The Ultimate Guide to Homeschooling Special Needs
Sometimes, the very reason we start homeschooling is that our child has special needs. In any public school, special needs units make every possible promise to attend to your child’s every need, whether they are physically disabled or have some form of autism. All manner of forms are filled out, conferences held, and many other steps taken, all in an attempt to best serve your child, according to the law.
The truth is, however, that you are the one that knows your child best, along with all their strengths, weaknesses, and needs. Therefore you are the one best qualified to teach your child. And you don’t have to fill out a single form unless it somehow works to the benefit of your child and his or her education.
Still, none of that changes the fact that undertaking the homeschooling of a special-needs child seems daunting and sometimes even overwhelming if it’s your first year. For those who have already homeschooled a special-needs child, there are sure to be days when you feel like you’re failing your child and yourself as well. The good news is, you’re not alone!
With this guide, we hope to encourage those who have started to think they might not be cut out for this, as well as offering advice and encouragement to those who are heading into their first year of homeschooling. The bottom line is, you can do this.
What Constitutes “Special-Needs”?
In order to qualify for special-needs services in public schools, several criteria must be met. But the most important one is a diagnosis that fits their definition. Here are a few of them:
- Bipolar Disorder
- Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD)
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
- Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
- Social Coping Inability
- Asperger’s Syndrome
- PDD-NOS (Pervasive Developmental Disorder, Not Otherwise Specified)
- Intellectual Disability/Mental Retardation (a diagnosis that means the child’s IQ is less than 70)
- Traumatic or Acquired Brain Injury
- Hearing, Speech, or Visual Impairment
- Orthopedic Impairment
- Other Health Impairments (OHI) which can include ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder), ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), epilepsy, diabetes, asthma, or food allergies
This list of qualifying diagnoses certainly is not extensive, but it gives you an idea of how nearly impossible it is for the public-school to cater to the individualized needs of every special-needs student in their classes.
These classes also have teacher’s aides and assistants though not nearly as many as they should have, based on the IEP’s (Individualized Education Plans) for those special-needs children. In fact, schools are failing at an increasing rate when it comes to disabled children and, at some point, your child will certainly get caught in that downward spiral.
The problem is that many diagnoses are up for debate, especially when they disappear shortly after beginning to homeschool. Mental retardation, for example, could simply be the label placed on a slow learner because they don’t fit the agenda laid out in mass government schooling. Since some children don’t really start to “blossom”, from an academic standpoint, until they are quite a bit older, they don’t fit the “norm” for the public-school system. Even though they grow and become average, and sometimes above-average students over time in homeschooling, in public school they are instead stuck with a label they’ll wear for the rest of their lives.
ADD and ADHD are very similar in their misdiagnoses, in that children who are a bit more rambunctious than their peers are not compatible with the government school programs. Still, when homeschooled and allowed to access measures that work out their extra energy, they can be exceptional students who often go on to do great things with their lives! When you consider children with anxiety and depression, it is often found that the very root of their disorders is caused by, or worsened by, the public school system.
The term “special-needs” is very broad. The best way to serve your child’s particular needs is to research and stay up to date on his or her specific condition. PTSD will require a different approach than autism, for example, and learning about situations that don’t pertain to your child will be of no use to you. You should also remember that you are not the only parent who has a child with this condition. Take advantage of the wealth of resources you can find that have already been written on the struggles you might be going through.
Gifted Children Can Be Considered “Special-Needs” Too
It isn’t entirely uncommon to consider a particularly gifted child a “special-needs” child. Of course, public school has never acknowledged this idea, but it can make a huge difference in your child’s academics as well as their life in general.
For a child that is extremely intellectual and very gifted in learning, public school is like a dead weight on them. They learn so quickly that they are often considered obstinate, as they will always finish lessons, readings, and problems faster than the rest of the class. If they insist that they already know what is being taught, they will be viewed as prideful or sarcastic. In reality, they just seem to absorb knowledge like a sponge and mass-schooling cannot serve those needs. It’s never the child’s fault in cases like these!
To homeschool the gifted and talented learner, you may find yourself struggling to keep up! If this happens, you can always allow your child to have “free time” or “study time” in which they are allowed to embark on knowledge-quests of their own, returning a written or oral report on what they have learned. You could also enroll them in music lessons, art classes, or local theatre, which are great ways to engage the mind of the gifted child. During those times, you can take a breather for yourself, or work on future lesson plans to stay ahead.
As with other forms of special-needs homeschooling, you can always connect with likeminded parents online, in social media groups or pages, or with a local co-op or homeschooling group. It may take some searching, but when you finally find something that works not only for your child but also your entire family, you’ll find that it was very worth the effort.
There Are Lots of Advantages
The advantages both you and your child will reap are monumental in comparison with a public-school education. Even though it takes a bit of planning, and a little more of your day, it’s worth every single minute to know that your child is getting exactly what they need for the specific special needs that they have. Let’s consider some of those advantages now.
You Know Your Child Best
It’s true that special needs teachers have Master’s Degrees in the field of endeavor but, the fact is, they don’t have a degree on your child. Your own intimate knowledge of your child and the real-world knowledge that comes from caring for them all of their lives means that you can meet their every need, educationally or otherwise. Homeschooling them for yourself gives you the ability to build on their strengths, strengthen their weaknesses, and teach them new things that will be beneficial to the lives you know they will lead. Even better, it helps to strengthen the bond you already have with them, creating a lifelong relationship that only grows stronger with time.
You Can Offer One-on-One Instruction
In public school, the special needs child starts off with an IEP (Individualized Education Plan) that outlines everything they need for complete academic success. This plan is packed with lots of information including a list of “helps” that are put in place to ensure that your child receives the best possible education. According to the law, these are all to be done in what is known as the LRE (Least Restrictive Environment). Basically, that means that your special needs child should be given every opportunity to be just as “normal” as the next kid.
The problem is, for every special-needs class there is usually only one teacher and, maybe, one aid or assistant. There’s also the fact that not every school even has a special education unit, so the ones that do exist are often overcrowded. For certain special needs, this fact alone can make their days much worse, due to noise and activity levels. Many autistic children, for example, do not handle these well and the behavior that ensues (which is actually the result of sensory overload) is often cited as belligerence and punishment follows as a result.
But the problem isn’t just with autistic children. Take those with anxiety or PTSD for example. These children, when faced with a crippling situation, are not always able to verbalize their inner shut-down. Since they are not taking part in classroom activities, they are very often sent to special education units for the behaviorally disabled. Since these children were never “behaviorally challenged” to start with, they do often become that way, simply because that is the environment into which they are thrown, simply for being misunderstood.
Getting the opportunity TRULY to give your special-needs child the one-on-one instruction they need can bring massive success, not only academically, but behaviorally and socially as well. You might find your quiet, withdrawn child begins to take an interest in things again. Your fidgety child, with a few additional exercise breaks during the day, might surpass anything they were able to do in public school. The sky's the limit when you work with your child on their level, especially when they have special needs. When you think about it, this is exactly what the public school admits is needed, and what they attempt to do.
You Can Reevaluate Your Needs Often
The ability to reevaluate needs, goals, and priorities for your child’s education is a huge benefit for every homeschooling family. For the special-needs family, however, it can be one of the greatest aspects of home education. For instance, if you choose a curriculum or other resource because it seems like it’s simply perfect for your child, but then you quickly realize it’s not, there’s absolutely no reason to continue with it. You have the option to drop anything that isn’t working and try again with the next best curriculum or resource. Finding what works is crucial to your child’s success in academics, and possibly, in life.
You Can Have a Flexible Schedule
If there’s anything a special-needs parent knows, it is the scheduling havoc of trying to get to appointments throughout the school year. Doctors, Dentists, Therapists, Psychologists, and alternate therapy appointments are always excused through the school, but they leave a massive gap in your child’s academics. Very often, due to overcrowded, overworked teachers and aids, homework is often never caught up, leaving them to flounder with new information when it comes. When you pair this with the implications that came as a result of the No Child Left Behind Act, you get children in upper elementary and middle school levels who have no foundation in their education.
Flexibility means that you can rework your homeschooling schedule around, and sometimes even through, your appointment schedule. The beauty of homeschooling is that it gives you the freedom to allow your child to learn at home, on the go, in the grocery store, or at the doctor’s office. Sometimes, a trip to one of their appointments can even be a learning experience that can be counted as homeschool, so it’s a major win all the way around.
When attention spans are hard to work with, flexibility can mean the difference between finishing your school day and having a complete meltdown. For the child that has tons of energy and is a kinesthetic learner, flexibility means you can do your homework on a trampoline, or while turning flips. This is a great way to quiz your child on what they’ve learned so far and you can count the answers towards a test grade. It’s little flexible moments like this that can truly turn the tide in a child’s education.
Your Child Will Be Safer
There are few children as prone to being bullied as special-needs children. Many of these children are unable to report the offense, and sometimes, when they do, the problem is never truly rectified. We’ve all seen reports on the news of children who have even been severely abused physically and are not able to verbalize what happened. This is a parent’s worst fear come true, and one that, as a homeschooler, you don’t have to worry about.
On the other hand, your child might be medically fragile and require certain pieces of special equipment to meet their needs. Others might have life-threatening allergies. In cases like these, it’s just safer to keep them at home where you know these situations can be properly monitored. In your own home, you can keep medical equipment properly sanitized and protected, you can create healthy meals that are completely safe and untainted, and you can make sure they get what they need when they need it.
Preparing Your Child’s Meals
This is a benefit that is often overlooked but one that can mean so very much. Of course, all children can be picky eaters at times, but special-needs children can be picky eaters all the time. Nutrition is vitally important to everyone, but especially to growing children who have special medical conditions. In public schools, these children can, and often do, refuse to eat the food they are offered there. Some teachers will let you know about this, but others won’t. In the homeschool environment, you’re able to offer healthy meals that you know your child will like, and you can easily see whether they eat it.
For those with severe food allergies, sending your child to public school can be a frightening experience. It’s always possible that accidents will happen or that tainted food will be “traded” in the lunchroom. This is never a worry when you homeschool your child, where you can pay close attention to everything they eat.
Disadvantages to Special Needs Homeschooling
There’s a good side and a bad side to everything. Of course, you’ll hear about many disadvantages to homeschooling your special-needs child that either won’t apply or simply don’t exist. The parent who is well-researched in what they hope to accomplish for their child is forewarned and prepared. Still, there are some things that can sneak up on you. It’s best to know what they are ahead of time so that you can be ready for them.
Not Taking Care of Yourself
In public schools, different people interact with your child throughout the day. The teacher, teacher’s assistants, counselors, therapists, and regular education teachers, to name a few. When you’re homeschooling your child, you are often wearing many of those hats all by yourself. In the perfect scenario, you should have some support people, even if it’s just your husband, to give you some time to yourself. Doing everything yourself can physically and mentally exhaust you. If, for some reason, you’re unable to get regular respite, then at least take some time where you and your child can just spend time without any of the regular, stressful endeavors of the day. You’ll be surprised how much this can help.
Special needs classes in public schools can be much more structured than your home life, and this can sometimes be a disadvantage, especially for autistic children. This is particularly the case if you have more than one special-needs child, if you work from home, or if you are a single parent. However, it might surprise you to find that some children do very well with the occasional hiatus.
Be Sure To Keep Good Records
Homeschooling a special needs child can be taxing for many reasons. When you add in the necessity of record-keeping, it can seem even harder. But the truth is, it’s easier than you think. All you need to do is take the time to plan things through so that you know exactly what you need. Do your research and make sure you know exactly what is required through your state and local homeschooling laws and record everything necessary to remain compliant.
In addition to things like attendance, grades, progress reports, and transcripts, the homeschool parent may need to consider many extra items as well. Some might require baseline reports on behavioral and cognitive progress. Diagnostic reports from doctors and therapists as well as accommodations, adapted curriculum, and necessary modifications are also important. Your child might also require assistive technology and individualized goal-keeping records.
The good news is that many of these can be easily tracked through the Individualized Education Plan, or IEP. This one document can help track all of these key pieces of information and help you if you ever find yourself having to advocate for your child’s needs outside of the homeschool environment. You can find many different IEP templates through a simple Google search or you can create one yourself.
With regard to progress reports, it’s important to remember that progress doesn’t happen all at once. Spacing out your progress reports to nine or twelve months can give you a greater reach for the learning curve. At the same time, you’ll also easily see gaps, wins, and losses that might be missed if the window for evaluations is too small.
One of the most important things you can remember when recording progress is that you should only base the assessment on your child’s forward momentum, not on a comparison against a same-age peer, or an average based on another child’s progress. Keeping things in perspective is a much better route with much better results.
How To Choose the Right Curriculum
Choosing a curriculum to match your child’s needs can be tricky. Finding something in a pre-packaged set is nearly impossible. Often, piecing together your own curriculum is the best option, and you can start by making sure you’re covering all the necessary courses under your state’s legal requirements if any. Make this your first endeavor when searching for the right curriculum, as it is required by law.
Next, you’ll want to make sure you choose materials that meet your child’s specific needs, fit their learning style, and your teaching style, and can easily be worked into your homeschool day. At this juncture, it’s important to remember that just because your child has a love for computers or devices, that doesn’t mean a computer-based program or subject will be the best option.
If you want to focus on your child’s comprehension of the material you teach, it is vitally important that you’re teaching at their cognitive level and not just their age level. For this reason, be sure to get some baseline test scores or pretests to give you an idea of where your child is, academically speaking, especially if you are pulling them out of public school.
Some Special-Needs Teaching Tips
Not all of these tips will work with all special-needs children, so feel free to skip over the ones you know are not suited for your own child. If you’re not sure, it wouldn’t hurt to try them out to see how they work for your situation. You might be pleasantly surprised!
Flashcards can be an excellent way to teach information, even while in motion. If you have a fidgety child or one that enjoys some kind of constant movement, flashcards can be a big win in many subjects. You can purchase these from a variety of locations, especially online, or you can create your own flashcard sets based on your child’s needs.
Creating “dance moves” to go along with education songs or facts can be a great way to keep your child happy, moving, and learning.
Story walks can be a great way to learn or practice speech. One of you can think up a few things that should be in the story, and the other can actually tell the story. You can also use this time for verbal quizzing, or to have your child retell you a story you read or learned earlier.
Adding a chalkboard to your space can give your child a great sensory outlet while also allowing them to write or draw while standing.
Hopscotch spelling is a wonderful way to allow your child to jump-spell their spelling words, taking care of any extra energy as well as homework, all at the same time.
Audiobooks can be loaded onto a variety of devices that easily travel along with your child. With headphones or earbuds, they can listen to stories, educational songs, or other recordings that will be a great benefit and time saver, especially when appointments take most of your day.
Additional Special-Needs Homeschooling Tips
Remember, there’s no need to “go it alone” when it comes to homeschooling your child. In the technological age in which we live, a simple Google search will reveal tips, resources, and support groups that can all be utilized to give you a better grip on homeschooling. Attending a Great Homeschool Convention in your location is another great way to learn, find curriculum and resources, and connect with like-minded homeschoolers who share your ideas and vision. In fact, these conventions are a literal “one-stop-shop” for all your homeschooling needs.
It’s important to find out if your child requires assistive technology to make their learning experiences more profitable. You can find out by speaking with your child’s primary doctor or therapist and considering their recommendations. Assistive technology can include computerized talkers, special writing software, or any other form of personalized interventions that can make it easier for them to learn in their own way. Some assistive technology programs even offer free trials and you should always consider taking advantage of these to see if they might be right for your child.
Special-Needs Homeschool FAQs
Is testing required for homeschooling my special needs child?
You’ll need to do your own research regarding the specific local and state laws for the state in which you reside. Some states require testing, and others don’t. The level of testing, the frequency at which the results should be turned in, and more, rely on those laws. This is very important, so make sure you do your due diligence in learning what they are. We do not offer legal advice with regard to homeschooling.
Do I have to write an IEP for my special-needs child?
IEPs (Individualized Education Plans) are usually put in place in public schools for a variety of reasons. It can establish the “special need” of the child, address the best ways in which the child’s needs can be met, establish educations and social goals, and organize a list of helps that will make it easier to attain those goals. For some homeschooling families, an IEP can help, especially if there is more than one teacher, if there are therapists involved in the education process, or if it helps to maintain and track progress as the year/s so on. If you think that it will be of benefit to you and your family, it couldn’t hurt to give it a try. A simple web search will return many articles, blog posts, and tutorials for writing a great IEP, as well as templates you can use to help make sure you don’t overlook anything important.
Is there a link between music and academics for special needs children?
Music lessons are immensely important for all children, and the benefits are astounding. It’s important to remember that “music therapy” is often used for special needs students in public schools, where it’s available, and the results are always positive. Utilizing music while homeschooling your special needs child could prove extremely beneficial. If it turns out that it doesn’t help, as with other resources and options, it can be dropped.
Is there a specific curriculum that works best for special-needs students?
Due to the vast differences in the special needs of all children, there is no single answer to this question. Some curriculum choices cater more to specific learning styles than others do, so it’s always best to choose a curriculum on that basis. Just because one states that they might work best for children with vision or hearing difficulties, for instance, doesn’t mean that it will work for your child who struggles in those areas. Always assess your child thoroughly and never be afraid to drop any curriculum that doesn’t work for your child.
If you’re ready to start the special-needs homeschooling process, I applaud your decision! I hope that the ideas presented here will be of assistance to you as you embark on a journey that is sure to be beneficial to your entire family. Remember that hard days will come. They always do… even for those that homeschool children that don’t have special needs. It’s a natural part of life in general. But know this: you will get through it.
To reach out and take part in a great community of homeschoolers, be sure to consider attending a Great Homeschool Convention in your area. Read more about it by clicking HERE, and see why those who have already attended have only good things to say about the experience. Should you decide this is a good option for your family, you can even register, right there on the website. You can also take advantage of excellent hotel discounts, special events, and hundreds of workshops that will be of great benefit to you.
And be sure to visit our blog again for more great guides and articles on topics that matter most to you!