Does Your Homeschooled Child Need a Special Education Label?

In my life before becoming a mom, I was a traditional classroom teacher with a degree in special education. At various times I taught in resource classes and non diploma classes and worked with inclusion students. I also taught in a regular second grade class.

Throughout all of those years of teaching and in the thirteen years I’ve been homeschooling, I’ve considered many, many times whether or not putting a label on a child with learning differences or delays is helpful. Sometimes, a child’s needs are very obvious. Children with severe mental, emotional, or physical disabilities are definitely helped when specialists can identify what is going on with them. But labeling students with milder differences is a bit more tricky.

When I was teaching in traditional schools, there were times I thought that labeling had benefitted a student, and there were times that labeling held back a student that could have succeeded. In homeschooling, I’ve considered whether or not two of my own children needed a label that would explain their own learning difference and struggles.

Parents sometimes seek a special education label to help them make sense of their child’s learning problems. Doctors sometimes recommend a label to explain a child’s behavioral struggles. There are many reasons why kids end up with a label. Looking back over my years in traditional schools and in our homeschooling, I think there are a few things to consider before you seek a label for your homeschooled child.

Homeschool special education
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Every child has learning differences.

It’s just a fact. We all learn differently. We have different strengths and weakness. We have different learning styles. We have different intelligences. (This is a good article for explaining the theory of multiple intelligences.)

Traditional schools and teaching styles focus only a couple of learning styles and intelligences. If a child doesn’t fit in that narrow bracket, he’s often identified as lacking something, as having a problem. One of my favorite quotes of all time is this one by Albert Einstein: “Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will spend its whole life believing it is stupid.”

How many times have we labeled kids just because they don’t fit the traditional ways of learning? Homeschooling allows us to teach children in the area of their strengths, using their learning styles. Be careful that the needs of your child aren’t just learning differences and not truly a disorder that needs a label. If you need more information about adapting to learning styles, I love the book The Way They Learn by Cynthia Ulrich Tobias.

Labels affect the way kids view themselves.

Once a child has a label, that label will shape the way they think about themselves and their abilities. Sometimes labels help a child to better understand what’s going on and why they’re struggling. But sometimes a label gives a child one more thing to dislike about himself. And worse, sometimes a label gives a child an excuse for poor behavior and poor schoolwork.

If you’re considering seeking a special needs label, think about the effect that the label will have on the way your child views himself. And if you decide to find a label for your child’s needs, make sure that you spend time discussing with the child what that label means…and doesn’t mean.

A label can stick with your child…for bad or for good.

This consideration isn’t quite as important for homeschoolers as for those in traditional school, perhaps, but it’s still important. In traditional school, once a child has a label and an IEP (Individualized Education Plan), that follows the child through his school years. Homeschoolers have a little more control over who sees or doesn’t see the diagnosis and label for a child.

Sometimes having this label can be a good thing. Children can get accommodations and special programs and therapies. They can even get accommodations in some colleges.

But sometimes a label can be a negative thing as it follows a child. It can affect perceptions of the child’s abilities and cause teachers, employers, or therapists to have a preconceived idea of the child’s intelligence and abilities.

If you are considering labeling your child’s special needs, think about how that label is going to affect others’ perceptions of them later on. And if you do choose to have your child’s special needs labeled, think about who needs to have access to that information.

Labels can give kids- and parents- an excuse for negative behavior.

Unfortunately, having an official label can give kids- and parents- an excuse for negative behavior, for slacking off on school work, for refusing to work on areas in which the child is struggling. Too many times I’ve seen parents seek a special education label because they want to have a reason, an explanation for their child’s struggles. And then when they find one, they stop working on the areas of struggle and use the label as an excuse.

Please hear me. I don’t think all or even most parents with special needs kids do this. I think many of them are using their child’s label to seek help and to teach their child to adapt, to work hard and compensate for areas of weakness. But, occasionally, some parents do choose to accept a special needs label as an excuse.

If you are considering labeling your child’s special needs, know that a label doesn’t solve a problem. It only gives you tools to work with. It can’t be an excuse for behavior or academic problems. Instead it should be a way of helping kids and parents understand what they’re dealing with and how to work with the child’s areas of difficulty and struggle.

I think that these four considerations can be boiled down to one main thing to think about when you are considering labeling your child. Is the label going to help you and your child deal with areas of struggle and weakness- academically, emotionally, behaviorally? Or are you already making adaptations, teaching how to control behavior, using different curriculum and methods? If you are already making compensations and doing things differently to teach to that child’s strengths and intelligences- as many homeschoolers are doing-, then a label may not even matter.

learning differences

Our Story

I have a child who could easily be labeled ADHD. I’ve looked at the behavior assessments given to parents and teachers and can definitely say that this child would fit the majority of the characteristics on those assessments. Had this child had to go to a traditional school, I have no doubt that I would have been contacted by teachers early on and encouraged to have this child diagnosed and labeled.

I chose not to do that. I make accommodations in our homeschooling anyway. I can remove distractions. I can allow excess movement. As parents we already have a strategy for dealing with the behavior issues that arise. As a former special ed teacher who has seen ADHD kids on medication, I didn’t think this would be a good choice for this child. In this child’s case, I knew that seeking a special needs label wouldn’t change what we’re already doing.

On the other hand, we have recently decided to seek a special needs label for my oldest. She’s been socially awkward and struggled with anxiety to some degree since early childhood. She needs a strict routine and schedule and panics when we deviate from that. Up until recently, I had decided not to have a label for her either. We already made adaptations in our schooling and in our family life. And we already worked with her to help her learn to deal with different anxiety producing situations.

But, she’s a senior this year. She wants to go to college. And she’s really struggling about how that’s going to happen from a social and emotional standpoint. So we’ve sought a special needs label. We went through our local public school. We’ve come to a conclusion that she likely has high functioning Aspergers tendencies. She also has probably has a social anxiety disorder and OCD. We’re still in the process of getting “official” diagnoses.

The reason we wanted to seek a label for her is because we feel that a label will help us in talking to admissions counselors in college. A label may help her to get accommodations that will allow her to attend college more easily.

special needs and homeschooling

If you are considering seeking a diagnosis and label for a child who’s struggling, consider these things. Decide whether a label is going to truly be of help to the child. Go into the situation informed and aware of what, exactly, you’re trying to accomplish by having a label.

Does your child have a special needs label? I’d love to know your story.

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