From time to time I like to feature guest posts by either Speech language pathologists or those in other fields working to positively impact kids and parents. Today I want to introduce you to Jackie Nunes, from WonderMoms.org. Jackie is a former pediatric nurse who has first hand experience educating her child with special needs through homeschool. Here’s her helpful advice:
There’s a special anxiety that comes with sending your son or daughter with special needs off to school. You hope more than anything that the other kids will be kind, the teacher will be firm but patient, and there will be plenty of resources and support. But that isn’t always the case. It can be gut-wrenching to see your child come home unhappy and know things aren’t going well – especially if your child can’t tell you why.
Homeschooling has a lot of advantages for kids with special needs. You can really focus on their strengths and weaknesses, design lessons that interest them, take breaks when needed, and create a comfortable, sensory-friendly learning environment in your home. Your child benefits from the individual attention and you can plan your school day around doctor appointments, therapy, or family obligations without racking up absences. Another huge win is waving goodbye to meltdowns during drop-offs and not having to worry about playground bullies.
Unfortunately, there are resources available in a public school system you no longer have access to if you teach your child at home. It’s hard to replicate the structure of formal learning, athletic fields, science labs, access to a full-time nurse, and the insights of an entire teaching staff in your living room. Many districts have full-time speech therapists and reading specialists who work with students who have disabilities.
Before pulling your child out of school, it’s important to consider the pros and cons of homeschooling your child with special needs. We’ll also look at the experience from the perspective of a child with cerebral palsy, blindness, autism or another learning difficulty. When daily tasks are mentally and physically challenging, it’s easy to see how frustration and other emotions can take over once in a while.
Advantages of Homeschooling Children with Special Needs
The biggest benefit of homeschooling is flexibility. While it’s important to have a routine, if your child is having a bad day, you can cut your lessons short. If a teachable moment arises, you can take advantage of it. It’s OK to double-dip in your parent and teacher duties. Go ahead and turn measuring ingredients for dinner into a science or math lesson. A trip to the dentist can quickly incorporate a lesson on different types of teeth and their purposes. Alternately, bring a reading book along so that you don’t lose the time. Here are some of the many benefits of home learning:
- Reduced anxiety. Basically, homeschooling your child with special needs decreases anxiety thanks to a quieter environment in a familiar setting. Removing performance pressure decreases frustration and outbursts.
- Hone in on strengths. If you’re used to reading remarks at the end of the day or week that highlight your child’s unusual actions, it will be refreshing to document progress from the perspective of their strengths. You are there for every win and can comfort them if anything goes sideways.
- Set the pace. Spend as much time as you need on concepts or skills that are hard for your child.
- Be creative. Children have different learning styles and sometimes music or movement are better than sitting still and listening. There are different teaching approaches you can use. Find the one that works best for your family.
- Quality social opportunities. You can join local groups that encourage kids to related to one another on their own terms. One mom talks about her positive homeschool experience and gives 101 reasons it works for her child.
Disadvantages of Homeschooling Children with Special Needs
Of course, there are challenges to consider before deciding to homeschool your child with special needs. Here are a few things to keep in mind:
- Less structure. You probably won’t be able to replicate the structure of a traditional school environment. Children with special needs thrive on predictable routines and can become easily upset or frustrated over small changes. Some kids might benefit from remaining in the more structured public school. Unfortunately, the only way to find this out is to give it a try and constantly reassess what the best environment is for your learner.
- Fewer resources. School districts never have as much money as they’d like, but they do usually have accessible facilities, art and music equipment, gymnasiums, sports fields, auditoriums, media centers, science labs, and more. They employ professional educators, coaches, special education experts, and school nurses.
- Less peer interaction. Even if you arrange playdates and get-togethers on a regular basis, your child will have less contact with same-age peers. Those peers also will miss out on the chance to learn alongside a person with a disability and benefit from exposure to special needs.
- Parental isolation and burnout. Parents who homeschool sometimes find that they never get a break. They are “on duty” from morning until night – serving as parent, teacher, coach, chauffeur, cook, therapist, referee, and more. It can be exhausting.
Focus on Things You Can Fix
There are things that you have much more control over, but you still can’t control everything that might go wrong in a homeschool environment. Instead of thinking about the resources that aren’t available to your homeschooled child, think about how you can fill in the gaps and gain valuable skills.
- Go online. There is an astonishing abundance of high-quality lesson plans, curricula, and special needs teaching aids online – much of it free. You can also stock up on basic craft supplies and take advantage of Pinterest and YouTube to find art project ideas.
- Network with other families. Check out homeschooling organizations and connect with parents in your area who also homeschool. Try to arrange joint field trips and perhaps partner for lessons.
- Participate in after-school activities. Most communities have after-school art, music, and drama programs. You can sign up for karate, swimming, youth sports, or more through local groups or Special Olympics. Many homeschooled children also participate in Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts.
- Prepare for emergencies. Although there’s no nurse’s clinic to send your child to, you can keep a well-stocked first aid kit and take a CPR class to help you feel confident in case of an emergency.
Create an IEP
Each public school child eligible for special education has an Individualized Education Program (IEP). As a homeschooling parent, you may not have to have one at home, but it’s a good idea to set goals at the beginning of the year and monitor progress over time. An IEP can also help you communicate with specialists. There are free tools that can help you generate your own.
Know Yourself and Your Child
Your child with special needs could thrive under your tutelage if you have the patience and courage to lead the way. However, not all children and parents are cut out for homeschooling. Take into account your own need for self-care and your frustration threshold in general. If you’ve thought it through and think it could work for your family, do it! If it doesn’t work out, you can always return to a traditional school setting.
Jackie Nunes is a blogger at WonderMoms.org. She is a former pediatric nurse and now a full-time homeschool educator. She and her husband have three children. Their middle child suffered a traumatic brain injury when she was 4. Now 11 years old, she is hearing impaired and uses a wheelchair. Jackie and two other moms created Wonder Moms as a project to share real talk, helpful information, and practical advice with parents of kids who have intellectual disabilities, Down syndrome, autism, language and speech delays, deafness, chronic illness, and traumatic brain injury.