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Special Needs Children: Better Off at Home? By Michele Wolf

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Parents at the Helm, I’m happy to introduce to you our newest guest commentator, Michele Wolf. Michele is the creator of Intellego Unit Studies, a collection of wonderful resources enjoyed by many homeschooling families! She is also Mom to a special needs child, and today she shares with you her thoughts on public education’s response to special needs, and why she brought her little boy home to learn. Please help me warmly welcome Michele aboard!

Special Needs Children: Better Off at Home? By Michele Wolf


Michele Wolf

This is an area that is near and dear to my heart. Years before becoming a mother, I was an attorney working in education policy, alternative education, and special education. What I saw from the policy side of education was that although many well-intentioned adults wanted to improve education for all children, including those with special needs, the barrier to change was the system itself. Public education, as an institution, is often not well equipped to offer individualized education. It simply isn’t part of what the institution is about.

As fate would have it, my oldest son, adopted from Ukraine at age 33 months, has special needs. I remember thinking, “OK, I’ll advocate and fight and get him what he needs. After all, I’m a lawyer, I know the system, and heck, I even know the players!”

Boy, was I wrong. The law presumptively favors school districts. That’s the way IDEA was written. In far too many schools across the nation, there is a “wait and see” approach in those early grades. It’s an interesting dynamic: On one hand, we push literacy in kindergarten so that all children are reading when they enter first grade. Yet for kids who still cannot recognize letters in second grade because of learning disabilities, we are told, “Wait and see. Maybe he’ll get it this year.”

The road was indeed bumpy and oftentimes sad, as I watched my spunky, spirited boy turn into an angry, deflated shell of his former self. I decided that time was of the essence, as a “wait and see” approach seemed to be based more on the convenience of adults and school district budgets than the needs of my child.

Homeschooling restored his spirit. The smiles returned. He learned to value his strengths. And although once told by a school official he’d never learn to read so why bother, he learned to read “his way.” Often, that meant hanging upside down off the couch. I will admit, it is not always easy, but as his parents, we absolutely have his best interests in mind. We can build an educational environment in which he CAN be successful. We can teach him the skills he will need to navigate society as an adult, without the bullying, harassment, and negative self-esteem which came packaged with public school and special education.

It still leaves me wondering this: if special education were ever fully funded (and not at the dismal 17% offered by the federal government), would it make a difference for children like my son? What would that education look like in a public school? Would we ever see a public school that allows him to dig holes in the dirt and ride his bike BEFORE sitting down to write a paragraph? Would we ever see a public school that actually reminded him to chew gum, as it helps him focus? Would we ever see a public school that looked closely at his learning styles in every subject and then created lessons tailored to his unique interests and needs?

It seems to me that regardless of how special education changes in the future, education is still an institution. And so I wonder, can an institution ever meet the needs of children in the way a family can? Comparing apples and oranges comes to mind.

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2 Responses to “Special Needs Children: Better Off at Home? By Michele Wolf”

  1. Miriam says:

    Just wanted to chime in that I have two ASD boys and they unschool at home with me. They are flourishing unbelievably, being not only allowed, but encouraged to follow their passions, and fully supported in their efforts. It took 2 years to get my older soon to stop thinking of himself as "stupid" which is what he gleaned from being forced into a public school program. Even his psychologist supports his being at home. We have loads of laughter and fun and pleasure at home as we pursue and discuss passions. In the process both read beautifully (no effort on my part), and my older is now typing as fast as I do and he's 11. His sense of 3-dimensional thinking is remarkable and he's learned how to strategize in very complex situations. He's also one of most inventive story-tellers I've ever known, and has an endlessly ongoing imagination. Some of these are "schooly" examples of what people think of as "education." But there is so much more to it than that — my 8 year old knows how to take apart his electronic trains, make them run backwards, can build a train set as complex as any full-scale engineering job I've ever seen, makes movies and his own stories, designs sets for them, and successfully uploads his videos to youtube and is actually making an income with them. I could go on and on, but I think the point is made.

    I could not agree with you more.

  2. Thank you so much for sharing your experience, Miriam. I love hearing such stories confirming that homeschooling can be such a healthy alternative for so many children.

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