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.