The U.S. Department of Education estimates that nearly forty-seven million students are currently enrolled in public schools. Approximately six million of these children are receiving special education services. Countless others are struggling in classrooms without assistance, either because their needs have not yet been identified or because their learning difficulties do not meet the qualifying guidelines for special education. Unfortunately, qualifying for public school services does not guarantee a quality or even mediocre education. The federal government mandates a free and appropriate public education for all children. Yet when federal funding pays a paltry 15 percent toward state special education programs, it’s no wonder that so many children are left behind.
It is a daily struggle for the average child to get an education when classrooms are overcrowded, learning materials are outdated, and overworked teachers have been reduced to college-educated childcare providers. For those children who are in any way different from the norm, it is virtually impossible to learn in such a chaotic and unforgiving environment.
By the fact that this book is in your hands, you must agree, at least in part, that traditional schooling is not meeting the needs of children–your children. Perhaps you are a parent whose child has been diagnosed with an emotional or learning disorder. Or possibly a diagnosis for your child has not been reached, but you have suspicions that all is not “right” with your child. Or maybe your child has a physical difference or health condition that has been diagnosed but that requires some type of special school accommodations. Or it could be that your child is not yet of school age, but you are wondering how his spirited nature will fare in a classroom setting. Whatever your situation, you are most likely reaching the end of your rope in terms of your child’s school situation.
If you are reading this book, then you are probably contemplating homeschooling your child. Regardless of which path brought you to homeschooling, you are not alone. A 1999 study conducted by the U.S. Department of Education estimated that nearly a million children, approximately 4 percent of K-12 students, are being educated at home. Although these figures might not seem overwhelmingly in favor of homeschooling, it is notable that the ranks are swelling at an annual rate of 11 percent. According to the study, parents reported numerous reasons for opting out of institutionalized education–poor learning environment, safety concerns, school behavior problems, and inability to address child’s special needs, to name only a few. Overall, the majority of parents simply felt they could provide a better education at home.
Thirteen years ago, my family joined the small but growing population of homeschoolers. I wish I could say that we chose to participate in the home education movement based on a philosophical notion to reform the educational system. But that wasn’t our original intent. We came to homeschooling by default. Our son had the dubious honor of having been asked to leave three part-time preschool settings by his fourth birthday. His crime? Nonconformity. The standard preschool environment calls for children to change activities approximately every fifteen minutes, which is the average attention span of children aged two through five. My son would just be warming up to a new activity, when he would be pulled away for an entirely new experience. When he was unable to convey his frustration to his teachers, he would resort to screaming meltdowns. The early childhood specialists who staffed these programs warned us that our son most likely had Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) or autism and advised that we rush him into treatment to prepare him for the school environment he’d be facing in one short year.
We took these concerns to our son’s pediatrician, who indicated that he saw our son as a bright, happy, and spirited child, but possibly a late-bloomer in some academic areas. The doctor encouraged us to continue whatever it was we were doing to nurture our son’s growth. While we were relieved to receive this news, we continued to struggle with “Are we doing the right thing for our son?” The pediatrician referred us for a second opinion to a psychologist who specialized in behavior problems in boys. After a few months of weekly sessions, the psychologist proclaimed our son intelligent, content, and difficult in temperament. He felt that our son could be “at risk” for ADD due to a family history, but he was reluctant to issue a formal diagnosis for such a young child. He cautioned us that placing our son in a traditional school would be like forcing a square peg into a round hole. The psychologist offered to work as a partner with our family and our son’s future school settings to help ease his passage into the classroom.
We felt that private schools would be our best option given that most claimed to have low student-teacher ratios and a policy of embracing individuals. After visiting countless private schools within a two-hour driving radius of our home, however, I didn’t see much difference from public schools, except that the private ones came with a hefty price tag. All of the private schools were unwilling to take a hands-on approach with a spirited and socially immature child, even with the offer of assistance from his psychologist.
Public school was definitely not an option for our son. At the time he was to start kindergarten, I was in graduate school pursuing studies in psychology and education, while also training to be an elementary school counselor at the local public school. My experiences in that school opened my eyes to what my son would have to endure. Children who were timid or different in any manner were subjected to taunting by their peers and, in many cases, poor treatment by their teachers. I watched as numerous children made their afternoon trek to the nurse’s office for a dose of psychostimulant medication, which was generally administered by a school secretary because there wasn’t funding for a full-time nurse. I was appalled that young children of color were automatically assumed to be lacking in intelligence and character. Once many of my colleagues realized that I was biracial, the overt racism stopped; but I knew it had only gone underground in my presence.
My husband and I felt stuck, without options for our son’s educational future. We announced to anyone who asked that we were going to delay kindergarten. We realized a year was not going to magically make a difference in our son’s school readiness, but at least it would buy us additional time to look for private schools. I was certain that there had to be a program somewhere that would meet my son’s needs. We finally found it–at home!
Despite our initial status as “default” homeschoolers, we have, through the years, wholeheartedly embraced it as a viable educational alternative. That once elusive diagnosis for our son no longer mattered because we had the freedom to work with his differences and make adjustments as needed. There was no need to publicly place his weaknesses under the microscope of school administrators. We never had to jump through bureaucratic hoops to obtain what we needed for our son’s education. As a one-income family, we were able to create a vibrant learning environment using library books, art supplies, field trips, and other low-cost resources.
Homeschooling has been very beneficial for my square-peg-in-round-hole son. But the dedicated parent advocate doesn’t make a life-altering decision based solely on one opinion, so, in this book, I’ve brought together approximately forty other special needs homeschoolers to share their experiences.
In early 2001, I posted queries to numerous email lists, searching for those who homeschool learning disabled or other special needs children. More than sixty families responded and completed an online questionnaire. In some cases, I was able to glean enough information from individual questionnaires; in other cases, I communicated further with the families about their homeschooling lives. The families who participated in this project spanned the homeschooling continuum:
•Veteran homeschoolers (two or more years) outnumbered the newcomers (one year or less) by two to one.
•Families hailed from twenty different states, with one respondent from outside of the United States.
•Children ranged in age from preschoolers (some who had been enrolled in early intervention public school programs) to young adults (who had been homeschooled and are now finished).
•The majority of these children had attended traditional school (either public or private) and came to homeschooling when their educational/emotional needs were not being met.
•Approximately one-third of the children had always been homeschooled.
•Some parents had already been homeschooling neurotypical (NT) or “normal” children, but felt unable to meet the needs of their special children.
•Other families, after seeing the successes of homeschooling their differently abled children, have removed their NT children from school to homeschool.
•Nearly all of the children have received a formal diagnosis of a learning, psychological, or physical disorder. The remaining children are suspected of possessing some “difference,” but have not been diagnosed by a licensed professional.
•The most common diagnoses included ADD/ADHD, disorders on the autism spectrum (including Asperger’s Syndrome and pervasive developmental disorder), and learning or communicative disorders. Many of the children have multiple diagnoses, including giftedness.
Do these descriptors sound similar to your own family? Do you want to provide your children with a loving, personally tailored environment in which they can learn? If so, then this book will help pave your path as you enter into educating your own children.
Part one of this book examines how more and more children are being diagnosed with a variety of disorders that seem to be preventing learning. The prevailing thought is that biochemical and genetic disorders interfere with the cognitive and emotional development in these children, thus hindering their ability to function within a classroom with same-age peers. Many medical and mental health professionals, however, are looking to another component responsible for a child’s inability to learn–traditional schooling with its standardized curriculum and other practices that do not encourage individual strengths.
The first part also discusses the various childhood disorders that are commonly diagnosed. Although many individuals (children and adults) do possess learning, physical, and emotional difficulties, there are just as many children who are needlessly diagnosed with serious psychopathology simply because they’re late-bloomers or possess some other type of unique difference. Adults appear to expect more of children at earlier ages, both academically and emotionally. These assumptions contribute to the high incidence of troubled children and school failures.
Part two addresses the issues that define quality teachers and whether noncertified parents are qualified to educate their special needs children. Homeschoolers discuss how they approached these concerns and how they continue to build confidence.
Part two also examines the reasons that parents chose homeschooling over traditional schooling. Most parents simply grew tired of fighting with school officials for desperately needed services to help their children succeed academically. Many parents found their children developing stress-related depression and anxieties because of the ongoing struggles to keep up with their classmates. Overall, families feel that their children have been abandoned by traditional education.
Many homeschoolers have found success by working toward their children’s strengths rather than the common practice of overfocusing on weaknesses. One chapter in part two looks at Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences and how homeschoolers have found it useful in working with their differently abled children. This, along with the myriad homeschooling styles, has afforded many families with the knowledge and ability to teach their own.
Part two also contains suggestions for dealing with family and friends who have not wholeheartedly embraced your homeschooling, as well as a section on meeting the needs of your other children, your spouse, and yourself.
The nuts and bolts of homeschooling your differently abled child is the focus of part three. Starting with an examination of what homeschoolers refer to as the dreaded “S” question: “What about socialization?” Included are tips on what to look for in homeschooling support systems for yourself and your children and steps to take if you’re starting your own group.
A chapter on choosing learning materials for your homeschool includes an exhaustive list of homeschooling veterans’ favorite picks of curricula, books, Web sites, and other helpful resources.
The pros and cons of using limited public school services as a homeschooler is also explored in part three. In addition, ideas for other treatment options, including suggestions for locating homeschool “friendly” service providers, are discussed. The book concludes with final encouragements from respondent families.
What is contained in this book is only a sampling of experiences and ideas.
Homeschooling isn’t a panacea to cure all ills, but it is a viable option that provides an enormous amount of flexibility to educate your children. It is possible for the disabled, disordered, or just plain different child to learn and thrive in an environment that isn’t restricted to “dumbed-down” content or that requires parental adeptness in bureacratic hoop-jumping. Take one-step at a time. Using this book as a guide, you’ll have the wisdom of many homeschooling mothers, and a few fathers, illuminating your path.
Copyright © 2002 by Random House, Inc. From Homeschooling the Child with Special Needs: Your Complete Guide to Successfully Homeschooling the Child with Learning Differences by Lenore Colacion Hayes, M.S.