After playing for years on a very competitive baseball team, my son lost interest, complaining that his stomach hurt. He went from a kid who loved the game, to one who was repelled by it. The pain came and went sporadically. Then two years later at the start of 7th grade, it got worse. The trigger seemed to be increasing demands at school, from big presentations to stressful unit tests to just a lot of unfinished homework piling up.
Every morning was torture. I’d go to wake him up for school and I didn’t know whether he would fight his way awake or just pull the covers over his head and curl into a ball. I couldn’t understand why it was so impossible for him to fight through the pain. He would look at me with watery eyes and say he just couldn’t move.
My husband and I wanted to make sure he didn’t have some kind of underlying medical issue, so I took him to all sorts of specialists who examined him thoroughly with X-rays and blood tests. He was missing weeks of school at a time, but the tests revealed he didn’t have any physical ailments.
Finally, we broke down and had a full neurological exam, which cost us $1200—even with our health insurance. After the doctors reviewed surveys from us and his teachers, we finally got a diagnosis. Our son suffered from depression and anxiety disorder. Since both my husband and I have family members dealing with mental health issues, it wasn’t that out of the realm of possibility, I just hadn’t realized that this was how it could manifest itself.
Seeking Help & Support
We decided to enroll him into a Christian school anxiety and refusal program at a children’s hospital near our home so he could keep up his studies while getting therapy.
When we pulled up to the hospital for the first time, I saw a gigantic statue of Jesus with open arms — you know, like the Christ the Redeemer statue in Brazil. I felt like I was in the right place. After a few months of therapy, it seemed like we were making progress. However, he didn’t seem particularly eager to go back to his regular school.
In fact, this is when the idea of homeschooling first came up. My cousin homeschooled her kids in their elementary years and her oldest, who was accepted into one of the most competitive high schools in the Chicago area, had just been accepted to Stanford University. When my son asked to be homeschooled, too, I shot him down pretty quickly. That wasn’t even something I felt I could consider. Sure, I’ve been to college and I have a master’s degree, but in no way did I consider myself a teacher. People go to school for years to learn how to teach kids, I reasoned. I felt like I’d be short-changing his education.
Feeling alone and frustrated, I started talking to parents in my church about our challenges. It turns out that two moms I talked to regularly also had kids suffering from anxiety and depression. Both had put their kids in similar school refusal/anxiety programs. In fact, one had a son who was pretty close to my kid. They often attended youth activities together at church, but the mom never shared what she was going through until I opened up about our family’s struggles. The other mom served as the youth director for the church. I still appreciate our heart-to-heart conversations. I also began reaching out to church leaders for support and they gave us the gift of love, checking on us regularly and adding us to the prayer circle. The senior pastor even took an interest in strategizing on ways the church could support my son to help get him back on track. No one judged us. I so appreciated that.
By the end of 7th grade, we had gotten him back going to his regular public school, sort of. He still was missing a few days every week or so, but nothing like the year before where he missed nearly thirty days of school in one semester. I thought we were moving past a difficult phase. I was wrong. Eighth grade was almost as bad as seventh. He barely graduated and he wasn’t looking forward to high school.
Starting Public High School
Two months into his freshman year, the stomach ache absences started again. At this point, he was on medication to deal with his disorder and to keep the pains at bay. He was missing school every single week.
Ironically, I had started writing a story on how more Black parents were homeschooling, which had me interviewing friends, parents and other experts. My son saw me working on the article and raised the question again about homeschooling. After talking to people who were doing it with kids the same as age as my son, I started to think maybe it wasn’t so far-fetched. I was really surprised at the support and encouragement I received from people I didn’t even know. I learned that homeschooling is different for everyone. There is no right or wrong way as long as your child is learning and thriving. Still, we weren’t ready to completely cut the cord with our public high school.
The counselors suggested a schedule where he came to campus for two classes and then took four classes at home through our district’s online schooling program. Our son also would need to have an individualized education plan, but the testing to receive this plan could take three months to schedule. Also, with the program, he still would have to come to school for tests. Given tests are a trigger for him, that wasn’t going to work for us. This plan started out okay, but even with only two classes on campus, the absences due to illness slowly returned.
However, he was doing very well with the online program so a month into the plan, we took the leap of faith and enrolled him full-time into the online high school. The school social worker didn’t think this was the right decision because she felt like we were “giving in” to his mental health issues. His counselor said that most kids he knew who went this route weren’t successful. But we did it anyway.
We also were worried about our son’s learning environment. Our community still is reeling from being featured in America to Me, a docuseries that brought to light some of the grumblings I’ve heard from African American parents over the years who were concerned about their boys and the learning vibe in our school system for people of color. I wondered if, without preconceived notions about what he could achieve, homeschooling could help to build up his confidence and reduce his anxiety.
We didn’t pull him without a plan. I knew what our state required for homeschoolers so I wrote a letter to the high school with details of our plan to educate our son. The day after we withdrew him from the high school, we received a letter in the mail from the attendance office telling us he had missed too many days to get credit for his courses. That confirmed we made the right decision.
We enrolled him in a regionally accredited online private school called Acellus Academy, which is run by the International Academy of Science. Four months in, things are so much better. He has virtual teachers in videos and a regular curriculum, but I am still very involved in the process, monitoring how he’s doing and stepping in when needed. Even as I am pleased with the program so far, I do feel the need to supplement with additional lessons from Khan Academy, Teaching Textbooks, and YouTube. (There are A LOT of very good teachers explaining just about everything on YouTube.). I’ve also learned a lot from private parenting groups on Facebook. Additionally, I’m going to incorporate Black history, field trips, and some faith-based teachings. I was looking for an all-in-one solution that I could build on, but every family is different and there are so many ways to structure a homeschooling environment. Some states even offer free programs through the local public school districts.
As for my son, the stomach aches have stopped altogether. He is very good about doing his work and currently has six classes and a 3.8 GPA. It only takes him about three hours to do his work, which I’m learning is fairly typical for homeschoolers. When you strip out lunch, gym, study hall, questions from other kids in the classroom, and other activities unrelated to learning, you can gain a lot more time to do other types of learning. When he turns 16, he may even get a job during the school year.
Homeschooling Blog on UrbanFaith.com
By sharing my story, I hope other parents will feel encouraged to consider homeschooling. Whether you’re dealing with a child with medical or mental health issues, or you just want a unique and positive educational experience for your kids, it can be a satisfying decision to take control of your student’s academic success. I plan to write about the good and the bad of our family’s journey on UrbanFaith.com, providing as many resources as possible for working with kids of all ages. My family is a little late to the game with a high schooler now learning at home. I’m not sure how our story is going to pan out in the end, but right now I have faith that we made the right decision.