“Special needs” is a tricky term. It can cover everything from a gifted child with sensory issues to a profoundly disabled child who is nonverbal. But what all children with special needs have in common is that, in order to thrive, they need something outside of the norm. The standard routines and processes that work for most kids don’t necessarily work for them. This is especially true when it comes to education.
In a perfect world, public schools would see each student as an individual, understand the student’s needs, and teach in the way that is most helpful. Unfortunately, that’s not the reality in most schools, leaving parents with difficult choices. You can fight an uphill battle to get your child’s needs met within the public education system. You can look for a private or parochial school that understands your child’s specific needs, although that can be extremely expensive. Or you can teach your child at home.
Many families (like mine) fall into homeschooling. It might not be something you ever considered or expected to do. However, if you can afford to have one parent stay home during the day and you’re ready to do a lot of research and planning, it can be a great option.
Trends show homeschooling is growing
Overall, the number of children in the United States being homeschooled is rising. According to a report published in early 2018, there are approximately 2.3 million homeschooled kids in the United States, up from 1.8 million in 2012. Currently, the statistics for how many of these children have special needs aren’t clear but in 2012, the numbers said about 16 percent of all parents who decided to homeschool said it was because their child had special needs.
Deciding whether or not to homeschool is a very personal decision. If you’re considering homeschooling your child, it’s a good idea to weigh out the pros and cons before you make a final decision.
Pros of homeschooling when your child has special needs
Parents who decide to homeschool their child with special needs find it comes with many benefits and rewards. Perhaps, most importantly, is the ability to provide the individualized one-on-one attention their child can receive in a home-based educational plan. This type of attention would be next to impossible in a traditional public school. Other benefits parents find include:
- Completely customized education plan – You choose what to teach and how. There are lots of curriculum resources online, and you can pick the ones that are the best fit for your child. You can also use your son or daughter’s interests to guide your lessons. If your child is obsessed with trains, dinosaurs, or outer space, you can use that to your advantage.
- Flexible scheduling – Scheduling doctor and therapy appointments is a lot easier as a homeschooling family. You can make morning appointments, before the doctor starts running late, instead of waiting weeks or months for an after-school slot. No worries that your child will miss important lessons during the school day, which can negatively impact learning.
- Best teaching style – While teachers usually do their best, it can be hard for them to make accommodations for one child in a classroom of 20 or more. Paraprofessionals and support staff are supposed to help, but they aren’t always able to bridge the gap. In a homeschool situation, you can use the best teaching style to reach your child. Make up songs, incorporate movement, draw a picture, or build a model.
- Personalized classroom design – When homeschooling your child, you can create a dedicated space in your home designed with your child’s needs and preferences in mind. You don’t have to make it look like a traditional classroom with a desk and whiteboard. You can hang a swing from the ceiling, have a rug and beanbags, put posters and your child’s art on the walls. You’ll have total control over stimuli, including visuals, sounds, and scents.
- One-on-one attention – Many schools focus on a child’s weaknesses and work to address those, however, in homeschooling, you can take a more balanced approach and build your child’s confidence as you highlight their strengths and show them how to use them. Move at the pace that works best for your child.
Another benefit of homeschooling is that, although it takes some effort to set up social interactions with other children, you can choose the times, places, and friends that are most likely to result in a positive experience. At school, your child may have difficulties due to over-stimulation, bullying, or the way free time is structured.
Cons of homeschooling when your child has special needs
While homeschooling has many benefits, it’s equally as important to factor in the drawbacks. The reason being that some of these challenges may be too difficult to overcome and you don’t want to inadvertently put stress on yourself and your family you can’t handle because, in the end, your child might not get the benefits.
- Art, science, and sports facilities – Most traditional schools have science labs, art rooms, gymnasiums, and playing fields. These types of programs can augment a child’s learning, especially if creativity or physical activity is a good outlet for them.
- Reading programs – If you leave the public education system, you might lose access to specialized reading programs.
- Support staff – Public schools often have speech therapists, special education experts, counselors, and other professionals on staff. If you homeschool, you may lose the ability to routinely consult with these professionals. You also might miss out on testing and evaluations that can qualify you for services. Be sure to find out what your local school district offers to homeschooling families and learn what your rights are.
- Peer interaction – Even if you network with other families and participate in group activities, it’s impossible for a homeschooling parent to provide the same kind of peer interaction that a child would get in school. Many children with special needs benefit from being around neurotypical peers. And being exposed to children with disabilities has been shown to make typical children more compassionate.
- Lack of a full-time school nurse – Children with special needs are more likely to see the school nurse during a typical school day. If you homeschool, you won’t have an RN on standby to address health issues that come up during the school day.
One of the most important considerations is if you feel you can realistically handle the planning and other expectations that comes from a proper education? Can you juggle full-time teaching with your other responsibilities? Burnout and exhaustion are important factors to keep in mind.
How to minimize any drawbacks to homeschooling
The good news is many of these drawbacks can be easily overcome with some proactive and creative thinking. Here are some ideas:
- Sign up for sports or art enrichment classes – Most communities have community centers with art, music, and drama programs. You can sign your child up for swimming, karate, dance, soccer, or Little League sports. Depending on your child’s needs, you might want to consider participating in Special Olympics. Many communities even have daytime classes designed specifically for homeschool families.
- Network with other families – Having friends is an important part of any child’s life. By making a commitment to socialization, you can easily eliminate any feelings of isolation. Look for homeschooling groups in your area. You can also connect with other families online.
- Get crafty at home – You don’t need an art studio to be creative. Stock up on basic craft supplies and look for fun projects on Pinterest and YouTube.
- Take a CPR class – It’s a good idea to learn first aid and CPR so you can be prepared for emergencies and know how to treat minor injuries.
- Ask for help – If you ever feel overwhelmed, don’t be shy about reaching out for assistance. Family, friends, or other parents are usually happy to lend a hand or an ear when needed. You might be able to get speech therapy and other support services through your health insurance plan.
No one knows your child as well as you do. Homeschooling is a big commitment but with the right tools, resources, and support, you can provide a customized education that meets all of your child’s needs. It might not be right for everyone and there are drawbacks to consider, but for many parents of children who have special needs, homeschooling is the ideal decision.