HOMESCHOOLING A CHILD WITH UNIQUE NEEDS

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Can you homeschool a child with UNIQUE challenges? Yes you can!


When your child struggles with a learning disability, profound giftedness, health issue, or any other factor that affects their education, homeschooling can seem like an impossibility. But while I cannot claim that it will be easy or always go smoothly (I can’t claim that for any family, even if their children are completely “normal”) I can claim that there is almost certainly someone somewhere who is homeschooling their child with the same diagnosis/diagnoses as your child. And if they can do it, there is a good chance you can too.

The Main Idea

The important thing to remember when homeschooling any child, regardless of any special needs they might or might not have, is that education is so much more than lectures and textbooks. In fact, I would argue those things aren’t much of an education at all. Homeschooling is about connecting with your child to teach them the things they want to learn (and the things you know they need to learn) in an authentic way that resonates with them.

If you hyper-focus on the content, you’ll miss the true heart of learning. And with children who have unique needs, it can be easy to hyper-focus on the content – the content they’re not learning that everyone their age already knows, the content they consume faster than you can provide it, the content society says they need and will not be able to live without but you can’t imagine them ever mastering.

But when you focus on your child’s strengths (and on how to leverage them to overcome their weaknesses), on the methods that work for them (which are not typically the methods used in schools), and on equipping them to live their best life (not the cookie-cutter life that society tries to push on students), then homeschooling takes on a new flavor and texture that is significantly more enjoyable for all involved.

Obviously I can’t address the specifics of what it looks like to homeschool every imaginable diagnosis. Because of that, this article isn’t going to be very “nuts-and bolts”-oriented because there are simply too many factors that have to be taken into consideration for each unique situation. Thankfully there are lots of homeschoolers out there who share their first-hand experience with homeschooling while dealing with various diagnoses, illnesses, and exceptionalities, and their input would be far more valuable on that subject than mine. (Try searching “homeschooling with [diagnosis]” to find these resources.)

But what I can do is provide you with a glimpse into how some families are homeschooling their children with a variety of diagnoses, help dispel some of the common concerns about homeschooling a unique child, and point you toward some of the resources available to help you on your journey.

So let’s get to it!

Words of Wisdom from Those in the Trenches

I reached out to some of my homeschool friends whose children have various needs and challenges to ask if they would be willing to share what homeschooling looks like in their homes and what words of wisdom and encouragement they’d want to pass on to other parents with special-needs children. Here are some of their responses:

Patricia’s son is autistic with global development delays, including being nonverbal and having very few receptive language skills. He functions at around 18 months of development:

What advice would you give?

“Don’t try to copy school. I first worked very hard to understand how my child learned and what motivates him. Understanding behavior and motivation helped me since my son is nonverbal; I have to admit that I studied some dog behaviorism programs to get some of my best ideas. I would try to find parents who already had success homeschooling with a child just like mine, if possible.

“You can always try school and leave to homeschool if you see your child getting unhappy. Don’t ever accept the school telling you, ‘Don’t worry, it’ll be like this now but things will get better later.’ There’s no later, there’s only how well each child is doing in the moment. I think, that being said, I would still tell a parent to start with the end in mind. Since my son has profound special needs we work on life skills. We never worked on shapes and colors and alphabet, when things like toileting and grooming and self-soothing were still not tackled.

“I met people who sent their special needs kid to school until they were 21. The kid was so conditioned to a school environment that he didn’t know how to live life. They were jealous that I am homeschooling my son and teaching him how to live in a normal environment instead of an institutional environment. Since my goal is to keep my child home and not in an institution, I teach him based on being at home and not in an institution such as a school.

“Homeschooling taught me that I should have confidence and I can do it better than school. I sent my son to school for 2 years. His moods and behavior and joy improved within the first 2 days of being home, probably the first day it was an instant relief for him. I don’t believe in ever making the child suffer; his suffering was causing him to go through regression.”

Laine K has a son with 4q Deletion Syndrome, Global Hypotonia (mainly affecting arms, hands, and bowels), and ADHD (combined inattentive and hyperactive). He is also a downhill skier, so they schedule their schooling in a way to accommodate that activity each winter:

How has homeschooling affected your child or family?

“I am far more dismissive of my kiddo’s challenges now than I was before. I am also far less worried about his future. I see him having his own family, living independently and having a long career. But I also recognize that to some degree he will need to have a partner who is willing to manage his life. ADHD is a totally different brain wiring (I am ADD, so much of it I recognize). I have also adjusted my expectation. My kiddo does not function well inside, so office jobs are never going to happen. He loves ski hill operations and heavy equipment, so I see an apprenticeship or college as a likely future.”

How has homeschooling helped your child?

“He has a breadth of education that he would not have otherwise had. He is significantly advanced over his peers but has the same maturity issues with understanding the materials. He is probably also more sheltered/naive (particularly with regards to sex) but in reality he is probably at the same maturity level I was at age 13. But with limited access to social media, internet, television, movies and video games, he is able to be a kid for a while longer.”

What advice would you give?

“Be willing to change and adapt as your child’s needs and interests change. Educating your child at home might be the very best thing right now. It might not always be, and you have to be prepared to put your child’s needs ahead of your own desires. There is a wide world of options out there and don’t be afraid to explore them and to alter when it no longer works. No matter what you do, your child will learn and you will be shaping the person that they become.”

Mary’s daughter was born prematurely and is diagnosed with severe ADHD and sensory processing disorder:

How has homeschooling affected your child or family?

“Having my child home with me has been a challenge but now I know it has made my child into the independent, confident child she is today. She loves to paint and draw. She has no embarrassment being who she is, even if it’s collecting Littlest Pet Shop toys and playing with Beanie Boo stuffed animals. Part of me is sad she is playing with toys most younger kids play with, but then I realize this is a step to prove she is growing. She is learning. And honestly at this point I am so thrilled she is happy with who she is. I wish I had known early just to follow her lead instead of leading her. She has shown me more than any class in college would.”

Melissa’s daughter has apraxia of speech and receptive expressive language disorder. She’s ten and has been homeschooled for five years:

What advice would you give?

“Take it one day at a time. Have goals and a plan, but don’t be afraid to change those as you go along. Some days are good, some days are not and that’s okay. We have changed things every year since we started, and sometimes have changed mid-semester because it wasn’t working.

“Get help. You don’t have to do everything by yourself just because you homeschool. Get a tutor, a therapist, or a whole team to help.

“Take time to learn how your child learns best and explore different homeschool methods. You don’t have to do it like public/private school. Figure out your own way and your own schedule that fits with your child’s special needs. Its okay to change homeschool methods as you go and take bits and pieces and make up your own.

“Don’t compare yourself/your child with others, especially your other children. I had a hard time with this going from child #1 to child #2 (who had the learning disorders).

“Remember your child needs praise. Oftentimes they know what their diagnosis is and feel weird or different or have heard what they can’t do. Praise is important for their self-esteem.

Education is life-long learning. It’s okay to be at a different level than others their age.”

Jocelyn’s two children have ADHD, and her daughter is also autistic:

How has homeschooling affected your child/family?

“It is a lifesaver. I work year round, and homeschooling allows us to travel to my trades shows without missing school. My husband is disabled and homeschooling lets me take care of him without missing a beat. We get to focus on our children’s strengths and weaknesses to be sure they are well rounded.”

How has homeschooling helped your child?

“For Eugene, we can work school around his focus ability. We can give him something mindless, like a piece of clay, to play with while working. If he is too rambunctious, we can take a break and let him run around outside and come in ready to focus.

“Victoria has been more challenging. The ADHD is rather minor compared to working with autism. We are able to homeschool when she is having good moments or days while taking bad times to just reconnect. She isn’t forced to work within a certain time so she is able to achieve more. She has done school at 1am because that was when she was receptive. She is also able to integrate more because we can set her up for success by integrating during her good times. This approach has allowed for her to be a junior coordinator in Scouts, teach a county-wide cat showmanship clinic, and she is the Colorado state cat junior showmanship champion.”

What advice would you give to a parent who isn’t sure they can homeschool their special needs child?

“Just try it. Give yourself and the child grace. Read everything on the topic and really think about what you learn.”

How has your view of education and learning changed because of this experience?

“I have seen family members struggle to integrate in the public school system because they are not given the opportunity to succeed within their own abilities and timeline. They must perform at a specific time and place…or they get thrown into a SPED class and never integrate. I feel homeschooling my kids has been the best environment because I see how well they interact with their world and others and they are doing a great job.”

Caroline’s oldest daughter, Grace, has has autism, anxiety, depression, and a serious mental illness diagnosis. Her youngest daughter, Faith, has ADHD and is dyslexic:

How has homeschooling helped your child?

“Homeschooling has allowed my oldest to go at her own pace. It allows me to see exactly what she needs and be aware of her medical needs, whereas if she were in school daily she would have fallen to the bottom of the pack, been in trouble daily, missed tons of school for medical appointments, and most likely either been arrested or run away! It would have killed what little self-esteem she has.”

How has your view of education and learning changed because of this experience?

“Homeschooling has opened my eyes to the fact that children do not have to be educated in a traditional manner. Not all children are best served by a one size fits all education.

“Our goals have evolved as the years go by. They have changed in ways I never imagined. Even with my child that is enrolled in traditional school now, I find myself telling her certain things don’t matter, although they are stressed in her classroom. I don’t necessarily believe they fit the goals of our family, and I often find myself giving her permission to let things go. On the other hand, for my oldest, I want her to be able to function in society. We focus on skills needed to get through daily life, how to shop, how to use public transportation, speaking to others in public.”

What advice would you give to a parent who isn’t sure they can homeschool their special needs child?

“I think there are parents that set out intentionally to educate their children. And there are those of us that find it necessary but it wasn’t what we planned to do at the beginning. There is a lot of sacrifice when you homeschool. You really have to clear your mind of any expectations. Educate yourself on what options are available in your area and online. Join forces with other moms in your situation – you are going to need all the support you can get. Remember that it isn’t a race. Don’t always listen to what everyone else is doing, don’t compare yourself to others. Your situation is unique and nobody else’s child is the same as your child. There will be days you just can’t bring yourself to do the schooling you had planned – and that’s okay. Make it a “teacher planning day” or take an unplanned field trip….or mop your floor and complete your overdue grocery shopping. There will be days of great joy too! It’s a rollercoaster experience; enjoy it and remember you are fortunate to spend this time with your child. You are their greatest advocate. It is well worth the sacrifices that must take place in able for you to have the honor to be your child’s teacher!”

Unique Concerns

Many parents of unique children have the same questions and concerns about homeschooling that any other parent would have. If you don’t yet have a copy of our free ebook, Busting the Homeschooling Myths, be sure to download it here so you can see how we handle those common concerns.

Many parents of unique children have the same questions and concerns about homeschooling that any other parent would have. If you don’t yet have a copy of our free ebook, Busting the Homeschooling Myths, be sure to join our mailing list and you’ll be notified when our new Resource Center is up and running so you can get it and see how we handle those common concerns.

But when it comes to homeschooling a child with unique challenge, obviously there are other issues at play that bring up a whole new set of questions:

“If I bring my child home, will s/he still have access to services through our local school?”

The answer to this question depends on the state in which you live. In most cases it comes down to how homeschoolers are “categorized” in your state, as well as what kind of homeschool legislation your state has in place. HSLDA provides a brief explanation of what is available in each state in this article.

(Note that giftedness does not fall under IDEA funding laws so schools are not required to do anything special for a child simply because they have above average intelligence. Students who are considered “twice exceptional” – meaning they are gifted but also have a challenge like ADHD, dyslexia, etc. – may be able to receive services for the non-gifted-related challenge.)

Unfortunately the funding and staffing available for schools to provide therapies for children who need them are always lacking. There’s never enough of either one to give every child what they need. Because of that, homeschoolers often receive what’s left over (if there is anything) after public and private school students have been accommodated.

It’s also important to remember what the purpose of these in-school therapies actually is. School-related services are not therapies to treat or cure in a general sense. They’re therapies designed to help the child function in the classroom – to make it possible for a child to learn what the school thinks that child is capable of learning within the classroom environment.

Thus, school-based therapy is not comparable with what your child would receive from a private therapist, nor is it necessarily going to help your child to function at home. Not only that, but the school has to agree that certain therapies are even necessary. Since schools are underfunded for special education therapy and understaffed with people to provide those therapies, they often make it very difficult for a student to be deemed worthy of certain therapies because they simply cannot afford to provide them.

Here’s an example of what I mean. These excerpts are from Texas Project First, which was created by parents in conjunction with Texas Education Agency to provide “accurate and consistent information to parents and families of students with disabilities.”

“Therapies that students receive in schools are considered ‘related services’ under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). ‘Related services’ include a wide variety of developmental, corrective, and other supportive services provided as needed to enable a child to benefit from special education.”

The key to understanding services offered through the school lies at the end of the last sentence quoted above: as needed to enable a child to benefit from special education. They are not trying to make the child’s overall quality of life better, or to move him or her toward specific goals that are unrelated to education. They need the child to be able to complete the work that is assigned, to be able to function in the classroom, and to be able to communicate with the teacher and other students. If a child’s need falls outside of those goals, the school will not provide therapy for it.

This passage make this clear:

“The most common therapies provided by schools are speech/language therapy, occupational therapy (OT), and physical therapy (PT). School-based speech and language services are provided to help the child improve articulation, communication and comprehension in the classroom. School-based OT and PT services are directed at improving fine and gross motor skills to help students better function, maneuver and participate within their educational settings.”

Again, the last sentence makes their intentions clear: getting the child to the point where they can function in the classroom is their only goal. Once they hit that goal, therapy ends. And many parents will tell you that schools often think the goal has been hit when it really hasn’t been. But again, because money is tight and staffing is sparse, they will often end a service before a child is truly ready to “graduate” from it.

“Your child must have an Individualized Education Program (IEP) in order to receive school-based therapies or other related services… It is important to know that school-based therapies are not selected by parents from a “menu” of available services. Likewise, the services a student receives are not based on his or her disability label.”

In other words:

1. You have to get an IEP first, which means the school staff working on the IEP has to agree that the child really needs the services the parent thinks the child needs.

2. Parents don’t get to choose what services their child receives. They get what the school allows them to have.

3. Just because a child is diagnosed with a specific issue doesn’t mean that they’ll automatically get all the services one would expect a child with those issues to get. Remember, it’s all about making it possible for the child to learn in the classroom. A child might need a specific therapy in general, but because the lack of that therapy isn’t affecting his ability to learn, the school will not provide it.

It’s because of all this that many parents of children with special needs finally take their children out of school. They finally realize they can give their child an education that is tailored to them and their needs that is far superior to what they would get in a financially-strapped school that is doing the bare minimum. Penelope Trunk’s blog has a great article about that reality.

Something else to consider is that government-funded anything always comes with a price. If you choose to pursue services through the district, it’s putting you on the radar of that local school. And unfortunately, there are still many school counselors, principals, and district superintendents out there who disagree strongly with the idea of homeschooling and deliberately look for ways to meddle in the educational affairs of the homeschoolers in their districts. (Remember, schools get funding based on their enrollment, so in their minds, homeschooling is taking money out of the school’s pocket.) Is every superintendent and principal like this? Not at all! There are some who actually work to help the homeschoolers in their area access resources they might need. But there are others out there who are looking for any reason they can find to deem local homeschooling families unfit in their duties. Knowing a child needs services may be reason enough for them to decide the parent must not be prepared to “properly” teach a child with special needs (despite the fact that there’s no special education teacher who knows a child’s needs better than the child’s parents).

“If my child can’t receive services through the school, what other options do I have?”

Your first stop should be your insurance company, to see what kind of coverage they provide for private therapy. Some offer very little because they know children would receive some help through the school if you chose to enroll them. (If you have attempted to pursue therapy through the school and have been denied, you may be able to submit that documentation as proof that the school cannot or will not provide therapy, which may make it more likely the insurance company will cover private therapy. Some, however, will cover a certain number of sessions for various types of therapy.)

If they are under 5 years old, early childhood intervention therapy may be an option for your child. Often these therapies are offered in the home, and the therapist will teach you what to do to work with your child yourself. (Early childhood therapy is not provided by or at the school.) To find these services, do an internet search for “early childhood intervention [state name]”.

If neither of those options work for your situation, I would recommend reaching out to other local homeschoolers to see if anyone has any recommendations of who (or who not) to work with. You can also talk to other parents in Facebook groups for SPED homeschoolers whose children have a similar diagnosis to find out what kinds of activities their children are doing in therapy – and then do those activities yourself at home.

These parents are also a great resources for learning how to homeschool without doing specific therapies. For example, I often share in the homeschool SPED groups I’m in how my dyslexic daughter learned to read just fine without therapy, tutors, or dyslexic-specific reading curriculum (which can be very expensive). I was encouraged and motivated by the homeschooling parents of other dyslexic children who took unschooling approaches with their dyslexic children and had great success. When you see others doing it successfully, it’s easier to take those less mainstream approaches.

“If I homeschool, will I have to use special curriculum that’s really expensive?”

In short: not necessarily. You might modify things here and there, but you aren’t setting up a special needs classroom like one might find in a public school. Your home is likely already outfitted with whatever things your child needs to succeed. All you’re doing is bringing in some more education-related resources.

And in many cases – in fact, I’d say in most cases – the curriculum you use wouldn’t be any different from what other families use. Instead, you’ll simply purchase “regular” curriculum at the level your child is at, regardless of their age. Many programs will have placement tests you can download and administer to your chld to determine which level of their program you would need to purchase.

You can also modify curriculum and use it in a way that suits your child best. A good way to do this is to isolate the skill or knowledge you’re trying to teach and strip out whatever gets in the way. For example, using audio book versions of textbooks, novels, or non-fiction narratives to teach history or science removes a child’s reading struggle and allows them to focus on the content. Allowing a child to type or dictate their English paper instead of handwriting it can unlock their imagination – they know they don’t have to labor through hand-writing all their wonderful ideas. Letting them work out their math problems on a window with a white board marker allows them to use large muscle movement so their focus is on their operations and not on trying to write their numbers in the small space provided in the book. (Our article on choosing curriculum can help you find curriculum that suits you and your child best.)

In the case of dyslexia, there are a couple reading curriculums specifically designed to work with the unique wiring of a dyslexic child’s brain, but you don’t have to use them. (As previously mentioned, we never used them and our 11-year-old daughter now reads “at grade level”.) They can be quite expensive, but if you decide you want to use them, you can always check curriculum resale groups on Facebook and the internet so you don’t have to pay full price.

Remember that not all homeschoolers even use curriculum – even those whose children have special needs. Unschooling groups are a fantastic place to learn about how families teach their special needs children using little to no formal curriculum at all.

Resources

Every homeschooler needs a tribe of fellow homeschoolers, because there are days when you need to vent to someone who “gets it” and isn’t going to throw “Well, maybe homeschooling just isn’t the right thing to do” in your face. But where do we find those people?

To this I say, God bless the internet! Homeschooling in general is so much easier now than it used to be because of the resources we can find online. And when it comes to finding your special needs tribe, it turns out you have a lot of them to choose from. Here are just a few on Facebook:

Homeschooling Kids with Dyslexia & Other Special Needs – 4000+ members

Special Needs Homeschooling – 16,000+ members

Special Needs Homeschool – 3800+ members

Unschooling Special Needs – 5000+ members

Homeschooling Gifted Kids – 1000+ members

Special Needs Homeschooling: Gifted and Twice Exceptional – 900+ members

Do you see those numbers? Thousands of people are homeschooling their children who deal with all sorts of struggles, challenges, and diagnoses. You are not alone!

Now when it comes to general resources – well, there are just as many of those are there are members in those groups! We’ve compiled a huge list of resources for some of the most common diagnoses that impact learning to help you find the information and support you need. Just click here to access our resource library where you can download the list (and any other goodies you'ld like to swipe)!

Now when it comes to general resources – well, there are just as many of those are there are members in those groups! We’ve compiled a huge list of resources for some of the most common diagnoses that impact learning to help you find the information and support you need. Join our mailing list to be notified when we get our new Resource Center up and running on our new platform, and you’ll be sent a link to ALL our downloadable resources!

I hope that you’re feeling more confident now about homeschooling your children, regardless of what diagnoses they might be dealing with. Drop a comment below if you have more questions or thoughts!

Alison MorrowComment