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Special Needs Parenting: The Pros and Cons of Homeschooling a Child with Disabilities
Guest Post by Jackie Nunes
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.
You’re in the pickup line at school, silently willing the six cars in front of you to go a little faster. It’s not just that you’re going to be late for work, you’ve got a ticking bomb in the car. Your eyes dart constantly to check on your child with special needs. On a good day, he sits there quietly, and then there are the other days, days you wish you could just skip the whole ordeal. If you’ve had more days like this than you care to remember, maybe it’s time to consider homeschooling.
Homeschooling is a big commitment, but no one can give your child the time and attention he needs like you can. It sounds cliché, but it’s still true. Luckily, there are a lot of great resources out there to help you. You may not have science labs, sports fields, reading specialists, or a full-time school nurse available in your home, but you also don’t have to worry about kids bullying or teasing your child daily. Let’s look at some of the other pros and cons.
Why Home May Be the Ideal Environment
All children have the right to know they are loved. For kids with special needs, this is even more crucial. If you have the time and temperament to homeschool, you can give your child the most caring and committed teacher he will ever have. You get to decide what, when, where, and how to teach. If your child needs frequent breaks, you can take them. If your child has a particular interest or passion, you can work it into your lessons. Homeschooling parents can influence their kids in ways traditional educators only dream of.
Having a disability is something your child must deal with every day. Homeschooling lets you help your child embrace and accept his differences, and not see them as an unbearable weakness. When you homeschool, you can spend a lot of time teaching your child he was created by design and that anyone who says anything different is just wrong.
You can create a rich environment at home that stimulates your child without overwhelming them. The physical environment impacts how the brain processes data. Here are some things to incorporate as you start outfitting and equipping your homeschooling space.
- A place for everything.
- Keep your lesson area organized for more productive learning. Keep lots of storage options around to keep clutter to a minimum. Get your student involved in wiping down surfaces and tidying up by playing their favorite music during cleanup time.
- A computer station. Modern homeschooling generally includes technology, but you want to control its use.
- Alternative seating. If you have a restless student, try getting a yoga ball, swing, or mini-trampoline that can absorb some of that excess energy.
- Bookcases. Bookcases keep workbooks and supplies in easy reach and they provide extra space to display artwork.
- A rug and throw pillows. This is where controlling your own classroom has its perks. When your active learner decides he wants to sit on the floor instead of the desk, throw down a rug and some pillows, grab a book and class is in session!
- Baskets or bins for supplies. Once you start using baskets and bins for your supplies, you won’t know what you did without it.
- Soft music. Studies show that classical and movie music stimulate brain activity so that your student can focus. Get creative with this.
Besides being able to give your child attention and create a calm and inspiring learning environment, there are other advantages to homeschooling:
- Schedule flexibility. Although it’s important to have routines, you can be spontaneous if the weather is particularly nice and head to the park or the pool. If your child is having an “off” day, you can stop your lessons early. When scheduling appointments and checkups, you don’t have to wait for an in-demand afternoon or evening slot.
- Customized teaching methods. There are at least seven different learning styles including visual, auditory, verbal, kinesthetic, logical, social, and solitary. As a homeschooling parent, you are free to use music, movement, hands-on manipulatives, and more to help your child grasp and retain concepts.
- Positive social interactions. It’s a little harder to schedule social interactions for your child when you homeschool, but you can keep a closer eye on how things are going and schedule regular get-togethers with kids who are nice. Connecting with local homeschool organizations is a great way to find like-minded families and participate in joint field trips and activities.
Like all things in life, there are a few drawbacks to consider before pulling your child out of school. It’s important to understand what you’re giving up:
- Specialized facilities. Most schools have gymnasiums, sports fields, science labs, theaters or auditoriums, art and music rooms, and more. Those can be hard to replicate at home, but that doesn’t mean your child can’t have the experience of being on a team or performing on stage. You can get involved with Little League or Special Olympics, take classes at the local YMCA, or sign up for karate, gymnastics, soccer, or dance. Look for after-school enrichment programs in drama or music. One homeschooler compiled a helpful list of online art resources and tutorials that is worth checking out.
- Specialists and support services. Make sure you understand the laws governing homeschooling in your state. Many kids with special needs benefit from seeing an occupational therapist, speech therapist, reading specialist, or educational psychologist. Depending on where you live, you might be able to access these through the state department of education. Some states offer homeschooled students the same services as those enrolled in traditional schools, but others provide nothing once you withdraw from the public education system. If you can’t get services through your school district, you can try your health insurance plan but there might be a copay or deductible. Your child won’t have access to a school nurse, but you can take an online first aid and CPR class.
- Measuring progress. Guilt and self-doubt are inescapable parts of parenting. We always worry about whether we’re doing too much or too little and making the right choices. It’s especially tough when your child has special needs. Parents who homeschool typical children can use standard grade-level benchmarks to measure progress and reassure themselves that their kids are doing just as well as the child down the street. But when your child has intellectual disabilities or developmental delays, the normal milestones may not apply. It’s hard to know if they’re learning as much at home as they would in school. One way to track your child’s gains is to make your own homeschool IEP (individualized education plan).
- Isolation and exhaustion. Homeschooling takes a lot of mental and emotional energy. It’s also easy to become isolated if your child’s special needs make outings complicated or stressful. When you spend days teaching and every spare moment parenting, it’s hard to draw a line and get some alone time. But self-care is essential and needs to be prioritized as much as any lesson. Make sure you spend at least 15 to 20 minutes a day doing something for yourself – whether it’s taking a walk around the neighborhood or a bubble bath after dinner. Get a babysitter from time to time and have date nights with your spouse or outings with adult friends. It’s important to take care of your own needs. You will be more effective at teaching your child if you recharge your batteries from time to time.
- Income and Finances. Homeschooling, like parenting, is a full-time job. The demands of running a homeschool doesn’t offer much free-time or a chance to earn an income. This can take a toll on the family finances, especially if your child with special needs requires costly medication or specialized equipment. To help keep your expenses low, use your public library and take advantage of free resources online. Get your kids involved in meal preparation. It’s healthier, a good way to teach life skills, and it’s much cheaper than eating out.
Homeschooling can be a good solution if your child isn’t getting enough attention or support in a traditional school setting, but it’s not a step to take lightly. Every situation is different. It’s important to identify resources and know what you’d be giving up as well as getting. Whatever you choose, you’ll feel better if you’ve done research and made an informed decision.
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, developmentally disabled, and uses a wheelchair.