Home School Life Journal

Home School Life Journal ........... painting by Katie Bergenholtz
"Let us strive to make each moment beautiful."
Saint Francis DeSales

Homeschooling Children with Special Needs: Special NOT Impossible Needs

This is such a large topic, because of the large range of disabilities and ages under the topic of special needs, I will only be able to give some basic information. I also want to encourage you, if you are feeling hesitant or unsure about teaching your child with special needs. You probably already know much more than you think you do about how to teach your child, and God has entrusted you with an important job, so you have the obligation to fulfill that expectation.
If you look at the typical stages that a parent goes thorough in the process of raising a special needs child, you can also see that your teaching needs to go through a similar set of stages. I am sure that much of what I am going to say about the stages we go through you will already have gone through or will sound familiar to you, but in becoming aware of this process will help us in understanding what we need to do, both as parents and as educators, to help our child to reach his greatest potential.
Let’s first look at the stages we go through as a parent of a special needs child. The process usually starts by your noticing that something is not right. Sometimes it is an actual thing your child does –or does not do –that you notice, or sometimes it is just a feeling you have that something is not right.
The first thing that most people do is to inquire of friends and family about the problem, and usually the friends and family will tell you that everything is okay –he is just slow to develop. Doctors often will tell you the same thing.
But then there comes a point when it is impacting negatively on the child’s and your family’s life. Sometimes it is more specifically the child’s schoolwork. You initially struggle to find answers –sometimes through the school system but typically it is through the medical field. I call this stage the “finding the label” stage because you are at a loss as to what to do –typical methods are not working and the problem is getting worse. Most parents don’t need a label, per sec but they do need to know what the characteristics of the problem are and labeling is the easiest way to find this out because you are typically provided with a list of characteristics when you get a diagnosis. It is also psychologically reassuring to know others are experiencing what you are experiencing. You are feeling alienated because your friends are not having this experience. Some people take comfort in finding a support group with other people with children with the same disability –sometimes in rural areas like this the Internet is the easiest way to do this.
At this point you have found some sort of answer –sometimes on your own –sometimes through physicians. You may now have a label. You might not, but at least you are satisfied.
Armed with this information, you enter the next stage, and this step may go back and forth for years –separating special needs behavior (ie: behavior that is out of the child’s control) from behavior that is within the child’s control but he is choosing not to control the behavior because it is easier or he gets what he wants from it. This is very difficult to separate. Some people are better at it than others. There is also the element of behavior that the child can control, but because of his disability he has to work much harder to achieve this goal. It is hard for the child and it is hard for us, as parents, to see our child constantly struggle to achieve positive behaviors that typical children can do with relative ease.
It is our job, as parents and educators, to determine these differences and to set clear, concrete boundaries between these categories. This is the only way our child will function normally in the world –the only way they will progress to their potential.
This is where I come to where I want to talk about how your teaching needs to go through a similar set of stages. The key to the teaching of a special needs child is what I call the Treatment plan. I use that term because I first encountered this process of establishing clear, step-by-step, concrete goals when I was an Addiction’s Counselor before I even had children. (That was a testament to God’s knowing hand at work in my life; to equip me with these skills even before I was married, but that is another story.) You could call it IEP, as the school systems call it, but I hesitate to use that term because many of us have tried to work within the framework of the public school system, only to see that it does not work for our children and our families. Some of us are left with negative feelings about the IEP because of this, but I am here to tell you that it is not the fault of the IEP, per sec, but the fact that we left others to write and implement them, when we know our children so much better.
There are lots of good books about writing these IEP/Treatment Plans, but they all tell you that you need to have one essential element.
That element is specifics. You will need to know the specifics on your child’s disability. This is why it is important that we go through the stages of realization of our child’s disability that I have been talking about. You will need to know specifics on the goals that you want your child to achieve including the strategies and materials you will use. You will need to know specifics on the behaviors that are not a part of the disability that you are also working on. Why do I say that there will be some of those? Because it is a natural human response that when we are under stress –and the child will be under stress because he KNOWS that there is something different about himself (even if he does not admit this to you or even himself) –is to make ourselves feel better any way we can. And some of the ways we, as humans, use to comfort ourselves is to indulge our natural indulgent nature. Soon they are so intermixed that often they fool even us. These are survival techniques, protecting the child from pain so he will hold on to them with ferocity. Often we, still having trouble accepting the extent of our child’s disability will go along with this and not want to even face the fact that the two are intermixed and call it all a disability. Sometimes we unknowingly provide our child with help in creating these protective behaviors because we hate to see our children suffer and we don’t like to feel pain either. Outsiders will sometimes feel free to express to parents their opinion that they spoil their child when they see this behavior, not understanding the complexity of having a special needs child. I must mention that we too, as parents, have our own survival protection that we sometimes use to shield ourselves from the pain of our child’s disability. All this is normal human behavior. But we will come to the point that our child will not progress if we do not face our child’s disability for what it is a separate out all the other behaviors. You can tell that you are at this stage if you feel that you are the sole champion defending your helpless victim child. Another sign is that you are going from school to school, from program to program, from co-op to co-op trying to find one that suits your child. Sometimes parents at this point revisit the medical route. They cannot separate the two (sometimes they get so enmeshed it is hard to tell them apart) and their child’s disability has impacted on his or his family’s life to a greater extent.
Once you are armed with an IEP, you can begin remediation for your child. In the Elementary years the focus should be on remediation. What I mean by this is using techniques to help the child learn skills that he is weak in. This can be techniques in phonics training that is not necessary for the typical child but can help a dyslexic child gain these skills so that he can catch up to his peers. This can be techniques in speech and language therapy to help an autistic child gain the speech that his peers learn without being taught.
Having an IEP helps us as educators, too, because you can finally get to see progress. It is normal to need to see progress. You can mostly easily see this need when you look at the parenting section of a book store. There are tons of baby books out there that tell you what to expect in terms of development.
The IEP can also help you to see when you are NOT progressing and that you may need to change your goals in some way or change your goal into smaller tasks.
By the Middle school years you should begin the concept of acclimation. In fact treatment should be a mixture of remediation and acclimation. An example of this is if your child has difficulty with handwriting or reading ability –think how could you face adulthood with the ability you have now? Books on tape, typing instead of handwriting, spell-checkers, learning to go to others for help…are just some of the ideas you can implement.
This is when we need to be prepared for the next stage in our own growth as we need to be able fine tune our honest assessment our child’s current functioning level –where would my child fit? Can he go to college? Can he better fit going to a trade school? Will he need assistance for the rest of his life, and if so, what level of assistance?
It may seem early to you as you look at your 6th grader to determine how his life will go. Well, if you decide that you cannot live without your child going to college, then you have time to get his ability to that level or figure out tricks to make it possible.
My best friend is a college professor and she sees lots of kids with various disabilities. She says the key to which ones succeed and which ones do not are whether the child is able to get beyond his disability and produce a term paper (for example.) What matters to her is what is produced in the end. If a student turns in a paper with spelling errors or grammar mistakes, then college professors will mark it down –whether you say you have a disability or not. It is the student’s job to fix the paper whether it be to take the paper to a writing center or a fellow student or whatever. Again this is where it is important for the child to know his disability and how to fix the outcome.
I have had parents of children with disabilities tell me that all of this does not matter because legally a person cannot be fired or kicked out of school because of a disability. To some degree this is true and my best friend has overlooked some issues such as spelling and some grammar in in-class essays, but for the term paper, for example a disability is no excuse and the person will be required to produce the necessary output somehow. The same is true for the job market –to succeed the person is going to have to be able to do what he is being paid to do. This is not even touching on the issue of Christian morals. You would surely find immoral if you forced your employer to pay you for a service you could not possibly provide.
Your child then needs to know how his disability impacts on his school and his potential job and he needs to know what steps he will need to take to prevent negative impact in the classroom or job place, even if that means that he has to work ten times harder than his peer. And it is your job as your child’s teacher to prepare him for this.
The good news is that you CAN do it. Who knows your child better than you do?
By the time your child reaches high school much of what you see is what you are going to get as an adult –not that you give up on progress –even as adults we can progress, but your schooling should focus less and less on remediation and more and more on acclimation.
You do have resources at your fingertips. Listen to what good friends tell you without getting defensive. It is true that they may not have all the facts, but often there is at least a kernel of truth in what they say.
There are tons of resources on Special Needs in general and specific disabilities in general at bookstores, although my suggestion is that you do not pay a lot of money for remediation materials. Commercial organizations have realized that there is a large market in special needs and are cashing in on insecurities to charge high prices.
You can also get help on the Internet, particularly Chat rooms. There are even conferences devoted just to special needs issues. Talk to others around you with children with special needs. Often they are the key to many resources. Often, too, it is just a matter of being patient and letting your child take the extra time he needs without our own egos getting in the way.
The main thing is to explore and pray. God is with you and if you lean on him, he will direct your steps in the direction he wants you to take.
This essay was originally created as a speech for a home school support group.

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