Home School

The Pandemic Taught Me How My Child Really Learns

He does better at the kitchen table than in a classroom.

by Nell Freudenberger

Before the pandemic, we were mostly at peace with the way our child learns. His learning differences were, after all, very much bound up with the person he is. His dad and I often said that we couldn’t imagine Nick without the little pause before he answers a question, or the way that he often forgets what he’s supposed to be doing, any more than we could imagine him telling a boring story or drawing a triangle-roofed house with a curlicue of smoke coming out the chimney.

If we wanted to come into his room and find his wall covered with Post-Its, each decorated with a fantastically expressive cartoon monster, if we wanted him to burst out with monologues in surprisingly accurate foreign accents, if we wanted the kid who disrupted a family argument by cracking us all up, then we had to take the struggles with school along with it.

Until this past spring, I took him to see a reading specialist and an occupational therapist, and practiced exercises they suggested at home, but Nick was only in second grade, and the amount of extracurricular work we did was pretty minimal. I’m a writer, and after I dropped Nick off in the morning, I came home to a quiet house to work. By the time he needed to be picked up, I was usually happy to switch off that part of my brain and do the more practical work of child-raising. It felt like a good enough balance, most days.

When the pandemic began, I started getting up before 5 in the morning to work on the book I was writing. It was the schedule I kept when I first started writing and had to be in an office by 9. I knew all to well that it wasn’t sustainable, but I couldn’t imagine that it would be necessary for more than a few weeks. My husband was starting a new job remotely, and it was obvious to both of us that I would be the one supervising the kids’ learning at home — especially Nick’s because he’s our younger child and because his distractibility function made it unlikely he’d be able to manage remote school on his own. Because I’d never supervised Nick’s schoolwork day-to-day, I had no idea what the challenges would be or what I would learn about him in the process.

Nick had his first neuropsychological exam at 4 because he wasn’t responding to the teacher’s instructions. Sometimes, when you called his name, he didn’t answer. Things that were obvious to most children — for example, if you’re making a necklace out of beads, it’s a good idea to put the beads right in front of you — were not obvious to him. The learning specialists who recommended the expensive six-hour exam also told us that Nick was almost certainly going to need occupational therapy, physical therapy, and speech therapy — a deluxe spa package of contemporary “learning services.”

The following year, Nick’s first grade teacher, a 35-year veteran of the school, told us that she’d “tried everything” with Nick, but couldn’t seem to reach him. His dad and I made a joke about how we couldn’t reach him either — especially when it was time to brush his teeth or clean his room — but it was clear that the school thought Nick’s problems warranted more attention.

When Nick turned 7, we went back to the neuropsychologist, a warm, balding man with a Greek surname who told Nick to call him Dr. P and who won him over immediately by promising, as a prize for the monotonous hours of testing, a Greek coin that he referred to as a “golden drachma.” Nick went gamely into a disconcertingly bare, gray office (to minimize distractions, Dr. P explained) chatting about Hercules and the Nemean Lion.

“Unfortunately,” Dr. P said, “schools just aren’t made for every kid.”

Six hours and one golden drachma later, we learned that Nick had inattentive type ADD, a dreamier version of the more common ADHD, as well as a processing speed delay. Dr. P reassured us that these difficulties were unlikely to affect Nick as an adult; he just wouldn’t choose a career that depended upon quickness of speech or action — he wasn’t going to be an EMT or an auctioneer. Whatever stock one puts in IQ tests, Nick scored overall in the 95th percentile. “Unfortunately,” Dr. P said, “schools just aren’t made for every kid.”

Dr. P believed that Nick should continue in his current school, and so I went in to talk to an administrator about how we might better support him. I said that Nick’s first-grade teacher, with all her years of experience, must have seen other children who presented like Nick. The administrator nodded. “We’ve had other kids like Nick here,” she said casually. Then she paused and added, “Not many.” Then she laughed. The laugh felt as if she had just kicked me in the stomach with one of her wooden-soled clog booties. Not many.

There are not many children at our school like your child because we specialize in children who can read in first grade, who can do simple math in their heads, who know that the place for the jar of beads is right in front of them on the table. At first, I thought the question was whether my son would fit in at the school that had been so welcoming to our daughter. But it turned out the question was really whether the school was, or could ever be, good for Nick — whether he could learn at a place where his marvelous mind was going to be seen as a problem.

By April, I admitted to myself that I was going to be Nick’s helper for longer than a few days. We repurposed four drawers in the kitchen, labeling them: To Do, Finished Work, Supplies, and Paper. We used an old wooden toddler chair, bright red, which raised Nick to an appropriate level to write and use the iPad on the kitchen table. He had quickly gotten used to Zoom playdates, where he never ran out of things to say to his friends. He was equally happy doing the same thing without friends, amusing himself in his room for hours with Legos, Playmobil figures representing his beloved Greek gods, or stuffed animals.

Thanks to his reading specialist, he was also reading a great deal for pleasure on his own; he preferred comics and graphic novels, where the number of words per page wasn’t overwhelming. I loved coming into his room and finding him sprawled on his stomach reading, and I loved hearing him retell long sections of dialogue from his favorite books and movies, doing different voices for the different characters. It seemed as if there was always a collection of stories running in a loop in his head; he was never bored.

Where it became difficult was where it had always been difficult, when Nick had to do something that was hard for him or something he didn’t enjoy. Before COVID, we’d focused on Nick’s reading, but when I started working with him at home, I quickly realized that math was the bigger problem. Nick didn’t have what teachers call “number sense,” and even adding numbers under 10 took much longer than it should. I couldn’t in fact imagine how Nick would’ve completed most of the problems without someone as deeply invested as I was sitting next to him, and I started to understand all the crumpled, barely-begun worksheets that had come home in his backpack for years.

A friend with a dyslexic child mentioned that her son would grow up to do something that “didn’t have to do with words”; another told me that her child was especially adept with technology and coding. Some of this was the natural defensiveness of parents whose children struggled, but some of it was true; if your problem was in one area, your brain might excel in another. Nick’s problems with speed and attention, on the other hand, applied to every subject.

“At home, we put real peanut butter on the sandwiches, and at home, I can take as long as I want to finish.”

What wasn’t difficult for Nick was composing sentences in his head. Sometimes the teachers would give a creative writing assignment, and one of Nick’s accommodations was to use dictation for longer pieces of writing. Over the course of the year, he wrote a story about a duck with braces who refused to go to the vet, a snowman who hitchhiked to Florida, and some tiny people named Thizzy Waza and Bobby Jo who were sucked by a vacuum onto a green cloud and attacked by fanged elves called Whizzies.

After months of work, Nick researched and wrote a nonfiction report on bats with five sections, each with a “hook” to get the reader interested. (“Not all mammals have nipples on their stomachs — bats have nipples in their wingpits!”) In an online math class, an angelically patient teacher waited for him to solve a problem incorrectly, realize his mistake, and redo it. When she congratulated him in front of the class, Nick turned to me with wide eyes, bouncing in his seat with excitement.

One day, apropos of nothing, Nick said that he liked learning at home more than learning at school. When I asked why, he said, “At home, we put real peanut butter on the sandwiches, and at home, I can take as long as I want to finish.”

I remembered all the times I’d heard stay-at-home parents say that they weighed the importance of their former job against the importance of their child, and the job always came up short. In the past that had almost always sounded to me like an excuse. I felt like a better parent because I was able to do my work; without an intellectual outlet for myself, I couldn’t be engaged or playful during my time with them. But now I thought of Dr. P saying that schools weren’t designed for kids like Nick. I thought of the difference between Nick’s frustration when he was working under time pressure at school, and the genuine pleasure he took in his academic subjects when he was allowed to follow the naturally circuitous pathways of his own thoughts.

When his reading specialist saw all the progress we were making at home, she asked me, “Would you ever consider home-schooling him?” My husband and I joked about it — God forbid — but secretly, I turned it over in my mind. I am, after all, a novelist. No one is going to die if I don’t show up at work; no great injustice is going to go unaddressed. I would have all the time in the world to support a small person whom I believed in more and more, the more time I spent with his unusual brain.

We worked through the summer, a little math practice, and a few sentences of dictation almost every day. When Nick asked why he had to work in the summer, I told him that all kids did — a lie he was just young enough to believe. After a brief hope that the kids would be back at school for third grade, we started it all again remotely in September. This time though, things went south. The 4:45 wake-ups were killing me, and I often stared at a blank screen, or wrote and rewrote the same sentence for an hour.

I was less patient with Nick during the day than I had been in the spring. I cried when he was 10 minutes late to Zoom math because we’d both forgotten to set a timer. I cried when we had both (once again) forgotten the individual login instructions for Peardeck, or Reflex, or Dreambox, or Padlet. One day I went downstairs to the basement, my husband’s office, to hide my frustration from Nick. “I don’t know why I’m crying,” I said. My husband turned off his video and gave me a hug; it wasn’t a mystery to him. “You’re tired,” he said.

Like many of our hastily constructed pandemic routines, home-school wasn’t going to continue once we had other options.

I may be the one making excuses when I say that as soon as school finally opened, I knew Nick had to go back. He’s a naturally social kid who was eager to see his friends in person, even if he had to eat soy butter to do it. His school had given him a wonderful community — one that matter to us as much as, or more than, his academic progress.

And for better or worse, he has a mom who isn’t willing to give up her work to give him the learning environment that might be ideal for him. Like 6 p.m. family dinners and lazy Saturday mornings, home-school for Nick was one of the pandemic’s silver linings, allowing me to understand him better than I ever had before. But like many of our hastily constructed pandemic routines, it wasn’t going to continue once we had other options.

On the day that Nick went back, I went downstairs in the middle of the morning for my second cup of coffee (rather than the three I’d become accustomed to having before 8 a.m.); the sight of his red chair at the table made me suddenly and intensely nostalgic. I wasn’t tired, and I was getting more done every day that I remembered being possible. I felt like myself again, and so I was surprised to discover how much I missed him and the makeshift kitchen classroom we’d created for six months, where Thizzy Waza and Bobby Jo escape the Whizzies on a dead leaf pulled by three blue balloons.