Homeschooling Through Chronic Illness

stuffy with an iv

Two months ago today, my son was on an IV, waiting to be taken to the operating room after six days in the hospital. He would come out fresh from surgery and a series of biopsies that would confirm my second worst fear. No, he does not have cancer. Instead, he has an incurable chronic disease that will continue to threaten his livelihood.

In the last two months, he’s started three new medications. He goes to an infusion center for one of them, and sits with the other infusion kids (usually cancer patients) for 4 hours while his dose is put in his veins. We have 5 different health care providers now, and we rotate in and out of their offices weekly at this point. During one week, we saw 4 different providers in 2 different cities.

Since this is a homeschool blog, you’re probably wondering, “What in the world does this have to do with homeschooling?”

Well, many of you know I’ve written a book about planning a homeschool year that fits the reality of your life. I’m sure you’re all curious how I’m holding it together with all my brilliant spreadsheets and plans. Planning a full year should be a recipe for failure when weird things come up, right?

Actually, we’re still right on track. Despite two months of awful illness prior to diagnosis, and two months of adjustment after diagnosis, I don’t feel like we’ve lost any homeschool time. And this is not because we’ve worked harder and crammed in the work while in the hospital or in waiting rooms at doctor’s offices. Nope. There are two things I’ve kept up with that have helped tremendously: my Plan B — the thing in my book that I call “Bare Minimums” — and weekly reviews.

Bare Minimums

When I plan a homeschool year, I plan it for the best of times. I imagine us diving deep into historical documents, creating beautiful works of art, and mastering advanced calculus in the 6th grade. Because I know I am overly optimistic in my planning, I’ve often added in contingency plans. I know myself well enough to know that February gets hard, with or without a chronic illness, so several years ago I started defining bare minimums.

Bare minimums are those things that have to happen in order for me to consider a school day “done.” This could be very different from person to person. Some people are able to embrace unschooling during periods of illness. Some people just let school go completely, and that works for them. For me, there are just three things I feel we need to do to keep the school thing going: math, reading, and writing.

A typical day for us currently looks like this: the girl and I go through a lesson or two of Life of Fred. The boy does at least 3 different challenges on Khan Academy or plays on Prodigy until he gets tired. They both do copywork (right now, I’m having them copy spelling rules and lists), and both of them are working on creative writing projects (because they want to, not because I make them). I require 30 minutes of reading a day, from the books in the library bin. They both have their novels they read at bedtime, but the school reading has to be from the school books.

Because I also plan my library lists in advance, I’ve been able to keep our history and science books coming from the library all this time, so daily reading has still given them a lot of background in both subjects. We are about three weeks “behind” where I wanted to be in history at the moment, and we haven’t cracked into the science experiment kit I had planned for this time. Instead, we’ve leaned pretty heavily on Story of the World audiobooks, Netflix documentaries, and favorite YouTube channels like DaveHax or Numberphile for quick and easy science experiments and math extras.

Weekly Reviews

As I mention in Blueprint Homeschooling, weekly reviews are more for my sanity than anything else. I need to know I’m doing well. I need to know I’m being productive. I need to know I’m not failing at this thing. I’m sure this is my own public school training that forces this on me, but if you’re like me, the weekly reviews might save your life.

This year, I started doing weekly reviews in Evernote. I like it because I can attach photos and can quickly type in everything we’ve worked on. I usually like to organize by subject, so I’ll list out the major subjects (math, reading, writing, history, science, art, current events, etc), and then write what we did under each heading.

I came to realize that a lot of those doctor and hospital trips counted for science and health. It’s not every day that you can pester a radiology team with questions about how the MRI works, or get a nurse to explain the differences in formulation between the different IV fluids you can get.

Even my daughter, who was back and forth between the hotel and hospital, was learning a great deal about how to manage during an illness, what kinds of supplies you need for a few nights away, and how an emergency room operates. If you ever find yourself in a children’s hospital that has children’s therapists who will play with your kids, this is an invaluable service! Our hospital had a bunch of supplies usually intended for babies that they would give to kids with stuffed animals. Her little stuffy got an IV (with no needle, of course), syringe, oxygen mask, bandages, gauze, and even miniature hospital gowns made by some creative volunteers. They showed her all the steps to take for preparing, inserting, and cleaning an IV. It was fascinating.

We also tried to combine appointments in other cities with field trips. Surgery follow-up in Los Angeles? We spent the day at The Getty Museum. It turned a hard day into a really fun one.

Yes, there are about three weeks in there where I honestly said, “we did nothing.” Healing and recovery from a crisis like that takes its toll. I didn’t count recovery as school. We will probably be schooling into June or July, and that is okay. I’m in parent support groups, and for many of the kids in public school with chronic illnesses those months out are a nightmare. You don’t just get to pause a public school curriculum for illness. With homeschool, you can just start again where ever you left off (with a little review if it’s been a while).

Will I Continue Planning This Way?

Our first month or so after diagnosis had me questioning everything. And I do mean everything. One of the questions I often asked myself was, “Was all that planning worth it?” I know it’s a lot of work up front every year. I know I always have to readjust my weeks when stuff happens. I don’t think I’ve ever planned a full year and then had that year go exactly as planned.

However, having those bare minimums set and the library lists sorted out saved my hide this year. I know there’s no way I could have kept up with it if I didn’t already have the plans set. I was never scrambling to find things to do when it was a good day, and I had plenty of ideas for easy things on the bad days.

Are You Homeschooling a Child With a Chronic Illness?

If you made it to this blog because you googled homeschooling with a chronic illness, there are a few things I want you to know:

  1. You can do this.
  2. Please make sure you have a local or online support group to help you cope, whether the diagnosis is yours or for a child you care for. Both scenarios are difficult and having other people who understand what you’re going through can be incredibly helpful.
  3. If you set your bare minimums, and don’t try to do too much, you will get more bang for your buck.
  4. If you keep a weekly review of the things you learned, studied, watched, or read that week, you’ll be able to see progress even when it feels like you’ve done nothing.

If you want to know more about my planning style and how to create a plan that fits your family, check out Blueprint Homeschooling: How to Plan a Year of Home Education That Fits the Reality of Your Life. I wrote it long before this diagnosis, but I feel like the methods in it have still helped me make it through the last four months.

If you’ve been homeschooling a child with a chronic illness, or you have a chronic illness yourself, I’d love to know some of the tips or tricks you’ve discovered. Please leave a comment!

Disclaimer: some of the links in this post are affiliate links. If you click on them and purchase something there, I will receive a small percentage of sales. This helps me continue writing this blog. Thank you!

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