Even before the COVID-19 pandemic sent an unprecedented number of students to homeschool and distance learning, students with a variety of special needs who did not thrive in a traditional classroom explored these schooling alternatives. If you are a parent of a student with special needs--or a student with special needs who wants to explore alternate education options--then this guide will help you figure out the basics of homeschooling or distance learning with special needs.
Homeschooling special needs children can be a challenge, but this guide covers some of the basics, including legal requirements, choosing a curriculum, active learning, assistive technology, and some national organizations that can support you and your child on this adventure.
The Basics of Homeschooling A Special Needs Child
One of the first things many parents want clarity on is the difference between homeschooling and distance learning. Simply put: For homeschool, you are your child's full-time instructor, which means you choose the curriculum, set the hours, and make all the choices. For distance learning, your child is learning from home in an online format, but they are enrolled within a specific school and curriculum and their education is managed by a teacher. So, while both homeschool and distance learning mean that your child is not in a traditional classroom in a brick-and-mortar school, the difference is who is managing their education.
What Does Special Needs Mean?
This discussion no doubt might leave some parents wondering what constitutes special needs and whether or not their child qualifies. While this guide should not be used as a self-diagnostic tool, it will briefly go over the common meanings of special needs in the context of school children in the United States.
The ADA defines disability in three parts:
'The term 'disability' means, with respect to an individualA) a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities of such individual; B) a record of such an impairment; or C) being regarded as having such an impairment.'
This definition is important because it is the legal baseline schools and parents in the US need when they are creating IEPs and making distinctions between modifications and accommodations for individual special needs children. While the full text of the ADA is available online, finding the specific definition can be a challenge, so having it here is useful!
For the context of a child in school, however, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) recognizes the following as being inclusive of special needs children:
- Intellectual disabilities, including Autism spectrum disorders
- Hearing impairments, including deafness
- Speech/Language impairments
- Visual impairments, including blindness
- Emotional disturbances
- Orthopedic impairments
- Traumatic brain injuries
- Chronic illnesses or other health issues
- Learning disabilities including dyslexia, dyscalculia, and dysgraphia
Legal Requirements for Homeschooling
Congratulations, you have decided to homeschool your special needs child! Parents may feel intimidated at the thought of possible legal requirements for homeschooling their children, especially because the requirements are different for each of the fifty states. Parents who have decided to homeschool should check the requirements for their individual states carefully. Each state's website should have a page specifically for that state's Department of Education, which will list the requirements for homeschooling. In general, state regulations for homeschool may cover compulsory attendance, testing, required subjects, and some form of record keeping.
Additionally, these legal requirements also cover road schooling, which is a practice wherein families spend much of the year traveling, and students complete their schoolwork while on the road. In these cases, homeschooling is still an option! Parents or legal guardians are required to follows the homeschool laws in the state in which they hold a driver's license and/or vehicle registration. If families choose to road school their children, it is highly advisable to keep good records of their children's education and to have those records on hand at all times.
Unfortunately, we do not have the space to lay out every state's homeschool requirements here, but a cross-section of state requirements will help parents to understand what state requirements may look like, from looser requirements to more stringent ones.
- Alaska - Alaska's homeschool requirements are very loose. While the state does require students to attend school from the age of 7 to 16, the state does not require any testing or specific subjects. Parents or legal guardians can choose to homeschool their children at any time and are not required to notify the state or have any specific teaching qualifications.
- New York - Homeschool is highly regulated in the state of New York. Students are required to attend school between the ages of 6 to 16, and homeschooled students must log between 900-990 hours of instruction per school year. In addition, parents must file a notice of intent to homeschool by a specific date every year, create and copy the state on an instruction plan, and submit quarterly reports and an annual assessment. If the state deems a student's progress insufficient, then they may put the homeschool program on probation, and parents must create and submit a plan to bring their child up to the required level.
- Utah - Utah falls roughly between Alaska and New York in terms of the stringency of their homeschooling requirements. Parents are required to submit a notarized affidavit and secure a certificate that excuses their homeschool students from public school attendance. There are no required courses or assessments, although students may choose to participate in standardized testing.
Choosing a Homeschooling Special Needs Curriculum
Once parents have assessed the legal requirements for homeschooling, it is time to choose a curriculum. Simply put, a curriculum (plural curricula) refers to the academic content covered in a school and the specific academic content in specific courses and/or programs. However, in K-12 contexts, curricula often also include learning objectives for students, assessments, assignments, and the breakdowns for lessons and units.
Experienced homeschool parents might choose to develop their own curricula, but for parents who are just starting out or who want something concrete to work from as they develop their curricula, there are pre-made curricula available. Check out some of these to get started:
- Oak Meadow focuses on learning through creativity.
- K12 aligns closely with curricula often found in public schools.
- Classical Conversations is a Christian-focused and developed curriculum.
Sometimes these curricula will be single-subject (e.g. the curriculum focuses only on math or only on English), but other times they will be comprehensive (covering all the subjects a student will need to learn in a given school year). Study.com provides a helpful homeschool curriculum and a guide to Using Study.com for homeschool.
Curricula can be extremely diverse and not all curricula are designed for special needs children. However, parents can also adjust regular homeschool curricula for their special needs child! Some things you might want in pre-made curricula that you will adapt for your special needs child are:
- Multisensory materials and activities
- Flexible lesson plans and assignments that can be adapted
- Lessons that provide ongoing practice
You will also want pre-made curricula that:
- Fits your student's specific learning style
- Fits your specific teaching style
- Fits the subject requirements for your state for homeschooling
It is also important to note that when homeschooling, curricula can be tailored by subject to a student's specific grade level. So, for example, an avid reader who is ten might be reading at an eighth-grade level. That same student, however, may have difficulty with math and so they are working with a math curriculum that is designed for third or fourth grade.
Addressing different educational levels in different subjects is okay, and it can help students meet their specific goals at their own pace, which is one of the strengths of putting together a homeschool curriculum.
In addition, don't be afraid to swap out aspects of a curriculum that are not working for your child and try something new. Students are often are different grade levels in different subjects, so adjusting for those differences can help a special needs homeschool student succeed.
Parents need to remember that they are in the driver's seat for their student's homeschool curriculum. If your child needs to slow the pace of a pre-packaged curriculum, reorder certain lessons, or reduce the intensity of the material, that is perfectly acceptable. Just make sure to have clear educational goals and outcomes tailored to your child so that you and your special needs child know what to work toward. You want to make sure your child is on track to earn a homeschool GED or diploma.
IEPs and Curricula
When choosing a special needs homeschool curriculum, it is important to keep in mind your child's specific educational needs. An Independent Learning Plan (IEP) can help parents, teachers, tutors, doctors, and therapists understand and track a specific student's baseline--where the student is physically, mentally, and in terms of grade level at the start of an academic term--as well as that student's goals and progress.
IEPs are often required for special needs students in public schools who will need extra services or accommodations. IEPs may not be required for distance learning or homeschool, but even when they aren't required, they can be an extremely useful tool and should be a part of any special needs student's homeschool curriculum.
IEPs have a lot of benefits for special needs children and can help you:
- Set academic goals
- Track progress
- Advocate for additional needs your student may have
- Make accommodations or modifications
- Know what assistive technology your student has used successfully in the past
- Track specific therapies
- Track successful learning strategies
Writing an IEP can be a challenge, but there are a variety of IEP templates available online that parents can access.
Keeping Records for Homeschool and Distance Learning
Just like homeschool legal requirements, record-keeping for homeschool students, even homeschool students with special needs, vary by state. So, parents should always research their state to make sure they are following requirements. However, some baseline records are useful for special needs homeschool students to keep in addition to the legally required records, including:
- Yearly, semester, and quarter goals in each subject
- Yearly IEPs
- Yearly cognitive and behavioral baselines
- Assistive technology that the student used, and the outcomes of using that technology
- Medical diagnoses and evaluations by therapists and/or specialists
- Specific changes parents made to curricula to adjust it to the needs of the student
Having these records organized and available helps parents, educators, and other specialists who are involved in a special needs child's education see what works and what doesn't for a specific student. This allows parents to make motivated changes or adjustments to a student's education, rather than random ones that are not evidence-based. These records will also help parents in states that highly regulate homeschooling to stay current with state requirements and demonstrate compliance as well as student progress.
Active Learning Activities
One reason parents may choose to pull special needs children out of a traditional classroom might be that their child learns better in an active manner, rather than by sitting at a desk for most of the day. Active learning often doesn't look like what we might consider traditional learning (e.g. comprehension of a subject through reading or lecture), because it involves a child getting up out of their chair, pacing, fidgeting, running, or jumping--but with an academic intention behind it. Active learning also tends to involve more of a child's senses than just seeing and hearing, such as touch, smell, and gross motor activities.
Gross Motor Activities
For very active learners, gross motor activities can help students manage excess energy and still focus on learning. Gross motor activities usually include the whole body and may be best employed outdoors in good weather. It is also easy to tailor gross motor activities to specific subjects, particularly math, science, and English. Some examples include:
- Nature Yoga Parents can ask students to mimic the motions of different animals that they are studying while also talking with the student about different animal facts. The physical movement helps students manage extra energy, get exercise, and connect facts with kinesthetics.
- Hopscotch Spelling This is a great way for students to practice spelling and to study for spelling tests. Students and parents can collaborate to draw the chalk hopscotch form and letters, and then students can hop forward, backward, and even to the side to correctly spell out words. This activity can also be easily adjusted for math facts and number recognition for younger students.
- Song and Dance Mnemonics If students are having trouble remembering specific facts in any subject, help them devise short songs with associated motions. The combination of musical rhythms and physical movements can help students remember facts more easily. This activity also helps students develop study skills they can use throughout all levels of their education.
These options might seem like they don't count as learning, but they do! Remember, homeschool is about using tactics that work for your special needs child, and sometimes those tactics will look significantly different from classroom learning, but they still help students, especially special needs students, learn.
Sensory Bins and Manipulatives
Sometimes it's raining, sometimes it's winter, and sometimes students just get distracted by gross motor activities. When that happens, sensory bins and manipulatives can help students learn in a quieter way than gross motor activities.
Manipulatives are any small physical object(s) that a student can use to represent or express an academic fact, concept, or idea. Sometimes something as simple as the addition of color or texture or a change in scale can help unlock a fact or concept in a student's brain. Sensory bins can be fun for students of all ages, and Pinterest is an awesome resource for them. In terms of manipulatives, however, here are some effective options:
- Child-safe window markers and a big window
- Personal whiteboards and rainbow-colored whiteboard markers
- Small colored blocks, bears, beads, counters, etc. for math
- Paper dolls, felt board dolls, or beanie babies to represent characters in books, plays, or history texts
- Short videos or graphic novels instead of textbooks
These are just a few examples of manipulatives that can help make abstract ideas in homeschool more concrete. Experiment with your child to find what works best for them.
Beyond active learning, sensory bins, and manipulatives, special needs students may significantly benefit from the use of assistive technology in their distance learning and homeschool curricula. The Assistive Technology Industry Association (ATiA) defines assistive technology as 'products, equipment, and systems that enhance learning, working, and daily living for persons with disabilities.' Assistive technology runs the gamut between high-tech apps and software to low-tech things like a colored overlay for a physical page in a book to cut the contrast of black text on a white page or a simple sheet of paper with a line cut out so students can read easily one line at a time.
The next three sub-sections of this guide will give you an overview of technological and physical assistive technology before moving to a section about acquiring and covering the cost of assistive technology.
Apps and Computer Programs
Apps and computer programs can be a huge help to students who learn in more visual or active ways. Here are some apps and other software devices that can be helpful to parents who are homeschooling a special needs child.
- Video Courses - Some students learn more effectively from short video lessons than they do from reading, and that's okay! There are many reputable online educational videos that can help students at a variety of ages learn about a variety of subjects, and some of these resources are absolutely free for the homeschool parent on a budget. Some of these include Crash Course, Crash Course Kids, SciShow, and PBS Digital Studios. In addition, the US Department of State maintains an active and extensive list of Virtual Learning Resources for homeschool families, many of which can be added to a special needs homeschool curriculum.
- Audiobooks: Students who struggle to focus long enough to absorb words on a page or who experience dyslexia might do extremely well with audiobook versions of their texts. Audible is the leading purveyor of audiobooks, but it is always important to remember to check with your local library for audiobooks and other media as well. Local libraries are always an excellent resource for homeschool parents and special needs students.
- Text-to-Speech Software - Audiobooks have their limits for students who perform better when instructions are read aloud. For example, there is no audiobook format for your child's tests and assignments. This is where Text-to-Speech software might come in handy! Microsoft Word has a handy read-aloud feature, so any text in a word document can be read out loud for a special needs student. For students who need more sophisticated software--especially high school students or college students who are distance learning--there is a software called Kurzweil 3000.
- Dictation Software - Dictation software is another option that can be used to help special needs homeschool students succeed in their educational goals. Again, Microsoft Word has a built-in dictation feature, which is great for many young homeschool students. For older students who might need a more comprehensive software package for high school or college distance learning, there is Dragon, a speech-to-text software that can be used in homeschool, distance learning, or even in professional settings.
- Video Conferencing - There are free versions of many types of video conferencing apps that can be useful for connecting with experts, specialists, teachers, tutors, and even friends and family. Skype is useful for connecting with people. Zoom is an excellent option for students who like to be able to record discussions and watch them back later. Facebook has developed Facebook Rooms in addition to Video Chatting through their Messenger app. All of these can help homeschool and distance learning students connect and expand their education..
Finding Assistive Technology Apps
There are many helpful websites and blogs out there that can help parents homeschooling a special needs child to find assistive technology. Some of these include:
- Leah Nieman's article 'Best Apps For Special Needs Learners' gives an overview of some of the most effective apps for special needs kids.
- Understood.com's 'Assistive Technology for Learning: What You Need to Know' provides a basic overview of what assistive technology is, and where to find it for your special needs child.
- Attainment Company helps special needs students and parents find and successfully use assistive technology.
Physical Assistive Devices and Tools
Not every child who needs assistive technology needs a tricked-out iPad full of apps and videos, however. Sometimes students need more concrete, physical assistance and tools. There is some overlap between physical assistive devices and manipulatives, but there is also a significant difference. Physical assistive devices can range from things like ergonomic furniture to specialized pencil grips. These items help students learn ergonomic, healthy ways of physically being in a learning environment and can help them focus on their education rather than be distracting. Some of these tools include:
- Flexible Seating - This gives special needs kids options for where and how they sit. For example, instead of a kitchen chair all day, allow students to choose between the kitchen chair, a designated reading chair, a cushion or bean bag on the floor, or a rocking chair. There are also lots of ideas for DIY flexible seating on Pinterest for handy parents of special needs kids.
- Grip Helpers - It is easy for adults to forget, but learning how to grip pens, pencils, scissors, and cutlery is a learning process! For special needs kids, having a specialized assistive grip to learn the process can really cut down on frustration, which makes using these implements easier and more effective. They also help make their writing clearer.
- Timers - Whether your timer is a wristwatch, your phone, or an hourglass, having a visual representation of time passing can help special needs kids learn to manage their time and practice transitioning between tasks.
Paying For (Or Borrowing) Assistive Technology
Many parents who choose to homeschool a special needs child may already feel buried under costs for healthcare on top of everyday costs. While assistive technology does run the gamut of price points, some parents may look at the price of Kurzweil 3000 or a braille keyboard and monitor and think that such assistive technology is out of their budget.. However, there are lots of options for homeschool parents to secure funding for assistive technology.
Some parents may be able to fund smaller assistive technology items through DIY solutions without spending tons of money. Checking out other homeschool blogs, Pinterest, and even educational company blogs (Like Roylco's Blog) for DIY and low-cost options for assistive technology and devices can give homeschool parents more options, even on a tight budget.
In some cases, health insurance may cover some or all of the cost of some assistive technology. Medicare, Medicaid, and private insurance will all have different rules for what is and is not covered, so check your individual policy to see what is available. Your child's therapist or primary care provider may also be able to point you in the direction of assistive technology options. They may also need to provide a letter saying that assistive technology is medically necessary.
Disability-Focused Organizations and Lending Libraries
Parents of special needs students may already be aware of disability-focused organizations, but they may not be aware that many of these organizations can help parents find funding for assistive technology. Some organizations may even have local chapters that maintain lending libraries of assistive devices and technology that members or special needs children can access. Make sure to do some research into the local organizations near you. Here are some organizations that may be good places to start:
- The National Multiple Sclerosis Society
- The United Cerebral Palsy (UCP) and their UPC Bellows Fund
- The National Dissemination Center of Children with Disabilities
Federal and State Funding Options
The federal government and many state governments also have programs to help support special needs children's access to assistive technology. Parents should research their specific state's funding options for assistive technology for homeschool. In terms of federal programs, however, here are a few to get you started:
National Homeschool Organizations
Parents who choose to homeschool a special needs child might feel like they are alone in the process. That does not have to be true! There are lots of other parents who choose to homeschool, and there are many organizations designed to support parents and students who are homeschooling. Make sure you reach out to discover the vibrant communities of homeschooling parents and students. There will always be local organizations and parents to reach out to, but there are some excellent national organizations as well:
- The National Home School Association (NHSA) supports parents through all the steps of homeschooling, including helping them find curricula resources, offering webinars, and holding conferences.
- Great Homeschool Conventions are yearly events that parents and students who homeschool can attend to network with other parents and students who chose to homeschool and learn about new curricula, activities, and more.
- National Black Home Educators provides resources and support for Black families who have chosen to homeschool. They also provide links to curricula and learning resources.
- SPED Homeschool provides links to curricula, resources, therapy options, and parent support specifically for parents of special needs learners who homeschool.
- National Home Education Research Institute focuses primarily on academic research about homeschooling, but they also offer resources for parents who homeschool their children.
- Catholic Schoolhouse hosts a blog and a store to support parents who are interested in faith-based homeschooling. They also support a community of parents and students that new homeschool parents can join.
Advantages to Homeschool and Distance Learning
Choosing to homeschool a special needs child can feel daunting, but there are many, many advantages for students and parents who choose to homeschool or engage in distance learning.
Putting Your Child's Needs First
The main advantage is that you can put your child and their individual needs first. You know your child's individual challenges and strengths best and can adjust a homeschool curriculum to reflect both places where your child shines as well as places where your child needs practice to improve. When your homsechool child is ready for college, check out this guide for tips on how they can succeed in college with a learning disability .
Homeschool also includes the benefit of one-to-one instruction. Even the best teachers who want every child in their class to succeed find giving individual attention to 25+ students a challenge. Homeschooling avoids overcrowded classrooms and lets you focus on just your child.
Another advantage to homeschooling a special needs child is flexibility in scheduling. Many special needs kids have regular doctor's appointments, specialist appointments, therapy appointments, and other scheduled events that take place right in the middle of a traditional school day. Homeschool allows you to build a unique schedule that fits in with your life. It also lets students focus on activities that can be part of an education that is often cut in traditional schools. If your student rides horses, participates in a competitive sport, or plays an instrument, they can allot more time for those activities.
Control the Learning Environment
A third advantage to homeschooling, particularly for special needs children, is that parents can control the environment their child is in. Kids with sensory processing disorders might find the bright lights, suboptimal temperatures, smells, and sounds of a traditional school difficult to process. Additionally, kids with environmental allergies (dust, mold, some cleaning chemicals, etc.) or food allergies (especially peanuts and gluten) often struggle or feel excluded in classroom activities because of these issues. Parents of homeschooled kids can make sure that students who need these accommodations have low-level lighting, no environmental allergens, and no risk for accidental cross-contamination with food.
Assess What Is/Is Not Working
Finally, homeschool allows parents to periodically evaluate what is or is not working in their special needs child's curriculum and to make targeted, evidence-based changes more easily than a traditional school can. When you are considering homeschool or distance learning, think about what would benefit your child specifically. You know your child best, and this is a highly individualized decision.
Accommodations and Modifications
Another aspect to consider when thinking about distance learning or homeschooling for your child is the freedom to make accommodations and modifications. Public schools are required to make accommodations and modifications for special needs students, but the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) also notes that accommodations or modifications that require undue hardship are not required--although the school or employer is required to attempt to find other solutions.
- Accommodations are defined as changes to how a student learns material. For example, providing a student with dyslexia or ADHD with an audiobook rather than a physical book. Despite the difference in the method of acquiring the content, the student is still learning the same material.
- Modifications (some schools or instructors might also use the word adjustments) are changes to the actual content the student is learning and/or being tested on. An example of a modification is changing the length of a reading assignment for a student with special needs; where other students may be given ten pages of reading for homework, a special needs student would receive five pages of reading for homework instead.
Some children with special needs may be successful in a traditional classroom environment with minimal accommodations, but other children may need extensive accommodations and modifications and may perform better in a homeschool environment. Make sure you assess your child's needs in concert with medical and educational professionals to decide if distance learning or homeschool is the best choice for you and your child.
Disadvantages to Homeschool and Distance Learning
Homeschool can be an excellent choice for some families with special needs children, but it is important to be aware of the potential disadvantages of making the choice to homeschool as well as the advantages.
One of the main disadvantages to homeschooling is parent burnout. Teaching is a difficult profession, and while parents aren't dealing with all the traditional pressures that teachers face, they do still have to balance teaching, parenting, and possibly even working, all while managing the day-to-day needs of a special needs child. Parents have to remember to take care of themselves and to structure in parent breaks and activities they enjoy. Remember, it is not possible to pour from an empty cup; if you aren't okay, it is very hard to effectively teach your child. Parental self-care is a must in any homeschool situation in order for your child to meet their educational goals.
Another disadvantage of homeschooling can be a lack of structure. Some special needs children--particularly children on the Autism spectrum--may need more day-to-day structure to their lives to meet their educational goals. This can be difficult when the classroom is also your living room, so consider the amount and type of structure your child needs as you plan your homeschool curriculum.