Homeschooling pros and cons

Posted: January 20th, 2009 under interventions, opinion, parenting.
Tags: , , ,

Thirty years ago,  children with disabilities were not guaranteed education in public schools.    My state had residential schools in the state capital for deaf children and for blind children, but nothing for children who had other disabilities.     I remember the mother of a childhood friend fighting with the school board so her daughter–with severe hearing impairment–could attend regular classes.   (Her daughter is now a professor of chemistry.)    If they weren’t institutionalized,  disabled children were home-schooled, usually by tutors, like Helen Keller.

But now that federal law requires schools to educate all children, why would a parent choose homeschooling?  And why are the advantages–and challenges–of doing so?    Here are some things to think about, from someone who did it.

Why consider (or commit to) homeschooling?   The needs of the child, the resources of the school, and the resources  of the parent(s) should all be part of the equation.

School:  What special-ed resources does the school have; what financial resources does it have to expand existing services if necessary.  We live in a very small town (smaller twenty years ago.)  All spec-ed services (speech therapy, occupational therapy, etc) were provided through a county special-ed co-op for all the small schools in the county.  This meant a maximum of 30 minutes of speech therapy a week.    And a first-grade teacher whose most one question for me was “Will he sit still and be quiet?”    A barely-verbal child does not need to spend all but 30 minutes a week being quiet…the point was to increase his verbal ability, not squash it.   At the end of that meeting, the county special-education-co-op coordinator took me aside and said “Have you considered home-schooling?”    If, on the other hand, a school district has the resources to provide what the child needs, then public school attendance may well be preferable.  Years later, we transitioned our son into public high school, which he (and the school) both enjoyed–both the child and the school had additional competency by then.

Child’s needs:  If the child  has needs the school cannot meet  (not just is unwilling to meet, but cannot meet) then for the child’s own good another solution is necessary.   I knew that suing the school district to force compliance with federal law would not work, because (having been in city government here) I knew what the tax base was, and wasn’t.   There was no wiggle room in the budget,  and–in the political climate in this state–no additional funding was going to appear to make it possible fast enough to provide a program suitable for our son.   Nor, when I talked to therapy professionals, was there a school district within a hundred miles that had what they felt he needed.   Nor a private school (even if we could have afforded a private school, which we couldn’t.)

Parent resources:   My background for teaching included multiple college degrees,  long experience working with children (from babysitting and church nursery duties as a teenager, through tutoring junior high and high school students while in grad school, to volunteer teaching in the local school system, where I had designed and taught a course on emergency response. )   From tutoring, I’d developed flexibility in teaching–adapting to each of my very different students.   I knew how to set up a curriculum, how to assess progress (including in nonstandard ways), how to make up my own teaching materials, etc.   I was already doing a lot of our son’s therapy, since we could not afford to go to the medical center very often or hire therapists to come to us.    I knew I could teach, and I knew I could teach  this particular child: we had already accomplished things that proved it.

So, in our situation, homeschooling made excellent sense:  I had the knowledge and skills and will to teach; I could provide both structure and the flexibility the school could not.   When we transitioned him into public high school, the school expressed amazement that he adjusted so easily and was so easy to get along with–that was no accident, but a deliberate plan from the day I started homeschooling (it just took longer to get to that point than I’d hoped.)

Some people worry that homeschooled children don’t get any socialization.   Fact is, some kids in special ed do not get good socialization either.   Socialization requires that the child be capable of what is asked, and that the other children involved are both capable of, and guided to, healthy social interactions.   It’s often easier to socialize a child out of the classroom, where the demand can be titrated to the child’s growing competence.    Homeschooling does not mean locking a child into the house with one adult all day every day–it means being able to go out into the world at times that work *for that child* (not for a school operating on a set schedule every day.)

Our son had many developmental delays–physical, mental, social-emotional–and homeschooling allowed us to work where he was…often a little advanced in math concepts, always considerably behind in language and social-emotional.     As a former tutor who had dealt with the results of spotty learning in neuro-typical kids, I knew that solid learning was more important than fast learning.    Better to be two years behind but know and understand the concepts thoroughly than supposedly at “age/grade level” with holes in the learning that would cause problems later on.   Homeschooling enabled me to move at his pace, sometimes very fast (geography–he memorized maps like nobody’s business) and sometimes very slow.

There were setbacks.  When my mother died, a few months after I started homeschooling,  our son regressed.  (So did I–grief does that.)   The next three months were the worst: the only advance came when he acquired the word “NO!”  which he hadn’t used before.    But the proof of the pudding came later, as year by year he developed and eventually made that seamless transition to high school.    For us, this worked.

It would not work for all.    As I’d found when tutoring, one-on-one teaching is intense and takes a lot of energy.    Good teaching requires concentration on the learner’s experience and the energy and creativity to change the program if it’s not working.    If it becomes a dominance game (often the result of the teacher’s exhaustion or depression) , what the student learns is all about dominance–not the subject.

When it’s your own child, keeping that in mind can be very difficult.    Detaching from the parent/boss role to become the mentor/teacher is impossible for some parents.     Very rigid and controlling parents may be unsuited for homeschooling, especially if their main concern is to prevent the child from learning or doing  something.   But the disorganized parent who can  provide little structure and cannot plan for long-term goals is equally ineffective.     Homeschooling is  not just babysitting–parents who teach at home need to have in mind long term, intermediate, and short-term goals.   Especially for  disabled students,  teachers must be so thoroughly familiar with what they’re teaching that they can find multiple ways to approach a topic, be alert to student confusion, and be willing to change course in a flash to head off that confusion or follow a spark of understanding.

Parents who are exhausted (emotionally, physically) by the tasks they already have should not plan to homeschool.    If  the child’s needs suggest that homeschooling is a good idea, then the child needs a parent-teacher who has the knowledge, the skills, the energy, the time, and the creativity to spend–it is intense, steady work over a period of years, just as if the parent were a public school teacher.   With a disabled child, in particular, you can’t just buy someone else’s curriculum and plug the child into it–you need to develop a curriculum that offers just enough challenge now, and builds towards more progress later.

Homeschooling can be an open door to the world–it can be the best way for a child–especially a disabled child in a school district with limited resources–to grow to their potential.  But it’s not right for every child, every family,    every situation.    Choosing to homeschool should be a decision informed by consideration of  the child’s needs and the resources available in public schools, private schools, and the home.


  • Comment by Kerry — January 20, 2009 @ 1:57 pm


    I have been reading for a while now and it sounds like you did a wonderful job with your son – congratulations!

    I am SO glad that the school district where we live has a good special-ed program. I would make a terrible homeschool teacher.

  • Comment by Elizabeth — January 20, 2009 @ 3:31 pm


    It’s good that you know that, AND that you live in a good district. Parents who know they shouldn’t try to homeschools sometimes move to find a district that can serve their child well…and that can be the right (even the necessary) decision. I know of another family with an autistic child a year older than our son who did in fact move to a much larger city.

    That’s why there’s no one right answer–every child is different, every parent, every school district, etc.

  • Comment by sari — January 20, 2009 @ 3:56 pm


    Excellent post, E., and one which should be printed in every book on parenting children with disabilities.

    Here are a few of other things people might want to keep in mind.

    Know your child, not as a disability, but where his strengths and weaknesses lay, which skills she’s mastered and which she should have but hasn’t (e.g., using words or attempting to communicate by a certain age), and use that to drive programming. Research, research, research. Make yourself an expert, because your child risks being viewed as a label whose needs can be met with a canned program if you don’t.

    Keep your eyes open to all possibilities and verify what others may say, especially about what school may or may not be able to offer your child. Some schools are plain bad, but some parents have unrealistic expectations about what schools can or should offer and become angry when those expectations fail to be realized. I’ve seen it both ways.

    It is imperative to be knowledgeable about local, state, and federal SpEd law as it is practiced (law has its own lingo). For instance, every child, age 3-18, is entitled to a free evaluation for suspected disabilities through the public school district (IDEA, Federal law), but the length of time to complete and present the eval varies with locality. Make every request *in writing*; verbal doesn’t count. Many parents walk into the office, tell the clerk that they want their child evaluated, and then walk out without finding out *what* needs to be done to make the eval happen. Others don’t realize that they have a say in *how* the child is to be evaluated. The parent is supposed to be an active part of the process.

    Question any “rule” that seems off. Some administrators make rules on the fly; every district has a written protocol for SpEd. “We don’t do it that way here” doesn’t fly. I always ask to see any given policy: “Where is it written?” At that point they’ll usually back down.

    Make use of ALL resources and look for creative solutions. It may be that your child can tolerate a partial day in a public school setting or take advantage of speech, physical and/or occupational therapy without attending classes. Another child might benefit from attending PE, lunch, Art or Music with non-disabled age peers. MHMR (public mental health) may provide services or respite by qualified caregivers. Explore all possibilities to the fullest.

    Avoid bandwagons or disability organizations that adhere to rigid platforms which may be antithetical to your child’s needs. My son needed to be in a SpEd classroom, but the big push among disability organizations was to mainstream, whether or not it was appropriate. We pushed to have him pulled and worked on developing behavior that would one day allow him to attend regular classes. I saw a number of children, much more delayed than he, whose parents believed that mainstreaming with an aide would lead their autistic children to mirror neurotypical children’s behavior. It did not. Their children -and- their classmates were miserable; no learning–academic or social–took place.

    Continually assess and reassess your child’s programming. Elizabeth pointed out that her son matured to the point where public school made sense -and- that what public school had to offer changed over time. The educational sector is not static; neither are our kids.

  • Comment by Elizabeth — January 20, 2009 @ 4:37 pm


    Sari, I was planning to cover much of this in another post.

    I guess now I won’t.

  • Comment by sari — January 20, 2009 @ 5:09 pm



  • Comment by Beth — January 20, 2009 @ 11:27 pm


    I love this post. I worry a great deal about my son (currently three) and how he will adjust to school in the coming years. We are in a small, rural district, but so far their special needs preschool program is working well and our son loves it there.

    I am unfortunately in that group who wouldn’t be able to home school because it would drive me insane. It’s doing me a lot of good to have him in preschool four days a week, and I think I’m a much better parent in the time that he’s home. Still, it makes me feel guilty sometimes. I love learning, and I love teaching him – but being autistic, he’s very particular about what he wants to learn. He could name and locate all fifty states when he was two, and he couldn’t even put together a simple sentence.

    I only hope that our little guy continues to love school, and that the school treats him well in return. If not… well, we’ll take it as it comes. One day at a time.

  • Comment by Elizabeth — January 21, 2009 @ 9:45 am


    It’s wise of you to know your limits. Your limits may be somewhere else when he’s older–or not.

    You may already have done this, but if you notice what your son wants to learn, it will give you clues about how his sensory system and mind work…and that can help you help his teachers to understand what’s going to make learning other things easier.

    Also, a word of encouragement–*most* small children are particular about what they want to learn (um…most adults, for that matter, are the same way) and following their lead often opens doors in other skills. Our son was one of the “limp” autistic kids…try to push him and it was like trying to push a piece of cooked spaghetti through a maze. But grab the other end of the noodle (so to speak) and his own interests would pull that trailing limp stuff through the maze. “Stiff” kids (the uncooked spaghetti) can be pushed to some degree–but they run into the corners and stick or break off. (This is a weird analogy, but it worked for me…I kept wanting to push, but it just did not work most of the time. This kid, if pushed, would go physically limp and slide off chairs onto the floor as if he had no bones at all.)

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a comment