Home Education and Children with Disabilities and Diverse Learning Needs

By Susan Wight

The research on home educating children with disabilities is very positive, showing advantages both academically and socially. An American study by Stephen Duvall is one of the most thorough to date. It concluded that home education offers more of the kind of education that children with disabilities need most and that they benefit greatly from the individualised attention that home education allows.

Reasons for home educating
In her Western Australian study, Lucy Reilly found that parents of children with specific learning needs typically begin home education for a combination of two of more reasons but that their reasons predominantly involve the negative socialisation encountered in schools. “Such parents feel individual children can easily get lost in a system set up to meet generalised needs.” All six of the families interviewed in this study referred to negative socialisation in one form or another. One mother stated that her daughter was …learning inappropriate behaviours and self-abusive behaviours within the school system. The remaining families all mentioned teasing, rejection or bullying experienced by their children in school and in each case this treatment was associated with the child’s disability. One mother commented, At times they were treated like second class citizens and on many occasions they were quite openly discriminated against. They were made to feel very different and very left out. This created significant stress as well as diverting attention away from learning (Reilly).

A child not making the academic and social progress in school that their parents believe them capable of is an additional reason for commencing home education. “Dissatisfaction with the amounts their children were learning at school was attributed to a lack of resources, a misunderstanding of their children’s capabilities and an inability to deliver education consistent with techniques used at home.” Sometimes the nature of the disability itself was poorly understood in school and inappropriate action taken (Reilly).

American research indicates that many parents of children with disability and diverse learning needs turn to home education because they believe their children were spending too much time sitting in a public school, unattended and untaught, because one-on-one instruction was simply not feasible in the public school setting (Farris).

The parents in Reilly’s study believed that schools were “incapable of providing adequate education for all children because students develop at different rates, both intellectually and physically, and are endowed with distinct learning styles, interests and abilities.” As one mother put it, more and more parents are realising the system is not satisfactory for a variety of reasons. There’s no money, the training is not there and their children are not receiving the education they hoped.

Dr Steven Duvall spent a year observing and evaluating a group of home educated students with diverse learning needs, and a comparable group of students in public schools. The home education students in his study averaged six months’ gain in reading over the year compared to half a month’s gain made by the public schooled children. The home educated students also made eight months progress in written language skills compared to a two and half month gain by the public school children. He concluded that the home educated children did as well or better in every situation as children with similar needs in a public school setting. “These results clearly indicate that parents, even though they are not certified teachers, can create instructional environments at home that assist students with learning disabilities to improve their academic skills. This study clearly shows that home schooling is beneficial for special-needs students” (Duvall, 1994).

In another study specifically on children with ADHD, Duvall found that home educated students received more than six times the one-on-one attention that school children did; were academically engaged twice as often as public school students and made more progress in reading and maths whilst equaling their public school counterparts in written tasks. The schooled students spent a lot more time listening to lecture style teaching. He also found that although both the schooled and home educated children had adequate time to work in groups, the home educated children had more opportunity to work independently. Home education allowed parents to spend “a lot more time located right beside the target students – and this enabled them to monitor the student’s work more closely, give more corrective feedback, and ensure the student’s inappropriate behaviors were kept under control” (Smith).

One-on-one teaching, flexibility and the ability to address the individual learning needs of a child were the predominant benefits expressed by all parents in Reilly’s study. The flexibility allowed families to work around appointments associated with the child’s disabilities.

I just think that doing one-on-one is so much better…it’s a lovely flexible way of doing what feels right on the day. Everyone’s an individual and good at different things and that is what you have to focus on. They are the sorts of things you can pick up and run with at home.

We don’t have to stick to school hours; we can do our learning any time. They can learn when they are interested in learning…They are also given more opportunity to ask questions and go over things they don’t understand (Reilly).

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

Home education also involves social benefits. “Reference was made by all parents to the more positive social interactions that their children with disabilities had experienced since being educated at home’’ and, “it was apparent that children with disabilities have numerous learning needs that are met through everyday experiences. The parents felt that home schooling enabled them to ensure that their children received a thorough understanding of life skills and an ability to interact with people of all ages, so that they could eventually live independently and prosper in society.” As one parent put it, I don’t think Leanne would have made any more social gains at school. She may have even gone backwards because she wouldn’t have been integrating with the mainstream…Now Leanne won’t encounter such negative socialisation and when she finishes her schooling will benefit from positive social experiences. (Reilly et al)

Another benefit identified is that children in a home education environment are not as aware that they have disabilities as those educated in school settings are. “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) individualised 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” (Ensign).

The initial step generally involved the parents determining the level of their child’s educational understanding “through prior experience, research or testing”, in order to ascertain the content that would be taught. (Reilly)

Reilly found that parents were likely to begin home educating in a similar manner to school but that, over time and as they gained in confidence, they adopted a more flexible approach with no set time table and their program was tailored to suit their child’s needs . One mother said, It took me probably just over a term to realise that it was too stressful teaching Leanne as they would at school. I needed to get out of the school mode and back off a little. It was not beneficial teaching like they would at school, with Leanne mainly writing and me doing most of the talking…It took that term for me to realise that home schooling just seems to fall into place and many teaching ideas seem to follow one another. It’s a totally different way of approaching it, but it works. (Reilly et al).

Similarly, Trevaskis found that “the learning environment becomes increasingly negotiated and the learning practice increasingly suited both to the children’s and parent’s needs.”

Parents put a significant emphasis on teaching their children life skills varying from cooking to road awareness rather than academic content. “It was apparent that the greater the severity of the child’s intellectual disability, the more prominence the parents placed on the attainment of life skills and independent living.”(Reilly)

Reilly proposed that “The majority of parents adopt a loose home schooling structure without a set timetable because flexibility is required when teaching children with disabilities due to the greater occurrence of unforeseen circumstances and the ability to teach new concepts when the student is ready.” (Reilly et al)

None of Reilly’s subject families used formal evaluation techniques to assess their children’s educational progress. “Homeschooling parents do not formally evaluate educational progress because the amount of time they devote to, and the depth of understanding they have of, their children with disabilities allows personal observations, informal questioning and witnessing the utilisation of knowledge in different contexts to suffice” (Reilly)

Plotnik suggested that the internet has allowed parents unprecedented access to resources as well as the opportunity to communicate with support groups. However, Reilly points out that computers and the internet are not within the financial reach of all home educators and that funding would greatly assist them in meeting their children’s needs.

The mothers in Reilly’s study all emphasised the support they received from their husbands as an important factor in enabling them to home educate. They also found the WA home education support group, Home Based Learning Network, invaluable and had received much needed assistance and information from them who also provided socialising opportunities for the children.

Reilly identified several difficulties. Firstly, a lack of official support was an issue for these families. “Parents who are unfamiliar with the field of education find that the absence of detailed information on homeschooling structures, teaching techniques, content and resources initially limits their capacity to manage the process.” All her families mentioned the lack of government support and guidance as a problem. A further difficulty was the various degrees of opposition to home education that families encountered from both family members and the community. Funding was also identified as a problem. One father summed up, We’ve never had any financial assistance with resources or anything like that. Sometimes meeting educational needs can be difficult to do at home as some things require a fair degree of resources and specialised equipment. If the Education Department were really committed to the education of children they ought to be giving us the same resources that they do to schools, even if that’s in the way of providing the option to out-source some things or use local schools as a resource. Reilly contends, “Therefore more accessible arrangements with schools are required, particularly in non-academic areas, so that children educated at home are not disadvantaged in terms of resources and specialised equipment.” However, in America where financial assistance is available for home educators of children with disabilities in some states, Klicka reminds parents that “A common adage, that government controls nearly always follow government money, often rings true with homeschoolers who receive public school services for their special needs children. Many times the controls are not immediately visible but they usually surface as soon as the parents begin to disagree with the public school authorities’ “recommendations” for new therapy or a different educational approach.”

Trevaskis’ thesis highlights another problem in the form of maternal distress and burnout. As a Victorian mother home educating five daughters with diverse learning needs, she felt uncertain about where to set educational goals or boundaries; often felt isolated from other parents who appeared defensive or disinterested in the daily issues of home-learning; and she had to give generously of her time and effort. She discusses the shift that parents make away from the initial school model of learning to one which fits more naturally with the family as a community of learners. “It seems likely that maternal distress is most likely to occur at this initial stage. The transition from the initial to the establishment stage could be facilitated by knowledge of home-learning theory and its different approaches, support and mentoring.” Despite the problems she encountered, she found the task tremendously rewarding with unexpected bonuses for parents as well as children.

Given the additional load placed on parents in home educating children with disabilities and diverse learning needs, it seems likely that they are more at risk of maternal distress and burnout than are parents from the general home education community and therefore have a greater need of support. Trevaskis advocates assistance frameworks to support parents and help avoid maternal distress.

Why Does It Work So Well?
All the research shows that home education offers more individual attention; which is believed to be the vital ingredient necessary for academic success in the education of children with disabilities. The key variable that Duvall identified was the student-teacher ratios which resulted in individualised instruction which is particularly beneficial for those with disabilities. He found that home education allowed for significantly greater face-to-face communication and learning opportunities – 43% compared with 6% in classrooms. His study showed that children with diverse learning needs in home education settings were given more individual attention and allowed greater participation than in classrooms. The physical arrangement of the room and layout of materials at home was also of assistance as allowances could be made for individual students at home which could/would not be made at school. Typically home educated students were “encouraged to respond, and thus become fully actively engaged in learning tasks, more often than schooled children.

Flexibility also seems to be a key issue along with individualised attention. “All the parents mentioned that the learning experiences home schooling offers had resulted in educational progress, indicating its viability for children with disabilities. There was unanimity from all the parents interviewed that the individual needs of their children were effectively met by the flexibility and specific teaching focus provided through home schooling” (Reilly)

I think it is fitting to give the last word on why home education works for children with disabilities and diverse learning needs to a parent quoted in Plotnik’s study:

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?


Duvall, Dr.S. The Impact of Home Education on Learning Disabled Children: A Look at New Research, August 1994, presented to the Home School Legal Defense Association, Purcellville, VA.Duvall, S.F., Ward, L.D., Delquadri, J.C. & Greenwood, C.R. (1997) 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, 20 pp150-172Duvall, S. (2005) The Effectiveness of Homeschooling Students with Special Needs in Cooper, B. Homeschooling in Full ReviewEnsign, J (2000). Defying the Stereotypes of Special Education: Home school students. Peabody Journal of Education, 75 (1-2), pp 147-158.

Farris, M. (1998) quoted in Reilly, L. (2004,28 November-2 December). How Western Australian Parents Manage the Home Schooling of the their Children with Disabilities.

Klicka, C., Homeschooling and Special Needs Children, HSLDA, 2006

Plotnik, N. (2004) Homschooling of Children with Special Needs. Boston, MA: Graduate paper.

Reilly, L. (2004, 28 November-2 December). How Western Australian Parents Manage the Home Schooling of the their Children with Disabilities. Paper presented at the Australian Association for Research in Education, Melbourne University.

Reilly, L., Chapman,A and O’Donoghue,T. (2002) Home schooling of children with disabilities. Queensland Journal of Educational Research, 18 (1), 38-61.

Smith, M, Freedom to Thrive

Trevaskis, R. (2005). Home Education – The Curriculum of Life. Unpublished MEd, Monash, Melbourne.


Postsript by Rosanne Trevaskis
The Place of Work Place Style Learning

Sue identifies above  the importance of the one-to-one teaching relationship, “All the research shows that home education offers more individual attention which is believed to be the vital ingredient necessary for academic success in the education of children with LD”.

However, individual attention alone, even when the teacher/parent is able to teach at or close to the Zone of Proximal Develoment (Vygotsky) is insufficient to explain the amazing synergy which exists between the learning disabled child and an educationally stimulating home education environment. Are there, therefore, other learning factors specific to the home educating household that help the LD child academically?

The previous article listed several explanations for improved uptake by the child eg less stress, less trauma, improved modelling, better engagement ratios and more available time. My own research also proposed that home education be viewed as a form of workplace learning, that is, learning “on the job”..

John Peacock, through his study of Lave and Wenger (researchers into workplace learning), has I believe, put us onto the right track by describing the home educating home as a community of learning practice. I attempted to develop his insights by suggesting that home educating families (as distinct from home classroom-schooling families) actually practice workplace learning with its associated apprentice-style learning relationships. The understanding of home education as a form of workplace learning advances our understanding of why LD children learn better via home education but also relates to the issue of maternal distress and is therefore too important to be ignored.

Workplace learning is valuable to the LD child because it is highly kinesthetic; uses individualised instruction or small groups; begins with peripheral participation and develops from there i.e. starts at the participant’s level; is contextualised and therefore useful; is meaningfully repetitive; increases the participant’s prestige within their culture/family; is not competitive and is not language based; to name a few.

While some formal “teaching” has a place in education, it is not the ONLY way to learn as I’m sure you will agree. Once home educating parents understand that children learn simply by being around more expert members of the culture mothers will be relieved of the teaching burden (which is immense in the case of LD children) and from the isolation and stress of being the sole or main “Teacher”. When fathers and other family members realise they don’t have to TEACH a child per se, but that s/he will learn simply by letting him/her “hang around ” with them while they do what they always do in life e.g. a father fixing the car, a grandfather in the workshop etc. then fathers or family members will be more inclined to include children in their daily lives and let them learn ‘on the job’.

So the pressure on Mum is relieved because others, especially Dads will have been drawn into the circle of learning expertise BUT at their own particular confidence level and in their preferred environment. Satisfaction and relationships will improve accordingly and maternal overload will be relieved.

Research has still to verify whether workplace learning can be shown to be common to all or most home education practice. From observation of many home educating families and much discussion, it appears to be well utilised by those families who are functioning well and is of particular importance in the home education of children with special needs.

Rosanne has home educated her own five daughters and completed her Masters thesis Home Education: The Curriculum is Life on home educating her own special needs children in 2005.


Barratt-Peacock, J. (1997). The Why and How of Australian home education. Dept of Education. Melbourne, Latrobe University.
Moll, L. e. (1990). Vygotsky and Education. Cambridge, UK, Cambridge University Press.