The Wizard Of Oz Of Homeschooling Kids With Special Needs
I’ve wanted to write about this particular topic for months now, but really the seeds of it were sown since the earliest days of our homeschooling efforts back in 2005 (I’m pretty sure I’ve lived four lifetimes since then!). So the subject today is Homeschooling Children With Special Needs……..oooh, even the title sounds daunting and mystical. And yet here we are, seven years later homeschooling not one, but TWO kids with special needs. Maybe I’m just too ignorant to be intimidated, or maybe it’s that I’m in the middle of the daily pea soup that is our lives, so I’ve stopped giving it that much consideration, but it just doesn’t seem to be that “hard” or arduous to teach a child with cognitive issues (emotional/behavioral? that’s a WHOLE different story for another day).
I’m sure you’ve seen it out there: entire blogs completely dedicated to every detail of teaching a child with ominous “special needs”, curriculum designers and publishers are now devoting more and more of their share of the marketplace to the subject of homeschooling children with special needs and an increasing number of parents who have kids with special needs are taking them out of public school, which is all well and good (especially the last part of that sentence), but I want to take some of the “ooh’s and awww’s” out of this whole subject because I just don’t think it’s that hard. Homeschooling a child with special needs is NOT rocket science. Then again, I may be the village idiot who’s completely missing the mark with her kids while we happily skip along the Yellow Brick Road of Happy Homeschooling, all the while they’re learning absolutely NOTHING and will therefor be condemned to live aimless and meaningless adult lives. (Insert scary thought here)
So here we are behind the magical curtain in Oz, about to reveal the BIG SECRET TO HOMESCHOOLING YOUR CHILD WITH SPECIAL NEEDS. (drum roll please……or if you like the soundtrack we hear in our house quite often, the theme to Star Wars played by my daughter on her violin): We try to assess our children where they’re at developmentally (cognitive, social, emotional, gross motor, fine motor) and build a foundation that will address their present levels of development while challenging them in their weaker ares. I know, completely anti-climactic right?
So, let’s take it out of the nebulous and make it practical. Here’s my son as an example: when we started homeschooling him, he was nearly through his first year of full day public school kindergarten and he was 6 1/2. He has Down syndrome, was born deaf but has some hearing in both ears (thanks in large part to many, many complicated ear surgeries and ear canal reconstructions), and he contracted Infantile Spasms when he was an infant (while he was still profoundly deaf) that caused immediate and devastating developmental damage. When he was in kindergarten, his ear infections had digressed to such a serious level that we had to have a central line surgically placed into his chest cavity to deliver a couple of the most potent drugs known to man (not exaggerating here). One clear and cold December day of his kindergarten year that line became septic and we rushed him to the hospital where his doctors discovered a very serious blood infection. They removed the line, gave him a whole other cocktail of potent antibiotics while monitoring him VERY closely, and we got to bring our little man home a little over a week later (he could have died had we not lived near medical care). I explain all this to say that my son had some THINGS going physically and that maybe he was SO busy working on LIVING that perhaps cognition, reading sight words and working on the ever-so-critically-important speech words that sounded an awful lot like “ba ba ba” and “ma ma ma” weren’t at the top of his body’s list of priorities. As a result, all but his privately accessed therapists (two of the most brilliant practitioners I’ve ever met), labeled him “oblivious, untestable and “out of it”. Whatever.
So when we brought him home to home school him we looked at him for who he was as a person and where he was developmentally by category; social, emotional, cognitively, gross motor, fine motor. How was his short term memory?(very short, but he could attend for a couple of minutes at a time) Did he know his colors and shapes? (no, not really) Could he communicate what he knew, felt, or wanted, and did he do that consistently? (for the most part, through pointing and gesturing or using American Sign Language) Was he curious about the world around him? (yes) Did he like to be WITH us; his family, his mom and dad and sister, like did he want to be in the same room as us? (yes) Did he have favorite things from which we could form a foundation of a FUN learning environment? (yes; music, songs, instruments, dancing, swinging, playing) So we just kind of took what we knew about him and started building a network of learning activities that we could do WITH him, things like lacing cards, big blocks (he still had very low muscle tone at this point), matching games, vocabulary (ASL & verbal), sight words, balance, leg strength, core strength. We were also keenly aware of his challenges; he was (and is today) sensory averting in some ways, but sought out big input and needed to be “perked up” sensory-wise to begin any kind of “work”. So we would do things like bounce him on a big ball, give him deep shoulder rubs, “brush” his arms, legs and back with a surgical brush and just generally “activate” his neuro-sensory system before we asked anything from him.
As for the big scary curriculum, we worked on early childhood concepts: colors, shapes, animals, sight words (www.iahp.org is the foundation on which we base his reading program), coloring with crayons and markers (using big arm movements to make big circles and doing it standing up at an easel, or slanted board, as well as a regular table), identifying numbers and counting, and doing lots and LOTS of movement and propreoceptive input (swinging, pushing/pulling, walking, horse back riding, trampoline, marching, etc….). I didn’t buy a “curriculum-in-a-box” because I didn’t feel that our son fit into a box. So I guess we’re pretty eclectic in our homeschooling approach because I don’t use any one specific modality or methodology, except for using the philosophy of seeing where a child is at on every level and trying to build on that foundation. But it’s not complicated…….we’re just constantly assessing where he is, and working at a foundational level to increase his ability to concentrate, attend to different tasks (posture, core strengthening), and to interact with the world around him (a big and varied sensory “diet” that includes a heavy emphasis on muscle based oral motor therapy (www.talktools.net) and sensory based speech activities).
Maybe there ARE kids who have “special needs” out there who DO actually learn from a “one size fits most” model. I know my two don’t, which is probably why when the world sees out at the park, in the grocery store or at the beach during “school hours” it looks like my kids aren’t learning anything at all, when in fact they’re taking it all in through all portals. It’s absolutely wonderful on all fronts that so many parents are taking back the reigns of their children’s educational path and it will only bode well not only for the individual child, who thrives in a smaller teacher/student ratio, but for society as a whole as we raise kids who are perhaps hard wired “differently” than the bell curve of society, but after their home educated journey will be armed with self confidence and a strong skill set that will take them successfully forward into the marketplace. I honestly hope this helps simplify a rapidly growing segment of the home school community.
- Posted in: Down syndrome Special Needs Homeschooling