Homeschooling: Making the Decision

By Jean McAllister Brooks

Sometimes school is not educational

Our laws require that every child be given an education. But our laws do not require a child go to a school. In other words, it is education that is required by law, not school attendance. And, in fact, sometimes an education cannot be found through the local school.

No school can provide an education for every child, and your local school may not be able to educate yours. The school may not have the resources required to teach your child, given his or her abilities and disabilities. The school schedule may involve too much waiting, lining up, and waiting again. The school’s physical environment may cause your child sensory problems. The school’s social environment may cause your child anxiety, lower self-esteem, or even fear. The school may end up spending most of your child’s time and resources dealing with “behaviors” that are the result of the school environment to begin with.

If your local school cannot provide your child with the education he needs, then you have three options: You can:

  • Raise hell at your current school,
  • Send your child to another school, or
  • Educate your child at home.

Home education has costs and benefits

Homeschooling has significant costs. By home schooling, you will lose:

  • Cost of materials and curricula
  • Time (to work, earn money, parent, do housework, or rest) that you would normally have when your child is at school
  • Services provided by department of education as part of an IEP, and services provided through the Autism Waiver

Your child will lose some things too, including:

  • Relationships with the adults at school,
  • Relationships with the kids at school.

On the other hand, home schooling gives parents something that school cannot provide, namely the freedom to pick the best possible:

  • Schedule,
  • Content,
  • Instruction methods, and
  • Physical environment

With this freedom, parents who educate their children at home can provide them with tremendous benefits, including:

  • Time in the day that would have been spent in travel and waiting
  • One to one teaching
  • Teaching methods that are adapted to his or her needs
  • Content that matches the priorities of the family
  • Content that is meaningful and interesting to the child
  • An emotional environment that is unstintingly warm and supportive
  • A physical environment that is suited to his or her sensory needs or sensitivities
  • A schedule that is flexible and can accommodate therapies and other non-academic needs

State Law matters

The department of education for each state supervises parents who educate their kids at home. However, the kind and amount of supervision, and the restraints applied to home educators, differs enormously between states. Some states are very controlling, requiring parents to be certified as teachers, to use only approved curriculum and to provide the state with proof of child achievement. The states most involved in home education (according to Home School Legal Defense Association’s website January 2010) include North Dakota, Vermont, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts. At the other end of the spectrum are states that require virtually nothing from parents who educate at home. These more libertarian states include Idaho, Oklahoma, Texas, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Connecticut, and New Jersey. The rest of the states sit in between these extremes. Some merely require, for example, that parents notify the state of their intention to home school, and sometimes also provide assessment results or professional evaluations.

Home education is not for everyone

Here are some of the questions a parent must ask him or herself when considering educating at home:

1. Can you financially afford to have an adult stay home and teach your child? If no, then shelve this decision until next year. If yes, then move onto question two.

2. Can you afford to give up whatever services your child receives through the department of education? If you cannot afford to lose the services provided by the department of education, will your school district provide them to your child if he is educated at home? (Occasionally, school districts do provide associated services even to home educated children.) If the answer to both questions is no, then shelve the homeschooling decision until next year and in the meantime look at alternative sources of services that you can afford. If yes, then move to the next question.

3. Can your child be safely left alone while you do the dishes, change a baby diaper, or relax? If no, do you have a friend, family member, or baby sitter cash stash with which you can buy these breaks? In no, then shelve the decision until next year, and in the meantime try to put together a little back up team. If yes, then move onto the next question.

4. Can you replace the good relationships with classmates your child will lose with neighbors, playgroups or other groups or institutions? If no, then wait and think a year. If yes, then go on to the next question.

5. Can you handle the home school requirements of your state? Check out your state’s requirements at the web site of the Home School Legal Defense Organization ( and then go to the web site of our state’s department of education. If you feel that the requirements are too onerous for you, then shelve the plan till next year while you take some time to talk to other homeschoolers in your state. If you feel ok about the state requirements then go on to the next question.

6. Do you know what you want your child to learn and, if not, are you willing and able to take some time to think about it? If you want to think very little about it, you can use one of many prepackaged curricula out there, and even buy one with materials included. Or, you can make a list of your therapeutic objectives and the standard curricular objectives on your state’s department of education web site. Add anything else that you think has been missing and, finally, pick your top priorities for this year. If this process seems too difficult right now, then put homeschooling aside for another year. If not, then you maybe a home educator in the making.

There are many good courses of study

The course of study you create for your child will depend only on your answers to these questions:

1. What are the limitations set by our state department of education?

2. What are my child’s abilities and interests?

3. What are my priorities for my child’s education for this year?

Home educators of kids with ASDs sometimes choose to do a program that is almost entirely therapeutic. Others hew closely to a traditional academic curriculum. And then the rest of us do our own unique combination of both.

Putting together your child’s academic course of study can be done in a variety of ways that are analogous to ordering food at a restaurant. Some people like to order the prix fix dinner special where each course is already decided based on the chef’s knowledge of ingredients and their preparation. Other people like to go out to places where they can pick each element of their meal carefully, ordering “off the menu” when necessary. You might be right in the middle: happy to take the meal that is suggested on the menu, but asking if the chef could go light on the cayenne pepper.

Option One: Buy a comprehensive curriculum in a box.

It is possible and easy to buy a comprehensive (aka wide ranging) curriculum in a box that comes with absolutely everything you need to educate a child, including:
· An entire year’s scope and sequence to follow
· Daily lesson plans for an entire year of a single grade
· All needed materials

The benefits to this method include:
· Speed and ease: A parent can open the box on day one and start teaching
· No hidden costs: Everything you need is included and you could get away with spending not another cent
· Backup (in most cases) from educators at the company

The costs to buying curriculum in a box include:
· Price of packages
· Time spent adapting the sequence and modifying the material: These are typical curricula written for typical kids, not kids with autism.

Option Two: Buy separate “boxes” for each subject you want to address

Many companies sell a scope and sequence as well as materials for single subject areas.

The option allows parents more freedom that the comprehensive curriculum to carefully tailor their programs with:
· The subjects they value most for this year (for any reason including a child’s individual interests)
· The appropriate levels and approaches to each subject (since our kids have a wide or atypical spread of skills)

This option may require more effort in that parents have to:
· Hunt a bit for their curricula and materials
· Make their own daily and weekly schedules of what to do when

Option Three: Use general curriculum guidelines and then only buy materials.

There are many, many different scope and sequence plans you can use for your child. Most state departments of education have one available on line. Unless you live in a state that limits home educators to a particular scope and sequence, you are free to shop around!

The benefits of this system:
· Lowest cost if you get your scope and sequence from a free source, or make up your own, and use materials that are free or inexpensive
· Most freedom to work with your child’s natural inclinations or interests, if you would like to use these as a guide

Costs of this system include:
· The time it takes to make up your own lesson plans
· The money you spend on materials (If you try to recreate one of the curricula in a box on your own you will spend a fortune)

Option Four: Don’t use a curriculum at all.

Plenty of people believe that children are best educated when they educate themselves, by choosing their own subjects, activities, and paths. There are “schools” that are built around this principle (sometimes referred to as “radical democratic schooling” and often referred to by the name “Sudbury” which refers to the oldest extant school of this type), where in the adults act only as facilitators and aides to the children’s plans. Children educated at home by this method, so to speak, are sometimes referred to as “unschoolers.”

For plenty of children with autism, the freedom to choose would actually not lead to any education at all. For others, the freedom to pursue their interests fully could lead to great educational achievement. It is easy to imagine other kids with ASD who would benefit from highly structured curricular plans and teaching in areas of weakness, but still benefit from being able to pursue some strengths and passions without interruption. Many schools of therapeutic thought, of course, recommend harnessing the deepest interests and focus of children with autism to create common ground where interactions can be built, relationships developed, and higher cognitive processes practiced.

You can change year by year

Let me give you my example. Our family has been working with option three above for three years in a row. I have downloaded every curriculum from every state I can find online, and then made my own list of what I want to do. (Anything abstract – including almost everything in the “social studies” headings – was out. Everything that involved investigations of the physical environment was in. Language arts was assigned to our SLP to handle. The ABA therapist covered “number sense”.) I had a lot of fun making and buying materials. I spent too much money on this, however, and have learned to be more disciplined about what I do and buy.

But I am often jealous of the curriculum in the box that my friend is using with her son. Now that my son is getting a little more receptive language (which my friend’s son already had), I am thinking we might be able to use a more typical curricula, at least for some things. I might, just might, splurge on a box for one subject next year, and probably end up saving some money as well as time. We will have to see how many sight words my babe picks up between now and August!

Your home school is unique

The important thing to know and accept and feel in your heart is that no one else’s home education plan is going to be exactly right for your child and your family. It can’t be, because:
· Every family varies by priorities. Some families want to stress academics early and others want to concentrate on communication and remediation of social deficits.
· Every parent varies by abilities, inclinations, and limitations (including time and other obligations and energy level).

Your home school will be a one of a kind.

Experimentation is both necessary and good

You will have to experiment to find the right home education for your unique situation. The question of what is the best method of providing a child with an education is a contentious and contested one, even in the world of typical learners. For children with autism, for whom education overlaps with disability and treatment, the questions are even bigger and even more contested. The answer to these questions also must depend quite a bit on the unique child at the center. So there is no best answer. Do your own research and then draw your own conclusions: only you can know where this ship needs to go and how it is going to get there.

Read the Frequently Asked Questions about Home Instruction from The Maryland State Department of Education

For homeschooling resources, visit our online database and choose Provider Type > Miscellaneous Services and Products and select the Category > Homeschooling Resources. Do not enter a zip code and mileage range for this option as many of the homeschooling resources are online and not searchable by zip code.

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