Homeschooling Our Special Needs Child

Home is the best place to educate the special needs child-especially a child with speech and language difficulties.

It's been almost five years ago that we boarded a plane for the Ukraine to adopt Anna, a 14 year old teen with special needs.

Read Anna's adoption story:

She is now 19 years old. We are amazed at how far Anna has come during these past several years. Our adoption offered us no other diagnosis except "imbecile." Yes, that is the exact word used on the documentation. The only history we were given was that her mother was an alcoholic and that she was found wondering the streets at the age of four. We were told that she had little verbal skills at that time and was place in a room with other children like herself for most of the day.

Anna in Ukraine-waiting for our court date

Sadly, by placing Anna with other non-verbal children, with little to no stimuli, her brain did not develop. When we first met Anna she would act out, urinated herself and could hardly speak. But we felt that God was calling us to bring her home.

I can honestly say that I have questioned my ability to mother Anna. The thought of trying to educate her was overwhelming. So we started our journey towards a high school program that focused on life skills at our local public school. According to what "everyone" was telling us, it was the "best program available for children like her." BUT...the school system refused Anna as a student, claiming that we had no proof of her delay and that her learning difficulty could just be "a language barrier."

So after three years of testing with Kennedy Krieger Institute and Mount Washington Pediatric Hospital we finally had some diagnosis.

Finally diagnosis: mild to moderate mental retardation

So my own research continued as what the future could hold for Anna.

Here is what we have learned:

Anna is cognitively impaired. That means she has the inability to communicate effectively because a large part of her brain that controls her ability to process language is impaired. This is common for fetal alcohol babies, and since her mother was an alcoholic it is likely that she drank alcohol while pregnant. But we cannot be certain.

She has a receptive and expressive language disorder. She has a limited understanding of words-yet her vocabulary is expanding daily. We are amazed at what she understands. She has difficulty expressing herself in speech and has poor communication skills. At times, she will go all day without speaking unless we encourage her. She also has a motor speech disfunction, which in layman's terms, means that she has poor muscle control in speaking and difficulty articulating certain sounds (for example, the letter L).

Along with her cognitive delays, she is socially and emotionally delayed-although we have seen such great improvement from those earlier years. She also struggles with some fine motor skills and gross motor skills.

When Anna first came home she had no muscle strength from poor nutrition. I immediately changed her diet (that's for a another blog) and we started physical therapy and weekly speech therapy. She is still learning to ride a bike, but can now turn a door knob, tie her shoes, button her own pants, and cut with scissors. She has learned her to care for herself and can now take her own shower and wash her hair without assistance. She is now learning to straighten her hair and can put it in a ponytail. She brushes her own teeth, dresses herself, and even shaves her legs. Yes, she has come a loooong way!

While waiting for our diagnosis that would allow Anna into the Special Education Life Skill program at our local high school, we worked daily with her. We hired a private speech tutor, she attended swimming physical therapy, and I did basic pre-school learning with her.

We were finally able to enroll Anna in the program that I thought would be my saving grace. Trust me, homeschooling is a lot of work. We had just adopted four children who barely spoke any English. Add the extra attention that a special needs child requires, and you have the perfect recipe for STRESS OVERLOAD. I felt that we both needed a break. But I soon found out that Anna was declining while in the program.

She began talking like a baby, asking us to tie her shoes again or zip up her coat, and she could no longer read short vowel sound words such as cat, hat or mat. Prior to entering the program she was counting to 50. We noticed that she could barely count to 10! I was so disappointed, as she loved the social interaction. And honestly, I enjoyed the much needed time with the other children.

With the arrival of Covid, and our schools shutting down, it gave us the perfect opportunity to bring Anna home again. So the journey started...

Instead of writing a How To blog, I am going to share some of the materials we used and how we included learning into her daily life.

First, I made a list of needed life skills that we wanted Anna to learn.

I will give an example of how we integrated her subjects together to make her learning more cohesive and hopefully would allow her retain the information.

Be encouraged:

We chose one set of skills to focus on per month-and sometimes it took longer:

The Kitchen

Kitchen Skills: She has learned to unload and load the dishwasher, clean off counters, clean out the microwave, wash off the table, take out the trash and sweep the floors. She understands my magnet that says clean/dirty and can now correctly place it on the dishwasher. She has mastered the art of cutting her sandwich in half and understands what the word half means.

Kitchen Word Unit: We purchased a curriculum from Teachers Pay Teachers that I highly recommend. It allows you a unit of study per every room of your home.

In our kitchen word unit she had to learn such words as mixer, blender, refrigerator, microwave, cabinet and many others. We played word bingo, word recognition games, and she has learned to say each word and use it correctly when speaking. She has also learned to sight read the words. This is huge accomplishment for Anna!

Kitchen Math: Anna collects our hen's eggs daily and has to count them. During our kitchen unit she now understands what a dozen represents, can use the measuring cup, and is learning liquid measurements. While learning to cut, she has been introduced to fractions (1/2 sandwich) and so much more.

learning liquid measurements

Social & Verbal Skills: Anna was encouraged to say the blessing before meals, has learned better table manners, and even hosted a girls' tea party with her sister that allowed her the opportunity to interact with teen girls.

What else have we used to educate Anna?

We love the computer program Reading Eggs. Anna has her own tablet and she loves to do "school" on it. She works daily on the Reading Eggs and Math Seeds program.

We purchased various touch and read products from Lakeshore Learning Materials. Although they can be pricey, the are of excellent quality!

Anna loves watching The Magic School Bus. It's a great way to learn science! She also participates in all our homeschool science lesson and projects. She loves to tell her dad about what she has learned!

Anna participates in all of our family read aloud books, geography, and history.

Anna joins in the fun with geography

Fields trips allow Anna's point of reference to expand and she loves to learn new things.

Art Class-She loves taking an art class each week and has learned to follow along with the teacher and other students.

So how does one homeschool a special needs child?

1. Begin with prayer...and a cup of coffee. You will need both on a daily basis!

2. Do your research. Read blogs, listen to Podcasts, and talk with other parents who are walking the same path.

3. Give yourself grace.

4. Slow down. Remember, it's better that your child learns to do a few things really well and build up their confidence than rushing through the learning process and being stressed out all the time.

5. Find your child's "fresh time." I have learned that Anna learns better in the morning.

6. Keep lessons short. Anna learns best in short, focused, increments.

7. Hand on! Many special needs children have difficulty with the writing process. Do as much learning, using hands on ideas, as possible.

What are a few of the benefits of homeschooling the special needs child?

Homeschooling your special needs child allows you to have flexibility in their schedules. It allows you to focus on their strengths and builds on their existing skills. You can focus on what's important in the life of your child, such as basic life skills. Your child can learn in a loving environment that allows breaks from learning when needed and gives you the opportunity to enjoy hands on learning and lots of field trips.

What I have learned...

I had great expectation for Anna and my supposed teaching ability.

But what I have learned is that Anna will learn...but it takes time. It takes repetition, doing the same thing over and over and over again for her to finally grasp a concept. It takes patience that only God can give me. I have come to the realization that it's ok if Anna never reads, never speaks like a "normal" child, or can never match her own outfits. I used to take it personally, like I had failed as a teacher. But God is allowing me, each day, to come to the understanding of the fullness of His grace. And that He has a plan for Anna's life. I am only the tool that He is using.

So, while taking on the huge responsibility of homeschooling your special needs child, give yourself the freedom to fail and the grace to get back up again.

Our adoption journey:

So many times I have questioned God with His decision for bringing Anna into our family. We are so busy, we are loud, and there are days that I am hanging on by a thread. Once I voiced this to our speech therapist that came to our house on a weekly basis. She just laughed. She said God knew that Anna needed a large, talkative and busy family to allow her to mature and hear words...literally all day long!

It's ok to second guess yourself. It's ok to lose your cool sometimes. It's ok not to be perfect. It's ok to say we are not doing school today. It's ok to seek help. And it's ok to cry.

Just never, never, never give up.

God knew when He placed a special needs child in your care that you had the ability to do the job!

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About Me

Welcome to our home, my name is Michele. My husband, Walter, and I have been happily married (most of the time) for 28 years. My husband is the Pastor of Strong Tower Church while I work as a Critical Care Nurse. Together, we have been blessed with 10 beautiful children.

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