Home Schooling Children With Special Needs: A Descriptive Study

Jane Grenfell Duffey, Ph.D.
Norfolk Christian Schools
255 Thole Street
Norfolk, Virginia 23505

Keywords: Homeschooling, home schooling, home education, special needs

Home schooling has been an educational practice in the United States since colonial times. Its popularity has ebbed and flowed over the centuries. Within the last 2 decades, the home schooling movement has been experiencing a resurgence and gaining momentum (Mayberry, Knowles, Ray, & Marlow, 1995). Current home schooling population estimates range from 500,000 (Lines, 1996) to 1.7 million students (Ray, 1999) with a current yearly rate of growth of about 15% (Kennedy, 1997). Researchers have not yet established the number of children within that general population who require special education. However, it is apparent that there is a significant number of these students as evidenced in literature within the home school community, such as Home Education Magazine and Home School Court Report.
With the growing home school population, there are also tributes to its success in learner outcomes (Farris, 1997; Klicka, 1995; Ray, 1997; Rudner, 1999). Duvall, Ward, Delquadri, and Greenwood (1997) even suggested that learning disabled students who are educated at home experience greater academic success than their counterparts in a public school setting. The apparent legitimacy of home schooling as an educational practice as well as the increased success of home school advocates in garnering favorable state regulations have brought encouragement to the movement.
The atmosphere of success and relative acceptance of home schooling has brought about a number of consequences. More parents are continuing to withdraw their children, some of whom have special education concerns, from conventional schools to educate them at home (Dahm, 1996). However, at the same time, many of these parent-teachers are seeking access to conventional schools to enroll students on a part-time basis in academic courses and extracurricular activities, or to make use of resources and programs for both students and parents (Dahm, 1996; Lines, 1996; Terpstra, 1994). In Iowa, Dahm reported that a proportion of these families desiring part-time enrollment had special education needs.
In interpreting policy resulting from the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the U. S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education (OSEP) advised that school districts must include home educated children in their child-find activities (National Association of State Directors of Special Education [NASDSE], 1998). All children deemed eligible under federal funding provisions can be served through the public schools—whether in attendance there or in private or home settings. School districts must also determine ways to accommodate these students and include them in their accountability reporting. Additionally, a growing number of state legislatures are enacting regulations to accommodate home schoolers’ access to public schools, and school districts are developing programs to follow suit (Hawkins, 1996). Educators can develop programs and accommodations that will be effective if they have a greater understanding of the nature and needs of the population with whom they are concerned. This study provides descriptive information on the home school special needs population. Furthermore, it provides insight into (a) why parents of special needs students are choosing to educate them at home, (b) how those home schools are conducted, and (c) what the families’ perceptions are of the success of their undertaking.

Statement of the Problem

The purpose of this study is to provide a description of the factors that characterize special needs home schooling students along with their families and school settings. Additionally, a comparison will be made to the general population of home schooling students, including their families and school settings. Specifically, this study answers the questions:
1.        What are the demographic characteristics of the home schooling families with special needs children?
2.        What are the educational backgrounds and training of the teacher-parents of special needs children?
3.        What are the special education classifications of the home schooled special needs children?
4.        What are the rationales parents of special needs children give for choosing home education?
5.        How can the special needs home school be structured, what are the instructional practices, and what is the nature of the curriculum?
6.        What are the home schooling parents’ and students’ perceptions of the home schooling experience concerning academic and social progress?
7.        Do the factors that characterize the general population of home schooled children also characterize the population of home schooled special needs children?
Although there are numerous studies that have sought to describe various aspects of the home schooling movement, there are no research studies that have attempted to answer these specific questions. The research base on home instruction has grown tremendously since the 1970s when researchers and educators investigated academic achievement and social development and issues in the legal and philosophical realms. Several studies (Lines, 1991; Ray, 1997; Rudner, 1999; Wagenaar, 1997) made convincing attempts at providing population size and demographic characteristics of the general home schooling population. To date, Ray’s study is the largest nationwide project that examined the academic achievement, social activities, and demographic characteristics of home schooling families while assessing the relationships between student achievement and student and family variables. For that reason, Ray’s results provide a basis of comparison for this study on special needs students.

Review of the Literature

Over the past 2 decades, researchers, home school advocates, and news writers have given home schooling broad coverage (Farris, 1997; Hawkins, 1996; Kantrowitz & Wingert, 1998). Within this literature exists some evidence of subpopulations of home schooling students: gifted and talented students, as well as special needs students. There are scarcely any references to either group by educational researchers and only a few empirical studies, but there is an increasing amount of informal literature in the form of parent support group communications and personal testimonials. Much of this literature is found on the Internet where there are dozens of support groups or educational resource sites for parents who choose to home school both groups of children who have exceptional needs.

Special Needs Children
The selected population for this study is that of students with special education needs. There are support organizations and Internet sites specifically designed for families home schooling these children. Nationally Challenged Homeschoolers Associated Network (NATHHAN, 2002) and Parents Rearing and Educating Autistic Children in Christian Homes (PREACCH, 2002) are two examples. There are also resources within some of the larger home school organizations dedicated to special needs students, such as the Special Needs Coordinator at Home School Legal Defense Association.
The literature concerning the special needs children segment is largely informal. Informational pieces tend to be written from private experience and are testimonial in nature – as support group literature should be. There are several books (Hensley, 1995; Herzog, 1994; Sutton & Sutton, 1997) written by educators with a home schooling background for the purpose of assisting families with special education needs. Additionally, there are references to the special education population within feature articles (Dahm, 1996; Kantrowitz & Wingert, 1998). Research studies on home educated special needs students consist of a legal review of litigation concerning these children (Reinhiller & Thomas, 1996), an experimental study (Duvall et al., 1997) conducted to investigate the success of home schooling children with learning disabilities, and nine-year longitudinal study of 100 home schooled students that included case studies of students identified as exhibiting both learning disabilities and giftedness (Ensign, 2000).
Size of the Population: Guess and Conjecture
Since none of the descriptive studies on the general population of home schoolers delineated the numbers into categories, the size of the special needs subpopulation is purely speculative. Based upon the estimates of the U. S. Department of Education (1997), there are approximately 5.8 million special education students. The number of home schooled special needs students could range from 58,000 to 116,000 depending upon the estimates of Lines (1996) (one percent of the school age population) and Ray (1997) (two percent) – if the same proportion of special needs students are within the home school population. A review of membership applications at Home School Legal Defense Association (C. Hurst, personal communication, monthly from February, 1999 to January, 2000) yielded the following findings (see Table 1).

90 107 85 58 118 80 196 313 174 137 110 1468
630 791 634 716 1400 990 3065 2851 2255 928 795 15055
14.3 13.5 13.4 8.1 8.7 8.1 6.4 11.0 7.7 14.8 13.8 9.8
Table 1. Membership applications of families with special needs children at HSLDA

The percent of the total applicants that are families with special needs varies throughout the months. The cumulative percentage of families is 9.8. However, there is no indication of how many special needs children each family might have. If one child, 9.8 % seems to approximate the incidence of special education students within the conventional school setting (10-12%.) If the number of children per family matches the 1.4 mean as seen later in this study, then that overall percentage could be 13.7. With no central reporting, these figures are clearly speculative.
Parents’ Rationales
There is no study or report that addresses this subject. However, within the literature, home schooling researchers and advocates have offered opinions on this matter. Home Education Press (1996) published an informational booklet on learning disabilities featuring experiences of families who home schooled children with this diagnosis. One family expressed frustration over the handicap of the child that seemingly found no satisfactory support in public school. The mother declared, “Our family needed a break from this madness. We needed to be nourished. We needed to have time to regroup and learn to enjoy one another again … we began homeschooling” (p. 6).
This mother’s statement implied a need to gain control not just of the child’s education, but of the family’s health. Other parents have remained focused on the child’s needs alone. In an earlier interview of a mother home schooling two sons with learning disabilities, I found the rationale to be a desire to customize the education to the needs of the children (Duffey, 1999). Armstrong (cited in Bowman, 1996) affirmed this motive. A learning consultant and special education teacher, Armstrong reasoned that home schooling can provide “the opportunity of giving the child something very different than they were failing at in the schools” (p. 3).
Home schooling: Effects on the Basic Skills of Students With Learning Disabilities
One of the only home schooling studies employing an experimental design, Duvall et al. (1997) selected four students and their instructors for the control and treatment groups (n = 4 each). Researchers matched the student groups on 10 variables including specific area of disability. Administering a variety of pretests, posttests, and inventories, Duvall et al. conducted observations to assess academic engagement time (AET). Study results indicated that the four children in the home schools received more individualized instruction than did the four children in the public school special programs. Academic engagement time rates were 2.6 times greater for the home school students. In general, the home school students made more progress than public school students did on standardized tests, including larger gains in reading and written language and equivalent gains in mathematics.
The stated purpose of the study was to determine if parents who were not certified professional educators could provide students with instructional environments conducive to the acquisition of basic skills. The researchers concluded that, even though these parents were not formally trained in methods to increase AET, they successfully engaged students at higher rates than did the special educators in the public school classrooms. Duvall et al. (1997) attributed this success to the low number of students in the home school. However, it should be noted again that the population used in this study was very small indicating no generalizability of results.
How successful home schools are in providing for the needs of students who require special education cannot be determined from the current research. Although there are indications that home instruction is a fast-growing and successful practice for the general population of students, there is no real “evidence” that supports the same conclusion for the subpopulation of special needs students. As a matter of fact, there is not even an indication of what the profile of a home school student with special needs looks like. In light of the lack of information, state and local education agencies are not sure about the role they should be playing in the midst of the emerging practice. The home school community itself has varying opinions about meeting the needs of these children within the context of the home alone or with outside help from public or private sources.
Since the guiding research questions of this study ask for data that can be quantified (such as many of the demographic characteristics), as well as for data that require narrative responses, a mixed design was the appropriate choice for this study. Since the intent of this study is to provide descriptive data, some of which refers to previous study results, it was necessary to select similar methodology to compare results to those studies. Therefore, the first phase of this study included questions from a survey instrument that contained closed-ended questions whose answers could be analyzed using descriptive statistics. The results of these answers were then compared to the results produced most notably by the Ray (1997) study, but also by other home schooling studies as well.
The open-ended questions of the survey and the case studies produced information, then, that went beyond the picture presented by the statistics. This information offered an in-depth understanding of the phenomenon of home schooling special needs children through the eyes of those who experience it: both the home schooling parents and their families including the special needs children. Phase Two of the study contained herein is a multi-case, descriptive study using a phenomenological approach. Because of the range of diagnoses possible within the population of special needs children, multiple cases (rather than a single case), were chosen to represent some of the variation possible. Creswell (1998) suggested the use of multiple cases showing different perspectives (and experiences) of the phenomenon. Because the intent of this study is to describe a population that has heretofore been neglected within the field of education, a descriptive study was chosen to carry out the purpose of the research.

Selection of participants
Due to the unique nature of the population (i.e., the lack of organization and difficulty to identify and access), selection of participants was conducted in a unique manner. Initially, survey participants were to be members of support groups for home schooling families with special needs children. I had made contact with several key home schooling parents who had agreed to distribute surveys to the membership of their respective groups. Additionally, an agreement was made with two support group publications to advertise a need for participants. However, what evolved was an Internet search for participants and a reliance on one home schooling parent to inform another – snowball selection. In addition to members of support groups volunteering to complete surveys through contact from another member or leader of the group, other participants were enlisted through accessing Internet message boards and listservs. These support groups exist in cyberspace; parents join the listserv discussing issues related to their children’s needs and parenting concerns.
Finding respondents for participating in the first phase of this research project was challenging and required both perseverance and creativity. With a longer period of time and more resources, it might have been possible to involve more participants and therefore achieve a greater response rate. However, the fact that participants were so difficult to locate and even more difficult to elicit a completed survey from only served to confirm the findings within the data itself. Participating in support group Internet discussions and “listening” to discussions proved to give understanding and insight to the data gathered from the surveys. Moreover, the Internet proved to be the best source of participants in the first phase of the research. Of approximately a distribution of 400 surveys, there were 100 returned and completed surveys (n=100) by the cutoff date, of which 26% could be linked to the Internet respondents. Of the 21 later surveys returned, 11 were from Internet sources. Therefore, of the 121 total returned surveys (N = 121) approximately 30% response rate), 37 (31%) could be attributed to the Internet.
Phase Two Participants
The top diagnoses (by frequency) of the special needs children in the first phase participant families were ADD/ADHD, learning disabilities (LD), pervasive developmental delay (PDD), and speech and language impairment. The four families selected for the second phase of the study were chosen based upon these educational diagnoses. Other factors that also determined selection were geographic location and accessibility. Varying geographic locales were selected to sample the differing home schooling climates created by state and local home school laws as well as the level of organization of home schooling families in an area.
Because of the mixed design of the study, several data collection sources were used to accomplish the purpose of the research. The first phase consisted of use of a survey instrument (see Appendix) to collect the demographic, family, and student information as well as note parental perceptions of the experience of home schooling children with special needs. As typical of qualitative studies, the researcher was the sole collector of data in the second phase of the study that consisted of observations and interviews of home schooling families.

Data Analysis Procedures
Analysis of data was conducted using analysis appropriate to the type of data collected. Numerical data (e.g., number of years home schooling, educational levels of parents) was statistically analyzed. Means and standard deviations were computed for such data. For nominative data (e.g., occupations of parents, types of curricula used in home school), frequencies and percent of total responses were found. Data were entered by hand using SPSS for Windows (Version 6.1) (SPSS, 1994), a statistical program for the social sciences that was also used to perform data analysis. Findings were reported in narrative form and graphic models.
Data analysis in the second phase of the study involved analyses of the interviews and observations of each case separately and then a cross-case analysis describing the emerging themes. Audiotaped interviews were transcribed and returned to the participants for member checking. Only one of the interviewed mothers submitted any changes to the script. Her additional remarks, few in number, were points of clarification of response and did not change the direction of any answer. Approved interview responses were then summarized in narrative form. Narrative accounts of the home schools were written based upon the field notes taken during observation. These accounts were reported in chronological order from the beginning to the end of my home visits.
After all home visits were completed and data summarized, a cross-case analysis was conducted. As with Part B questions in the survey, these narratives were also analyzed using thematic analysis characteristic of the constant comparative method. Again, I interpreted themes and trends by identifying common and uncommon responses that were coded into categories of information after being segmented. Next, the themes were identified by searching for relationships in the data. The final step was to develop and test propositions to construct an explanatory framework and reflect back to the findings of Phase One of the study (Carney as cited in Miles & Huberman, 1994).

The guiding research questions are the framework used to address the significant findings of the study. Both the results of the survey as well as the observations and interviews of the case studies produced the answers to the questions.
What are the Demographic Characteristics of Home Schooling Families With Special Needs Children?
The results of both phases of the research study indicate a distinct similarity in demographic characteristics. The survey families were overwhelmingly two-parent families (97%). Their prevailing geographic setting was split between suburban (48%) and rural settings (44%), and the racial background of the survey families was primarily white (88%). Occupations of the fathers in the survey families varied greatly with a small majority (19%) in the Professional I category, while participating mothers were generally homemakers (74% of survey families). The mean number of children in a survey family was 3.3.
All the case families represented a white racial background. Three of the four case families lived in suburban settings with one family living in the rural South. Fathers in two of the four case families also were classified in the Professional I category while all the mothers were homemakers and home educators.
What are the Educational Backgrounds and Training of the Teacher-Parents of Special Needs Children?
The mean number of years of formal education for the fathers in this study’s Phase One was 14.79—similar to the mothers at 14.29 years. The teaching parent in the survey was generally the mother. On the average, 80% of the mothers contributed 80% of the teaching time. Whereas 64% of the fathers indicated as involvement in the teaching process, it was for a mean of 12% of the total teaching time. As far as training in education, few survey fathers were certified teachers (6%), and even fewer were trained in special education (5%). The survey mothers included 12% certified teachers and 30% who had taken some steps toward educating themselves in matters of special needs.
In Phase Two, both the fathers and the mothers fell within this range of levels of schooling. These mothers also contributed the total amount of the teaching time during the morning session. There was no contribution made by the fathers to the formal instruction of the children, but there were other professionals such as tutors, therapists, and religion teachers involved.
None of the case study fathers or mothers was a certified teacher. However, half of the mothers had attended workshops in special education while all had read literature or conducted Internet and library research on special needs. Along with attending all the special needs workshops at home schooling conferences, one mother noted, “I’ve read probably every book there is on ADHD. My friends feel I am very knowledgeable in this realm.”  Similarly, another mother volunteered, “I’ve done a lot of research when [my son] was first diagnosed. I did research and read a few books on autism. I found information on the Internet.”
What are the Special Education Classifications of the
Home Schooled Special Needs Children?
Parents in the survey cited 12 of the special education categories of diagnoses for the 144 special needs children in the study. Additionally, four other specific classifications of some of the categories were noted. For example, 12 out of 17 parents of children classified under mental retardation indicated a medical diagnosis of Down syndrome. Although there were diagnoses with greater frequency indicated by the participants as noted in the selection of case study families, the survey parents cited 11 of the 13 categories of disabilities described in IDEA. The two categories not cited were deaf-blindness and traumatic brain injury.
Fifty-three percent of the children with special needs reported in the survey had two classifications. It should be noted that in both phases, two classifications sometimes occurred when an earlier broad diagnosis later became more specific. For instance, a preschool age child might be identified with speech and language impairment as well as developmental delay and then later be classified as autistic. In the four case study families, there were eight children with special needs altogether in the families with half of these children indicating more than one classification.
What are the Rationales Parents of Special Needs Children Give for Choosing Home Education?
The majority of survey parents (62%) turned to home schooling when dissatisfied with conventional schooling. Parents cited this reason more than twice as much as the next two reasons: home schooling is consistent with family dynamics (27%) and a desire to follow and teach religious values (26%). Parents sometimes cited more than one reason in making such a decision indicating the thoughtful process by which they elected this form of schooling.
Likewise, the case families decided to home school their children when the conventional schools failed to live up to their expectations and they felt that home was a more suitable environment. One of the case study parents also cited the reason that the routine of home schooling more aptly fit the needs of the family: “We were not comfortable with the public schools in our area and also we felt that with my husband’s schedule we needed as much family time as we could get.”  Another family selected the practice for religious reasons “because we believed that the public schools were doing everything that they could to deter any beliefs in God or certainly Christianity.”
How Can the Home School be Structured, What are the Instructional Practices, and What is the Nature of The Curriculum?
The surveys indicated that the respondents were resourceful in structuring their home schools. The parents often sought and used outside help in meeting the needs of their children. In addition to teaching their special needs children, the parents enrolled them in various therapies and counseling (76%). Twenty-four percent enrolled their children on a part-time basis in conventional schools. Additionally, 97% of the families were members of support groups and used support services.
These figures are comparable to the case study families’ experiences. Three of the four families have children enrolled in therapies. All four families participate in a support group. Two of the families have children taking classes through a formal system: religious studies and enrichment classes.
As far as the instruction within the home schools is concerned, it was only possible to determine the instructional practices of the observed families since no survey question addressed that subject. With these families, the majority of the formal school time was spent in direct, one-on-one instruction by the mother. The child not receiving direct instruction was engaged in a variety of activities: independent study, reading, playing educational computer games, family chores, video watching, and playing. Two families also included a group read-aloud time as a part of their daily routine. All the families studied subjects in the field as well. How the morning instruction time was structured differed from home to home—from the schoolroom format with formal lesson plans to the homes with a more free-flowing approach. One family was somewhat of an outlier with the lack of organization and structure in the mother’s instructional approach.
In curriculum choices, the majority of survey parents (58%) designed a curriculum for their children. Another 23% used a package and 6% a program provided by a school. All the parents in the case studies designed the curricula for their children based upon their ability and interest levels. As a matter of fact, most of the mothers criticized packaged curricula, as in the example that follows: “I don’t like those; I think they require the teacher to do more work than the child. The children aren’t learning a whole lot – it’s just a lot of busy work.” Additionally, one of the families enrolled a child in a prescribed program that specified both content and process of the instructional time.
What are the Home Schooling Parents’ Perceptions of the Home Schooling Experience Concerning Academic and Social Progress?
The overall perception of academic progress of the home schooled survey children by their parents was positive. Ninety-six percent claimed some academic progress whether test scores were noted or a less quantifiable measure used, such as an evaluation based upon an IEP. Eighty-nine percent of the survey respondents felt that their special needs children exhibited either average or improved social progress since home schooling. The parents noted that their special needs children participated in extracurricular activities on the average of 4.14 activities per child
These same positive perceptions were also expressed by the mothers in the case study families. They perceived positive academic progress made by their special needs children except in the case of one child who had actually regressed in the past year. These claims were based on achievement testing or by using a specified criterion such as the Brigance Index. In addition to the academics, all of the case study mothers thought that their children were either improving or were on track socially—sometimes in light of the challenge that the learning need might present. The children in the case studies all participated in at least one organized activity outside the home as well as informal play in the neighborhood or at the family place of worship. One mother summarized the general tone of the responses by stating, “To socialize is learning how to get along and function alongside other people, so there are lots of ways to address that issue besides the traditional classroom.”
Do the Factors That Characterize the General Population of Home Schooled children Also Characterize the Population of Home Schooled Special Needs Children?
The answer to this question is summarized in Table 2. A comparison of the findings of this study to Ray’s (1997) study on the general home schooling population can be seen. As was noted earlier, Ray’s study was selected since his work and survey were used as the basis for this present study to answer the above question.
In general, there are strong similarities between the two populations in terms of demographic information and educational background. Probably the most significant area of difference in the findings was the average number of years home schooled and conventionally schooled for the children in the studies. As far as number of years in home education, the mean number for a child in Ray’s (1997) study was 4.8 years. If any children were enrolled additional years in conventional schools, the mean number of years was 0.4. In this special needs group, the mean number of years in home schooling was 3.8 with 3.6 in conventional schooling. These figures seem to suggest that the special needs children in the study experienced more years of schooling both in the home and in the conventional setting. In other words, their education often started earlier and took longer. Children with special needs often have need of early intervention services and resources and stay in school settings longer to ensure an adequate transition beyond secondary schooling.
Although most of the findings presented in Table 2 represent Phase One of this study (the survey), equal time was devoted to conducting the case studies. Typical of qualitative research, the large amount of space, or thick description, devoted to those findings can be difficult to translate into a necessarily brief journal article. The descriptive data found within the families generally fit within that of the survey. What gets lost in the condensed version is sharing the voices of the participants and telling their stories as is the goal of phenomenology. The following excerpts give a glimpse into a descriptive sequence from two of the case studies. The first scene is taken from an observation of a morning in the Gray family. Caleb, diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, is 8 years old and big brother to Adam (4 years) and Grace (19 months).

Ray (1997)
Duffey (1999)
Mean educational level – F 15.6 yrs 14.8 yrs
Mean educational level – M 14.7 yrs 14.3 yrs
Major occupation category: Father Professional I/II
(tied at 17%)
Professional I
Major occupation category: Mother Homemaker/home educator 88%
Professional 5%
Homemaker/home educator 74%
Professional 10%
Formal teaching – Mother 88% 87%
Formal teaching – Father 10% 8%
Formal teaching – Other 3% 5%
Major race/ethnicity – Mother 96% white 88% white
Major race/ethnicity – Father 96% white 89% white
Average number of children 3.3 3.3
Average age of child in study 10.5 yrs 9.8 yrs
9.0 yrs (special needs)
Two-parent families 98% 97%
Computers used in homes 86% 91%
Teacher certification – Mother; Father 15%; 6% 12%; 6%
Major curriculum choices Parent designed 76%
Package 24%
Parent designed  58%
Package 23%
Major extracurricular activities Sunday school 84%
Field trips 77%
Group sports 48%
Sunday school 77%
Field trips 75%
Group sports 44%
Average number of years in: home education/child
conventional education/child
Table 2. Comparison of the results of Ray’s study to the results of survey of special needs families.

The School Day: Juggling Children and Chores
I quickly took my seat in a lounge chair in the living room and pulled out my notepad as Diana and all three children sat cross-legged in a circle in the middle of the rug. “There are seven days, there are seven days, there are seven days in a week. Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday,” they sang. Grace, with hand gestures, indicated that she wanted to sing “Deep and Wide.” Caleb helped her with the hand motions as they sang the children’s Sunday school song. Adam played with a small motorcycle keeping rhythm with the song while they sang. The singing over, Diana led Caleb into the dining room to locate the day’s date on a large calendar that hung on one wall amid completed school worksheets and drawings. Adam followed the two, and Diana put him to work at the large, antique dining table. “Circle the letter N,” she instructed him as he grabbed a crayon from a plastic container.
While Adam was getting settled, Caleb wandered back to the living room and banged out some “music” on the old, upright piano in the corner and then spied a small, toy lizard. He playfully placed it on my head when Diana summoned him back to the dining room. I moved to a chair in the schoolroom to have a better view of the events in there. Caleb sat down next to his mother at a child’s table and chairs placed in the bay window section of the dining area. Diana presented a lesson on plural noun endings. Explaining the rule, she wrote on a marker board. Caleb quickly grasped the idea and spelled correctly the examples she placed on the board. “I am smart!” he yelled. He giggled frequently and interjected, “This is fun!” while changing each “c”h ending to “ches.”. Moving to the large table, he completed a worksheet vocalizing throughout the exercise and painstakingly writing in large, block letters the spelling words. Diana moved from Adam to Caleb and back constantly providing positive feedback to their work. In the meantime, Grace wandered around the room jabbering happily and still “singing.”
As Adam successfully completed his preschool lesson, he left the room and Diana resumed the lesson on plural endings moving back to the marker board. Again, Caleb grasped the concept of changing ”fe” to ”ves” and completed another worksheet. While Caleb and Diana were continuing their teaching/learning sequence, Grace was getting increasingly noisy and began climbing over them. At one point in time, the marker board came crashing down. Yet, Caleb never lost his concentration. Adam also ran back into the room to show me an educational resources catalog. I was amazed at how Diana and Caleb could maintain their focus and composure under the circumstances. A half hour into the morning’s work, Caleb had completed the language arts lesson showing proficiency in two spelling rules while Adam had conquered recognition of a capital “N” and Grace investigated the schoolroom activities.
The next excerpt is taken from an interview with Rena Dixon, a home schooling mother of two boys with learning disabilities:
Home Schooling: An Educational and Philosophical Choice
The primary reason Rena and Rich decided to home school their sons was because of their dissatisfaction with the “poor quality of public education in California.” When her oldest child was preschool age, Rena began to research the public schools and determined that “they were not meeting the needs of the children as well as they could.” Consequently, she attended a home schooling conference with a friend. She “talked it over with Rich and made the decision to home school.” Because they had decided to home school Terry from the beginning of his schooling experience, it naturally followed for Jesse. Rena did not suspect that either child had a special need. That discovery came over the course of time and was never an impetus for selecting the practice originally.
Because Sharon Hensley had referred this family to me and I knew that the boys were enrolled in her Christian umbrella school, I asked Rena if religious convictions also were a factor in selecting the practice. Rena readily agreed: “Absolutely. I don’t agree with some of the philosophies of the public schools. I was a product of the public schools in California and, at the time I went through school, I got a good, basic education without a lot of alternate worldviews and multiculturalism. I got just basic American, patriotic, 3-R’s education. That is what I want for my kids.”
The Dixons remain a home schooling family because they are “committed to it.” Rena feels as through it is something that she is “called to do.” Furthermore, the commitment has been deepened because of the learning needs of the boys: “At this point, I remain committed to it because it definitely serves our needs as best as possible given the learning problems.” Rena also shared with me an incident that further convinced her of the wisdom of her choice:
When [Terry] was diagnosed, the woman who did the testing and gave me the results said to me, “It’s a godsend that he has never been to school because socially he has not had to endure the pain and stigma of failure.” I have to think it was providential that God encouraged us and influenced us to teach him at home.
The learning problems to which Rena referred are learning disabilities. Terry, now 12 years old, was 9 when he was diagnosed with dyslexia. Nine year-old Jesse was diagnosed a year ago also with dyslexia as well as ADD. Typical of the type of learning disability, both boys have severe difficulties in coding and decoding the written word.
The boys were diagnosed by a private psychologist. They were never evaluated in the public schools, and all services provided to them were private as well. Terry received occupational therapy for 18 months and vision therapy for 12 months while Jesse went to occupational therapy for only 4 months switching over to a tutor who focuses specifically on his deficit areas. I was impressed with Rena’s knowledgeable discourse on her son’s learning problems and the scope of the therapies. She admitted that she had “done a lot of reading on development and [her] sons’ specific learning disabilities—what causes them and some of the things you can do to compensate and remediate.” As a matter of fact, Rena was reading from a text, Developmental Variations and Learning Disorders, while Terry was copying a paragraph during one of his lessons.
Rena’s ability to provide for her sons’ special needs was through her own commitment to self-education and the network of support she had built up around her. Her efforts included attendance at the home school curriculum fair, the state home school convention, and monthly meetings for parents at the umbrella school. She also had support and encouragement from a home schooling group at her church that was probably more social than anything: “Having home schooled this long, I know a lot of families. If we want to get out and do something, we have plenty of contacts.”
When Rena selected curriculum for the boys, she “was always really interested in real books” and did not choose a package or traditional texts heavy with workbooks. As she became aware of the disabilities, she continued the heavy reading emphasis: “I really enjoy reading to the boys since their own reading levels don’t support their intelligence levels. It’s been a really great way for them to get a lot of information that they wouldn’t have gotten or they would have had to wait and they would have gotten frustrated.”
Analysis of Observations and Interviews
Individual family profiles and cross-case themes emerged in the analysis process. Although there were the similarities that created the themes, it became apparent that home schooling is still a unique practice. The profile of each family and the needs of the children produced distinctively different “schools.” These home schools sought to provide a “child-centered” education customized to the needs and ability of each child, but probably a more accurate description of that education would be “needs-based” and “mother-directed.” The needs of the children were important in these families. However, the needs of the family were equally esteemed. Home schooling has given the families an element of control over lives seemingly disrupted by challenging learning needs. The mothers were the strong voices in all of these families. The father’s support of the practice was evident through the mother’s reporting.
The learning needs noted in this study may have been more stressful due to a father’s occupation, lack of local school system resources and support, and multiple disabilities in a family. As great as the commitment is in home schooling, it became the solution to life’s challenges for these families. As one mother stated, “I think [home schooling] has kept us together over the last 7 years.” As to regaining control, another mother stated, “What I really like about home schooling is that you get your own kid back. That is certainly true with regular kids, but especially with special needs kids.”
This study was an attempt to describe the phenomenon of home schooling special needs children and was exploratory in nature. Although the focus of the study was a segment of families within the greater population of home schooling families, there was still a wide range of diversity contained therein. The unique status of each family due to demographic and educational background as well as the nature of the special need must be kept in mind when making generalized statements about the population and their practice of home schooling.
This study did not attempt to draw conclusions concerning academic and social progress of the home schooled children as compared to conventionally schooled children except to report the perceptions of the parents. However, there is a natural tendency to do so. In order to accomplish this task, it would be valuable to look into the specific areas of diagnoses to determine efficacy of the practice for those children. Duvall et al. (1997) recommended that more studies of experimental design on home schooled learning disabled students follow their work. No matter what the choice of methodology, the focus of the population should be narrowed to the disability. Then the question of whether autistic children or hearing impaired children learn more effectively in a home school or conventional school setting could be answered. Similarly, the often asked question about adequate socialization could also be answered when narrowing the population to a specific special education category.
Duvall et al. (1997) focused on academic engagement time as the critical variable in determining whether home schooled children with learning disabilities could make adequate academic gains. More research should be considered to study the effects of academic engagement time and other practices such as direct teaching. Since the unequal amounts of one-on-one instruction became an issue in this study, how many home schools are able to provide an equitable arrangement for the students? Is there any relationship between the amount of instructional time received and academic progress?
The value and effectiveness of any educational process, content, or context is in the final product. Taking a look at that product for only a moment in time can produce some interesting data, but looking at that same product over time probably delivers a much clearer and more telling picture. Longitudinal follow-up data about the participants in this study could produce a commentary about the effects of their schooling on their transition into conventional schooling at any level or into the work force. This recommendation might also be extended to include a survey of school districts to determine numbers and profiles of special needs children transitioning into local schools from home schools. Just how successful are these students in academic achievement and social adjustment? Which students make the transition and which do not?
Philosophies have been major points of contention between the home school community and the professional educators. A study that compares and contrasts the views and perspectives on education of the two communities would be valuable to help bridge the philosophical gap. We have seen the criticism home schoolers have leveled at public schools. What are the areas of concern professional educators have about home schoolers?
One final recommendation for research is born from my arduous task of enlisting research participants. Interviewing home school parents as to their reluctance to participate in research studies could yield information that might assist future researchers. Certain geographic regions and states seemed to produce more participants. Is there a relationship between home schooling laws and a willingness to participate? The Internet proved to be a valuable resource in this study. Does the availability of almost total anonymity guarantee better delivery of participants, and are the responses of Internet participants a valid source for studies? Past researchers (Kaseman & Kaseman, 1992) have proposed reasons for the reluctance of home schoolers to participate in research studies, but these rationales have not been determined through extensive research but from suggestions from a few home schoolers including the researchers themselves.
As the practice of home schooling continues to gain momentum, research on it also continues to increase. However, it seems clear from the questions posed above that for all we seem to know about the practice, there is far more we do not know. There is indeed fertile ground for home schooling research—particularly in the area of special needs children.
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