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Curricula Vitae

Plotnick, Neil. 2004. Homeschooling of Children with Special Needs. Boston, MA: Graduate Paper. 

Neil Plotnick May 2004




This study examines the pedagogical strategies of homeschool educators that instruct children with special needs. While Special Education services in public schools must be available under numerous Federal and State laws, many families with special need children believe that homeschooling provides the best educational outcomes. Research on homeschooled students’ shows that their achievement typically equals and often surpasses those in traditional schools. Without specialized training, homeschool instructors have been shown to develop teaching strategies that are extremely effective. Utilizing a survey of Internet hosted parent support groups, six homeschool instructors pedagogic approaches are analyzed.



For over 100 years, compulsory, public education has been available for every child in America. Despite the availability of educational choices that also include private and parochial schools, some families choose to take responsibility for the education of their children themselves. While many researchers have studied the efficacy of this type of education for typically developing children, a percentage of those being homeschooled include children with special needs.

Parents of children with special needs face challenges beyond what a typically developing child would manifest. Learning disabilities make the acquisition of literacy and numeracy skills required for work or higher education a challenge. This literature review will examine the current state of homeschooling with emphasis on the capability of this educational choice to serve children with special needs. Duvall and Ward (1997) assert that "there is little of no data related to home school instructional environments, or the effects that they have on special needs students."

Following the description on the size and demographic makeup of homeschool environments, this paper will detail research that demonstrates the uniformly favorable achievement of most students that are educated in this manner. The few studies that examine achievement of special need homeschoolers are also included.

Research strongly suggests that families that homeschool children with special needs equal or surpass the academic achievement of peers educated in traditional settings. The final portion of this review examines the environment and teaching methods that result in these attainments. A description of effective pedagogy demonstrated by homeschool teachers can perhaps illustrate methodologies that special needs teachers in traditional settings can adopt for their own classrooms. Teacher researchers should examine education in a broad variety of settings:

Researchers need to look closely at student outcomes in nontraditional settings to expand understandings of academic and social skills development. By teaching outside the norms of teacher preparation and pedagogy, homeschoolers are offering researchers many opportunities to observe this educational alternative's effects on students (Ensign 2000).

Literature Review

Homeschooling in America

While the majority of all children are educated in some form of traditional school, homeschooling is an option that has been embraced by a growing number of people. Homeschool advocates do not consider this approach a new phenomenon. Rather, they interpret their efforts as a return to how education traditionally was delivered (Marshall & Valle, 1996). It is important to recognize that compulsory, public education is a relatively recent innovation:

Prior to the great American experiment of educating all young people in publicly funded schools, most families bore primary responsibility for the education of their children. Support for these efforts in the form of reinforcement, refinement, and reorientation could be counted on from the community, extended family, and the church. Beginning with Massachusetts in 1852 and ending with Mississippi in 1918, the United States became a land of compulsory schooling laws (Marshall & Valle, 1996).

Estimates of the number of children in homeschool settings vary depending on the source utilized. The National Home Education Research Institute determined that about 1.15 million students were homeschooled during the 1996-1997 school year. The National Center for Education Statistics calculates in a 2002 study that, "approximately 850,000 students were being homeschooled during the spring of 1999." Researchers agree that of all school aged children (those between the ages of 5 to 17), homeschoolers account for 1.7 percent of students nationwide. (Bielick, Chandler, Broughman, 2002).

Duvall and Ward (1997) estimate that at least 30,000 children with learning disabilities are educated at home. They base their assumption on typical school populations, which generally have 5 to 10 percent with special needs. If the total number of homeschooled students is approximately one million currently, then the number with special needs is likely higher than their estimate. Bauman (2002) however "refute(s) some of the grander claims that have been made by advocates. The number of home school children was well under 1 million in 1999, and the growth rate from 1996 to 1999 was unlikely to have exceeded 15 percent per year." Some view charter schools as a viable alternative to more traditional schools, but it is important to note that "homeschooling involves a larger population than charter schools" (Bauman 2002).

Reasons for Homeschooling

Those that state religious or moral reasons for their decision have traditionally dominated reasons for homeschooling in the United States. The Galloway study examined students at Bob Jones University, an institution that espouses fundamentalist Christian beliefs. While nearly a third in a 1999 survey stated that religious or moral beliefs obliged their choice for the homeschool environment, broader ranges of people are now embracing this educational approach. Approximately 9 percent of respondents to a nationwide survey replied that the special needs of the child were the major reason they decided to homeschool (Bielick, Chandler, Broughman, 2002).

Labeling of a child as having special needs often leads to stigmas, peer ridicule or lowered expectations by teachers. Children with special needs in the homeschool environment are typically not as aware that they have disabilities as those typically educated in traditional school settings do. Families do not normally label their children and this can be beneficial to their self-esteem (Ensign 2000).

Overall Achievement of Homeschooled Students

One measure of the effectiveness of any school environment, is its ability to prepare children for further education. In a paper presented in 1995, Rhonda Galloway found that "homeschooled students…demonstrate similar academic achievement in college as students who had attended conventional schools." Compared to the conventional and private schooled students in the study, "The only significant difference among the groups of students was found in the ACT English subtest scores, with the home schooled students scoring significantly higher that the conventional private school graduates."

The ability to meet or surpass achievement levels of traditionally schooled students is not isolated to college bound individuals. "Almost without exception, home schooled students in both elementary and secondary levels perform as well as, if not better than, their conventionally educated counterparts in both statewide and national comparisons" (Galloway 1995).

Wichers (2001) found that "homeschooled students achieved similar, if not better success academically, than their traditional public or private school counterparts." Ray (2002) concurs, "Multiple studies confirm that homeschooled students score, on average, 15-30 percentile points above their peers in public schools on standardized academic achievement tests."

Achievement of Homeschooled Special Needs Students

While the research cited earlier explored the global population of all homeschooled students, there are few studies that have specifically examined children with special needs. Duvall and Ward (1997) found that special needs students’ that were homeschooled exceeded the gains in reading, spelling and math of their peers educated in traditional, special education settings.

Compared to their peers in traditional schools, Duvall and Ward assert, "Home school students with learning disabilities generally made more progress than similarly handicapped public school students who received special services." "The influx of supplemental teaching materials, subject area kits, video cassettes, internet sites, and educational television programs, has increased the propensity of educational achievement for students who have been homeschooled" (Wichers 2001).

Instructional Methods in Homeschools


Homeschool teachers draw from a variety of resources to support instruction. Certainly the Internet has provided a myriad of ways for all teachers to access information. Websites, books, magazines geared for the homeschooler, and formal and informal contact with other homeschoolers are typically consulted. In Ensign (2000), none of the study participants, unlike conventional teachers, "use traditional forms of inservice training, workshops, or courses."

"Informal observations indicated that home school and public school teachers typically used the same expository teaching format to introduce new concepts or topics in which explanations were supported by modeled demonstrations" Duvall & Lawrence (1997). However, customization of instruction, of differentiated instruction, is perhaps the most compelling reason that homeschool education is so successful. Ray (2002) posits that:

The informal environment of homeschooling affords natural opportunities for teaching and learning to become more personal, thoughtful, and individualized. When children are at home and not in large groups, time management is more flexible, and parents, who know their children intimately, can respond to their children’s individual talents and needs. They can receive one-on-one teaching, guidance, and encouragement from their parents; they are free to go at their own pace in every subject; and they can regularly take advantage of resources outside the confines of a school’s walls.

Duvall and Lawrence (2002) suggest that "increasing academic engaged time (AET) is associated with increases in academic achievement gains when students with learning disabilities are involved." Their research reveals that students in homeschools enjoyed AET rates that were 2.6 times higher than traditionally schooled children. Further, they found that "parents competently used teaching behaviors that were very much like those displayed by public school personnel who worked in the special education program." Ensign (2000) asserts that instructional methods are favorable for several reasons:

Students with learning disabilities…have not been taught with the same assumptions and techniques used by special educators. The hallmarks of the educational philosophies and pedagogies of the home schoolers in this study are; (a) focus on the whole child rather than on the child’s disability, (b) individualized attention, and (c) care, patience, and respect for the child to lead the teacher in both the timing and the content of what the child is ready to be taught.

Critique of Traditional Special Education


Parents that choose to homeschool are motivated not just by the belief that they can provide adequate instruction, but that traditional schools are often not capable of educating their children. "High stakes testing especially, has come under strong attack from home schooling groups" (Bauman 2002). The research of Ensign (2000) provides an illuminating contrast between those working in traditional schools and those providing homeschool instruction:

When asked about their philosophy toward the learning disability of their student, parents responded noticeably differently than I have heard from teachers in traditional schools. I find that the textbook descriptions of educating special education students are often at odds with what I have observed in many home school settings.

Parents may not shun public school offerings altogether. "Public schools or school districts sometimes offer support for homeschoolers by providing parents with curriculum, books and materials, places to meet, and the opportunity for homeschooled children to attend classes and participate in extracurricular activities at the school." (Bielick, Chandler, Broughman 2002)


The Internet’s ability to foster communication with email and websites has allowed parents of children with special needs to form a variety of support groups. Primarily using email, these groups permit parents to regularly communicate with others to discuss all types of issues concerning their children.

Some support groups are dedicated to a particular disability or disease. Other groups are organized around specific institutions and typically draw their membership from a similar geographic area. Subjects for this study were recruited from both types of parent groups. I am personally a member of both groups used in this study.

Parent Support Groups

The Childrens Hemiplegia and Stroke Association (CHASA) was founded in 1999 by Nancy Atwood, whose 10 year old daughter suffered from a stroke just around birth. Strokes often result in hemiplegia, a weakness or paralysis on one side of the body. In addition to physical disabilities, children with hemiplegia frequently require a broad range of support services from the education system. Depending on the area and extent of the injury, strokes can cause mental retardation, visual field cuts (loss of vision in particular zones), seizures, deficits in fine and gross motor skills and other learning disabilities. There are approximately 1000 members of CHASA worldwide. Headquartered in Arlington Texas, their Internet site is http://www.chasa.org. Massachusetts General Hospital for Children is one of the largest and prestigious medical institutions in the world. Under the direction of Clinical Nurse Specialist Mary-Lou Kelleher and Chief of Pediatric Medicine Dr. David Ezekowitz, they recruited parents starting in 1996 to form a Parent Advisory Council (PAC). The PAC meets every two months and provides a voice for parents in the delivery of health care and related services to children. Rather than catering to any particular disease, the PAC appeals to broad range of medical issues confronted by children. Families with children affected with cancer, AIDS, organ transplants, genetic disorders, congenital defects and other issues are represented in their membership. Affiliated with the Harvard Medical College, their Internet site is located at: http://www.massgeneral.org/depts/mghfc/mghfc_home.htm

Listserver Message Delivery

Both CHASA the PAC maintain listservers to cultivate communication among their members. Listservers are dedicated email systems that maintain rosters of members and their respective email addresses. Listservers help establish an Internet based community of people that share similar interests, by automating and simplifying the way that messages are processed among listserve members. People interested in joining a listserver group usually submit an application to an administrator that takes responsibility for adding and maintaining email address.

Whenever one member wants to contact every other member on the list, they simply send a single email directly to the listserver. The listserver then forwards the message to every email address in its database. Without a listserver, each member of the group would have to maintain their own email address book entries for everyone else on their computers. Another compelling reason to use a listserver is its ability to concatenate multiple daily email messages into a single digest. For a large group like CHASA, the average digest contains approximately 30 different emails a day. Reading a single digest is much more efficient than dealing with dozens of different emails daily.

My initial survey was sent via both listservers on two separate dates. Some listserve members do not read their email every day, or may have simply overlooked my message amongst all the others that they received. In an effort to capture more respondents, I wanted to be certain that I made multiple attempts to prompt parents to return my survey. Since I also wanted to insure the privacy of their responses, I requested that they send them directly to me and bypass the listserver. Using the accepted vernacular of all listservers, I simply asked them to respond to me "off list".

Initial Survey

This research project attempts to determine which teaching methods parents choose to use when homeschooling their children with special needs. It also seeks to determine why families have rejected traditional schools and if they use any entitlements, such as physical, occupational or speech therapists. The initial survey asked general questions about the children and several open-ended questions to allow parents to talk about their teaching strategies. The full text of the email delivered by the listserver used for this study can be found in the appendix. On Wednesday March 10, 2004, and again on Wednesday March 17, the first survey was sent with the following six questions:

    1. Age/ Gender of child?
    2. Years being homeschooled?
    3. Was the child ever in a regular school?
    4. If yes, what reasons did you have for leaving?

    5. What types of instruction do you use with your child that is
    6. special?

    7. What makes you a good teacher?
    8. Please share any other information that you think is important.



Everyone that responded to the initial survey offered to answer more questions if I had any. While some of the parents gave elaborate responses, others provided only tersely written emails. Overall, a total of six homeschool instructors responded to the survey. Five were members of CHASA and one respondent came from the PAC.

Second Survey

After examining the results to my initial survey, I felt that the quality of my information would be enhanced if I asked some additional questions. Since I am examining the homeschool environment with an interest in what makes them successful, I endeavored to capture more details about how their homeschool environment is crafted and to paint a more complete picture of the pedagogy in use. As a follow-up to the initial response, I individually emailed each respondent survey with four open-ended questions.

    1. Do you have a set schedule for lessons?
    2. Is there a dedicated area used as a classroom?
    3. What measurements do you use to track your child’s progress?
    4. Do you work with any homeschooling groups or use materials designed specifically for homeschooling?

As with the initial survey, parents that gave long and detailed responses the first time followed up with equally lengthy explanations for all my questions. Perhaps not surprisingly, those that had brief answers the first time again replied with shorter emails. However, all of the responses contained many salient points in words of the parents that were willing to share an intimate portrait of how they dedicate themselves to the academic and social success of their children.

Compiling the Data

The collection of the data was all done using a Hewlett Packard iPaq Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) Windows Computer. The iPaq weighs only three ounces and has the capability of accessing the Internet, managing email and reading Adobe Acrobat Portable Document Format (PDF) files. It was an ideal platform to manage this entire project.

The PDA has ample resources to store all of the references cited in the literature review. Since email files are delivered in standard text format, it is not necessary to transcribe any interviews to make them immediately useable. In addition, one can use the computers search capabilities to find specific text passages or key words in the emails. This feature makes it easier to code the data for analysis.


Research suggests that academic achievement for homeschooled children is secured through several instructional factors. The surveys were examined for evidence of several factors. First, I looked for evidence that instruction was being individually geared precisely for unique needs of the child. These were coded IA for individual attention.

Time management and instructional pacing appear to be another contributing factor in academic success. Homeschool instructors that mentioned these strategies were coded TM. Few parents noted that they used any public school resources. Instances were they mentioned this reliance were coded PS. Finally, some families consider traditional schools as being unsuitable for their children. Criticism of public school environments were coded CR. Examples of the coding method using a sampling of the respondent data is shown in the appendix. All names used are pseudonyms.

Raw Data Matrix:

Code Description


Instances Mentioned

Individualized attention to unique needs of child.



Time management geared to child learning style



Reliance on public school resources



Criticism of public school education



As suggested in the chart above, the data on homeschool instructors reported that individualized instruction, the tailoring of pedagogy to fit the unique needs of their child, as the most frequently noted comment in their surveys. Time management, the pacing of instruction to reflect student interest or physical condition, was mentioned less than twice as frequently.

Some parents did utilize some public school services. For example, one parent has a child that is completely non-verbal. "My daughter has a sign language tutor that comes to the house 4 hours a week." She added, "(the school) has been helpful with sharing their curriculum guides and any materials." However, criticism of public schools was mentioned more than twice as frequently than reliance on school services by the respondents.


All of the homeschool instructors made multiple, powerful statements that highlight their dedication to the educational success of their children. The poignancy of their very personal stories speaks directly to the ideal strategy of the homeschool parent, instruction that is geared directly to the unique needs of the child and flexible to meet the time constraints imposed by the child’s health or disposition. Here are selections of parent writings that illustrate what drives their pedagogy:

"I am invested in my child's success, academically, emotionally, and socially. I know her strengths and weaknesses and can help her pace herself. I follow her interests and expand lessons based on them. Everything I do is custom fitted for her and around her needs. Who else would be so involved?" Parent K

I understand her learning style … We are also able to pace things better for her if she is having a bad week physically." Parent K

I am able to see which ways my son learns best and where he has issues. E.g. he has trouble recalling names of numbers however he is an excellent counter - I am able to teach him using methods that he has success with so as to avoid frustration - resulting in an easier learning environment. I am able to tailor my teaching methods to suit him and him alone. Parent C

We started homeschooling because she wasn't challenged by the public school. They do not know what to do with a child who has special needs and is also bright. I definitely see now that she has attention problems and probably would have hated school by now if she'd stayed. I never expected to homeschool, but it is the best thing for her. I often worry about our retirement years without my income, but I don't see that I have a choice. Parent A


If (Sue) had remained in public school, I believe that her self-esteem would have crumbled. She was not making friends, in spite of us inviting tons of them over after school. Physical ability is so important in the elementary years and she just couldn't hang with them on the playground. Parent A

The parents consistently mentioned the need to be aware of the child’s interests, learning style, alertness and other factors as the key factors in delivering instruction. Their ability to utilize their time freely was also important. Not only does this permit them to pace lessons to satisfy the interest level of the child, it allows parents to take advantage of field trips and other non-traditional learning opportunities.

While some reliance on public entitlements was mentioned, criticism of the public schools was a much more frequent remark. One parent wrote, "they want to avoid labeling" that the schools assign to children with differing abilities. A typical expression of the disdain for public schools was this comment from a parent, "The school's attitude is to ‘wait and see’ but as you know, waiting and seeing can dig a pretty big hole for a kid with brain damage."


The research I have conducted in association with this study and the literature review attempts to illustrate the personal viewpoints and experiences of instructors of special needs children. The attitudes, pedagogy and environment that homeschool educators use with their students with special needs can provide a rich learning opportunity for prospective special educators such as myself. As Ray (2002) states:

Schoolteachers, administrators, and researchers should also study homebased education and talk with homeschoolers. Professional educators can rediscover simple practices that optimize customization and students’ learning success.

It would be helpful for future studies to look more deeply at the practices in the homeschool environment. Economic, social and racial implications should also be explored. The use of the Internet to connect parents with others that share responsibility for children with similar needs has been a potent tool for the respondents to my survey. My experience has shown them to be an indispensable part of my parenting efforts for my son and my ability to teach diverse learners.




























Bauman, K. J. (2002, May 16). Home schooling in the United States: Trends and Characteristics. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 10(26). Retrieved March 24, 2004 from http://epaa.asu.edu/epaa/v10n26.html

Bielick, S., Chandler, K. and Broughman, S. P. (2002) Homeschooling in the United States: 1999 National Center for Education Statistics http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2002/quarterly/fall/q3-2.asp

Duvall, Steven F. & Ward, D. Lawrence (1997 May) An Exploratory Study of Home School Instructional Environments and their Effects on the Basic Skills of Students with Learning Disabilities Education and Treatment of Children Vol. 20 Issue 2

Ensign, Jacque (2000) Defying the Stereotypes of Special Education: Home School Students Peabody Journal of Education 75(1&2), 147-158

Galloway, Rhonda A. (1995 April) Home Schooled Adults: Are They Ready for College? Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association, April 18-22, 1995 San Francisco


Marshall, J. Dan, Valle, James P. (1996 August) Public School Reform: Potential Lessons from the Truly Departed Education Policy Analysis Archives Volume 4 Number 12 Retrieved April 6, 2004 from http://epaa.asu.edu/epaa/v4n12.html

Ray, Brian D. (2002) Customization through Homeschooling Educational Leadership Vol. 59 Issue 7

Wichers, Michelle (2001 Fall ) Homeschooling: Adventitious or Detrimental for Proficiency in Higher Education Education Vol. 122 No. 1

















Survey Instrument

From: Neil Plotnick <hemi@NEILPLOTNICK.COM>

Subject: Homeschool Research Study

Many of you know that I am working on my Master of Education in Secondary Special Education at UMass-Boston. Part of my program requires independent research. I have chosen to examine Homeschooling and Special Needs Education. There is not a lot written about this subject. I know that many families on the CHASA board have had wonderful success. Several studies have shown that Homeschooled children do at least as well as regular school students. In fact, Homeschooling seems to result in better academic performance. Children get the benefit of direct attention and the unique approaches that their instructors use. I think there is a lot, teachers could learn from successful homeschoolers.

If you wish to participate, please send me an email to NP@NeilPlotnick.com I will use pseudonyms to keep identities private. I'll be happy to share my report with all that are interested.

The questions:

Age of child/gender

Years being homeschooled

Was the child ever in a regular school?

What reasons did you have to leave the school?

What types of instruction do you use with your child that is special? What makes you a good teacher?

Please share any other information that you think is important.

Thanks for your help.










Coding Method



Code Assignment

I don't have a set schedule.


He was never in regular school, I knew he would be labeled ADHD


I follow the benchmarks and frameworks set up by the state and I try to complete the curriculum set up by the school system by the end of the year.


I am a good teacher for my children because I know their needs and can meet them


My daughter works best in longer chunks of time so when we are working on math we do all math and then we will do all science the next day.


The matrix contains a sampling of direct quotes from my survey in the left column. The coding assigned to each comment is in the right side column.

Plotnick, Neil. 1999. The IT Professionals Guide to Managing Systems, Vendors and End Users. Berkeley, CA: Osborne/McGraw Hill.

CLastName, FirstInitial. Year. Title of publication. City, State: Publisher.

Revised: May 22, 2004 .


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