Should you homeschool your special needs child? Are you up to the task? Or should you leave it to the “experts”? I get questioned often this time of year by parents who are considering homeschooling their special needs children for the coming school year. The decision to homeschool can be a difficult one to make for any family, but it is often especially important to families with special needs children. It can also be especially frightening to families with special needs children.
It is my firm opinion as the homeschooling mother of special needs children myself that the majority of special needs children would be far better off being homeschooled. It is also my opinion that almost any parent is capable and equipped to homeschool. The most important thing you’ll need is love for your child and the desire to see your child do the best he or she is capable of doing.
For 18 years, I’ve homeschooled my oldest child who has severe autism, poor motor skills, and is totally non-verbal. I’m in my 13th year of homeschooling my son who has Asperger’s (ASD). And my youngest, who has ADHD, is now in her 8th year of homeschooling. I’ve learned so much over the 18 years I’ve been homeschooling them, and I hope this information is helpful to those of you who are in the middle of making this very important decision!
There are many reasons why I think homeschooling is best for most special needs children. I’ll list a few here. If you have some to contribute, I’d love for you to leave me a comment with your reason!
- Most special needs children need extra time to learn. Whether your child has autism, Asperger’s (which is now more often being called Autism Spectrum Disorder–or ASD), Down Syndrome, ADHD, or another diagnosis, he probably needs more time than other children to process and learn new information. In classrooms now, the teachers and students are expected to stay on a very strict schedule and to get a certain amount of work done each day/week/etc. This can be very difficult for any child, and our special needs children often just cannot keep up. Our children need time to consider and process new information. They need plenty of time to learn and practice and use new information. And they need the chance to use this information over and over until they can retain it. Classrooms today just don’t offer that kind of time. Educating our special needs children cannot be allowed to be a race. It must be a journey that matches the pace of the child. We can provide that at home.
- Our children need to learn in a low-pressure environment so they can enjoy learning and feel successful. Besides just needing more time to learn, our special needs children need to learn in an environment that is as free as possible from stress and pressure. If our children are pressured to learn concepts or information that they just aren’t developmentally or cognitively ready to learn, they will not be successful and they will not be happy. My youngest child wasn’t ready to begin learning math concepts until about 3rd grade. She was very strong in reading and related subjects, but she simply didn’t “get” math until she was in about 3rd grade. Because we homeschool, I was able to wait until she was ready to really dig into math, and we’re both grateful for that!
- They need to be challenged to learn and do their best in a loving environment. There’s a difference between challenging a child to do her best and frustrating her by requiring things she isn’t capable of learning or doing yet. As parents, we know our children better than anyone. It’s fine for us to challenge our children to do their best, but we don’t want to challenge them to the point of frustration or to the point where they give up altogether. And we want them to know that we love them and that they are valuable people no matter what they can or cannot do. Yes, I want my children to be challenged to do their best, but I don’t want that challenge to turn into stress.
- Our children need more freedom to take breaks and de-stress. I’m concerned for all children in the school system today. They spend hours and hours in a desk where they are required to sit still, pay attention, be quiet, and learn. I think this is difficult for many children, but it’s almost impossible for most special needs children! My children–especially my daughter who has severe autism–need lots of time to take a break from learning–especially if they’ve been learning something brand new or that’s particularly difficult to understand. At home, I can give them these opportunities to take a short break (or a long one if necessary). These breaks give them the ability to rest and relax (or run and play and get some energy out) so that the next subject or activity doesn’t feel so overwhelming. These breaks make a huge and very positive difference in our homeschool.
- They often learn better when they’re allowed to move around and be active. As my children have gotten older, they are better able to sit still and learn. During their early elementary years, though, they definitely learned best when they were active! Back then, I often read history or science lessons out loud while they played with Legos, perler beads, PlayDoh, or Shrinky Dinks. We practiced multiplication tables and spelling words while tossing a ball or jumping on the trampoline. We reviewed previously learned information while swinging on the swing set. If I had required them to sit still and be quiet, they would have been frustrated and wouldn’t have learned nearly as much. And they definitely wouldn’t have enjoyed learning.
- Special needs children often “live down” to the expectations placed on them by teachers who don’t know what they’re capable of learning and doing. One of the saddest things that I saw happening during the few years that my autistic child attended public school (part-time) was that she “lived down” to the expectations placed on her by teachers who had no idea what she was capable of learning and doing! She did have one teacher who was truly wonderful and who lovingly challenged her. Her other teachers, though, refused to believe that she was smart because she was (and still is) non-verbal. Because they unknowingly communicated those low expectations to my daughter, her behavior got worse and worse, and her frustration level rose higher and higher. Because they thought she wasn’t capable of behaving and learning, she must have decided that they were right. At home, my children know my expectations for both learning and behavior. They aren’t perfect, but they (usually) live up to my high expectations.
- Methods of teaching and learning can be tailored to fit the needs of your special needs child. I have three children, and each one learns in a different way and has different strengths and weaknesses than the other two. My non-verbal daughter (who has now graduated) has always been an auditory learner. My son enjoys online instruction much more than in-person instruction. My youngest child is a very hands-on learner. It has been very interesting to see how differently my children learn from each other–yet they are all very capable of learning. Even if I use the same books and materials with all three of them, I can still modify the teaching method to fit each student.
- Special needs children usually learn better with fewer distractions. In a classroom with 20 or more other students, it’s easy for any student to get distracted, but it’s especially easy for a special needs child to get off track. When my son was homeschooling for elementary school, it was very easy for him to get distracted to the point where he got frustrated and just gave up. I remember people saying things like, “It’s not good to allow him to do his work in a quiet room. How will he ever learn to function in a workplace in real life?” At the time, it worried me to think about whether he would, as a teen or adult, be able to have a job and be in environments that he couldn’t control. I wondered if he would be able to cope in a noisy office or store or wherever else he might work. Now as I look back, I realize all those years of worry were for nothing. As my son has grown and matured, he has naturally learned to deal with more distractions and noise. He is now able to handle many situations that he couldn’t have endured at younger ages. Some things just take time. And homeschooling has given him that time.
- Homeschooling makes it easier to work around appointments and therapies. Many special needs children have weekly therapy appointments (like speech, physical therapy, or occupational therapy) as well as frequent visits to the family doctor, psychiatrist, neurologist, etc. It can feel at times like all we do is drive to one appointment or another! Homeschooling is truly a great option under these circumstances because school can be done in the mornings, afternoons, on weekends, or whenever else you need to do it. It definitely cuts down on the stress of having to get assignments done on a strict schedule.
- Homeschooling allows you to enjoy spending time with your child. When my oldest child attended a public school program for autistic children part time during her early elementary years, it was hard for me to find time to just enjoy being her mom. By the time we went to therapy appointments, doctor visits, church activities, and school, I felt like I was always in a hurry to take her somewhere and get something done by a deadline. I didn’t have the time I would have liked to simply play with her or read to her. When I pulled her out of her part-time public school program to homeschool full time, we had much more time to spend together having fun and getting to know each other better.
These are 10 reasons why I think most special needs children can benefit from homeschooling. But to be honest, most of these reasons apply to neuro-typical students too! Now I’d like to hear from you. Do you have any reasons why homeschooling is a great idea for special needs children? If so, please share in the comments!