Skip to main content
Smiling mother teaching her smiling son at a table

Homeschooling and Students in Special Education: Sorting Out the Options for Parents

This article presents models of some of the options available to parents who choose to educate their children with special needs at home.

On this page:

Homeschooling is the practice of educating children primarily at home in a family setting, with a parent or guardian as teacher (Reinhiller & Thomas, 1996). The term applies to children in the K-12 range who fall under their state’s compulsory attendance laws. Although a subject of many recent popular press and educational journal attention, homeschooling is not new. It was a mainstay of education when the United States was a young nation. Its popularity waned around the turn of the 20th century, largely because of urbanization, compulsory education, and the public school movement. Until the 1970s, homeschooling was limited mostly to families who were geographically isolated and those who undertook home education for religious reasons, notably the Amish and Mormons.

The current homeschooling movement has its roots in the late 1960s and early 1970s when educational critics such as John Holt (1969), began expressing dissatisfaction with public education. More educators joined the chorus of criticism that encouraged the growth of private and home schools. By the mid-1980s, parents began not only to withdraw their children from public schools at unprecedented rates, but also to choose unconventional alternatives such as home-based education (Mayberry, Knowles, Ray, & Marlow, 1995).

Between 300,000 and 1.23 million students in the United States are being home schooled (Lines, 1991; Ray, 1997). According to the U.S. Department of Education, the typical homeschooling family is white, has two parents at home, is of above average income and education, and Protestant (Lines, 1991). The average number of children is three, and the mother, regardless of her own level of education, is the primary instructor. Although this description reflects the typical homeschooling family, it is not 100 percent representative of the entire homeschooling population. It is important to recognize that current homeschooling families include single parent families as well as all races, income levels, and religions.

The various descriptive studies of home education make little mention of students with special needs (Lines, 1991; Mayberry et al., 1995; Ray, 1997; Wagenaar, 1997). For that reason, determining the size of the home school population of these students is speculative. However, if 5-10% of all school children have learning disabilities (U.S. Department of Education, 1993), approximately one-half of the special education population, then the number of such children educated at home could be as high as 30,000. That estimate does not take into account other categories of special education. It is apparent that children of other special education categories are present, as evidenced through various popular homeschooling communications, such as The Home School Researcher, The Home School Court Report, and Growing Without Schooling, to name a few. Furthermore, a review of litigation involving special education and homeschooling included cases involving students with a full range of special needs: learning disabilities, attention deficit disorders, cognitive disabilities, emotional disturbances, and autism (Reinhiller & Thomas, 1996). If one considers that homeschooling is growing at a rate of 15% per year (Kennedy, 1997), it seems likely that the number of special education students taught at home is increasing as well.

The apparent legitimacy of homeschooling as an educational practice and the increased success of home school advocates in garnering favorable state regulations have increased the momentum of the movement. Home school advocates have claimed success in learner outcomes (Farris, 1997; Klicka, 1995; Ray, 1997). Data supplied by the Home School Legal Defense Association (Ray, 1997) show that home schoolers outscored public school students in achievement tests by 30 to 37 percentile points across all subjects. The atmosphere of success and relative public acceptance of homeschooling has brought a number of consequences. For example, parents are withdrawing their children from conventional schools to educate them at home. At the same time, they are seeking access to public schools to enroll students on a part-time basis in academic courses and extracurricular activities or to make use of public resources and programs for both students and parents (Dahm, 1996; Lines, 1996; Terpstra, 1994). A number of families seeking dual enrollment are those who have children with special education needs (Dahm, 1996). In response, a growing number of state legislatures are enacting regulations to accommodate home schoolers’ needs (Home School Legal Defense Association, 1997). Many school districts are developing programs to assist parents who desire special education services for their home schooled children (Hawkins, 1996).

Homeschooling options available to special-needs children

The models that I describe in subsequent sections of this article represent some of the options available to parents who choose to educate their children with special needs at home. Information was gathered through interviews with both public and private educators who consult with homeschooling families: a private consultant, a special-needs consultant in a legal defense organization, the “director” of a home school with expertise in special education, and the coordinator of a home instruction program for a public school district.

Special education consultant

In homeschooling, a special education consultant is a person who works with parents and helps them to develop an educational plan for their students. A consultant can be a professional in the field of education or a parent who has experience in homeschooling. One such consultant is Coralee Griffith, a parent who has spent ten years homeschooling two children with special needs (personal communication, March 9, 1998). She and her husband chose to home school because they felt that they could provide an education customized to the specific needs of their sons in a way that the formal school could not. Because they began ten years ago, they have gained a great deal of knowledge that the mother, who is the primary teacher, has turned into a service and business for others.

Griffith has compiled a library of literature related to her sons’ disabilities and has accumulated a large amount of educational material that she makes available to her clients. Moreover, because she has been active for 10 years in the homeschooling movement (when the process was difficult, at best, considering state policies and lack of public support), she is able to draw on practical experience and personal contacts to assist others.

When parents contact a homeschooling consultant, they are first advised of their legal responsibilities to the school district and state in which they reside. They are also advised of their rights under federal law if their student has been properly diagnosed with a special education need. If the parents choose to avail themselves of any of the services provided by the public school system, Griffith is available to serve as an advocate for them in the child study team decision-making process. She will accompany parents to meet with school officials and will work with them as an advisor and spokesperson in securing special education services.

Homeschooling with a consultant web chart illustration

The main service provided by a homeschooling consultant is to help the client select and adapt curriculum and instruction appropriate to the needs of his or her child. The consultant provides catalogues and samples of textbooks, workbooks, and other materials from various publishers. Some of the materials are created specifically for homeschooling, whereas others are the same as those offered in the formal school. The consultant also advises parents on appropriate instructional techniques. Developing an educational plan also satisfies a requirement of state regulations for home schools. In short, providing instructional support is a large part of the job; Griffith is frequently contacted by her clients to give advice on choosing an appropriate textbook, to discuss problems relating to appropriate instructional practices, or to encourage a homeschooling parent who feels isolated in undertaking the sole responsibility of educating a child whose needs can be overwhelming on some days (see Figure 1).

Home School Legal Defense Association

The Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) is a national organization that provides members with legal representation in the event of a legal challenge by government officials. HSLDA provides a variety of benefits for its members (see Figure 2)and maintains a Special Needs Coordinator who provides services to those members with children who have special education needs. Its membership application asks parents if they are homeschooling any children with special learning needs, the nature of the needs, and any services the parents may be using. HSLDA recommends the use of private educational support programs because the organization has had to represent families in legal difficulties because of their involvement with the public school.


Homeschooling with the Legal Defense Association flow chart


Betty Statnick (personal communication, 15 November 1997) is an experienced educator with expertise in special education. She advises members mainly as a legal counsel and a provider of resources. Her legal counsel focuses on state regulations and maintaining the records that they require. All states have statutes regarding homeschooling; some contain stricter provisions on homeschooling children with special needs. HSLDA provides information specific to the client’s state of residence; general recommendations appropriate to all clients include maintaining a local educational consultant who meets with the parents at least four times a year, conducting quarterly evaluations that document student progress, and developing a student educational plan similar to the IEP.

Beyond dispensing legal advice, the Special Needs Coordinator also provides a list of credentialed professionals who have experience with children with special needs and resource guides in the various special education areas. Because testing students is often a state requirement, the appropriate test can be difficult and expensive to obtain. The office provides several standardized tests that are available for use by parents or licensed teachers as appropriate. Furthermore, the coordinator is available to answer questions concerning needs related to the special education diagnosis. HSLDA has published a booklet that explains all of their recommendations and services regarding homeschooling children with special needs (HSLDA, 1995).

Almaden Valley Christian school

A unique home school option exists in San Jose, California, where by California state law, Almaden Valley Christian School (see Figure 3) is officially established as a private school.

Almaden Valley Christian School and consulting service

Almaden Valley Christian School is what the homeschooling community refers to as an “umbrella” school. That is, the school is not a school that holds classes; rather, it is a grouping of 80 homeschooling families with children who have special education needs. The director of the school is Sharon Hensley, a special education teacher and a homeschooling parent of a special-needs child. She provides a consulting service to families outside California who live in states that will not allow them to affiliate with the school to fulfill legal requirements. The services are the same to all families except for the attendance record-keeping that California requires. Hensley provides a referral service of special education professionals for the families if they desire additional help such as therapeutic services (personal communication, March 17, 1998). Finally, there are monthly meetings at which Hensley provides training to parents in instructional techniques, shares new possibilities in curriculum offerings, and supports the parents in their decision to home school.

When beginning the home school process, parents meet with the director to develop a home education plan. Past testing, content of children’s IEPs, and previous schooling and services are considered in prescribing a home plan. Some- times further testing is necessary to adequately assess the student’s needs. Then, the parents set up a plan that includes both the curriculum and appropriate instruction. Assessment of student progress is conducted through the submission of monthly report forms that document progress and provide a forum for discussion of any problems with or questions about homeschooling. Not only is Almaden Valley Christian School unique in its enrollment of special education families, but it is also rare in its offering of a high school diploma, available to California residents or those whose states allow them to qualify.

Des Moines public schools Home Instruction Program

The Des Moines (Iowa) Public School System was one of the first systems in the United States to offer a cooperative home-school partnership for homeschooling families. The program began in 1984 and now serves 320 students (Dahm, personal communication, March 20, 1998). When parents enroll their children in the Home Instruction Program, they must first make decisions about the curriculum that their child will follow, the type of teacher assistance that the parents want, the evaluation procedure, and whether the child will attend school part time in a dual enrollment program. The proposed program is submitted to the Program Director of their Area Education Agency to obtain permission to implement competent private instruction.

Within the Des Moines Public Schools, the two options available to families are unassisted and assisted instruction (see Figure 4).

Des Moines home instruction program

Unassisted instruction places the parents in total charge of their children’s education. Parents develop an educational plan, selecting the curriculum and the instructional methods appropriate to their child’s needs. A licensed teacher must conduct an end-of-year evaluation to satisfy Iowa’s legal requirements. The evaluation can be standardized testing, portfolio assessment, or informal verification of pupil academic progress (e.g., teacher interview or observation).

For families who choose assisted instruction, a range of services are offered. Each family in the assistance program is assigned a teacher who makes regularly scheduled home visits with the family. The teacher has a variety of duties: advising the parents about making lesson plans, selecting books and materials, setting goals, selecting appropriate instruction, providing formal and informal assessments of student progress, and keeping records. The district educational services available to students who attend Des Moines public schools are also available to students in the Home Instruction Program and include health services, vision and hearing screening, psychological services, occupational therapy, physical therapy, adaptive physical education, and all other special education services. Home schoolers may participate in field trips and extracurricular activities.

Other states have such partnerships, but few are as extensive as the Home Instruction Program in Des Moines. Interestingly, what seems to be a successful and generous program in Iowa is viewed as restrictive by some in the homeschooling community. HSLDA believes that the Iowa laws infringe on the rights of parents to home school children with special needs because the provisions are stricter for those families: For example, such a family must obtain prior approval from the Area Education Agency if they wish to home school. HSLDA’s informational booklet states,

Parents who wish to home school a child with special needs have the right to do so under the protection of the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the Constitution… . Parents may feel intimidated by school officials and teachers and are often led to believe that they have fewer constitutional rights to home school a special needs child than a normal child. (HSLDA, p. 7)

As more parents choose to exercise their right to educate their children with special needs at home, the options are increasing. The four options that I have described represent the more prominent ways that families with special-needs children choose. However, it is important to understand that how successful home instruction is for children with special needs is not yet known. Most available research has focused on the achievement of the general population of home schoolers and not on any student subpopulations. In one of the few exceptions, Duvall, Ward, Delquadri, and Greenwood (1997) compared the academic engagement time of home schoolers and public school children with learning disabilities. Duvall and colleagues reported that the home-schooled children had greater academic achievement than their public school counterparts, concluding that parents could provide powerful learning environments at home. As the homeschooling movement gains momentum, further investigation of its benefits and limitations for the special-needs population is critical.

In discussing home schools, Hensley (1995) pointed out three major advantages for children with special needs. First, homeschooling gives children a “safe place to learn and grow in their own way and at their own pace” provided by parents who know the needs of their children (p. 60). Second, homeschooling can provide a truly individualized educational program. Third, homeschooling provides one-on-one teaching. These opinions are based on Hensley’s experience as a consultant and as a homeschooling parent of a special-needs child, rather than on empirical evidence.

Although there is a scarcity of research devoted to homeschooling, there is an increasing amount of information that addresses the special-needs population. A search on the Internet yielded a dozen support groups or sites that provide information about educational resources for parents who home school children with special needs. The Homeschooling Zone Newsletter is an online publication by and for families who home school and frequently contains articles for families with special education needs. Home Education Press and National Home Education Research Institute both provide online resources for families as well.

Although homeschooling is increasing in popularity and legitimacy, not all homes and not all parents are able to adequately provide their children’s instructional requirements, particularly if there are challenging special education demands. For parents considering homeschooling, I offer the following guidelines:

  • Educate yourself. Conduct a thorough search of the legal requirements of home instruction in your state and school district. Find out what home school support groups, umbrella schools, and consulting services are available in your area. Read the available literature on homeschooling and on your child’s specific educational needs.
  • Contact the Home School Legal Defense Association for information about possible legal representation and for a Special Needs Consultant (HSLDA, P.O. Box 3000, Purcellville, VA 20134; (540) 338-5600).
  • Talk to others who have experience in homeschooling children with special needs. Local support groups are a good source of such information. Ask questions about both the positive and negative aspects of homeschooling.
  • Find out what services are available through your local public schools, and maintain a positive relationship with school officials. You may want to consider dual enrollment if that is available in your state.
  • If you decide to try homeschooling, get help. Use some of the options discussed in this article or other opportunities available in your area. Other parents have years of valuable experience and are willing to share advice, materials, and encouragement.

About the author

Jane Duffey is a doctoral student in the School of Education, College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, Virginia.

Preventing School Failure, Volume 43, Number 2, pp. 57-63, Winter 1999 Published by Heldref Publications, 1319 Eighteenth St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20036-1802

Back to Top