I grew up in public schools. I believe in public schools. But two years ago, I disenrolled my daughter, who has special needs. Then last year, I did the same with my other two kids. It was the right decision for my children and I don’t regret it, but leaving our community school felt like a break-up—the end of a long relationship after years of trying to make it work. I still feel a complex jumble of emotions including sadness, defeat, anger and relief. To be fair, my husband and I probably wouldn’t have pulled our 14-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter out if they were our only children. They’ve both had some struggles, but it was the quest to get a good education for our 11-year-old daughter with special needs that tipped us over the edge. Our middle child suffered a traumatic brain injury when she was 4. She is funny, mischievous, curious and artistic. She is also developmentally delayed, has sensory processing issues, has significant hearing loss and uses a wheelchair. Making the right choices for your child with special needs is often equal parts due diligence and guesswork. As a parent, you spend a lot of time second-guessing your decisions. Am I investing enough time in my child's development? Am I doing enough to ensure she achieves her full potential? Am I short-changing my other children? And for many parents, am I fighting the school district hard enough? Teachers are, by and large, amazing people. Most folks who go into education are. But when there are too many students and not enough staff, too many needs and not enough resources, it’s easy to forget that. Sitting around a conference room table at an IEP (individualized education plan) meeting can feel like going into battle. In our case, there wasn’t any gross negligence, bullying or neglect. There just wasn’t enough of the things that matter—time, attention, patience, persistence, passion, support. There are a lot of pros and cons to homeschooling a child with special needs. Some we saw coming. Others snuck up on us. For my family, the good has far outweighed the bad. But if you have a child who is being “managed” rather than educated and you’re thinking about teaching them at home, here are some things to consider.
Homeschooling AdvantagesHomeschooling comes with many benefits, particularly for children with special needs. From one-on-one attention to specialized focus in challenging areas, homeschooling is popular with parents for a reason.
- One-on-One Focus: In a traditional classroom setting, teachers often do not have the time or resources to give every child individual attention. In a homeschool situation, however, parents have the ability to teach in a personalized manner all day, every day. Any aspect of education that requires specialized instruction, like reading and writing, math basics or handwriting, can be emphasized for as much time and in as many ways as necessary. If you need to try new techniques, use multiple teaching styles or take field trips and other off-site trips to amplify the learning process, you absolutely can when you teach at home. This can make a huge difference in furthering a child's abilities in a way a teacher in a classroom full of students likely can't.
- Flexible Scheduling: While it's commonly encouraged for homeschooling parents to stick to a normal school schedule while teaching at home, a home environment offers flexibility that a classroom never can. If your child struggles with focusing, has meltdowns or tantrums or has sensory processing issues, you can take breaks as needed to reschedule lessons for a better time. If you have a doctor or therapy appointment, you can work around it. This kind of flexibility can be invaluable, allowing you to accommodate the needs of your child rather than an arbitrary bell schedule. You can move through your curriculum as quickly or as slowly as you need to, depending on how your child learns best. While it's important to maintain as much structure as possible, a few lapses here and there aren't the end of the world.
- Creative Curricula: Do you prefer to start the day with math while your child is still fresh and end the day with reading or art when he's running out of steam? When you homeschool, anything is possible. There are no limitations on what you teach, when you teach it or how you choose to teach it, giving you the freedom to explore a curriculum that works for you. You can start with a stock curriculum provided by the local school district or online homeschooling resources and adapt as needed, or you can write your own from scratch. This gives you the creativity to teach how you want to teach, whether that means using glitter pens to write math problems because your child likes the way they look or using crafts to teach how early American settlers lived. When you homeschool, there are no limits.
- Custom Environment: For children with special needs, a traditional classroom with desks in straight lines and a lot of time spent sitting still and being quiet isn't necessarily a good fit. Not all children can stay still for hours on end, and some are easily overwhelmed by the presence of other children, posters on the walls or blocks and toys. In a homeschool situation, it's up to you to create an atmosphere that works, whether that means a space with plenty of room to run around, a quiet and calm environment free of distractions, or seating options that include beanbags, swings and yoga balls. When setting up a customized homeschooling environment, you can focus on factors that contribute to learning that aren't always possible within a school building.
Homeschooling Disadvantages & WorkaroundsNo solution for education is perfect. While there are many compelling reasons to consider homeschooling, there are definite drawbacks that should be factored into your plans. These disadvantages should be kept in mind when planning how you choose to homeschool.
- Lack of Resources: Schools, while sometimes lacking in options for children with special needs, are intended to facilitate education in the best ways possible. They generally have accessible facilities, arts and music equipment, science labs, sports fields and a full staff of professionals like school nurses, special education experts and other individuals highly trained in the art of teaching students. A lack of access to these kinds of opportunities can be a detriment in some situations. These people are pros at teaching and may be able to make headway in a way a parent cannot. You can make up for a lot of those things in other ways. Find art and music classes in your community. Enroll your child in youth sports or Special Olympics. Some school districts offer collaboration with homeschool parents. If yours does, take advantage of it to get professional support for your child. It’s also a good idea to have a fully stocked first aid kit and get trained in CPR, just in case.
- Reduced Peer Interaction: School is about learning, but it's also about teaching students how to interact appropriately with one another. In school, your kid will learn social norms, make friends, learn how to talk to other children and gain the ability to be a member of a team. In a homeschool setting, your child will not necessarily have these opportunities, making it potentially harder to do well in social situations. While he'll thrive on his own, the lack of playtime may be a challenge for his social skills. To mitigate this, work to keep your child engaged with homeschool groups, sports teams, music groups and other community events so that he can socialize with other kids his own age. Participate in organized field trips or educational outings. In addition to other homeschooling families, network within your neighborhood and local disability groups.
- Parental Isolation and Exhaustion: Homeschooling is hard work. And it’s harder when you’re on a different path than people with typically developing children. It’s easy to get overwhelmed and isolated. Be sure to take care of your own needs, ask for help when you need it and make time for adult friendships and interests. Try finding another homeschooling family that you can share some teaching responsibilities with. Explore respite care options. Know your own limits and accept that there are limits to how much you can do.
Final thoughtsSelf-doubt is part and parcel with parenting, especially when your child has special needs. It can be hard to know what decision is best, and they can’t always tell you. You see your child growing, learning and making progress, but typical milestones and benchmarks may not apply. But for many families, including mine, the benefits of homeschooling outweigh the negatives. By maximizing the advantages and keeping the downsides in mind, you can make sure your child is positioned to succeed, no matter how you choose to approach the process of educating at home.
Jackie Nunes is a former pediatric nurse who is now a full-time homeschool educator and co-founder of Wondermoms.org. She and her husband have three children, all of whom are taught at home. Their middle child, an 11-year-old daughter, is hearing impaired and developmentally disabled, and uses a wheelchair.