Special Needs at Home in Washington

by Patti Durovchic

A unique community of homeschoolers is growing in Washington state. More and more families are taking the plunge and pulling their special needs children out of school or keeping them home in the first place. Why the increasing numbers? The reasons are as many and varied as the kids themselves. The idea of taking challenged students out of school and helping them learn at home is not a new one. but seems more do-able, less daunting today, thanks to new support groups, resources and information.

All children have their own unique strengths and weaknesses. But, as most of us understand it, “special needs” refers to those students affected by significant physical or learning disabilities, behavioral disorders or limiting medical conditions. Their challenges may range from mild to severe, but what any special child faces is that they don’t quite “fit the mold” the standard classroom presents. Most of these young people require plenty of help and support in attempting to achieve their highest potential alongside same-aged peers in a school setting with prescribed curriculum and state-mandated goals.

Unfortunately, the help available for special needs kids in both public and private schools is often far from adequate in parent’s eyes. With increasing budget woes and administrative problems there are no simple solutions within the classroom walls. Many parents are just plain frustrated with what “the system” has to offer, knowing in their hearts that there must be a better way. one which offers a truly individualized education program, an ideal most schools have tried, but failed, to live up to.

Homeschooling. A legal option for ALL kids in Washington

Parents are often curious about what legal restrictions might stand in the way of homeschooling their child with special needs. The good news is that Washington’s home-based instruction law does not discriminate! It was written to include ALL kids in the state with no extra hoops to jump through for those with extraordinary challenges. In fact, there are several facets of our law that were written specifically with our special kids in mind.

All families with special needs students should be encouraged to be extra diligent about following the letter of the home-based instruction law in order to avoid any potential future problems. Being informed and well-prepared will help counter or avoid possible objections from well-meaning family members, neighbors or professionals. As is true for any family considering homeschooling, parents should familiarize themselves with our homeschool law by reading it thoroughly, keeping in mind that there is no addendum or separate provision that sets the special needs child apart. The requirements are the same, regardless of the student’s abilities. Parents must qualify, file an annual Declaration of Intent form, and do annual testing or assessments just as they would for “typically developing” kids.

Be Free of IEPs!

Your child can continue to access speech, occupational or other therapies as “ancillary services” through public schools, if you so choose. If so, there may be an IEP (Individualized Education Plan or Program) requirement for the administration of those particular services with written goals pertaining to the therapy itself, but not for the subjects you are teaching at home. In most cases, your child will not have to be on an IEP. You can, however, write you own!

Many of us are familiar with IEPs as documents that have “goals” and other specifics, which are supposed to direct the progress of that child’s education experience according to strict legal guidelines. Most parents find them confusing and would agree that they don’t have a whole lot to do with the realities our kids face. Your homeschool IEP can be written for you alone, and can contain any goals or specifics that YOU decide they need! What does your son or daughter need for their immediate learning environment? Special lighting? What noise level or background music? What time of day works best? Are exercise or sensory activities important to optimal learning? Do you want more emphasis on daily living skills or social opportunities? It’s up to you.

Curriculum choices.. what do I do now?

Another wonderful feature of Washington’s homeschool law allows parents complete freedom of choice in selecting materials and methods. Again, this favors families with challenged students. The law outlines required subject areas, but leaves specific curriculum decisions up to parent-teachers.

To get started on making good curriculum choices, take a look at some of the internet resources listed at the end of this article. Read everything you can get your hands on and take your time narrowing down the possibilities. Start with those methods or materials that seem to most closely match your child’s needs. Learn as you go …don’t try to “do it all”. Choose what your family can easily afford so you can set it aside and try something else if need be, without having made a huge investment. My best advice is to keep your bottom-line goals in mind, and keep trying. You’ll eventually find something that just “clicks” for your child.

Most importantly, develop your home program and routine around what is most important to you for your child. Build your relationship and have fun! De-stress your life as much as possible and don’t forget to plan for respite for yourself. You need and deserve help and some time to yourself now and then.. this can be crucial to a successful homeschool experience with a special needs child.

Many parents report that being free of a school schedule lightens the stress load for the entire family. They find it a great relief to have more flexibility when it comes to dealing with frequent illnesses or allergies, and scheduling therapy or medical appointments. Some families also choose to homeschool year round, perhaps on a scaled-down schedule, to minimize gaps in learning and hold on to important gains.

Non-test assessments – an ideal alternative!

As you read through our law, you’ll notice that we have the option of doing an annual non-test assessment as an alternative to standardized testing. This option was designed to accommodate the needs of children for whom testing is not an optimal measure of their progress and capabilities, or for whom the testing process is inappropriate or too stressful. An assessment must be done with a certified teacher but it can be a relaxed and informal evaluation that sums up what the child has done throughout the school year at home. Details that highlight the individual’s strengths and accentuate the positive are a wonderful way to demonstrate learning and help both parents and student feel a strong sense of accomplishment.

Our law does not require kids to be working at grade level but states that homeschooled children need to be “making progress”. This is another area where the law seems to have been written just for us! This progress can be shown via a non-test assessment or standardized testing; whichever method best meets the student’s needs. Homeschooling families all over the state are seeking and slowly finding more certified teachers who are familiar with special needs kids and are willing to work with them in getting their legal homeschool assessments done. The growing support community for these families is always eager to add more qualified teachers to our list of those who are willing to do special needs assessments.

Support is CRITICAL!

By far, the most important element of your homeschooling experience will be getting in touch with other parents who understand. There are a number of support options available today, especially online. A new support group for Washington state families who are homeschooling special kids has started within this past year. These parents stay in touch through an e-mail list and those who are geographically close enough make arrangements to meet when they can. The e-mail group is an easy way to reach out to other parents with questions and concerns.. or to share wonderful moments of triumph and success, both big and small.

You can find the Special Needs of Washington Group on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/groups/SpecialHSofWA