Homeschooling a Child with Special Needs

Barbara Frank
The Link, Vol. 7, Issue 1
  Reprinted with the permission of Mary Leppert, Editor
Copyright © 2002 The Link

After you've been homeschooling for a while, you become comfortable in your role as teacher. Working with your children year after year brings you to an understanding of how they learn and what to expect of them. As the years pass, you witness a fairly steady progression of increasing skills, a growing desire to work independently, and less direct instruction needed from you, their teacher, as they grow.
I found that to be true of my first three children. Homeschooled from birth, really, they taught me that if you provide books, resources, relaxed instruction, and a willingness to answer their questions, they'll do the rest.
But it doesn't work like that with my youngest. He has Down Syndrome, and learning is harder for him than it was for the others. Not that he doesn't have the curiosity to learn, but his disabilities get in his way. As his mom and his teacher, I've learned to change my expectations and my teaching style in order to help him progress. Homeschooling him is different than homeschooling his older siblings, and both of us are learning many new things.

New Expectations

The first thing you learn when you have a child with special needs is to adjust your expectations. My older children taught me to expect regular improvement, but with my son, improvement can take a long time. Picture long plateaus with the occasional rise coming between them. For example, my older children learned their letters and numbers through the repetition that occurs naturally in life. When they saw words and numbers in books or on street signs and asked what they were, they remembered my responses to their questions. But my youngest rarely remembered the responses; he didn't even start asking the questions until he was eight or nine years old.
The older children made gradual progress toward working independently, but my youngest cannot stay on task unless someone is right there with him. Just washing his hands often requires supervision and encouragement. Independence is something quite a ways down the road, and it will be hard-won.
When at a park or a museum, my older children could be expected to stay in the area, and so they had a lot of autonomy while there. My son, however, is a runner, and will take off if we don't stay right with him. Even playing outside, where so much learning occurs, is something that requires supervision in his case, and while we get him outside as often as we can, those times are limited by the availability of someone to police him.

A New Teaching Style

As my expectations changed, I realized that the teaching style I had developed while homeschooling the older children also had to change. When working with them, I could assume they understood me if they didn't ask many questions. But my son isn't proactive that way. I have learned to question him regularly about things we have read or done. If he doesn't respond in a way that shows understanding, I have to come up with a different way to present the material.
I also need to play more games with him than I did with the others. I used educational games as an occasional tool with my older children, but with my son it has become an integral part of our time together each day. He is very competitive, with a strong desire to learn whatever it takes to win the game. Thanks to him, we have amassed a large collection of number and letter games, all of them well-worn by now.
With the older three, I used phonics to assist them as they taught themselves to read. That was how I learned to read, and it fit all of us. But my son has severe speech delays, so sounding out words is much harder for him than it was for his siblings. Sight reading works better for him, so I've learned to use a technique I was never in favor of before, because in this case, it works.
While I spent a lot of one-on-one time with each of my children, with my son, I can never put in enough "face time". Getting right in his face to work with him has been the most effective way of teaching him since he was tiny. He is easily distracted; I need to stay right with him and keep him on track.. We accomplish a lot if I am "in his face" most of the time.

Trying New Methods

My teaching style changed after I adjusted my expectations of my son. I could not rest on what I had learned by teaching the others. As I saw that the way I was used to doing things wasn't helping him, I followed his cues to develop new methods.
For instance, in order to count verbally, he first needed to fully understand the concept of each number. While counting trucks on the highway or birds in the backyard solidified the concept of numbers for my older children, I had to find many more ways to do that for our little guy. We used plastic numbers and manipulatives. We counted everything we used, and never put the crayons back in the box without counting them first. We played number lotto, board games and hopscotch. If it had to do with number concepts, we tried it.
What finally did the trick for him was the board game Trouble. The two of us played that game at least once a day for over a year. He'd carry the box into his dad's home office, and they'd play at least one daily game. He'd accost the teenagers as they arrived home from work with the greeting, "Trouble?". And after countless games of Trouble with everyone in the family, something clicked, and he finally figured out the numbers one to six.
Another area in which I needed to change was how I looked at workbooks. My son with special needs really enjoys them and he displays such a sense of accomplishment when he finishes a page. With the older children, each would use a workbook once, and then move on. But when my youngest son finishes a workbook, he won't necessarily remember everything he learned from it. So we work our way through two or three copies of some of them. By the second time, he has usually mastered a few new concepts and finds it easier, which really encourages him (and me). We worked through Rod and Staff's six-workbook series for preschoolers twice, and are just finishing up the second set. He beams when he completes a page correctly.
Using the help of a professional was another area that required me to change. I never needed or wanted the help of others when homeschooling the older three children. But when your child has special needs, therapists can provide necessary guidance for you as your child's teacher. On the recommendation of a homeschooling friend, we hired a very experienced, pro-homeschooling speech therapist when our son was little. In addition to working with him, she teaches me how to reinforce his speech sessions at home. She also evaluates him periodically, and answers my questions about his progress.

Testing and IEP's

Probably the biggest change in my teaching style has been a new willingness to work using testing and Individualized Education Plans (IEP's, which are very specific lesson plans). Although I used achievement tests with my older children a few times, I never relied on them for anything but encouragement. With my youngest, however, test results are my guide to what to do next with him.
The tests I give my son are not achievement tests, but skills tests, which break down each skill found in human development into single steps. By finding out where he is developmentally, I can see what the next skill is in each area, and direct my teaching efforts accordingly.
At first, my husband and I hired an educational psychologist to do the testing. But our son didn't warm to this man. In fact, he became very withdrawn upon meeting the psychologist. We had never seen our son act like that before. Interestingly, after the session was over, he went back to being his usual chipper self. But we could see that his reaction to this man affected his test responses negatively.
The testing session cost us $400. Since testing is recommended every three months, we decided to find a less costly and more successful alternative. A little research revealed that we could rent the same test from the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) for less than $30. Now I test him myself, and use the results to design his IEP.
When I first heard about IEP's, they sounded way too structured for me. Like many homeschoolers, I had become a less structured teacher over the years. But working with my son made me see that I needed goals for him, since he didn't take the initiative or make progress as easily as his siblings had. We needed specific areas of development to work toward. The tests showed us what those were, and the IEP's established a game plan for reaching them.
The IEP simply lists the goals we're working on, and the activities and resources we'll need to get there. I update the IEP every three or four months. In some areas my son makes steady progress, but in others we have to repeat steps. I'm learning to work at his speed, so it can be slow going. On the other hand, because of the effort he makes and the time it takes him, his victories are especially sweet.

Help from Older Siblings

My older children have helped my youngest as he learns. We've taught them to do things with him in specific ways so that they can add to the daily repetition he needs in many areas. They help him set the table at times, but they know to make him count out the silverware. When they play games with him, they know just how much to help him without letting him coast. He adores his siblings, and is always willing to work with them.
When they were younger, and I was homeschooling all four of them, things got pretty hectic. It was hard bouncing back and forth between teenagers doing trigonometry, a 3rd grader learning multiplication, and a seven-year-old who was still having trouble distinguishing between the numbers 2 and 3. Often, I would work with one older child while another played with our youngest son. Later, they would trade places. In this way, our son got lots of attention and the older ones still got their one-on-one time with me.
Asking the older children to occasionally cover an assignment on the IEP made it easier to accomplish everything planned for a given day. But siblings of children with special needs already make a lot of sacrifices, so I always try not to overdo it. They need to keep balance in their lives between helping their brother and doing the things that are important for them.

The Benefits of Homeschooling Don't Change

Homeschooling my son with Down Syndrome is different from homeschooling the others, and yet the benefits are the same. He receives plenty of the one-on-one attention he sorely needs, which would not be possible in the public school setting. He enjoys close relationships with his siblings, thanks to all the time they've spent together over the years. He misses out on the opportunity to learn bad behavior from the kids at school (something we've heard is common among Down Syndrome children, who are often talented mimics). He also misses out on the teasing that children with disabilities often suffer from in school, as well as the pity of well-meaning others.
At home, he is one of the gang, learning new things every day, just as his two oldest siblings did, and his big sister still does. And I am learning too: new techniques, new resources, more patience. Homeschooling continues to be a constant source of learning for all of us.

About the author:

Barbara Frank has four homeschooled-from-birth children, ages 10-20. She is a freelance writer/editor, and the author of Life Prep for Homeschooled Teenagers. To visit her Web site, "The Imperfect Homeschooler", go to, and follow the links.
For more information about homeschooling children with special needs: Contact NATHHAN (National Challenged Homeschoolers Associated Network), PO Box 39, Porthill, ID, 83853. On the Web, go to