Of the 19,106 Australian children currently being homeschooled, according to state education department figures, a growing number of them are there because of mental health reasons.

That was the motivator for mother-of-three Joy Ireland in South Australia’s south east.

Despite only ever completing one term of year 8, the 34-year-old considers herself a “successful high school dropout” with the confidence to do anything — including homeschooling her children.

Things have not always been easy for her family, but Ms Ireland is determined to give her children the best chance in life so they, and their own children, can have it a little bit easier.

And when her six-year-old daughter started having traumatic episodes earlier in the year, Ms Ireland decided to teach her at home.

Homeschooling the only option left

COVID-19 started it all, but for Ms Ireland homeschooling was never the plan. Neither was needing to find schools for three children midway through 2018 on a part-time wage.

Ms Ireland was living with her partner and six-year-old daughter Layla when her two older children, Selina, 12, and Jack, 14, came back into her care unexpectedly.

A woman in a blue t-shirt smiles for a photo on her porch, a green hedge behind her.
Joy Ireland describes herself as successful high-school dropout, having left school in year 8.(ABC South East SA: Bec Whetham)

The six schools on her wish list for her children were all full or expensive private schools.

So she hesitantly enrolled them into a different school, which went OK until her youngest witnessed a violent event in the classroom that Ms Ireland had no knowledge of until months later.

Layla started having serious night terrors as a result and the trauma extended to school drop-offs, which became an event that could take half an hour.

Without knowing what was causing the distress, the family persevered with school.

“[She] had a brilliant teacher for year 1 … but the damage had been done,” Ms Ireland said.

A young girl smiles for a photo with a black cat clutched in her arms.
Ms Ireland didn’t know about the event that sparked Layla’s trauma until months after.(ABC South East SA: Bec Whetham)

This is a common story that Karen Chegwidden hears as the president of Australia’s Home Education Association.

“One of the things that we hear the most is that parents say: ‘My child has a mental health problem’, and sometimes that’s trauma-based, and sometimes it’s about bullying in the schools,” she said.

“For kids who have a background of trauma, being at home can be really, really healing.

‘Go with the flow’

Ms Ireland realised that Layla could not read, but after five weeks at home she was reading.

Then her attention turned to her teenage son, Jack. She was worried about the older children he was hanging around with during school time.

A teenage boy in a headset stands at two computer screens playing video games in a dark room.
Packing a day’s study into a few hours means more time for video games for Jack.(ABC South East SA: Bec Whetham)

As a “go-with-the-flow” type kid, he agreed to his mum’s homeschool proposition and completed five of his seven subjects in half a year.

However, her other daughter Selina remains unsold on the idea and thinks the family is a bit “weird” for homeschooling.

A 12-year-old girl pouts with sass in front of a hedge, her right hand on her hip.
Twelve-year-old Selina is still at school.(ABC South East SA: Bec Whetham)

Yet, social interaction has not come without hardship.

Ms Ireland says Selina has experienced the same anxiety deeply felt by many girls her age.

“She’s just got so many people to associate with, so many influences that you have no control over,” Ms Ireland said.

Is homeschooling a good remedy for anxious kids?

Educational psychology lecturer from Monash University Emily Berger said school could have one of two effects on children experiencing trauma.

“Schools can quite often be more chaotic or unpredictable places for kids [which] can be really challenging for kids who have experienced trauma,” Dr Berger said.

“Or it can actually be the only stable place … every school is different and every circumstance is different.”

Regardless of where the triggers were for a child’s trauma, Dr Berger said avoidance could be just as triggering.

With the right psychological support of course — something she said was lacking in a lot of schools.

A child's hands flicks through colourful school binders in a cupboard.
Layla learnt to read out of her motivation to play and understand the computer game The Sims.(ABC South East SA: Bec Whetham)

“The bottom line is that schools need better resourcing and better training to deal with these kind of situations when they rise,” Dr Berger said.

When it comes to homeschooling a traumatised child, Dr Berger said there were a few essentials for equipping the child for their future such as a “new routine and a new normal”.

A woman in a blue t-shirt stands on the steps of a white concrete home with a teenager girl and young girl sitting at her feet.
Joy Ireland hopes her grandchildren will have it easier than her children do.(ABC South East SA: Bec Whetham)

Part of that school environment is social interaction and connectedness — another resilience builder.

“To have a place where you’re valued and can experiment and develop a sense of agency in yourself,” Dr Berger said.

Where does the socialising happen?

With minimal extended family, Ms Ireland says the children’s social circle is small.

“We do a lot of going to parks and playing with random strangers,” she said.

A young girl hold onto a metal frame as she jumps from a small trampoline on a front lawn.
Layla has learnt to play with other children in the homeschool community and at local parks and libraries.(ABC South East SA: Bec Whetham)

Mixing with the other 75 homeschooling families in their area also helps.

Ms Ireland says she has met some “really awesome” people, including a 17-year-old who made her feel welcome at their first homeschooling meet-up.

“You want to be the parent of that child who can welcome someone new to the group who’s 20 years older … and has very little in common with [them],” Ms Ireland said.

Teaching much more than an ‘education’

While it has been “smooth sailing” most of the time, Ms Ireland knows things are often unlikely to go to plan.

“Because we’ve had exposure to single-parent life, domestic violence, mental health issues, I’m kind of a ‘don’t-sweat-the-small-stuff’ person,” Ms Ireland said.

“The pressure we put on ourselves to make sure we’ve done [everything] for our kids … is astronomical.

Washed dishes dry on a kitchen sink surrounded by  appliances in a wooden kitchen unit.
Ms Ireland says homeschooling means leaving the washing and dishes at times.(ABC South East SA: Bec Whetham)

When it comes to her children’s future, she believes they will be in just as good a position as if they had continued their education at school.

She wants other parents in a similar situation to have the confidence to consider homeschooling in their own families.

“You got them to school age without someone telling you how to do it,” Ms Ireland said.

An assortment of make up. brushes and a standing light sit on a desk in a small room.
Ms Ireland is not bothered that Layla expects to be at the centre of her mother’s attention.(ABC South East SA: Bec Whetham)

And when it does get hard, she says, ask for help.

“[But] you don’t have to. The materials are there somewhere for you to find for them to be able to do it themselves.”

Her other concern is her daughter Layla believing she is the centre of her mum’s attention.

But Ms Ireland says there are worse things.