Raising a child with special needs is a journey that most of us wouldn’t trade for anything, but at times, feels like you’re navigating without a map. Milestones don’t happen on the usual timetable, and many of the rituals and routines that work for typical children don’t work for ours. Schooling can be particularly difficult to get right. Families have more choices than ever — with public schools, private schools, charter schools, parochial schools, virtual schools, and homeschooling — but picking the right option for your family can be tough.
For some kids with special needs, inclusion in a traditional classroom setting works well. But for others, it can be an uphill battle to get proper services, accommodations, and attention. Homeschooling can solve many of these problems, and it has been a blessing for my family. But before going this route, you should know this, too, can come with challenges. It’s not a choice to be made lightly. Be sure to examine the pros and cons to make sure it’s the best option for you and your child.
Pros of homeschooling
The benefits of homeschooling your child are numerous. You pick what, when, where, and how to teach your child. The energy that you otherwise might have spent fighting for services can be spent nurturing your child’s sense of curiosity and wonder. Other advantages that come with homeschooling include:
One-on-one attention: Your child doesn’t have to compete with 20 or more other students for a harried and overworked teacher’s attention. You can provide the one-on-one interaction that is usually hard to receive in the traditional school setting.
Control over schedule: You can structure each day in the way that best suits your child’s physical and emotional needs. If your child needs frequent breaks, you can provide them.
Flexibility with scheduling doctor or therapy appointments: This is a biggie because it can be nearly impossible to get after-school or evening appointments, and too many absences directly impact learning for kids with or without learning difficulties.
Control over the physical learning environment: You can create the most favorable learning setting for your child, adapting your home to accommodate any sensory issues associated with light, sound, or scent.
Choose best teaching style for your child: You are uniquely qualified to know what will “click” with your child. Traditional whiteboard and textbook lessons might not be as good as manipulatives that your child can touch, or concepts taught through music and movement.
No worries about bullying: Children can be unkind to kids who are different. While every year there are wonderful news stories of high school students with Down syndrome and other disabilities being crowned homecoming king or queen, there are many kids with special needs who sit alone at lunch, are left out at recess, and, worse, are bullied or mistreated. As a homeschooling parent, you can control who interacts with your child.
Positive social interactions: Socialization is not limited to lunch and recess. You can network with other homeschooling families, join coops, and schedule quality interactions, positioning your child to develop solid relationships.
No comparisons to peers: Your child’s performance is judged on personal milestones, achievements, and improvements, not those of their classmates.
Focus on strengths: In schools, an emphasis is often placed on remediation of weaknesses. Through homeschooling, you can focus on the positive as well, giving your child more confidence in the process.
A significant study, conducted by Dr. Steven Duvall, found kids with learning disabilities thrived in the homeschool setting when compared with those learning in traditional classrooms.
Cons of homeschooling
As with most choices in life, deciding to homeschool your child with special needs has some downsides as well. To choose the best educational setting for your child, you’ll have to take an honest look at the full picture and take the following drawbacks into consideration:
Specialists and therapists: You might not have access to reading specialists, speech therapists, and other professionals if you take your child out of school. In New York, some local school districts offer support to homeschooled children, but you might have to get services like occupational or physcial therapy, speech, counseling, or cognitive therapy through your health insurance plan, or pay out of pocket.
Peer interaction: Your child may not have consistent daily peer interaction and there is a risk of becoming isolated. Many kids with special needs benefit from watching and interacting with typically developing children. It has also been shown that kids without disabilities benefit from exposure to disabled peers.
No access to a full-time school nurse: School nurses can be valuable members of a special education team, noticing health issues that might impact learning and providing support in case of emergencies.
Art, music, and sports facilities: It’s hard to replicate the facilities and sports fields that most public schools can offer. You might have to sign up for outside activities and pay out of pocket if you want your child to have the experience of playing on a team, acting in a play, making music in a band, or painting pottery.
Parent burnout and exhaustion: This is a huge consideration. It can be exhausting to be a parent, teacher, coach, therapist, and companion 24 hours a day. It’s important to make sure you have a support system and are able to take time for yourself now and then to avoid burnout.
Loss of income: In most cases, for homeschooling to be an option, one parent has to be able to stay home while the other works. That assumes you have a two-parent household and the family can get by on a single income. Every situation is slightly different, but homeschooling often entails financial sacrifice.
Daily structure: It’s up to you to keep things consistent and balance the needs of family members, household chores, and other interruptions. This can be a huge challenge, especially if your child is one who thrives on structure and repetition.
It’s important to keep in mind that if you don’t feel you can mentally or physically handle homeschooling, all the benefits your child would receive would be lost. Before committing, it’s crucial you are honest with yourself when it comes to both the pros and cons of homeschooling.
How to minimize any disadvantages
That all being said, if you feel you are able to make the leap into homeschooling, there are many ways you can alleviate any of the challenges. For instance, you can:
Join support groups: Network with other parents of children with special needs to brainstorm ways to get outside services and specialists your child needs. Homeschooling groups and coops can be great for sharing materials and planning field trips.
Sign up for sports or art enrichment classes: Many community rec centers or departments offer classes geared towards homeschooled children. Music instructors will often visit your home. There are also Little League sports teams in most communities, or you can get involved in Special Olympics.
Take a CPR class: It’s a good idea for all caregivers, coaches, and homeschooling parents to have a basic knowledge of first aid and CPR — especially if you don’t have access to a school nurse.
Create a dedicated learning space: Homeschooling is a lot easier if you can set aside a space in your home to serve as a classroom. It creates clear separation between play time and learning time. It’s also helpful if you can involve your child in organizing it and planning lessons.
Ask for help: Don’t be shy about asking friends, family, or other parents for assistance. Most people are happy to help!
Homeschooling your child can be both an overwhelming and rewarding experience. It requires patience, sacrifice, and willingness to adapt when necessary. It’s not right for everyone, and you need to trust your instincts to figure out what is best for you and your child. However, for many families of children with special needs, it is the best decision. Whatever you decide, know that your choice isn’t set in stone. If you try something that doesn’t work, you can always change course.
Jackie Nunes is a former pediatric nurse who is now a full-time homeschool educator and co-founder of Wonde