by Stephanie Buckwater
Disclaimer: I am neither a medical professional nor a legal professional. This article is for informational purposes only. If you need medical or legal advice to help you make your decision, please consult a doctor or attorney.
Homeschooling a special needs child can be a daunting task. But so can trying to do virtual school during a shutdown. And so can muscling your way through the IEP process year after year advocating for your version of FAPE (Free And Appropriate Education, part of the special education law) versus the school’s version.
The good news is you have options. This article will help you think through your options to see which is the best fit for your child. Regardless of which option you choose, you can always change your option if it is not working for you or your child.
Education versus School, and then there’s Homeschool
Education is the process of learning. It can take place anywhere: at home, at the grocery store, in a museum, online, from books or even in your backyard. Education is limited only by the availability of a teacher and new things to learn.
School is a place. Not only that, it is an institution, an organization formed for a specific purpose. All of its rules and systems are designed to support the institution and carry out its purpose.
When we think of “doing school,” we often think of the institutional version of what education looks like. When you switch to homeschooling, you might be tempted to try to recreate school at home but that is an impossibility. (That is being proven right now as schools are trying to recreate school virtually and it doesn’t translate 100%.)
Many of the rules and requirements of the institution of school are unnecessary when educating at home. Here are just some of the differences, from the perspective of the homeschooler:
- You don’t have to spend time on roll call and class discipline.
- Your student receives one-on-one help in every subject.
- You can speed up or slow down the pace you cover material as needed
- You can adapt the curriculum specific to your child or even change it in the middle of a school year
- You have freedom to schedule classes any time of day, in any order and on any day of the week
- Electives choices are wide open
Look at that list again and think of your special needs child. Would your child benefit from an educational environment like that? Most students would, but I have a secret. Even if you continue on with public school, you can do what’s called after schooling to give your child these same benefits. If your child is only attending school for part of the day or part of the week, after schooling allows you to fill in what the school doesn’t provide—on your own terms.
What should I consider when sending my child back to virtual public school?
Special needs parents have a unique challenge when it comes to virtual school. The more severe your child’s disabilities, the more likely it is that you will become the teacher’s aide during the time your child spends online. This comes with advantages and disadvantages:
- You can see exactly what your child is learning.
- You can see the teaching method being used and evaluate its effectiveness.
- You can learn how to better teach your child by being right there during the learning process.
- If you are working on a reduced schedule of classes, you can augment what your child is doing by practicing the skills being taught.
- You have the advantages of working with your child’s education without having to find and pay for curriculum, come up with a teaching plan or submit grades/proof of progress.
- You are beholden to the schedule set by your school, with or without your input.
- You may have multiple children who need your attention during the school day, especially if you have young children or more than one special needs child.
- You are doing the work of a teacher’s aide without being paid.
- You are helping to teach your child without the ability to alter the program or teaching methods.
- You may have to forego employment to help your child with school.
- Your child may have to receive Related Services, such as therapy, virtually.
What should I consider when sending my child back to in-person public school?
If your child is to attend school in person, there are a multitude of things to consider. I’ve grouped them into three categories to help you think through your options.
- Risk of getting sick
- Stress related to a new kind of school environment
- Barriers to hand over hand learning, which many of our kids need, due to distancing requirements
- Ability to maintain proper social distancing as required by the school
- What form will discipline take for not following the rules?
- Do you have to write exceptions to the school policies into your child’s IEP?
- Potential for feelings of isolation due to masks and social distancing requirements if your child cannot understand the reasons
If your school requires masks, that opens up a huge set of potential issues. These are listed below.
Masks – General
- Does your state offer exceptions to their mask mandates for health reasons? (I recommend you read the actual Executive Order for your state. You might be surprised what is in it.)
- Will you have to document anything related to mask wearing in your child’s IEP?
- What are the health consequences of oxygen deprivation and rebreathing CO2 related to your child’s diagnosis?
- What are the health consequences of rebreathing into a mask filled with germs due to poor oral hygiene?
- Will your child be able to use a mask properly to keep it germ free?
- Does your child drool or spit? If so, how often would the school change the mask? Who would provide them or pay for them?
- What if there is a mix of masked and unmasked children in your child’s class? Is this of concern to you?
- How will other students respond to your child if they do not have to wear a mask?
Masks – Communication
- A mask increases the amount of work it takes to communicate and hear another person speak, for a population that already expends a lot of energy trying to communicate under normal circumstances.
- For apraxia students and deaf or hard of hearing: can’t see a person’s mouth, a crucial part of communication for this community of learners.
- For autism students and those who struggle with social connections: can’t see facial expressions, a crucial part of learning social skills.
Is public school at home the same thing as homeschool?
First, let me say that virtual public school is not homeschool. I’m not being a homeschool snob. There is a big difference between them and that difference is legal.
Each state’s educational system is the responsibility of the individual state, not the federal government. Homeschooling is legal in all 50 states but in most states, you have to file legal paperwork in order to homeschool. Each state has its own requirements for homeschoolers.
The best way to find out what your state requires is through the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) Click on the map or the name of your state and see a quick summary of what is required, then delve deeper into the actual laws. You can also search special needs on their site for additional information on special needs homeschooling.
What happens if I withdraw my child from public school?
For special needs families, you have additional considerations. When your child attends a public school, the school is required to abide by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). This means that each state’s educational system must meet the requirements of IDEA for every child. As a matter of fact, the Individualized Education Plan (IEP) meeting is really an administrative meeting where the school decides how they will implement IDEA as it applies to your child, with the parents having a 50% vote in the matter, regardless of the number of people sitting around the table on the school’s side.
When you decide to homeschool, your child may or may not be able to receive Related Services, such as therapies, because IDEA does not cover homeschool or private school. IDEA only applies to public schools and legally requires them to provide a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) to disabled individuals.
When you homeschool, you can request services from your local school district under the requirements of IDEA. The state provides guidelines and each school district can implement them according to their resources and budget. Fair warning: you may not be able to get any services and even if you do, you may not want to go through the IEP process for what you will receive in return for your effort.
Your Child’s IEP
If your child has an IEP, it basically becomes void when your child leaves school. There is no relationship between the IEP and your homeschool. You are free to use it as a guideline but most parents want to change it to suit what they believe their child needs versus what was agreed upon at the last IEP meeting. This is your opportunity to give your child all those things you asked for at the IEP meetings that the school wouldn’t agree to.
It’s also a good idea to check the HSLDA website to see if there are any additional requirements for homeschooling a special needs child in your state.
If your child withdraws from public school and you later decide to re-enroll, be aware of the following:
- Re-enrollment will require a new eligibility meeting and a new IEP.
- IDEA has legally defined numbers of days the school can take to hold meetings so start the process a few months before you want your child to attend school (your child can attend school before the IEP meeting takes place but without an IEP, they will be mainstreamed so it is better to plan ahead).
- Be sure to put your requests in writing. Your written request starts the clock ticking on the legally-defined timeline.
How do I start homeschooling my special needs child?
- Be crystal clear on the reason(s) you are homeschooling. You will have ups and downs and on the down days, you will need to remember your reasons. They are what will carry you through.
- File the appropriate legal paperwork according to your state’s requirements.
- Determine goals for the school year and identify milestones along the way to acknowledge progress. This step is the equivalent of creating an IEP but you can do it any way you want. Remember that the ultimate goal of education is preparing your child for adult life so you can create a mix of academics, life skills and therapy as appropriate to your child’s needs.
- Decide on activities to be used for each goal and curriculum for general subjects you will be teaching.
- Allocate some space in your home to hold teacher supplies and student materials. A box, crate or plastic tub makes a great portable classroom supply closet.
- Create a schedule of when you will teach each skill or subject. Optional: Create a visual schedule for your child to follow.
- Use a planner to plan out each week of lessons. You may not want to plan too far ahead until you work with your child for a bit.
To help you get a grip on how to get set up and start homeschooling, I have an ebook titled Crash Course: How to Teach Your Special Needs Child at Home. It includes 8 printable forms with examples on how to use them to set goals and to set up your school. When you sign up for the ebook, you will receive a series of emails with resources to help you choose curriculum and teaching tips specific to special needs students.
Things to consider in setting up your school
- Resist the urge to recreate school at home. It’s impossible to do so and will wear you out unnecessarily.
- Because you are not having to manage a whole classroom full of kids and change classes throughout the day, the school day will be much shorter than a public school day.
- You do not have to do school during “regular school hours.” If you have a job, you can work in school around your job or even do some on the weekends. For example, if you work during the day, you can work on goals throughout the week in the evenings and do the academic subjects on the weekend. There are some Facebook groups for working moms who homeschool where you can get some great ideas and support.
- You can modify curriculum as needed for your child, making it simpler or reducing the amount of material covered.
- Many goals are therapy related so therapy time counts as school time.
- Teaching life skills can be counted as school time, too, as they are part of independence in adulthood.
- Some states require a certain number of hours each school year so be sure to follow those requirements. In those states, if the school has modified their hours for any reason, check to see how it affects the requirement for homeschool.
- Being with your child 24/7 is a major stressor. You will need to find a way to take breaks during the day and arrange respite for yourself periodically.
- Joining a local homeschool support group can provide a wealth of information, some support and opportunities for group activities. It is quite possible there will not be other special needs students in the group so you’ll need to manage your expectations as far as how much support you will receive.
Know Your End of Year Requirements
Many states require some kind of proof of progress for homeschooled students. For general education students, you would simply submit test scores from a standardized test such as the California Achievement Test or Iowa Test of Basic Skills (these are acceptable in most states in spite of their names). If your child requires accommodations for testing, be sure to contact the test provider so your child’s test will not be normed alongside tests taken without accommodations. It kind of ruins the whole point of normed tests if your child has not taken the test under normal circumstances.
If your child is not able to take tests, there will be some kind of alternative way to show progress. Often, this takes the form of a portfolio so you will need to keep samples of your child’s work throughout the year to show progress. The evaluation may have to be done by a certified individual. It is best to start a relationship with an evaluator early in the school year so you know what to keep for the portfolio. Search for homeschool portfolio evaluator in your area or better yet, ask other homeschoolers or homeschool groups for referrals. Everything is state driven so be sure you use an evaluator familiar with your state’s requirements.
How do I choose the right option?
The right option today may not be the right option tomorrow. You can change your option at any time by going through the proper steps. Your decision does not have to be permanent.
This article has walked you through comparing public school to homeschooling and gives you points to think about. If you are considering homeschooling, you may have more concerns. Here is a list of practical considerations to help parents think through the impact of homeschooling on their lives and what it might look like.
Ultimately, you will know if you’ve made the right decision when you see how your child responds. Is your child progressing academically? Is your child acquiring life skills that will give maximum independence in adulthood? Is the school arrangement building your relationship with your child or tearing it down? Yes answers to these questions are the markers of educational success.
About the Author
Stephanie Buckwalter is married and has four sons, and a daughter who is special needs. Her kids have done a mix of homeschool, private school and public school. In addition to homeschooling for fifteen years, she’s taught classes locally and online, and helped start a robotics club and a classical education co-op. She volunteers at her state homeschool convention to help parents of special needs children and struggling learners by answering questions about homeschooling, curriculum, testing and transferring into or out of the public school system.
As a writer for over 25 years, she’s written a little of everything from encyclopedia articles (someone has to write them) to stories for the Chicken Soup for the Soul® series.
She has written six books for the school library market and a book on apraxia. You can find her in real life at home with family or outdoors appreciating nature, or online at ArtofSpecialNeedsParenting.com a blog for parents of special needs children.