by Aersta Acerson, licensed CCC-SLP. Search for her resources (Speaking Freely, SLP) on Teachers Pay Teachers
Guest writers are invited for their insights into different aspects of the Homeschool Hub Utah's four pillars, which are to connect, empower, educate, and serve homeschooling families in Utah. While we feel each guest blogger's message will be helpful to homeschooling families, not all ideas presented by every guest blogger are officially endorsed by Homeschool Hub Utah.
Being the parent of a special needs child comes with many significant challenges, one of them being the question of how to best educate your child to meet his unique needs. If you find yourself homeschooling a special needs child, you are not alone. According to the National Special Education Advocacy Institute (nseai.org), "38% of the 2.5 million students receiving homeschooling have special needs. This is almost three times higher than the 14% of students being served in public school special education programs nationally."
Tips for Homeschooling a Special Needs Child
Many of these tips work well for typically developing children as well, but they are especially helpful for children with special needs.
1. Go at the child's pace: Regardless of what curriculum or educational philosophy you choose, you will need to progress at your child's pace. The curriculum is a tool, NOT your master! It is OK to adjust the curriculum to meet the needs of your child. This is true for all children, but it is especially true for special needs children. Adjusting the curriculum can look like skipping unnecessary material, slowing down the schedule to take two years instead of one, adding extra practice for difficult concepts, etc.
2. Add lots of extra practice: Children with special needs tend to need A LOT of repetition. Expect to repeat certain concepts many many times over a long period of time. Neurotypical individuals need about seven exposures to an idea before it is learned. Children with special needs often need significantly more exposures, so don't be surprised if you find yourself looking for additional ways to help your child learn a concept. Needing to find extra resources and add practice does NOT mean you or the curriculum have failed! It simply means more practice is needed. Ideas for repeated exposures include extra worksheets, games, field trips, apps and technology, videos, and project based learning.
3. Don't forget to add in fun! All children learn and retain information better when they are enjoying the learning experience, so it is critical to add fun into learning. Some ideas include field trips, hands-on activities, games, art, music, experiments, group learning, and extra curricular activities. I have found that families who only implement math and language arts curriculum in their homeschool soon have very resistant children. Joyful learning is a critical element in all successful homeschools, so make sure you leave time for fun!
4. Create and implement a flexible routine: Children with special needs thrive when they know what is coming and what to expect, so creating and implementing a flexible routine will help you and your child be successful in your homeschool. Many children with special needs do well with visual schedules. There are many ways to set up a visual schedule and routine, but here is one example: https://blog.mybrightwheel.com/visual-schedule
5. Schedule breaks: All children need breaks, but children with special needs need a lot of frequent breaks in order to be successful. Scheduling them into your routine will help your child know when a break is coming which can prevent meltdowns and overwhelm. Utilize big movement and sensory exercises into your breaks to help re-regulate your child and get them ready for more learning. Here are some ideas for sensory exercises: https://lemonlimeadventures.com/sensory-break-ideas-for-kids/
6. Join support groups: Homeschooling is hard and can often feel lonely, and this can be especially true for parents with children with special needs. It's much easier to be successful and find joy in homeschooling when you have a support system in place. Facebook is a great place to find both local and non-local support groups where you can ask questions and build friendships with like-minded people.
Resources for Homeschooling a Special Needs Child in Utah
*Disclaimer* This post is not meant to provide or replace professional legal advice.
Here is the link to the Utah State Board of Education Special Education Rules, which was updated in 2022: https://www.schools.utah.gov/specialeducation
Unfortunately, Utah State law does not require Utah public school districts to provide services to special needs children who are being homeschooled. However, how a district chooses to serve special needs children in their area varies widely across the state, so here are some ideas to get you started.
1. TESTING: Though no school district is required to provide services for homeschooling special needs children, all school districts in Utah are required to provide testing to students living in their school district. If you are looking to have your child tested, whether they have been given a diagnosis or not, contact your local school district's special needs department and request testing for your child.
2. While no school district is REQUIRED to provide services to homeschoolers, some school districts still choose to do so. Call your local school district's special needs office and ask their policy concerning providing services for special needs children. Then call your local school and ask their policy as well.
3. DUAL ENROLLMENT: By state law, Utah homeschoolers are allowed to dual enroll in their local public school. Dual enrollment means that a child can attend public school part time while attending another form of schooling (homeschooling, online school, etc) for the remainder of their time. If a child is dual enrolled in public school, the school district is then required to provide services to that child. Each district is given the freedom to decide how they will provide those services, so contact your local district for specific information.
4. PRIVATE SERVICES: There are also many private clinics in Utah that provide various therapies for children. First, check with your health insurance to see what services are covered. Many insurances cover services up to a certain number per year. Let your therapist know how many sessions you are able to receive for the year. Many therapists will provide home exercises to continue after therapy ends.
5. TELE SERVICES: If you cannot find a provider for a needed therapy in your area, you may be able to find a tele-therapist. Many therapists provide therapy over video chat. This practice has become even more common since the COVID pandemic.
6. PRIVATE SCHOOL: Children who are placed in the private schools by their parents do not have an individual right to receive some or all of the special education and related services that the student would receive if enrolled in a public school. There are, however, requirements for the school district where the private school is located to locate, identify, and evaluate students with disabilities enrolled in the private school. The LEA must develop and implement a services plan and provide some funding for each student that has been designated to receive services. For more information on special education in private schools, please see page 153 of the Utah Special Education Rules.
7. CHARTER SCHOOLS: If you are homeschooling using a charter program, (such as My Tech High, Harmony, or Canyon Grove), contact your charter program with questions about special needs services. My Tech High and Harmony families have access to parent consultants in your registered school districts. These are parents who have a ton of experience with their own neurodiverse kids as well as helping other parents with their kids. They are a caring, listening resource for those who are seeking additional ideas with schedules, teaching strategies, and helping to support the family as they meet their child's needs
Programs for Special Needs Students in Utah
Utah has a few programs designed to provide school choice to children with special needs. These programs relate to private school as opposed to homeschool, but they are an alternative means to providing an education for your special needs child, and are therefore worth mentioning.
1. Carson Smith Scholarship Program: Provides funding to eligible children with special needs to help pay for private school tuition costs. Find more information here: https://www.schools.utah.gov/file/ebe76d78-bcbf-4f26-9645-bcc3de378d37
2. Special Needs Opportunity Scholarship program: Find more info here
Aersta Acerson worked as a speech language pathologist in Utah Valley prior to moving to Logan with her family and becoming a full time home school mom.