Home Schooling for Special Needs Kids
For many parents, home-schooling is a pretty radical concept. It is a demanding and time-consuming choice for a parent to take on primary accountability for educating their child. For parents of special needs kids, such an option might seem even more daunting. However, the one-on-one time and flexible schedule of home-schooling can create a learning environment that is particularly good at meeting the challenges of kids with special needs.
Susan Caretti, of Pittsburg, Pa., knew her son, Jesse, would have extensive special needs from birth as a result of his chromosomal disorder. She accessed care and help for him very early – Jesse saw a therapist weekly starting when he was 3 months old and attended preschool at a learning institute for special needs kids. At 6, he started kindergarten at the local public school.
Caretti was worried about Jesse's severe speech delays. She worked hard to get him speech therapy through the schools and an augmentative communication device to help him communicate. Her frustrations grew as Jesse spent a year in a special speech and language kindergarten program. "This teacher would not use his communication device in the classroom, or sign language, or even the picture communication pages I provided in a binder," she says. "This was the year my mother died, so I wasn't advocating for him as much as I should have." A year later, redistricting was going to move Jesse to yet another school, and that was the straw that convinced Caretti to try home-schooling.
Five years later, home-schooling Jesse is still a lot of work. His special needs make it challenging to find appropriate educational materials to use. While there is a wealth of home-schooling curriculum support available, much of it is not appropriate for Jesse. The upside, however, has been tremendous. "Jesse is not getting overloaded," Caretti says. "He was actually getting physically sick every Friday toward the end of that school year."
Caretti is less stressed out from trying to fit Jesse into a school's schedule. Instead, she can tailor her school schedule around Jesse. Perhaps the most important vote in favor of home-schooling is Jesse's. "Every time we pass one of his old schools we ask if he wants to go back to school and he says, 'No, me home-school with Mommy'," Caretti says.
For Annette Marshall, of Placerville, Calif., home-schooling her daughter, Molly, was natural, something she had done with all her older children. "She seemed like a late bloomer, so home-schooling did seem like it would be even more important for her in allowing her to work in her own natural time frame," Marshall says. However, after two years, as they began to move on to first grade work, it was clear to Marshall that they were dealing with more than a 'late bloomer'. Even Marshall's most creative teaching could not help Molly learn the alphabet in order or remember whether to call 911 or 119 or 191 in an emergency.
At this point, Marshall was worried that she couldn't meet Molly's special learning needs and sent her to a small, very accommodating private school with a wonderful teacher. Even with all this support, however, Molly struggled to keep up. When she came home one day and confessed to "cheating" on a spelling test (looking at her neighbor's paper to see how they were spelling the words), Marshall's heart broke.
After this escalated into Molly crying every day, begging not to go back to school, Marshall switched back to home-schooling and took Molly for testing. The diagnoses of dyslexia, ADD and a host of other issues made it clear to Marshall that she hadn't been a bad teacher – and that Molly had been struggling to learn against huge odds.
Even for an experienced home-schooling mom, helping Molly learn can be exhausting. "I am finishing up my 11th year home-schooling some conglomeration of my four kids, and home-schooling Molly is by far the most time consuming, the most frustrating, the most rewarding, the most scary, the most fun experience of my life," Marshall says. Home-schooling allows Marshall the freedom to work with Molly's learning differences and to nurture her self-esteem instead of watching it erode in the constant pressure to keep up with her peers.
Her success is evident in a few words from Molly. "Hi. I am Molly Marshall and I do home-schooling," Molly says. "I also have dyslexia. Personally, I think dyslexia stinks. I am glad that my mom home-schools me, but I would like to try school out sometime too. I am an artist, and since I am home-schooled I get a lot of time to work on my artwork. I also get to play a lot of sports and I have no homework in the evenings."
Lenore Hayes, author of Homeschooling the Child with ADD (or Other Special Needs): Your Complete Guide to Successfully Homeschooling the Child with Learning Differences (Prima Lifestyles, 2002), says that many parents choose to home-school for reasons very similar to those of Caretti and Marshall. Often parents lose faith in the school system after fighting long battles to get their kids properly assessed and supported. Hayes stresses that it is not only the remedial needs of special needs kids that can be neglected in the regular school system. "Many learning-disabled children are also gifted, and the schools have difficulty dealing with a highly intelligent child who can't read well or inverts numbers in math," she says.
Hayes believes that home-schooling has both academic and social benefits for special needs kids. Academically, parents have the flexibility to tailor the curriculum to the child. "Home-schooled children are able to thrive within their areas of strength, while working toward shoring up the tough subjects without feeling like a washout," she says. Socially, home-schooling provides parents the opportunity to work on their child's social skills in "a more humane manner (in support group settings, community-interactions and such), rather than just letting the child fend for himself on the playground," she says.
Hayes has two key pieces of advice for parents considering home-schooling. First, find a local home-schooling organization and get informed about your state's home-schooling laws. Home-schooling is legal in all 50 states (regardless of what you may hear), but the states have a hodgepodge of home-schooling regulations and requirements, and parents need to know what they are getting into.
Second, once you have your legal ducks in a row, it's time to find a support group. While local organizations are valuable, Hayes strongly recommends checking out the many wonderful online communities. In the online environment, you have a much better chance of "connecting with another home-schooling parent of a similar age, gender and/or disordered child."
Home-schooling is not for all parents and not for all special needs kids, but if you are considering it as an option, Marshall has some words of encouragement: "Do it! Yes, it can be a lot of work, but what you give your child is priceless: the freedom to be the person they were created to be without any shame."
Online Resources for Home-schooling
For parents considering home-schooling their child with special needs, the following online resources are a good place to start:
- Home-schooling Children With Special Needs is a wonderful collection of links and resources. Also check out the parent page which has excellent information and resources for home-schooling in general.
- LD Online is a Web site on learning disabilities for parents and teachers with a home-schooling discussion board.
- Bayshore School is a Web site of resources and information put together by Lenore Hayes.
- The Home-school Zone is a general home-schooling Web site with a great FAQ for parents considering home-schooling.