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Christian Families Homeschooling Special Needs Children

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Getting Started Homeschooling with Special Needs

By Diane Ryckman

 When Sherry asked me to do this article, I immediately went for help to the ladies of our e-mail support group, DownHomeLearning.  Some are on the verge of beginning to homeschool their child with Down syndrome and they have lots of questions, giving me direction for this article.  Some are homeschooling veterans who have been on this road a long while, and they have lots of experience, which I am passing on to you.  Thank you to each one who shared!  Any resources mentioned in this article are included in the resource section at the end.  I hope that in addressing these questions you will find the wisdom you need to make your homeschool beginnings a joy for both you and your child.


Government Requirements

       Question: What do I need to do to stay out of trouble with the government? Begin by getting in touch with Home School Legal Defense

  Besides being able to inform you on your state/province requirements for homeschooling, by joining HSLDA you can receive legal and practical advice on removing yourself from the public school system as well as wisdom on how to begin homeschooling with special needs.




Question: My biggest concern as we approach the 'school year' with James is dealing with the school, when we don't do so well on testing.  Is testing inevitable? 

Different states have different requirements when it comes to testing.  Some require no testing at all.   Again, HSLDA is the place to contact to find out about your state.  If your state requires you have your child tested, the Brigance Diagnostic Inventories are tests that are suitable for children with special needs.  These tests will show you what skills your child has mastered, and can help you in determining what skills to work on next.  Members of HSLDA can rent these tests.  They are also available through NATHHAN’s lending library.  When a state requires testing, it does not necessarily require that these tests be submitted to the public school.  In some cases they are just meant to have on hand in case it’s necessary to give evidence that your child is receiving an education. Check with HSLDA about how you can fulfill your state’s legal requirements without going beyond them.


Education Planning

         Question: How do I put together a curriculum plan? How do we develop reasonable goals and expectations for our special needs children?          When I first started thinking about home schooling our son Andrew (12 years-old, with Down syndrome) I came across something that revolutionized the way I do school now with all my children - a tool called an “Individualized Education Plan”.  My first introduction to IEPs was through Joyce Herzog’s book Learning In Spite of Labels, which I highly recommend.  I must make a confession here: In British Columbia, where we live, I am not required to submit an IEP to anyone. I haven’t actually written an official one before.  But it’s the concept of the IEP that I appreciate so much – the idea of designing an education to fit my child, as opposed to trying to make my child fit a pre-determined education.

Education consists of so much more than academics. Besides the "3 R's" it includes character development, life skills, verbal communication, physical development, and most importantly, spiritual understanding. Education is equipping for life.  When home schooling your child with special needs, it is up to you to design a plan for carrying out that equipping.


Designing Curriculum

As you design your child’s education, don’t think in terms of grade level and grades, but of learning and progress. Keep in mind these three questions as you consider individually each of the areas of education you feel are important for your child:

1. What has my child accomplished so far?

2. What are we aiming for next?

3. How will we get there?

What has my child accomplished?

Take the time to evaluate what your child has accomplished in his learning and development so far.  Think about each area of education that is important for your child’s growth at this time.  Write down each area, and then jot down what your child is able to do or what he understands.  Don’t forget to date what you’ve written – it will encourage you as you look back on it months from now!   This evaluation is the starting point of your child’s education.


What are we aiming for next?

What are your goals for your child?  Having considered your child’s growth so far, what should you be aiming for next?  So much of educating a child with special needs involves breaking a skill down to its smallest components and working on one component of that skill for a long, long time before going on to the next component.   At first it can be challenging thinking about what we do naturally in terms of what steps it took to get there, and there are helpful resources for this.  Two of these are Luke’s Life List and Luke’s School List by Joyce Herzog.  Another way to determine what to work on next is through testing.  Here’s how Annette from Iowa determines goals for her daughter’s education:

Each year we do the Brigance Test and find out exactly where Jessica needs help. From that, we draw up the IEP for her. Jessica’s therapists have been very helpful in doing this test for us, although I administered it myself this year for the first time. The test helps the therapists to know what they want to teach her as well since it covers everything – large and small motor development, all educational aspects, and more. Once you do testing, you’ll see exactly where it is your child will need to develop.

Another thing to consider as you plan is, What part of your child’s education is most pressing at this time in his life?  As we began formally homeschooling Andrew, teaching him to read was our initial priority.  We continued to work informally on other skill areas such as hand writing (moving from no interest in colouring, to scribbling all over a colouring page, to attempting to keep within the lines) and math (we counted everything we saw, and pointed out and “read” any numbers we came across), but our main school focus for years was on helping Andrew learn to read.   Prioritizing Andrew’s educational goals helped to keep me from being overwhelmed by trying to do “everything”.

How will we get there?

Once you have established the goals you would like to work on with your child, it’s time to gather materials.  Begin by looking at what you have on hand.  Perhaps you have home-schooled other children.  Can any of the materials you’ve used with them be adapted for this child?  Do you know others who have home- schooled with your child’s special need?  Find out what they have used successfully.  At the end of this article we have put together a list of favorite resources – you will find lots of ideas here!

Another consideration to keep in mind is, How does your child learn best, and how can you take advantage of his learning strengths?  As you look at the material you have, how can you adapt it to your child’s way of learning?  A teaching technique that I have used successfully with Andrew for years now is called “Errorless Learning”.  As its name implies, it involves guaranteeing that my child does not fail at a given task by helping him along until my help is no longer necessary. It is making sure that he gets the answer right every time. It is giving him the answer whenever he hesitates.  For a detailed explanation of errorless learning and examples of how it works, go to


        Question: How can we make homeschooling less stressful, more joyful and fun?  For me it is important that I keep in mind a long term goal we have for each of our children – that they never lose their love for learning.  I work at this by keeping lessons short, taking advantage of “teachable moments” that happen through the day, reading and discussing books together, making sure they are able to do the work they are given (errorless learning), and plugging away at equipping them with the skills they need in order to some day continue on their education for themselves.

   Here is how Annette works to make her family’s homeschooling experience enjoyable.

         “I look for math curriculums that have manipulatives, reading books that she chooses, educational videos for those moments when we need a break, curriculums that have CD’s of things set to music like Bible passages set to music or Geography Songs etc… When we have group time where I teach Bible, History, Science, and Geography, I provide manipulatives for my special needs daughter to play with so that she can hear everything that is being said but keep her hands busy at the same time and not get bored. When we have pictures in the books, we make sure we show her.  When she is the ‘kid-of-the-day’ (every day is a different child’s turn to be “kid-of-the-day’) then she gets to be the one to put the stickers into the timeline book, or hold up the map for the family, etc.  When everyone is getting too stressed, it’s time to take a break and play outside or do something else for a few minutes. (We schedule in those breaks on purpose and try not to let them run away with our day.)


Question: How do we develop reasonable goals and expectations for our special needs children without selling them short by setting the bar too low?   Set the bar high, but break the goal down into bite-sized chunks and work towards that goal bit by bit.  Our son Andrew this year has actually memorized some of the math facts.  I don’t know how realistic it is to expect him to memorize them all, and we have taught him to use a calculator as well, but at the beginning of the year I wasn’t sure he would be able to remember any of them!  But we keep plugging away…


Question: Should I start stocking up on lots of preschool level products? From Annette: Personally, we do always have preschool level products around here, and even as our daughter is 14, she still enjoys sitting down and playing with blocks and puzzles in quiet moments.



Question: How do I put that all together into some sort of daily/weekly schedule? From Annette: “For my daughter with Down syndrome, I cannot write out her curriculum for the whole year. I can only go on a week-to-week basis. I see how far she has gotten in one week, and then we either review those lessons again the next week or continue slower or faster, as she needs. I do have, however, a list of goals that I want to accomplish within the year, and that is what I set my sights on as I write her lesson plans each week. You can get a lesson plan book from many homeschool suppliers. My favorite one is The Homeschool Daily Planner for Curriculum.”


Question:  What about a daily routine? How do I incorporate chores into the day? From Annette: “I’ve learned to set routines so our children know what to do. Even if you don’t use a strict schedule, if you use routines, it will keep things going smoothly. For every daily activity, schedule routines around it. For instance, before our kids have breakfast, they know they have to do their chores. Then they know that after breakfast 2 of the children practice their music while the other 2 do individual schoolwork for math and language arts, etc.   Then the first 2 children do their school while the other 2 children practice their music. When lunch comes, they know that while I fix lunch, they play outside. Then immediately after (or during) lunch, we start group time and study Bible, History, Geography, Science, and Read-alouds together. Then, if all their individual school is done, they have free time.  If not, then they are to finish that up then enjoy free time. The key is regular routines. Also, we’ve learned that having kids take turns playing with the younger child helps to keep the younger child learning and out of trouble while I’m busy teaching the others. I learned these and many other valuable tips from Managers of Their Homes by Steve & Teri Maxwell. I highly recommend getting that book to help you with this. See their website  at


Question: How long should lessons be? From Annette: “It depends on how long your child can stand it. If your child has a short attention span, then short lessons interspersed with times of play or other learning activities are good. If your child can study for longer periods of time, then you can teach for that. I personally work towards 30 minutes for each subject with my special needs daughter (age 14). Some days we can spend longer times, when she is ‘on’, but other days I have to do a lot of breaks to help her to learn optimally. Being in tune with your child’s needs is the biggest help in homeschooling instead of trying to shove the child into a cookie cutter.”

Andrew’s “sit down” schooling didn’t begin until he was 11 years old.  At this time his youngest sister was 5 and able to begin some “sit down” schooling herself and school since then has become, if not more normal (whatever that is!), at least more routine.  Prior to that, however, Andrew had already learned to read sight words, had already learned to read phonetically, had a good start on understanding and working with numbers, and could copy words quite neatly.  The math and handwriting was through what I call “incidental learning” – counting things together, adding or subtracting when setting the table depending on who would be home for the meal, coloring together with lots of praise for staying in the lines, providing him with a beginning handwriting book one of his older siblings had outgrown (he colored in it initially then became interested in the letters).  Reading was more directed.  I would plan the next lesson, then teach it when the opportunity came up.  Plan again, then teach.  There were many days I stressed about my disorderly schooling methods, but with two younger children and 5 older ones, I was in survival mode.  I don’t necessarily recommend this style of teaching (!!!), but just share it with you to show that it worked.  There are seasons of life, and you do what you can as you can, by the grace of God.


Words of Wisdom

“Be prepared....not to be prepared for everything that comes your way.” Maureen Jesz


“If she can’t learn it then she doesn’t need it. God will give her everything she needs to accomplish His purposes in her life. He would never withhold some skill or talent that she would need to carry out the plan that He has for her. Your job is to find what He has gifted her to do and then give her encouragement and opportunity to practice those gifts. These may be as simple as serving by setting the table well or sorting socks. Don’t put the world’s expectations on her (or yourself). It will relieve a lot of stress for both of you.” 

Dana MacKenzie quoting Sherry Bushnell


“They each learn at their own pace at their own abilities, don’t they? However, the wonderful thing is that God is giving each of us the ability and the resources to help our children where they are at, no matter what their level. The encouraging thing to me is that Jessi has continued to progress steadily and is truly learning what she’s progressing at. With a good foundation, she can do what God has intended for her in life.”  Annette Reeves


As I look back, I wonder why beginning to homeschool Andrew seemed such a scary thing!  In reality, we had been homeschooling him since birth as we had helped him gain the skills he’d acquired so far - the ability to walk; the ability to communicate; the ability to hold a crayon and scribble; the ability to respond in obedience, etc.  Homeschooling Andrew over the past 8 years has simply been a continuation of what we began at birth – helping him to develop all that he needs for the life the LORD has in mind for him.



Recommended Resources


Support Services/How to Get Started:


NATHHAN: National Challenged Home Schoolers,

PO Box 310 Moyie Springs, ID 83845; Phone 208-267-6246;  e-mail,


HSLDA: Home School Legal Defense Association, PO Box 3000, Purcellville,Virginia,

20134; 540-338-5600;  or in Canada

   Annual fees provide full legal services if needed, six newsletters each year, a wealth of important information about curriculum, testing, and other resources, including special needs support. Highly recommended.


Achievement Tests:

VORT Corporation


Brigance Inventories of Basic Skills,

 Also available through HSLDA.


Early Learning and Development:

Slow and Steady, Get Me Ready by June Oberlander. Weekly developmental activities to do with your child from birth to age 5. Of course, we can use it much longer with our children. These super-easy hands-on activities gently weave in phonics for reading and spelling, as well as ideas for self-help skills and behavioral issues. Written for the typical child, this is a very affordable resource. Available through many home school suppliers. Published by Xulon Press.


Ready Bodies, Learning Minds: A Key to Academic Success, by Athena Oden, P.T.    Discusses physiological and neurological development, and how

incomplete development in specific areas can affect a child’s ability to perform many

academic tasks. It describes how to identify an immature system and is full of simple, fun

exercises and methods to encourage neurological development.

Brain Gym is an innovative approach that uses movements to enhance learning. Recommended books are available at

Brain Gym Teachers Edition (shows all the movements and what they will activate the brain for, related skills, and behavioral/postural correlations - this is a must have book.)

Hands On - How to Use Brain Gym in the Classroom (specifically for readiness for learning, reading, handwriting, and spelling - a good book, photographs are really good.)

Smart Moves - Why Learning is Not All In Your Head (excellent background info, good read, great gift - if you don't need it for a class and don't already have it you might just want to get this at the library to start)

The Smart Train (this is a great book to read to kids. Does not specifically discuss Brain Gym but it discusses what can keep our brain healthy and the right/left brain connection. Short, easy for kids to read and understand. )


Steps to Independence, Teaching Everyday Skills to Children with Special Needs, By Bruce L. Baker and Alan Brightman. A book that covers everyday skills from play skills, to self-care and self-help skills, to skills needed for independent living. This book not only has skill inventories, it teaches how to teach! Included is an extensive appendix with proven teaching strategies. Skills for toddlers to young adults Available from Brookes Publishing.




Love and Learning DVDs, books, and crossword puzzles teach sight-reading and early phonics. An effortless, effective way of teaching reading, especially for strong visual learners.  (This can be started at birth.)


Bob Books by Bobby Maslen. These are simple phonetic readers that steadily build reading skills. 


Farm Animal Words Reading Kit, by Diane Ryckman. Sight word reading instruction, book,

and double set of flashcards.


Teaching Reading to Children With Down Syndrome, by Patricia Oelwein. This is a great

tool box for teaching reading to children with many different challenges. Includes great

general information, step by step reading program, and a wonderful resource section.

Woodbine House, 6510 Bells Mill Road, Bethesda, MD 20817; 301-897-3570, 800-8437323;


Zoo Phonics. This sometimes works when nothing else will.


Sing, Spell, Read and Write by Pearson Learning Group. or 1-800-321-3106. For Jessica, I mainly use the phonics song and some of the other songs in helping to teach her phonics. She doesn’t know phonics yet, but the Phonics Song from this curriculum has been truly helpful.


Leap Frog’s ‘Letter Factory’ and ‘Talking Word Factory’ videos have been extremely helpful with learning phonetic sounds, especially as she watches them over and over.

Edmark Reading Program uses errorless learning to teach children with special needs to read – guaranteed success for most children with Ds. The software version makes a homeschooling mom's life so much easier!


Handwriting Without Tears, by Jan Olsen. A multi-sensory approach to teaching handwriting.


Math-U-See, by Steve Demme. A manipulative-based math curriculum with a video guide

for the teacher, which can also be viewed with the student.


Teaching Math to People With Down Syndrome and Other Hands-on Learners, by DeAnna Horstmeier. Full of practical ideas for evaluating student understanding and teaching math skills which are essential for everyday living.

Attack Math. Covers simple addition slowly but steadily. Uncluttered format. The child is encouraged to illustrate the addition sentences, i.e., “Make a drawing to find the sum.”


Maximum Math, by Kathryn Stout. A detailed breakdown of K-8 math skills, along with activities and teaching strategies for teaching each skill.

Mastering Mathematics, by Letz Farmer. Just about every type of learner from delayed to

gifted can experience success at his own pace with this uncluttered, incremental approach. Highly recommended.


Moving with Math by Math Teacher’s Press. Includes all sorts of fun things to learn math with.


Science and Social Studies:

Five In a Row, by Jane C. Lambert. A great literature-based curriculum. Selected stories are read 5 days in a row, with daily activities related to the story. Presents a variety of activities to choose from. The stories are lovable; the activities cover social studies, science, art, language arts, a bit of math, and music.


The Story of the World, by Susan Wise Bauer. World history in story form. A simple and enjoyable way of introducing history to children. Available through most home school suppliers.



Speech and Language:

Love and Learning video series. Teaches sight reading, but also a great help in speech development. An effortless way of teaching at a young age when more structured teaching isn't in the picture yet.


Communication Partners  Helping Parents Help Children.

Excellent resources.  Highly recommended.


Easy Does it for Apraxia and Motor Planning, by Robin Strode and Catherine Chamberlain.

Available through LinguiSystems, Terrific multi-use tool which will last for many years. Uses hand signals to facilitate production of all the consonant and vowel sounds as well as major combinations. We all know how sign language facilitates speech; these hand signals do the same thing for sounds. Many games and activities are included, not just for phonics, but covering many language skills as well.








Helping Children Overcome Learning Difficulties, by Jerome Rosner, Published by Walker and Company, New York. A classic tool for diagnosing problem areas and applying compensatory and therapeutic interventions. Parent-friendly


Helps For Special Education Teachers, Curriculum and Activities to Promote Basic Skill Development in Special Needs Children, by Eileen Shaum. Designed to be used by teachers/parents of preschool children. It lists goals and objectives with activities for the stages of development from early childhood through first grade level. IEP's are discussed with many helpful hints regarding curriculum planning, teaching tools and techniques.   Available from Rod & Staff, 606-522-4348.


Home Schooling Children With Special Needs, by Sharon Hensley, M.A.

Written by a home schooling mother of three, one with autism, Sharon Hensley has a master's degree in special education and has worked with a variety of special needs. This book is divided into three sections: Getting the Facts (defining special needs), Tackling the Issues (stages of grief, siblings), and Planning your Program (resources). Highly recommended.

   Also available here: a terrific free catalog. The Home School Starter Kit includes a copy of her book plus an audio set entitled “Understanding and Teaching Struggling Learners”, “Program Planning for the Special

Needs Child” workshop, and accompanying Curriculum Planning Resource Guide. Highly recommended.


The Homeschool Daily Planner for Curriculum by Aaron Publishing  I like this planner because I can record 4 children on it. I make up a template for a weekly lesson plan and print that off each week. Then I write into the planner book what we actually got done.


Managers of Their Homes: A Practical Guide to Daily Scheduling for Christian Homeschool Families by Steve & Teri Maxwell. Filled with practical "how to's" for scheduling your family and making the most of your time (scheduling system included). Highly recommend.







Web Sites of Interest:  The best source of materials for understanding characteristics most often present in a broad variety of disabilities, managing various therapeutic interventions, teaching the academic subjects to children and adults, helping siblings and other family members, and more. Highly recommended. An excellent free newsletter about issues related to Down syndrome. Available in print as well as on- line. The editor is a registered dietitian and has a son with Down syndrome.  A Christian ministry providing workshops, resources, encouragement, education, articles, books, and more for families home- schooling special needs children. The Down Syndrome Educational Trust in Great Britain is putting its Down Syndrome Information and Issues series online! So far, they have put their number skills booklets online along with their speech and language development booklets. Excellent, helpful information for home schooling a child with Down syndrome and its FREE! Just download the appropriate age group and/or read ahead!  An important source for remedial and specialized learning approaches.

Request a free catalog.   About how we can change our attitudes towards disabilities and help those around us change, too.