Homeschooling Children with Special Needs
“I had a friend who was homeschooling, and she was joking with me and saying, ‘You’re homeschooling, you’re a homeschooler. Just wait and see, you’re going to homeschool.’ And I said, ‘No, no, no.’ I didn’t want to homeschool. That wasn’t on my radar at all. But God just really started working in my heart too, that I wanted to be the one to disciple my children and raise them up in the Lord.”- Faith Berens
Faith Berens is a special needs education consultant with the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA). As a special needs consultant for HSLDA, Faith helps families find educational solutions for their children’s learning challenges and disabilities. She has worked as a classroom teacher, in both public and private schools, a Reading Recovery® teacher, an NILD educational therapist, and as a private tutor. Faith specializes in child literacy and has a master’s degree in reading from Shenandoah University. She draws on her extensive experience with learning difficulties including her own struggle with dyscalculia and homeschooling her own children with unique learning challenges to help homeschool students facing their own learning struggles. Her areas of expertise are early childhood literacy, reading assessment, and the identification and remediation of reading difficulties and disabilities.
Yvette Hampton: For those of you who are not familiar with HSLDA, maybe you’re just jumping onto this whole homeschooling train and you’re trying to figure out what it is, HSLDA is the Home School Legal Defense Association. They are a fantastic organization that really protects our rights as homeschoolers. They’ve been around for quite some time now, about 30 years, right, Faith?
Faith Berens: 35 actually.
Yvette: 35 years! I knew that there was just an anniversary last year and I couldn’t remember if it was 30 or 35. For the past 35 years they have been fighting for the rights for us to be able to homeschool our children. Faith is one of their special needs consultants, and I’m excited to have her on the show. So welcome to the show.
Faith: Thank you. Thanks for having me. I’m excited to be a part of this ministry and what you’re doing. It’s really awesome to be your guest today.
Yvette: Yeah. Thank you so much. Tell us about you and your family and your background.
Faith: Sure. I’m a homeschooling mom of two. I have a 16-year-old daughter. She’ll be 17 soon, and she has her learner’s permit. She’ll be getting her driver’s license soon, so everybody can pray for me. And then my son is nine, so we have two, and my mom lives with us, so she helps with our homeschooling and we live here in northern Virginia in Fauquier County, and have been homeschooling for 12 plus years.
Yvette: Wow. I Love Northern Virginia. It’s one of my favorite parts of the country. We went several years ago, and I remember driving through the Shenandoah Valley. It’s so beautiful. I felt like we were driving through a picture. I think it was October and it was just breathtaking. You live in a very, very beautiful part of the country. I’m from the desert in California, so it’s quite different than what I grew up with.
So, we want to talk today about special needs. Several months ago we talked a little bit about special needs on The Schoolhouse Rocked Podcast, so I wanted to have you on because I know that this is a huge concern for a lot of moms, especially for moms who are just starting to think about homeschooling or maybe they are feeling like God is prompting them towards homeschooling, but they think, “I’ve got a special needs student,” and I know that we’ll talk about kind of the whole range of what special needs is, but they think “I’ve got a special needs student and so I can’t.” Oftentimes I think that’s because their doctor or their school counselor or their child’s preschool teacher or kindergarten teacher says, “Oh, well, they need to be in this specific program.” And so as parents we think, “Well, we want what’s best for our kids. And, of course, this is what’s best for them. So, we must put them in this special program.” So, I would love for you to, first, tell your story. Tell us about how you got involved with special needs and homeschooling.
“I always had a heart for my students that were struggling.”
Faith: Sure. Well, it’s kind of a long and winding story, but God doesn’t waste anything. So, I was always a struggling student myself and I have what’s called dyscalculia, which is the math learning disability. And I usually tell parents they can think of that as the math version of dyslexia. So I struggled all through school, but with the help of my mom and getting tutors and accommodations in place, I did fine with that kind of support. I’m a product of public school unfortunately, but went off to college and that’s really where I got the official diagnosis of dyscalculia, and again with accommodations and support was able to do really well, and then went on to get a master’s degree. So I mean, God doesn’t waste anything.
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I always had a heart for my students that were struggling. I ended up majoring in education and then became a reading specialist, and it felt like God put me in public school and private school. That was my ministry. But then when my own children came along, I sent my daughter off to kindergarten half-day, and I was the reading specialist at the school where she was. And she was very high in reading and had a lot of struggles in math as well. She had some attention, focus issues, and some low frustration tolerance, things going on. And naturally in the afternoon I was working with her and supplementing what she was getting at school and loving being home with her. God laid it on my heart to want to be home and to have another child, and I wanted to be my kids’ teacher.
And so, I had a friend who was homeschooling, and she was joking with me and saying, “You’re homeschooling, you’re a homeschooler. Just wait and see, you’re going to homeschool. And I said, “No, no, no.” I didn’t want to homeschool. That wasn’t on my radar at all. But God just really started working in my heart too, that I wanted to be the one to disciple my children and raise them up in the Lord. And that education was about a lot more than just academics. So naturally we made the shift. I left public school and my husband said, “Well, if you can find a job working in your field and making x amount of money part time and work from home,” I still needed to work part-time. And we started praying and I just felt, “What am I going to do?
I’m a trained teacher. What else am I going to do?” How am I going to find a work from job part-time in my niche, which is reading specialist in dyslexia, but serving homeschoolers or private school students and get out of public school. And I just started praying, God, get me out of Egypt and random laundry list. And within six months, God worked it out. There was a job at HSLDA. I didn’t even seek it. It fell in my lap. He opened so many doors. He’s so faithful. So I like to share that story with other parents that think, “How am I going to homeschool? First of all, I don’t know what to do” or I don’t have any training, I don’t have any background” or “I don’t think I’m going to have support. I don’t even know where to start.”
But you know, God orchestrates things and He doesn’t waste any of our experiences and He will provide a way and the resources, and His timing is perfect.
Yvette: Yes, I love that. Talk about some of the special needs that parents face today, and then talk about some of the benefits that there are to homeschooling those kids.
Faith: Sure. We see a huge gamut, anywhere from gifted students, to gifted with learning disabilities, though they’re referred to as twice exceptional. So they might have a learning disability or a processing problem on top of being gifted. Dyslexia is huge. I mean about one in five people, it depends on what stat you read, it can be one in five to one in 10 people, are impacted with dyslexia. And then of course autism has skyrocketed. And so those are the big groups. More and more families are pulling kids out of school to homeschool because of special needs, specifically autism and dyslexia.
“We always tell parents that homeschooling really is an individualized education program. And that’s what it is, due to its very nature. So parents are uniquely gifted. They know their children better than anybody. They love them more than anyone else. They want to see them succeed. You’re going to have much lower teacher-to-student ratios in the home setting. When you compare that with even the very best special needs resource room, with a trained teacher, their case loads are one and 15.”
We get a lot of phone calls and a lot of emails for those two subgroups, but it can be anywhere from anything, from just attention to processing problems to anxiety. We’re seeing a lot more children that are struggling with mental health issues, bullying. And so sometimes parents will call and say, “I don’t know if I’m really, if my child’s really special needs or not.” And I mean, I just kind of say, “You know, we all have special meetings, we’re all unique, we’re all special, and we all have specific needs.” So whether it’s just a slight struggle or attention issues or severe medical needs anywhere, it’s just a huge spectrum.
Yvette: So then talk about the benefits of bringing those children home or keeping them home if you’ve not yet started school with them.
“I mean, in our public schools, kids are falling through the cracks.”
Faith: Right. Well, we always tell parents that homeschooling really is an individualized education program. And that’s what it is, due to its very nature. So parents are uniquely gifted. They know their children better than anybody. They love them more than anyone else. They want to see them succeed. You’re going to have much lower teacher-to-student ratios in the home setting. When you compare that with even the very best special needs resource room, with a trained teacher, their case loads are one and 15. It’s individualized. You’ve got a low teacher-student ratio. You’re able to customize instruction for them, gear your pacing, student needs, frequent breaks, you can schedule around their sleep needs, medication needs, therapy. And it’s just truly a better scenario than what they’re going to get in a school setting because the schools can only do so much. They’re understaffed. And even though we’ve thrown billions of dollars at education and special education, the national report card for rating progress is terrible.
I mean, in our public schools, kids are falling through the cracks, and I’m not slamming public school teachers. I have friends that are believers that are there and they’re serving and they’re doing the best they can. But oftentimes their hands are tied and they’re understaffed and don’t have the resources they need. So parents are uniquely able to do this. They don’t need special training. They need to just love and encourage their kids and meet them where they are. And that’s the other beauty of homeschooling is we can truly meet our kids where they are developmentally. Reading develops on a continuum. So does math skills, and we can meet them where they are right in that zone of proximal development where it’s not too hard and it’s not too easy. And sometimes kids are reading at one level and math is on a different level. So it’s really a beautiful thing and it works really well. And there’s research to show that it’s working well for students with special needs. So parents don’t need to fear and they don’t need to cave into those when the questions come.
Yvette: Probably the biggest reason that parents who have children with special needs choose not to homeschool is out of fear. And you said something earlier that I think is so important to remember is that we know our kids better than anyone and we love them more than anyone. We talk a lot about that on the podcast. There are some excellent teachers out there, but they don’t know your children the way that you know them. They don’t know their … you talked about their sleep patterns and their medications and their different therapies that they may have to go to, and their teachers in a classroom, they cannot cater to those things like mom and dad can. And so it’s such a beautiful opportunity for mom to be able to come alongside her child and really help them develop in the way that God has created them because God’s made your child the way that they are for a purpose.
And it’s not my mistake that you are their mom or that you are their dad. And so for those parents who are very fearful of keeping their kids at home to homeschool, then because again, like we said in the beginning, they’ve been told by their doctors and everyone else that they need to be in these special programs. How would you encourage those parents to get started? What do they do to get started with helping their children?
Faith: So, I mean obviously one of the first things I would encourage them, it would be to join HSLDA because oftentimes families will encounter some difficulties and pushbacks when there’s a child with special needs, typically from a well-meaning medical provider or a psychologist or a neighbor or something.
Yvette: Right. And that can be scary.
Faith: Yeah, it can be. But a lot of times people will question and oftentimes, quite frankly due to ignorance, they don’t understand homeschooling, they don’t understand the homeschooling law or just misinformation. So I would tell them to join, and I would also help arm them with resources. If you’re just getting started schooling a child with special needs, or let’s say you’re pulling out of public school and closing an IEP, then navigate that process well. We help them to do that, how do they withdraw and close the IEP.
Yvette: Now explain what an IEP is.
“A lot of times parents are fearful because they think “I’m not trained,” or “I don’t have any special background.”, but they are the expert when it comes to their child, so we’re arming them with some good resources. If you have a child with dyslexia, then we’re going to point you to resources and books and services for dyslexia or autism because knowledge is power and we battle fear by prayer and trusting in God…”
Faith: So, an IEP is drafted by schools. It’s an individualized education plan. Sometimes students will have what’s called a 504 accommodation plan, but basically it’s just a contract between the school and the parent, and it lays out this is the instruction we’re going to provide or the intervention services or therapies, the frequency of those services where they will occur. Is it in a regular classroom? Is it in a resource room? Is it in a therapy room? Something like that.
And then they’ll have goals. They’ll have long-term goals and short term goals for the student to meet. Most often those are academic. Sometimes they’re social goals, social skills and goals on there as well, or fine motor and gross motor. But typically they’re mostly academicals. But if parents have had their child in public school and they’ve had an IEP, we’ll help them navigate how to close that. Should they close it? Do they maybe want to homeschool, but then also get some services through the school district. That’s a parental option and a choice. HSLDA’s stances is private services are best if at all possible.
But some parents will choose to keep therapeutic or what’s called “related services”, so we’ll help them to transition then to what’s called a service plan. If they opt to do that. But many, many parents by and large just choose to homeschool and not get those services and not have an official IEP drafted by the school because again, homeschooling is an individualized educational plan.
A lot of times parents are fearful because they think “I’m not trained,” or “I don’t have any special background.”, but they are the expert when it comes to their child, so we’re arming them with some good resources. If you have a child with dyslexia, then we’re going to point you to resources and books and services for dyslexia or autism because knowledge is power and we battle fear by prayer and trusting in God and learning, and “what does God say about me and about my child?” A lot of times in my work with HSLDA, I’ll get the privilege to get to pray with parents and help them to press through their fear and overcome the obstacles that are in their way, that’s causing the fear. And sometimes it’s funding. “Hey, my child needs therapy and we’re broke.” Homeschooling is a financial sacrifice anyway, and when you throw special needs on top of it and medications or therapy or we need this adaptive equipment assistive technology, then we’ll help them with funding sources, too.
Yvette: Which is great because I know that that’s really enticing for a lot of families that maybe they do want to bring their kids home and they want to school them at home, but they can’t afford the resources that are out there provided by the government. But once you give them over to the government to be able to provide those resources, you’re giving up control. You’re saying, “Okay, now they’re yours. You control what they do, what they’re learning and how they’re progressing,” and again, I mean I know that there are some fantastic teachers out there and therapists and those people who are helping these special needs children, but you’re still giving them control to those people.
You mentioned resources. Can you talk specifically about that? What are some of the resources, maybe some books and different resources that you can suggest to parents?
Faith: Sure. One of my favorites is Homeschooling Children with Special Needs, by Sharon Hensley. It’s an oldie but a goodie, and I always tell parents if you’re going to be homeschooling a child with special needs you, this is one book you have to have. It’s very encouraging but very practical, and chock full of resources.
Faith: That would be first. I also really encourage families to get Zan Tyler’s book The Seven Tools for Cultivating Your Child’s Potential.
Faith: It’s also really encouraging and practical. And then Cheryl Swope, if you’re familiar with her, with Memoria Press, she has a book called A Beautiful Education for Any Childand Cheryl has homeschooled her daughter who’s on the autism spectrum, but also Sharon Hensley’s daughter is on the autism spectrum. They’re both homeschooling moms. So those would be some practical resources to help and for encouragement.
Yvette: Okay. What else is there? Because I know for myself, and especially if we’re talking to a mom who is, maybe she’s got several kids and one or more of her children have special needs and she’s exhausted, and the thought of picking up three big books that are going to be fantastic for her to read through and dig into is just a little bit overwhelming. I know that you’re there and that’s part of your job at HSLDA is to, like you said before, come alongside those parents and encourage them and help walk them through, and that’s what you do in your position, correct? And let me ask you this. As a member of HSLDA, if someone’s a member, do they have access to you to be able to do that at any time or is that an extra service that they have to pay for? How does that work?
Faith: Right, so HSLDA has a small membership fee. It’s annual and that gives people access 24/7 to the attorneys. But it also gives them access to any of the educational consultants. We have toddlers to tweens, consultants for early years and high school, and then the special needs ladies. And so people can email or call. It’s not an extra fee, it’s included.
Faith: Some of the other services they get are free transcript review or in our department, the special needs consultants … let’s say a family gets their child assessed. They get diagnostic testing done by a psychologist or diagnosing professional, and they get this lovely report and a label or a diagnosis and scores, but oftentimes, it’s not practical in terms of now what do I do, what curriculum do I use, how do I teach this child? And so that’s another thing that we’ll do is review reports for families and help to make recommendations and curricula suggestions that’s specific to their child.
Yvette: Which is fantastic because how many other places can you go and get that and have people be able to help you figure out what specifically you need for your child?
Faith: And they’d have to pay, you’d have to pay a private educational consultant to help with that. And then we do have a database of private homeschool-friendly professionals from across the nation. They’ve all come recommended to us by other homeschooling families and they’ve all been vetted and screened, and so members can access that. So let’s say they need to find somebody that does ABA therapy for a child with autism. They can search the database by their ZIP code and know what type of professional or service that they’re looking for. Or maybe it’s just a math tutor, so that continues to grow. We’ve built that over the last 20 years and it continues to grow.
So that’s another thing that we offer, ways to support families, but you know there are more and more organizations, and their state homeschool associations usually have somebody on staff that’s the special needs point person. More and more state organizations are having support groups specifically for special needs or special conferences. Florida does one, FPEA, they do a special needs conference. Midwest Parent Home Educators, they do one.
Faith: So, more and more state orgs are starting those. And then you may not be familiar with Peggy Ployhar.
Yvette: I am, yes. Yeah, we actually interviewed her for The Schoolhouse Rocked Podcast. It’s been several months, but It was a great show. She does SPED Homeschool.
Faith: Yes, SPED Homeschool. And so that’s great. You know parents can find online support, be it a Facebook support group like homeschooling with dyslexia or homeschooling kids with Down’s syndrome. So your online support groups are great, but obviously it’s best if you can have somebody that, “Let’s have coffee or should I come over and help me?”
And we can talk to people on the phone and help by email. But I always tell parents if you can definitely count on us, but there’s nothing like having somebody there face-to-face close by to walk the journey with you. That’s why it’s just so important for there to be support groups for parents who are homeschooling and specifically for special needs.
Yvette: Yes, I know that it can be a very lonely place to be, especially if you … a lot of people are parts of different communities and co-ops and things like that with homeschooling, and if you have a child who has, especially if you have one that has very severe special needs, it can be very difficult to find your place in those different groups and co-ops and, and so I know that it’s so important, and I know Peggy Player talks about this, about finding your tribe. Find other people who you can connect with, and hopefully someone like you said that you can and have coffee with in a coffee shop or be able to just meet up with in person.
But that’s not always possible. And so having other online groups and people that you can actually connect with, even if they don’t live close by, is just as important. But I will say also, and this goes for everything, even with co-ops, oftentimes people will say, “Well, there is nothing in my area that offers assistance or companionship for somebody who’s in my situation.” Well, start one, maybe. Maybe God is calling you to start that for your area because I can almost guarantee there’s someone else out there in your area who’s in the same boat as you, and you just need to be introduced to one another.
And so sometimes it’s just putting yourself out there and saying, “Hey, I have a special needs child. Does anyone else out here have one? Let’s talk. Let’s get together. Let’s get our kids together.” And that can form such beautiful relationships between parents, and I think that that’s really important. We have just a couple of more minutes left, and so I want to do two last things really quickly. Can you talk very quickly about how to accommodate special needs students at home? And then I would love for you to just give an encouragement to parents. So how would, how can you best accommodate them?
Faith: Sure. I mean, you can do things like frequent breaks and let them move while they’re learning. Learning doesn’t have to be in a table. I always tell parents, for kids with dysgraphia, they can do oral narration or dictation and you can act as scribe, or you can use assistive of technology like Dragon Dictate or Co-Writer. We have lists of assistive technology and software tools that we’ll share with parents. Sometimes it’s as simple as, rather than having the child work in the workbook, we’re just going to pull out a few problems. We’re not going to do the whole worksheet or I’m going to cut the worksheet in half. We’re going to do it on a white board or taking a big notebook and turning it sideways and giving them the paper or the page that they’re writing on. So it’s more of a slant board surface. Don’t be afraid to cut up your workbooks. Make them into something else. Flip books or sorting the pictures in the workbook instead of phonics workbook page, for instance, where the child looks at the picture and has to write the first sound or the middle sound or the end sound. And if writing’s hard, then cut out the pictures and have them sort them on a mat by the sound and glue them down or something like that.
So, we can modify materials, we can modify the expectations, the pace of the lesson, and give them assistive technology. Audio books is a great way to help students take in content and also help them be independent so mom and dad aren’t reading everything to them. Those are some, or having them circle answers or indicate answers and then the parent can bubble in if it’s a bubble sheet for standardized testing.
Yvette: So many great ideas! It sounds like you have a whole bucket full of ways that you can help parents figure out how to bring their kids home and school them. What would be your one last encouragement to parents who have children with special needs?
Faith: Well, don’t go it alone. Like you said, try to find support. Tap into national charitable organizations, and like you said, put yourself out there. Know that you’re not alone. You might feel alone, but I just want to encourage you that you’re not. All of us as homeschool moms, we all have bad days and we all struggle. And there are days where there’s tears, whether it’s our kids or it’s us, right? Now we have, we have great days, too. And that homeschooling really truly is an individualized plan of education. And it can really be an excellent line. So you may feel alone, but you’re not. And we’re here to help you. And I would love to help.
Yvette: That is fantastic. And like we say all the time on the podcast, God will give you everything that you need to accomplish what He’s called you to. So, if He’s calling you to keep your kids at home, He’s going to equip you with everything that you need in order to do it well. So where can people find out more about you?
Faith: They can go to HSLDA’s websiteand we have a quick navigation tab. It’s teaching my kids and if they click on that, they’ll see high school, early years, then a struggling learner page. So HSLDA.org, Teaching My Kids tab, or they can go to our Facebook page, HSLDA’s Educational Consultants. If you want to find me personally on Facebook, you can find me at Faith-Filled Homeschooling. SPED Homeschool, too, because now I’m serving on the board with Peggy.
Yvette: That is so great. That’s such a beautiful organization, and I love that so many of you are coming together and just linking arms to help parents across the world with special needs children. So thank you so much, Faith, for what you do. Thank you for your dedication to encouraging parents and to helping them just stay the course of homeschooling because it’s such an important and beautiful thing. So we appreciate all that you do and we appreciate all that HSLDA does. So, thank you for your time today and for speaking with me.