by Kathy Kuhl
“I didn’t really teach my older two; I just threw piles of books at them,” Margaret joked. Her third child–with learning disabilities–is a different story.
Many homeschoolers know that different personalities, different learning styles, and different gifts require different approaches. For some children, however, it is more than a matter of style or gifts. You may have a child with learning or attention problems that you feel are beyond your ability to teach.
Don’t panic. Realize that, as hardworking and well-trained as the best special-education teachers are, you have many advantages. You know the child better, while they get a new crop every year or so. You have fewer students. You can be more flexible, limit distractions, and help your child manage frustrations. You can modify your daily, weekly, and yearly schedule to suit the child. You can change curricula more easily. Finally, you are more determined to help your child succeed.
What you need is knowledge and confidence. Here are some ways to get them.
Have Your Child Assessed
Learn about your child’s special needs. Read about the problems your child seems to have, related to learning, attention, and physical problems. The library is a good place to start, but beware—there are many fads, opinions, and “cures.” Read with a healthy skepticism. Ingersoll and Goldstein’s Attention Deficit Disorder and Learning Disabilities or Larry Silver’s The Misunderstood Child are helpful. Both Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) and National Home Education Network (NHEN) have web pages on special needs, and HEAV’s Virginia Homeschool Manual has an entire section devoted to special-needs children. And ask your pediatrician.
Keep a journal of the child’s behavior, with specific examples of problems, progress, and strengths. You’ll need this journal later. Keep a few work samples to show successes and difficulties.
Your child needs a thorough health assessment. There are other conditions that look like Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) or learning disabilities (LD)—including mild autism,
depression, sleep deprivation, Tourette’s Syndrome, and bipolar disorder—that need different treatments. Your child may have a combination.
Does your child need a psychological evaluation? What does your doctor think? Has the problem continued for several years and in a variety of settings? Is the child at least seven years old and still having major difficulties with schoolwork? Some parents are afraid to have their child evaluated and “labeled” by a psychologist. But a diagnosis is only a big deal if you make it one.
These conditions are complex. Once you start reading about learning and attention differences, you’ll be tempted to diagnose your child yourself. (And to diagnose yourself, too!) While you know your child best, professionals have seen hundreds of children and have a better sense of what is normal and what is not.
If you have good relations with your local school, consider asking them give the tests, because theirs are free*. Otherwise, shop around for a good educational psychologist who is open to homeschooling. An evaluation at a university psychology department is usually cheaper than a private practice. There, graduate students give the tests, but their work is recorded and reviewed by a licensed psychologist. Anywhere you go, tests are expensive because the tester has to pay the publisher for each use of each test. (We used the George Mason University psychology clinic, which cost around $2000 for a complete neuropsychological evaluation.) Your health insurance may help. Some psychologists will be willing to give only one or two tests, though it is better to get a complete evaluation. Or, get your HMO to test for ADD, which is a medical condition.
Take your journal and samples of the child’s work along to the psychologist. Written logs and journals are better than vague descriptions. When you meet to hear their report, come with questions on how to apply their findings to your home school. Ask them to recommend books and resources.
“What you need is knowledge and confidence.”
Meanwhile, learn about different teaching methods, curricula, and other resources. Dr. Joe Sutton told my friend after diagnosing her son with ADD, “You aren’t going to change the way his brain works; instead, you’re going to have to change the way you teach!”
Check out Joyce Herzog’s Choosing and Using Curriculum and Learning In Spite of Labels, Sharon Hensley’s Home Schooling Children with Special Needs, Christine Field’s Homeschooling the Challenging Child, Carol Barnier’s How to Get Your Child off the Refrigerator and on to Learning, and Dr. Joe & Connie Sutton’s Strategies for Struggling Learners. These will help you develop goals and a plan. Also look at Judith Munday’s website at hishelpinschool.net (“Educational Plans”)
The Virginia Homeschool Manual’s section on special needs includes early warning signs for various disabilities, specific chapters on each type of learning disability, help for behavior problems, teaching strategies, making an individualized plan of education, discussion on legal issues, and a huge resource section.
Next, hire a special-needs consultant—a special-education teacher—to meet with you a few times a year to suggest approaches and materials and review your plans and progress. Be sure this teacher is open to homeschooling. Check with local public and private schools, and with HSLDA’s special-needs department for recommendations. Go to www.hslda.org/strugglinglearner/.
Finally, all the good advice for homeschooling goes double for homeschooling children with special needs: focus on character, praise perseverance, teach them to enjoy learning, exercise, laugh, guard your marriage, take time off, and enjoy your child.
*Yvonne Bunn from HEAV offers this additional comment: Public schools offer free special-needs testing, which parents may request once. Based on an initial review, school personnel will determine if special-needs testing is necessary. After the special-needs evaluation, a parent may refuse public school services. If a parent makes that decision, school officials will prepare a summary of the evaluation results for the parent to use in another educational setting. New federal laws prohibit public school officials from harassing those who do not desire public school services.