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Homeschooling the Special Needs Child
By Kym Wright
 
Special children are not given to special families; they are born to normal folks like you and me. Hopefully, we will rise to the occasion, finding ways to help them progress to their greatest potential.

When the doctor first mentioned that our adopted son might be mildly autistic, it confirmed my suspicions, but left me feeling inadequate. While the diagnosis of a special-needs child usually brings relief that your notions and observations were correct, it can also bring fear of the unknown, grief for the future your child will never know, and confusion about how to teach. Somehow, I no longer felt capable of teaching him at home. Yes, we had schooled our seven other children for 12 years, but this was beyond my perceived scope and ability. I am grateful I found some wonderful resources that encouraged me to try, and told me that "Yes, I can!" homeschool a special needs child. Moreover, I could also understand what an Individualized Educational Plan (IEP) was and how to write one. And if I can, so can you.

Something I discovered was that the same reasons that motivate us for homeschooling our other children apply -- in even more pronounced ways -- to our handicapped child. We want him to have good character and to learn our values. Academics geared for his level, learning style, and interests can be modified to fit his areas of need and giftedness. Children become like those they spend time with: If they spend time with other learning-disabled children, they will become more like them. If they spend more time with the family, we will have the most influence in their lives. Since we have been homeschooling our seven "normal" children, our family decided this would be best for our special child, too.

Our first call was to Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA).1 Their Special-Needs Coordinator returned my call with much encouragement and information regarding catalogs to order, books to borrow and buy, support groups with newsletters. Not long after, one of their lawyers contacted us next with the legal information. It is important to know that not having a special needs child tested and diagnosed can be viewed as medical neglect, however, testing through the local school might not be the best idea. Public school students with disabilities bring more government funding to the local school system than do normal children. The difference is phenomenal; averaging $6,000 per normal student per year up to $100,000 yearly for a special-needs child. Using a homeschool-friendly tester, not associated with social services or the local school is usually the best option. HSLDA provides members with referrals. Testing is not just for a label, but for a handle - so you can gather the most helpful resources, ask the right questions, and locate the best support and assistance.

Research now indicates that the home is by far the best situation for most special children, so HSLDA highly recommends homeschooling any child with a learning disability or special need.2 Since the primary caregiver (usually a parent) knows the child the best, s/he is the one most qualified to teach the child.3 Since there is a built-in rapport within the family structure, there is no need to re-establish this daily, as would be the case in a school setting. Also, the family knows the child's personality and temperament and can usually tell when to push or back off.

I soon discovered Joyce Herzog and her many books on homeschooling the special needs child,4 including book-length lists of what to teach when -- academically, socially, physically, hygiene, life skills and spiritually speaking. With a Master's in Learning Disabilities, she is well-qualified to write and offers her services to personally come to your home to test and teach you how to teach your child. Those who have hired Mrs. Herzog report great insight, sensitivity and a changed mindset from her services.

Author, speaker and testing consultant, Dr. Joesph Sutton 5 and his wife have over 25 years' combined experience teaching students with disabilities. Their book, written specifically for homeschooling parents, Strategies for Struggling Learners, begins with down-to-earth information on the multitude of disabilities. Defining and describing them, it progresses to the practical "how-to's" of testing, diagnosing and home-teaching the child with special needs.

My next contact was with the National Challenged Homeschoolers Associated Network (NATHHAN).6 Run by the Bushnells, it is a clearinghouse of information, resources and contacts, and they could refer us to families with the same type of situation as ours. The members can offer a hand to hold when you feel overwhelmed. Dealing with most types of disabilities, they can refer you also to newsletters, curricula, books, catalogs and other resources for your need. They publish a quarterly newsletter and emphasize the need for parents to educate themselves first. They offer resources, but no teaching, nor practical hands-on help.

Speaking of which, for years we looked for a home speech therapy course. Traveling once or twice a week to the therapist's office got old, and we felt we could work with our child more often and more thoroughly at home. Finally, Marisa Lapish (M.A. in Speech Pathology) wrote Straight Talk,7 a curriculum for parents to teach how to evaluate problem sounds, teach correct formation of the sound, and reproduce it correctly in words and sentences. 2nd Straight Talk teaches how to construct sentences and language. Both of these books have been wonderful resources.

There were other books that helped me begin this journey of homeschooling a special-needs child with many of them available at your local library. With much emotional support, guidance through the grief, curriculum suggestions, behavior training and practical help in planning the student's IEP, Home Schooling Children with Special Needs by Sharon Hensley is a great first resource. Coping with a Learning Disability describes 21 learning disabilities, gives easy-to-read examples of each, but no homeschooling advice for parents of LD.10 The Special Education Sourcebook is a teacher's guide to programs, materials, and information sources. This is a list of newsletters, magazines, catalogs and other resources available per specific disability. 11

Searching the Internet for information proved helpful. There are many bulletin and chat boards, along with websites to provide you with ideas, contacts, resources and support. Since there are many disabilities and variations in special needs, a list of these web locations would prove too long, or would not meet the specific need you have. I have included a few to begin with, and you can follow the links or do a search of your own as well.

Now to writing that IEP. In my mind, I found that writing an IEP was easy as PIE!

IEP DEFINITION

An IEP is an Individualized Educational Plan, used mainly for children with special needs. In many states 2 the law requires an IEP for homeschooled special needs children. Even if yours doesn't, there are so many benefits that you should consider by writing one anyway. First of all, doing an IEP helps you focus on specific goals and plan ways to measure progress. If the goals are too lofty and unattainable this semester or if you have been too easy, you can go back and rework them. Next, it gives you a thoughtful, sequential plan to make daily progress towards larger goals. An IEP also looks impressive and professional, helping in any conflict with state or school board officials. Finally, an IEP helps you see you have accomplished things during the year.

In her book The IEP Manual, Deborah Mills states, "The task of designing an IEP is to create a specialized curriculum for a particular child. To implement an IEP for home education, the plan must fit comfortably into the family's lifestyle and reflect personal values." 8

In Strategies for Struggling Learners, Dr. Joe Sutton writes, "We believe that a tailor-made curriculum is a better approach over the modified regular curriculum approach."5 The IEP should be comprehensive, including every area of life. Specific goals and objectives should be stated in measurable, observable behaviors. Sequencing level-development gives order to the goals. Also, it is important to remember to set realistic and appropriate plans, in understandable language. Think of an IEP as a pie- the slices representing areas of life- where every type of therapy or learning belongs to at least one of these categories:

Domestic: home life skills, chores, hygiene, dressing
Academic: school, book learning, computer, reading
Character/Spiritual: behavior goals, learning about the Lord
Vocational: work skills, marketable skills
Community: relating to neighbors, friends, store personnel, church members, going to the store or other public places
Recreation/Leisure: playtime, hobbies, fun activities

IEP CONTENTS

Include the whole family in the plans. Since homeschooling a special needs child will affect the whole family, everyone needs to be involved. Sometimes our other siblings see things I don't and have good insight into what we need to include in the IEP. This also helps them get involved in helping the special child, builds relationships, and gives them more compassion for those in need. Present level of performance. Write an assessment telling what level the child is accomplishing now. What are his weaknesses? This can include professional tests and evaluations or your assessment (age equivalent capabilities or descriptions of activities). Be as complete as possible, as this is the foundation of the IEP, and include copies of all documentation.

Annual Goals. What my student with a disability can reasonably be expected to accomplish in a year's time in specific areas. Address identified areas of weakness, making this unique to your child's individuality as opposed to their specific disability. What is the next level of accomplishment or learning? This includes therapies, specialists, etc. These become this year's goals. Some families make 5- and 10-year goals to set a vision for "where we're ultimately headed."

Objectives. Break the goals down to measurable, concrete objectives. These are sequential steps moving the child towards the yearly goals. What can we do this month, quarter or semester to accomplish the plan? Who will do it and where? What special equipment do we need? What is the target date of accomplishment?

Set a daily plan. When can I fit this into the schedule? Set the daily sequence, including therapy sessions, breaks, and chores.

Plan the criteria and procedures to test or measure progress. Criteria examples: professional evaluation, performs skill a set number of times, masters a skill, percentage of accuracy. Procedure examples: mommy-made test, finishes curriculum (or portions), interview or observations, samples of work, etc.

Evaluation: Schedule reassessment times to help you stay on target, change daily plans, simplify or make the goals harder. This evaluation can be completed daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, or by a specified date.

Since homeschooling a special needs child is more time-consuming, and sometimes harder emotionally, husband and wife need to work and talk through the details. These include the needs, the goals, who will help, the equipment and everything involved with homeschooling a special needs child. And most importantly, prayer, asking the Lord to give strength, wisdom and guidance as you raise this special child for Him.

Footnotes

  1. HSLDA, POB 3000, Purcellville, VA 20134, 540/338-5600. Membership: $100/year. www.hslda.org
  2. Some states require prior approval to homeschool a specia-needs child, others demand state-certified special education teachers be involved in the teaching or evaluation of a child with special needs. Be sure find out about the laws in your state, through homeschool leadership or HSLDA.
  3. HSLDA "Homeschooling Your Special Needs Child"
  4. Special Needs books by Joyce Herzog: Learning In Spite of Labels; Choosing & Using Curriculum for your Special Needs Child; Luke's Lifelong List (Individual Education Planner); and Luke's Academics List. Joyce Herzog, Simplified Learning Products, POB 45387, Rio Rancho, NM 87174-5387; 1-800/745-8212; www.joyceherzog.com
  5. Dr. Sutton, 220 Douglas Drive, Simpsonville, SC 29681; 864/967-4729; suttonjp@juno.com
  6. NATHHAN, 5383 Alpine Road SE, Olalla, WA 98359, 253/857-4257. Membership $25/year (includes $15 discount to HSLDA). www.nathhan.com
  7. Straight Talk 1 and 2 from homeschool catalogs or NATHHAN.
  8. The IEP Manual: The "How To" Guide for Developing Homeschool IEP's, by Deborah Mills
  9. Strategies for Struggling Learners, by Joe Sutton, Ph.D.
  10. Library #371.9 Cla.
  11. Library #[R] 371.9 Ros
Married a quarter century, Mark & Kym Wright have homeschooled their 8 children for 17+ years. They publish Learn & Do Unit Studies. Free catalog available from website at www.learn-and-do.com or by writing to POB 81124, Conyers, GA 30013.