Getting Started – Homeschooling Your Special-Needs Child

When parents choose to educate their children at home, there are many challenges.  When parents choose to educate a special needs child at home, those challenges are multiplied many times over.  The Home School Legal Defense Association estimates that over 10% of today’s home- schooled children have special needs!  (The Court Reporter, an on-line newsletter, vol.16, no.6.)

Parents who decide to educate a special needs child at home face additional time commitments and expenses for diagnostic testing, individualized assessments, therapy and/or tutoring, and specialized learning materials.  There are also additional pressures on relationships within the family, as the special needs child may appear to receive more attention than other siblings or even the spouse.  Parents struggle to find enough time to help each child, get chores done, and find time for personal refreshing.  Time management is a daily uphill struggle, especially when it takes so much extra effort to work with most special needs children.

Parents who decide to teach a child at home have reached that decision in many different ways.  The unique needs of some children are apparent from birth or soon after they begin their education.  Other children do not begin to manifest learning problems until several years after beginning school.  The child may not appear to respond to a regular curriculum or teaching methods.  The child may need more time to master basic skills or seems unable to remember new material for even a short time.  Parents may notice other subtle indicators of a learning difficulty, but the child’s special needs have never been formally diagnosed.  Recently, many children have been withdrawn from public school special education programs to begin home schooling.  The parents are dissatisfied with the child’s progress, or they became weary of fighting administrative roadblocks.  They finally decide that they need to do the job themselves.

No matter which path has led to a family’s decision to home school, the most important thing to remember when teaching a special needs child is that the family is the best place for them to be.  A loving environment with one-on-one attention from a caring parent is bound to bring forth good fruit in the child’s life.

It is not enough, however, to simply keep the child at home.  The parents must be prepared for the hard work of selecting appropriate curricula and materials, coordinating extra help from caring professionals, learning specialized teaching strategies, and fulfilling rigorous demands for record keeping.  Is it worth it?   YES!  Can it be done successfully — even without special training?  YES!  No one knows the needs and strengths of a child better than a parent, and there is a wealth of support to teach and encourage the willing parent.  Many home school parents of special needs children report that the child opens up and becomes enthusiastic about schoolwork after enduring years of frustration.  The child gradually becomes free from the difficulties caused by the stress of ongoing failures.  The opportunity to succeed in the home school environment is like water poured on the child’s thirsty soul.  While it will not prove to be an easy job, if it is done with prayer, persistence, and patience, parents can successfully educate the special needs child in the home. 
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Steps to a Successful Home School Experience for the Special-Needs Child

Several components are essential for a successful home schooling experience.  Knowing them can relieve a significant amount of pressure Children with special needs starting in home schooling typically will need some form of diagnostic testing to determine their present level of achievement in key academic areas.  It is essential to know a child’s weaknesses and grade levels for each academic subject to simplify the choice of an appropriate curriculum.  (See “Choosing Texts and Curriculum”.)  Parents also should maintain careful and accurate documentation to demonstrate progress.  It is important to seek support and helpful resources.  Over all, parents should seek the wisdom and strength of the Lord. 
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Testing, Assessment, and Evaluation

Measurement is at the heart of monitoring a child’s progress in education.  Educators should continually gauge whether a child is mastering new content and retaining earlier learning.  This is usually done informally by asking a few review questions at the start of a daily lesson.  Formal assessments, in contrast, provide information needed to choose an appropriate curriculum, plan lessons, and select teaching material.

The latter assessments must be part of weekly and monthly lesson planning, and are expected to be more formal and cover more material — such as written work or a project.  All through the school year, it is vitally important for parents to have accurate data on the child’s current performance.  If a child is taught some new material and there is no assessment, the teaching parent does not have any way to tell whether the child is ready to go ahead.  It is not enough to make informal guesses such as, “He seems to understand the material,” or “She must need more practice because she was so frustrated today.”

At the end of each school year, Virginia statutes require that most* home educated students be assessed to demonstrate progress, and that this information be submitted to the local school division superintendent by August 1.  (See Virginia Compulsory Attendance and Home Instruction Related Statutes, excerpted from the code of Virginia 1950, as amended — §22.1-254 online at Virginia Department of Education’s website (http://www.pen.k12/va/us.)  Without accurate information about the child’s current level of academic skills, parents will find it difficult to document progress at the end of the year, because there will be no data for comparison.  For children with complex learning problems, these year-end tests should be conducted in one-on-one testing situations with trained professionals, and there are several acceptable options for these assessments.  The children whose needs are less serious can participate in group testing.

* Students being taught under the religious exemption or by certified tutors do not have to be tested yearly.

Issues for Special Needs Students Withdrawn from the Public Schools

Parents who decide to teach their children at home and withdraw them from the public school system often encounter a great deal of opposition.  The child’s special needs have already been identified, so additional formal assessment by the school is not necessary, yet these parents may face ongoing requests from the child’s former public school administrators, who may even tell parents that school assessments are “requirements.”  The parents may be told they “must have the child re-evaluated every year or every three years,” “attend regular meetings” to monitor the progress of the child, or that the school “cannot accept parent- supplied IEP’s.”  These are not legitimate requests under Virginia statutes!

HSLDA can advise families how to deal with these matters.  In fact, they can advise families how to formally cut off all association with the public school.  (*See the article from the HSLDA online journal, The Court Reporter, Nov/Dec 2000.)  It cannot be emphasized enough: parents of children with special needs who are home schooling need to be members of the Home School Legal Defense Association! 

Parents are likely to have a copy of the school’s most recent eligibility evaluation and/or the child’s latest IEP.  If the public school’s test results have not been given to the parents, it is important for them to request in writing a complete copy of the child’s educational and testing records.  Parents may legally be asked to pay for making these copies, but the schools must make copies when asked.

If parents believe that the public school’s test data are incomplete or inaccurate, additional evaluations from qualified professionals should be sought.  A complete picture of a child’s strengths as well as weaknesses is essential to enable parents to create an instructional program that meets the child’s needs.  In many cases, health insurance will approve payment for certain educational evaluations, but it is wise to check in advance.  

Diagnostic Evaluations — Who Needs One?

When parents have tried all that they know to improve a child’s learning, but without success, it is time to seek in-depth testing by specialists.  Establishing early success in reading and language skills is known by educational researchers to be especially critical for a good long-term outcome.  Clinics and specialists offer appropriate testing services.  Parents should seek their help rather than taking a wait-and-see attitude.  Maturity can be an important factor for some children’s readiness to learn, but when a child fails to progress after making every reasonable effort, there is reasonable cause to seek a fresh perspective from a trained consultant.

Psychologists and other professionals can carry out comprehensive diagnostic evaluations to reveal the specific nature of the special needs child’s strengths, specific weaknesses, and limitations.  That information is helpful in planning therapy and instruction.  Comprehensive testing, called a psycho-educational battery, includes assessments of intellectual ability and academic performance in reading, writing, spelling, and math.  For children with complex problems, additional testing may be required to probe skills or weaknesses in areas of speech, language, and neurological, physical, and emotional function.  

Educational consultants are able to administer many of the educational and screening tests for a wide range of problems, but only a psychologist can properly administer formal, comprehensive intelligence tests.  

Why Test?  I don’t want to “label” my child!

Parents of children with special needs frequently protest that they do not want to have their child labeled with a label such as “L.D.”  They may say that they do not wish to have a child suffer embarrassment or become stigmatized.  They may even fear that the label will become the “fact” that comes to mind first when others think about the child.  These are legitimate issues, and they bring up valid issues for discussion.

Furthermore, when a child has special needs, the child is usually keenly aware of being different.  Such children probably realize they must work harder to learn or do other life tasks.  Few students are blissfully unaware of this.  Many students start to ask themselves if there is something “defective” about them or if they are simply “stupid.” Children can and do make many unfounded conclusions about life as they observe it, and they end up suffering unnecessarily from those misconceptions.

Providing diagnostic testing can provide accurate information to the parents about the nature of the child’s limitations and probable causes for the child’s academic struggles.  Diagnostic test results can be lovingly and truthfully shared with the child, while answering their questions and giving them the truth.  Parents can put the facts into a loving context for the whole child, emphasizing that God does not make mistakes.   The discussion should focus on the ways that the child can excel, so that they don’t dwell on the problems they have to deal with.  An educational consultant can be enormously helpful in providing a knowledgeable description of the problem to both parents and the child.

Parents will also benefit from accurate information.  Without a diagnosis, parents will have trouble locating resources appropriate for the specific disability.  Therapists and support personnel are best located when parents know the correct terminology.  A “label” can have no negative power over a child or parent unless the label is used as the primary description of the child.  Misuse of a label is a choice made in the heart — not the head.  

Former Public School Students and the IEP

Parents who withdraw the special needs child often do so because they have found significant problems in their child’s public school Individual Educational Plan (IEP), or problems in the way that it is being implemented.  A child’s present levels of performance and appropriate remediation plans should be contained in the IEP, yet in many public schools of Virginia, IEPs reflect grade level Standards of Learning (SOLs) more than remedial individualized plans for the child.

If the parent simply starts home schooling while retaining the school IEP, then when it is time for end-of-the-year testing, the goals may be unmet because they were unrealistic, unattainable, and not relevant for the child’s needs.  If the child scores too low on standardized assessments, the home school could be placed on probation for a year because the child did not appear to make progress.

The parent starting home schooling is thus faced with a dilemma: The parent thinks, “I need to keep my special needs child on an IEP (ISP) to have the opportunity for meaningful end-of-the-year assessments, yet if I use the school’s IEP, I would be expected to test the child on SOLs.  What is the right choice?”

Parents facing this difficulty should strongly consider rewriting the school’s IEP, especially if it does not reflect the child’s learning difficulties, or if it seems to be mostly a list of SOL objectives.  An educational consultant can assist with this task, or parents may find some software packages or books that can provide guidance.  Note that no matter what time of year parents withdraw a child from a government school, it is wise to get a new IEP (ISP) drawn up.  

End-of-the-Year Assessments

Children with special needs have unique requirements not only in instruction, but also in end-of-the-year testing.  This can be a major concern for parents who do not wish to be placed on probation, because Virginia law, applicable to most home schooled children, requires a child to score at or above the 23rd percentile.  (The law is inconsistent and unfair by not requiring that public school students meet the same standard.)  Many special needs children do not perform well on standardized testing in their weak skill areas.

If a child has been identified as having special needs (even if it is by the parents recording their own observations of him or her) and has an IEP (ISP), the parents have acceptable documentation of the child’s present levels of performance.  To satisfy the law’s intent, the child only needs to make demonstrable progress toward the objectives written on the IEP (ISP).  Remember, progress cannot be demonstrated if there are no data about the child’s performance at the start of the school year compared to the end of the year!!  It is the responsibility of the parent to document performance on a regular basis!

Fortunately, there are end-of-the-year alternatives available for special needs children, and progress may be documented and assessed in several acceptable ways.  In academic subjects where the child is performing within normal levels, it may be appropriate to have the child take part in group testing on standardized tests-but only in areas of strong skills.

Group assessments can be arranged through a local test administrator.  Parents should ask the test administrator what skills the child must have in order to succeed on group testing.  For example, if the child cannot follow multi-step directions, he or she may perform poorly on group testing, even when knowledge of the subject material is strong.  If the child requires specialized accommodations, such as having the text material read aloud, parents should also ask a test administrator when and how the child would be tested in keeping with those limitations.

In skill areas where the child is performing well below average, and the child is very unlikely to score above the 23rd percentile, parents should consider having the child assessed in a one-on-one situation.  One-on-one testing may be carried out at the end of the year with a standardized achievement test, such as the Wide Range Achievement Test (not a very complete assessment), the Kaufman Test of Educational Achievement, or the Weschler Individual Achievement Test, among others.  These tests will indicate the child’s current level of performance in reading, math, written language, and spelling, and will clearly indicate how much progress the child has achieved.

The child also can be assessed without standardized testing by a qualified educational consultant.  Work samples, interviews with the child, and asking them sample questions, which might include checking them for skills included in the IEP (ISP), enables the consultant to compare the child’s skill level against the end-of-year goals.

A portfolio may be the best end-of-year assessment for children who have serious learning problems.  Parents collect samples of the child’s daily work into separate folders by subject matter during the school year for end-of-year review.  As with other forms of assessment, this must include work from early in the year or there will be no way to prove that the child has improved.  In September, start collecting work on a regular schedule, such as twice each month.  Parents may read more about portfolio assessment elsewhere in this manual. 

Standards of Learning for Home Schooled Special Needs Students?

Virginia’s Home School Statute does not specifically require parents who educate their children under Options 1, 2, and 3 to follow the Virginia Standards of Learning.  The SOLs do provide a helpful overview for each grade level’s curriculum — and parents may choose to use them for reference.

In contrast, home-schooled children who are under Option 4 of Virginia’s Home Schooling Statute must “provide a program of study or curriculum which, in the judgment of the division superintendent, includes the standards of learning objectives adopted by the Board of Education for language arts and mathematics and provides evidence that the parent is able to provide an adequate education for the child.”  While local districts have differing requirements on how to document compliance with the statute, it is important to remember that home school families are answerable ultimately to the state law over local school administration requests.  HSLDA can further clarify these requirements.

If a child has been withdrawn from public school, the school-written IEP may reflect grade level SOLs more than remedial individualized plans for the child.  The IEP should address the child’s learning weaknesses and document the need for specialized education.  HSLDA recommends that parents have an ISP instead of the IEP to avoid confusion.  

Documenting Progress

No matter how serious the child’s needs, it is it is important to be able to keep track of learning.  Accurate record keeping is a priority when teaching a special needs child at home, because it is unlikely the child will progress evenly in every subject.  This discrepancy is likely to catch the notice of school administrators monitoring the child’s progress.  An accurate set of records will permit the parents to defend their home school.

There are numerous resources to help parents choose a record keeping style.  (See Resources page on this website.)  Simple documentation can be kept in a five-section notebook, which is separated into individual academic subjects, and organized by dates.  Informal observations can be jotted down into a separate section of that notebook, with data organized chronologically.  In the various sections, parents can record special achievements and other things the child has done that demonstrate knowledge.

Parents can also create an expandable folder to save samples of work all through the year to demonstrate skill improvement.  File these samples by organizing the oldest papers in the back and adding newer work towards the front in each section.  Because this is going to be a fairly hefty folder, organize it correctly from the start.  This will save a lot of work during year-end assessments.  Enter dates for filing the child’s work on a yearly planner-it will help to discipline filing efforts.  It is not enough to grab some end-of-the year work samples to document the child’s educational progress!

It is very helpful and rewarding to ask the child to help select the best work samples.  (Parents may add other items later!)  Choosing work samples is a great way to focus the child’s attention on those significant factors that affect quality, and this is often very effective in bringing about further improvement.   The child will then know how to improve.

A well-written IEP (ISP) is a reference for helping parents document the scope and sequence of newly learned skills during the school year.  Students with an IEP (ISP) should have quarterly assessments based on the IEP (ISP) to monitor the child’s educational progress.  The IEP (ISP) form should have space where these assessments can be recorded.

The quarterly assessments should be done by an educational consultant.  Objective reviews of the child’s work are similar to the use of familiar landmarks in monitoring progress on a journey.  Sighting a familiar landmark provides reassurance that the journey is going at the appropriate speed and heading in the right direction.  Parents can use the results of quarterly evaluations to make sure the child is heading in the right direction.  The outcome of these evaluations should be specific and concrete, giving direction for the next educational steps.

Parents should discuss the results with the consultant to learn what is necessary for the child to improve.  It may be necessary to change the curriculum or grade levels of material.  If progress is not seen, parents will easily discern that a mid-course correction must be made to help the child get on track.

Special-needs students tend to make uneven progress in every area of their education, and they are frequently below grade level in at least one area.  The IEP (ISP) is a roadmap for advancing the child’s strengths and remediating their weaknesses.  Parents can use the IEP (ISP) in combination with other written documentation to strengthen their case that the child is working at the correct level in each subject.

If parents simply “feel” the child has made an improvement, the local school division is unlikely to be satisfied that the child is getting an appropriate education.  In a dispute with the local school administration, parents will be in a much stronger position to defend their home school if they provide written documentation.  The written documentation provides evidence that appropriate materials and assessments are being utilized.  In sum, good documentation is a good defense and a good witness about the quality of education that is being provided. 

Choosing an Educational Consultant and Other Professionals

It is important to find professionals and an educational consultant who can provide one-on-one individualized assessments or evaluations for a special needs child.  Parents of a child with special needs will probably already have had many contacts with professionals such as speech-language pathologists and physical therapists.

A consultant can advise on what kind of assessments would be best for the child, and then can carry out diagnostic assessments, end-of-the-year testing, or portfolio assessments.  Once the child’s present level of performance has been documented, with strengths and weaknesses identified, parents can plan the child’s educational program for the coming year.  The consultant can help in writing and monitoring an IEP (ISP).  Further, a consultant can help parents to learn more about the nature of the child’s learning problems, provide referrals for additional testing, and suggest helpful teaching strategies.  Finally, a consultant can provide a general wealth of information and resources.  Appointments with a consultant should be entered on a long-range planner after confirming the dates with the consultant.

In selecting a consultant or advisor, parents will want to interview the consultant.  (After all, the consultant is going to be working for the parents!)  Ask about background, training, and fees, as well as the consultant’s attitude toward home schooling.  It is helpful to learn about the consultant’s educational theories or favorite therapies to see if there will be a comfortable fit.  A consultant who strongly favors specific remediation practices might not be a good fit if the parent has the child enrolled in a program that views that particular remediation from a very different philosophical point of view.  So, ask lots of questions.  Share a bit about the child and ask for some ideas about a typical problem to see whether the consultant is well informed and can give advice that is useful and appropriate.  Make sure that there is a feeling of trust and compatibility-this individual will (or should) be interacting with the parent several times a year at a minimum.

Optimally, parents should locate a consultant who is within reasonable driving distance to ensure that regular monitoring of the child’s progress can be maintained.  However, in this technological age, when a nearby consultant cannot be found, the essential information and samples of the student’s work can be copied and sent by fax, e-mail, or postal service.  Once the consultant has reviewed the material, a phone consultation can be very helpful.  The Home Educators Association of Virginia (HEAV), the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA), and local support groups have lists of qualified educational consultants who are sympathetic to home educators’ needs.  

Finding Support from Others

The challenge of working with a special needs child (or more than one!) is stressful at times.  Both parents and child need to have regular contact with others outside the immediate family for emotional, spiritual and educational support.  Parents may need to be resourceful in locating this support, and it may require persistent effort.  The research may end up feeling like a work needed for a term paper, but the rewards are so important!

The best place to start is within the local churches.  If the family church does not have a home-school support group, the parent will have to contact other local churches or home schooling families.  The HSLDA, NAATHAN, and Specially Gifted organizations maintain lists of support groups for different areas of special needs.  The Home Educators Association of Virginia also maintains a current list.  (As an aside, if a parent becomes aware of a new group or starts a new group, it is an important outreach ministry to let the statewide organizations know about that group, so others may learn about it too.)

The Internet is an important resource for locating organizations helping special needs children.  There are several websites maintained for home educators, including specific disability websites that have home school sub-pages, all of which can be very informative.  Some websites may not be distinctively Christian nor directed by home educators, but they may still have a wealth of information, links, and reading materials that will be helpful.

Follow up leads and contact some of these resources to learn more about what is available nationwide and locally.  In many locations, counseling centers can provide information about support groups for special needs areas.  Likewise, physicians and occupational/physical therapists may know of support groups.

Parents of special needs should also seek to integrate the child’s activities as much as possible with non-special needs children.  This can provide just as much support as talking with parents in a similar situation, and it helps maintain a sense of perspective.  The essential thing is to get in touch with some others who can lighten the load and provide help both in prayer and in support activities.