Our nine year old has special needs and my husband and I both work full time. We’ve been homeschooling since March. Here’s what we learned.
Like many families in the United States, we’ve been sheltering in place for over four months. My son was on spring break when his school shut down due to the pandemic. Even though his teachers promised “distance learning” opportunities, I knew that wouldn’t work for us.
Our son has an intellectual disability and a speech and language delay. He was years behind grade level and struggles with auditory processing. The packets of grade-level worksheets would be too much for him to do independently and I worried he wouldn’t be able to process or understand the teacher’s verbal instructions in virtual class meetings. Without his one-on-one and small group special education and resource classes, he would be left behind.
So we dove headfirst into homeschooling. Scary, right? Especially since my husband and I both work full time as a professor and a lawyer, respectively. Could we make this work?
Well, we did. I’m here to share what we learned along the way.
Ten Tips For Homeschooling Your “Special Needs” Child While You Work From Home
1. Choose an online curriculum that includes multi-sensory instruction and interactive learning activities that your child can use independently.
The key to homeschooling while you work from home is that much of your child’s learning must be able to happen without you. That means you don’t need homeschool “resources” – you need an out-of-the-box “all in one” curriculum and someone or something to teach your child while you do your own work. Look for an online curriculum that pairs video instruction with multi-sensory techniques and assessments to aid learning and track your child’s progress. “Multi-sensory instruction” is a way of teaching that engages more than one sense (sight, hearing, movement, and touch) at a time to give kids more than one way to connect with what they are learning. When choosing an online curriculum, watch the sample lessons and look to see if the platform is using multi-sensory learning techniques like:
- Lesson videos that use sounds, pictures, and written captions. You want your special needs kiddo to be able to listen, read, and see concepts during any lesson.
- Interactive lesson activities and games that engage kinesthetic/tactile learners (kids that learn best by doing rather than listening or reading). Look for lesson activities that include “drag and drop;” “matching;” and look like a fun video game. (Time4Learning and ABCMouse are great examples of platforms that do this).
- Check to see if the platform includes recommended “offline” activities for you to do at home with your child and, if so, take a look at how much of the curriculum relies on offline supplements. When you’re working full time from home, you won’t have too much time for offline activities – but the occasional project could be fun to do on the weekends if your child is particularly interested in a subject or is struggling with a concept. For example, Time4Learning includes optional offline activities for each of its lesson chapters. Pro Tip: Don’t even try to do any offline activities during the week. You’re a working parent. Take that pressure off yourself. Make offline parent-child learning something fun you do on some Saturday afternoons but not every Saturday afternoon.
What are the best curriculums for special needs kids? Check out this list at Homeschool.com and Very Well Family’s list of the best online homeschool curriculums. If you are working from home, pick an “all in one” curriculum. You’re working full time – you don’t have time to navigate a different website for every subject. For my son, we chose Time4Learning.
2. Loosely structure your day – but don’t be crazy about it.
Remember those color coded schedules that popped up on your newsfeed at the beginning of the pandemic? You know – the ones that showed us Junior would be waking up and getting dressed between 7 and 7:30 a.m., eating breakfast between 7:30 and 8 a.m. and brushing his teeth at 7:55 a.m. before starting math at exactly 8 a.m.? Those moms and dads had every minute of every day planned out. That’s a pipe dream. For us, raising a child with special needs while working full time means some days go differently than others. A schedule that is unrealistic is worthless. Unless your kiddo’s neurology requires a strict structure, here’s what I recommend instead:
- Loosely schedule when your child will, generally, be doing schoolwork. Morning? Afternoon? Evening? Between about 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.? That’s all you need.
- Make a checklist of the general subjects or activities that your kid needs to complete each day. For example, maybe your third grader will do math, reading, language arts, science, social studies, work on a “special” (we’ll talk about that below) and exercise every day. Get a white board and make a checklist that your kid can check off when each subject has been completed for the day.
- Have a few things that generally always happen at the same time or in the same order but allow for flexibility elsewhere. For example, maybe you always start Monday morning with your your zoom tutoring at 9 a.m. (see number 3, below) or maybe you always exercise at 3 p.m. (see number 4 below). But, assuming this works with your child’s neurology, allow your kiddo some flexibility on the order of academic subjects, what exercise you do, or when they eat snack. If they are really interested in what they are learning in Science one day – let them spend a little longer on that. Education isn’t all about structure – it’s about getting excited about learning, right?
- Don’t be afraid to try, fail, and try something new! This is new to you and your kid. Play around! Find what works for you.
How do you know your kid actually did the work? Many homeschool curriculums have parent dashboards that allow you to check in on what has been completed. However, if your special needs kiddo isn’t that independent, have them bring their laptop or tablet to you at your workspace between every subject. Go over what they have to do and send them on their way. (The homeschool curriculum should help you keep them on track – with recommendations on how much to do each day.) Then, have them check in with you when the day’s work for that subject is complete.
3. Contract Out Your Resource Classes and Don’t Forget Your IEP
If your special needs kiddo is anything like mine, it took a village to get him through the school day. At his public elementary school, he had small group speech and language therapy, social skills class, and two special education teachers. You don’t have to give this up to homeschool. If you get Department of Developmental Disability resources from your state – you may be able to utilize state-sponsored services to fill this gap. Also, check our your state laws regarding service plans and IEPs for homeschool students.
However, even if you don’t have access to any state or public school resources, you can independently hire out some of these roles. Here are some options:
- Hire a resource teacher to do zoom tutoring sessions with your child. We asked one of our son’s beloved speech and language therapists if she would be willing to tutor him on zoom. They meet twice a week for 45 minutes. During those 45 minutes – I get completely uninterrupted time to work, make lunch, or just chill. Depending on the going rate in your state and the expertise, training, and experience of the tutor, the cost of a tutor can range between $20-$50 per hour. If you don’t know anyone – try asking for recommendations on social media or check out Thumbtack or Care.com (which gives you the option to search for tutors or caregivers with experience working with a specific special need.)
- Check out offerings for virtual social skills and special needs classes at sites like Outschool. There you will find small group virtual classes like “Emotional Mastery;” “Social Skills for Boys 7-10;” “Personal Responsibility: Owning Behaviors to Earn Freedom;” and “How Money Works: Understanding Credit Cards,” in addition to cooking classes, coding classes, science seminars and much more. You can search by disability to find classes that are suitable to your child’s special need. (For example, a search of “Autism” brings up a number of “Autism-friendly” courses.) Once your kiddo logs on – use the time to answer some e-mails or dig into that project.
If you’re worried about how to afford additional help or additional classes – consider that homeschooling is much cheaper than you might think. The online curriculum we chose is approximately $20 per month. That’s less than I spent on school supplies, donated snacks, backpacks and school clothes. Not to mention the money I’m saving on gas and meals out right now. So we took that money and put it towards the above resources. If money is tight, connect with other homeschool moms in your area to see if anyone would be willing to go in together to share the cost of tutoring or resource classes with you. Check out Wolf & Friends – an online community that helps connect special needs moms.
4. Give “specials” double duty.
Remember PE, Art, and Music class? I don’t know about you, but those were the best parts of any school day for me. Once, a special guest on the TILT Parenting: Differently Wired Kids Podcast stressed that we should spend just as much time encouraging our kids strengths as we do working to help them on their areas of weakness. (I wish I remembered the name of the guest! It was a great interview! If you listened to this episode and remember who this was – let me know in the comments so I can give credit where credit is due.) Giving your kid time to work on these “specials” is another way you can find uninterrupted work time during the day and get your own self care in too!
- Find a physical activity you and your kiddo can do together! My son loves to play basketball with his Dad and do free workout videos on YouTube with me. I use the time he plays basketball in the driveway with Dad to make calls and get those last few tasks done at the end of the day. And his “PE” with me is my workout time too!
- Check out your local community center, art museum, children’s museum, nonprofits and sites like Outschool for art, music, dance, and other fun virtual classes. Again, a virtual class can be a great way to get uninterrupted time to yourself.
5. Don’t forget about free time.
After the first few weeks of home schooling, I asked my son if there was anything he did in school that we weren’t doing at home. Without skipping a beat, he said, “Free Time.” I had forgotten what it was like to be kid in elementary school. School isn’t all work and no play. Even the most traditional school settings include lots of down time and social time for kiddos. It makes sense – our brains work best when we take breaks and get a little time off. If you’re working from home, you may need chunks of time where your kids are sucked into their favorite activity while you work to meet that deadline, take that important call, or attend a Zoom meeting. Here’s how we make this work:
- Have a break for snack time after your kid has finished two or three subjects. Since you’re working from home, you don’t have time to make a homemade snack and that’s okay! Have some ready-made snacks available that your kid can get and eat themselves. Get stuff that is individually wrapped so you don’t have to help them portion or pour and there is no cleanup. It’s all about ease here, people. (Think granola bars, apples, pretzels, goldfish, etc.) When they check in with you in your office/workspace after their second subject of the day, tell them to grab a snack from the bin and set a timer for 10-15 minutes. When the timer goes off, tell them to get their computer and come back to you for the next subject.
- Work in computer “free time” – even if lessons aren’t done for the day. You know that important conference call or zoom meeting? That’s the perfect time for your kid to take a break and watch youtube videos or play Roblox. You know, whatever activity sucks them in. When you’re off the call, check in with your kiddo and get them on to their next lesson.
- Schedule some social time with other kids – even if that means they are face timing or playing a video game together or chatting online. I NEVER let my kid play interactive live video games before COVID – but now that’s the only way to socializes with friends. It’s a new age and an unprecedented global crisis. Things change. I’m letting go. 😉
6. Don’t fight with your kid. Empower your kid.
So now that you have all these classes and resources and your schedule figured out, how do you get your kid to actually do the work? Like anything, this is going to depend on what motivates your child. Check out these tips from HomeschoolOn for how to homeschool an “uncooperative child.” Drop your own tips in the comments!
For me, I’ve found that positive natural consequences combined with the ability to make certain choices about what his day looks like (i.e. what subjects to work on first and what days to get started right at 9 a.m. and what days he needs a little longer to wake up) works best for us.
7. Consider shifting “school days” to the weekend.
If homeschool lessons are too much to balance during your own work day, consider making Saturday and Sunday school days for your kiddo. For example, if your busiest work days tend to be Tuesday and Wednesday, make that your kid’s “weekend” where they can watch YouTube, draw, play games, and/or be with their respite care provider so you can get a good day’s work in while you don’t have to worry about monitoring school.
8. Let your child go at their own pace.
The best part of homeschooling is that your child can move through material as fast or as slow as they need. Also, remember, if your child is performing below grade level, homeschool at their skill level – don’t worry about their chronological grade. For example, my third grader was only performing at about a first grade reading level. So that’s where we started. He worked a first grade reading and math curriculum and a second grade science and social studies curriculum.
If your child doesn’t understand a concept – go back and do it again! And remember, your child had an IEP for a reason: don’t throw it out the window. If your kid’s IEP allowed them to go through materials twice in traditional school, they should do the same at home. If the IEP required materials be read to your child, make sure you pick a curriculum where written text may be read aloud at the push of a button or set up your child with a screen reader.
We noticed our son was really learning so much more now that he didn’t have the pressure of keeping up with classmates and could take his time with the material.
9. Check in on progress with standardized tests.
If your child participated in testing at their traditional school, you can administer standardized tests at home to see how they are doing.
The Online California Achievement Test (the “CAT”) is only $25, can be taken at any time from your home computer, and is graded instantly. If your child’s IEP allows for unlimited time to take standardized tests, be sure to purchase the “untimed” version and work under the testing accommodations in your child’s IEP (i.e. breaks, quiet testing area, having questions read to them). We recently used the CAT to test our son’s progress in homeschooling and were thrilled to see that he had made huge strides in learning and was performing on grade level for the first time in years. Here’s a sample of what the test results will show you:
10. Relax! Think of learning as wholistic.
I get it. This is a tough one for me too. Obviously, given the fact that I am not a teacher or child development expert and have done enough research and fretting to write this blog post, I’m not exactly a “chill” person. But one thing that homeschooling during a pandemic has taught me is that there is a lot to learn outside of the classroom.
Life skills can be just as important as any other knowledge. Since the pandemic, we don’t do laundry, dishes, housework, or yard work alone. My son is always by our side. And you know what? He’s learned to do his own laundry, help my husband change the oil on a car, water the plants, mop floors, and vacuum. If, by the time the pandemic is under control and he goes back to his traditional school, he is a little behind in reading but ahead in life skills, I would still count homeschooling as a win.