By Jackie N.
As parents of kids with special needs, we know how amazing they are. With the right encouragement and support, they can do almost anything any other children can do. The milestones might come more slowly and with a lot more effort, but when our children master a new skill, it’s so much sweeter because of how hard they had to work to get there.
Unfortunately, public schools aren’t always willing or able to give kids with disabilities the support and services they need to reach those milestones and be able to do the victory dances and give out high fives. In theory, the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) guarantees their right to a “free and appropriate education” in the least-restrictive environment possible. The reality is that it can be hard to get the attention and accommodations they need in a typical classroom. Dealing with public schools can feel like an uphill battle you’re fighting alone.
If your child has been “managed” instead of educated… If your child has been bullied, teased, or socially isolated by other students… If your child has struggled with meltdowns, acting out, trouble focusing, or any other challenges that affect the learning process… then homeschooling has probably crossed your mind. And why wouldn’t it? When a classroom setting isn’t working, instruction in the home may be exactly what your child needs to get ahead.
Homeschooling can be a trade-off. Many benefits offered in a standard school system—like accessible facilities, a full-time school nurse, and trained special education professionals—are unavailable in the home. But for many parents, the pros far outweigh the cons. If you’re considering teaching your child at home, here are six tips that can help set you up for success and create the most positive experience for both of you.
#1 Put a Structure into Place
You’ve likely thought about what and how to teach. But don’t forget where and when. Maybe you’ve envisioned a cozy study area in your kitchen, or a hands-on learning environment on the family room floor. While this is all fine and good—many families successfully integrate education into normal spaces in the home—it’s important to emphasize structure for children with special needs. Simply setting up at the dining room table isn’t always enough; your child needs to recognize the spaces and time frames that are specific to learning. For children facing conditions like ADD, ADHD, or autism—in which concentration can be challenging—the need for structure is amplified.
Instead of treating homeschooling as an extension of home life, address education at home in a way similar to education at school. Set specific hours and enforce them as strictly as possible, pending your child’s behaviors and attitudes. Create a classroom setting that is exclusive to learning, catering to your child’s needs (perhaps in a spare room). For example, parents of children with autism may choose to incorporate a sensory-rich environment to encourage exploration. Homeschooling isn’t just a way to spend more time with your little one; it’s a serious part of building for the future, so the more structure and routine you can provide, the better.
#2 Customize the Curriculum
The internet is full of homeschooling curricula you can download in a click, providing a great framework for your at-home teaching efforts. However, before you start teaching lesson plans off the web, it’s important to realize that your child with special needs may require instruction that’s a bit outside the box. Not all children learn at the same pace, and the nature of your child’s needs may require a different approach to teaching.
The information you find on state or local homeschool websites can be a good starting place, but you will probably need to customize some or most of the materials available to best suit your child’s abilities or learning style. You may choose to blend a variety of programs based on subject, or combine resources for various ages or grade levels. If needed, you may want to spend more time on a particular subject that your child loves—or invest more time in subjects he struggles with. Do not be afraid to adapt your plans; if one curriculum isn’t working and your child’s progress is stalling, it may be time for a new approach. Trial and error are going to be critical in the early days of homeschooling, so don’t beat yourself up if your first instincts miss the mark.
#3 Know Your Rights
Depending on where you live, you might be able to access support services through your school district. Tutors, occupational therapists, and speech therapists can all help your child get ahead, offering resources for everything from pronunciation to fine motor skills. In some cases, these professionals will come to your home. However, in many states, including Virginia, you might have to wade through significant bureaucracy to get services. Be persistent and reach out to local advocacy organizations for support. If you can’t get services from your school district, see if you can get them through your health insurance plan.
#4 Understand Your Responsibilities
Legal requirements vary widely across the U.S., but in many states, parents are required to have their curricula approved, file quarterly reports, keep track of attendance and learning progress, send test scores or other evaluations, and more. If your child was previously enrolled in a public school, chances are he has an Individualized Education Program (IEP). But the goals and school-specific items might be out of date. You should update it at least once a year to define learning objectives, track your child’s gains over time, and communicate academic progress.
Most states require homeschooling parents to have at least a high school diploma. Some require that parents have a college degree, or be supervised by a certified teacher. Be sure to find out what the rules are in your state. There might also be local rules. For instance, many school districts require teachers and school employees to have CPR training. Depending on where you live, you might need to as well. But even if it’s not mandated by law, taking an online CPR class can make you feel more confident in the event of a medical emergency.
#5 Adapt Your Expectations
As a parent, you may approach homeschooling with rose-tinted glasses. It’s easy to believe that your child will excel once away from the distractions in a traditional classroom, or that your instruction will be an immediate success. While this is absolutely a possibility, the early days of homeschooling may have more downs than ups.
When teaching your child, it’s important to go at his pace and understand that instruction may not be as easy or as straightforward as you believe. It may take time for you to find a style or a program that works, and progress may come slowly. In this time, it’s critical that you view your progress as a teacher and your child’s progress as a student in an individual light.
Don’t compare him to what other children can do; compare him to what he can do now that he couldn’t do yesterday, last week, or last year. Celebrate the small victories, and stay positive, even when teaching is tough. Studies have found that parents who homeschool kids with special needs generally do an excellent job. There will be frustrating days and good days alike, so keep that in perspective as you fine-tune your instruction and provide continued guidance.
#6 Take Care of Yourself
Many homeschooling parents feel as though teaching at home has to be a solo effort. After all, you took your child out of school, so now the whole learning process is on you. Right?
While a lot of the instruction your child will receive moving forward will indeed depend on you, homeschooling doesn’t have to be something you do alone. You can network with other homeschooling families in your community and share some of the responsibilities. There are support forums where you can ask questions, and many local disability groups offer free respite care.
Homeschooling can be extremely advantageous, but it isn’t always easy. A parent who homeschools has to be a teacher, coach, and therapist as well as Mom or Dad. You can burn yourself out if you try to wear all of those hats 24/7 without taking any time for yourself. And that’s not good for your child. Be sure to schedule “me” time on occasion and pursue interests of your own, outside of homeschooling.
With some planning and support, homeschooling can be a great way to help your child with special needs reach his or her full potential. It can be challenging, but if you provide structure and a healthy environment, customize your curriculum, take advantage of available resources, and ask for help when necessary, you and your child will be set up for success.
Jackie N. is a former pediatric nurse and now a full-time homeschool educator. She and her husband have three children. Their middle child suffered a traumatic brain injury when she was 4. Now 11 years old, she is hearingimpaired and uses a wheelchair. Despite her challenges, she loves teasing her 14-year-old brother and watching “My Little Pony” cartoons with her 5-year-old sister. Jackie is a contributor at Wondermoms.org, a blog for parents of children with special needs.