from homeschool and co-op classes, but if she feels isolated it is not much of a mental rest.  With this goal in mind, we will be more purposeful in our selected activities during break weeks.  I may need to run errands on my own while Amber has a day out with friends or Grandma. 
Band, homeschool group parites and field trips!

Chronic illness is not just a few sick days here and there, but it invades every aspect of our daily life.  Even on healthy days we worry about committing to events that Amber may not be able to attend.  With these new plans in hand we hope to adjust our homeschool to one that is more suited to our child with chronic illness and alleviate some of the stress and anxiety that comes with Amber's situation.

Hopefully some of these ideas might help others out there in similar circumstances to ours.

Homeschooling a Child with Chronic Illness:


  1. Excellent! What a wonderful series. I have come to many of the same conclusions over the years. We are also returning to a 5 week on 1 week off schedule in the hopes that it will decrease some of the doctor appointment interruptions. Of course, there is nothing I can do about physical therapy two times a week. But, I think you are going to have a much better year! When do you start. We start on July 14th.
    Blessings, Dawn

    1. Dawn, We start back on August 4th. There is too much going on before then to make a decent start. I do have to say that it's blogs like yours, with the wonderful projects, that inspired me to look at another way of learning for Amber. I've bookmarked so many of your posts for when we study a more modern era. :)

  2. I have to work on the "Balance Independent Work". I have always encouraged them to learn independently and while that is good and I am available to help I think a more structured availability might help. I should have less running around next year so there will be less time with them home alone.

  3. I have a few suggestions that I might normally keep to myself but since you want to combine topics I thought I'd mention that grammar is not math. We do not need to teach grammar every year , is she is already solid in grammar then I'd lay off grammar until High School and hit it one more time.Here is a link to my blog this is a video about the importance of adding rest into your homeschool (by Andrew Perrin from Classical Academic Press ) called "Restoring Schole to School" Obviously this is even more important for you and your sweet daughter. You are doing a wonderful job with her education. :D

    1. Thanks for the suggestions. We actually have used several things from Classical Academic Press, so Christopher Perrin was a familiar face. :) I think Amber has a mostly solid grammar basis, but she went to parochial school through half of 4th grade and their grammar was very hit or miss each year. I found quite a bit lacking when we started homeschooling. We are using Analytical Grammar right now, with each season as a year of school. That means we really are only doing 10 weeks of grammar this year, then it is review one day every two weeks. And Amber likes grammar. She's odd :) Now, writing I think we might just limp slowly through the rest of Writing With Skill and then work on writing only in our other subjects.

      Thanks for the link, I'll have to look through all the videos more closely.