My biggest worry when I first considered homeschooling my child with special needs was: I’m not an expert. I’m not an expert in special education. I’m not an expert in curriculum design. I’m not an expert in adaptive communication technology. We’re trained to think that “experts” have all the answers. Was I depriving my daughter of that by pulling her out of school?
But I am an expert on my child. I am an expert on her needs and her potential. I am an expert on the nonverbal cues that tell me when she’s had enough or can keep going. The things I was stressed out about turned out to be some of the easiest hurdles to clear. We’ve had some struggles, but they weren’t the ones I expected when we started our journey.
There are a lot of advantages to homeschooling children with special needs. You can schedule the day however you want, paint the classroom their favorite color, and go for impromptu nature walks when they get restless or overwhelmed. Your child benefits from one-on-one attention, and you benefit from the convenience of planning lessons around therapy, doctor appointments, and other events. Best of all, you don’t have to wait at home or work wondering if they’re OK and how their day is going.
However, there are some disadvantages, too.
When you homeschool a typically developing child, you can measure their progress relative to their peers. It’s reassuring to know that your son is reading the same books as the kid down the street or doing times tables just as well as your friend’s child who goes to public school. That’s reassurance we’ll never have with our middle child. Like many parents of kids with physical and intellectual disabilities, we ripped up the typical “milestone” charts a long time ago. The path we’re on doesn’t have a map, so it’s impossible to know if we’re ahead of or behind where she’d be if we had kept her in public school.
What I do know is that she’s happy and healthy. She’s learning and growing. We gave up the structured environment of a formal classroom, a full-time school nurse, art and music teachers, and daily socialization opportunities. But what we gained has been more than worth it. Homeschooling might not be right for everyone, but for us the pros have far outweighed the cons – so much that we now homeschool all three of our children. These are some of the things we’ve learned along the way.
Pros of Homeschooling Children with Special Needs
Developing your own curriculum helps you turn everyday moments into lessons. Going to the eye doctor? Discuss the anatomy of the eye while you're in the waiting room or read aloud from a picture book so that it's not lost time. Here are some other benefits to bringing learning home.
You can focus on strengths.
Homeschooling allows you to build up your child's strengths. (Plus, you get to be there for every win!) Instead of focusing on weaknesses, use activities and skills they know and love to create confidence. That makes it easier to tackle more difficult skills and subjects.
Your child will have decreased anxiety.
In general, homeschooled children with special needs are less anxious, thanks to familiar surroundings and a quieter environment. Removing the pressure of performing in a school setting may decrease the number and intensity of meltdowns. Plus, you don't have the added stress of public scrutiny during bad moments.
The opportunity for quality social opportunities.
Children who study at home don't have a chance to socialize daily in school. However, you can join local communities that hold events where they make friends on their own terms. Your children won't be around other kids every day for recess, but the relationships they develop will be more meaningful and can last for many years.
Cons of Homeschooling Children with Special Needs
There are downsides to homeschooling children with special needs. Here are a few things to consider before making your final decision.
A lack of daily structure.
No matter how hard you try, you can't recreate the level of predictability a formal school maintains. Many children with special needs thrive on a high level of structure, so this is a serious consideration. Some kids might benefit from the daily routines that public schools offer. This is a tradeoff that only you can weigh.
Limited outside resources.
Professionals that assess your children are working off a baseline of other kids that attend traditional schools. Educators and therapists help children work out school-based social and academic hurdles. In fact, some diagnoses rely on assessment of school performance and socialization, so a homeschool environment confounds them. See the IEP section below for ideas on how to overcome this bias.
When you act as a teacher, parent, and therapist every day, it takes a toll. Not everyone is temperamentally suited to undertake homeschooling. Know your strengths and pace yourself. If possible, try to enjoy one or two kid-free outside activities to maintain your energy and sanity. Exhaustion doesn't just come from exertion. Sometimes, a little “you” time can do wonders to give you a fresh perspective.
Focus on Things You Can Fix
When you consider the things you give up by with homeschooling, focus on ways to address the gap at home. For example, you don't have a school nurse handy in a home environment, but an online CPR certification class can help you deal with emergencies confidently. You may not have access to onsite speech therapists or special education assistants. However, you might be able to get speech, occupational, or physical therapy through your school district, state education department, or health insurance. In some cases, providers will come to your home to work with your child.
School buildings are designed for teaching and learning and are legally required to have accessible features. However, you might be able to modify your home to create a learning environment that is inspiring and free of distractions.
Turning a Con into a Pro
Children with special needs often like to move around and resist sitting still. However, this doesn't have to be a con. Here are some tips from the Texas Home School Association on how to use this tendency to your child's advantage.
Practice flashcards while walking.
Invent choreographed movements that match your child’s favorite educational songs.
Practice storytelling and ask your favorite student to fill in the gaps during walks. You can even let them choose a topic and take turns contributing to an impromptu story to inspire creativity.
Use washable window markers to have your child write their reading words on a window while standing. Large blackboards serve the same purpose.
Draw a hopscotch grid your kids can stand in and then jump out of to practice spelling words or simple math problems.
Graph math problems on the sidewalk with chalk or play hangman with spelling words in the driveway.
Many of these activities work for all children, and this gives you an opportunity to include siblings and friends.
Creating an IEP Helps You Communicate Student Progress
An Individual Education Plan (IEP) helps you track and communicate academic progress to professionals. IEP generation tools are available online to help you track your child’s progress over time. Here are some ways it can help you evaluate the progress of your children with special needs:
Create history with a yearly IEP.
Use the previous year's IEP to create a baseline for your child.
Track both academic and non-academic goals for a more complete development strategy.
No one knows your child like you do, so you always have an advantage over teachers who see them a few hours a day in a crowd of other students. Homeschooling your child with special needs can help them achieve their academic goals with a minimum amount of anxiety and frustration. But homeschooling isn't for everyone, and you should take as much time as you need to make the decision.
If you decide to forge ahead, remember that there are no absolutes and you don’t have to invent the wheel. There are local and online communities of homeschoolers who are happy to share their tips and insights. And if it doesn't work out, you can always move your child back into a regular school environment.
Jackie Nunes is from WonderMoms.org, a blog for parents of kids with intellectual disabilities. She's a former pediatric nurse who now homeschools her three kids, including a daughter with special needs.