Homeschooling a Sensory Child: What You Need to Know
Most people think the school environment is the best place for a child. But what if it isn’t? What if your child isn’t thriving? What if you have different priorities in life to the school? What if you see a big difference in behaviour at school and home? What about if it feels that you get your ‘child back’ during the holidays only to ‘lose them’ again when they return to school? Is there another way?
Your sensory toddler has grown into a sensory child, which means the time has come for you to explore their educational needs. You’re not sure if a bustling nursery or preschool is the right fit, especially if your child reacts to loud sounds and bright lights. You may be thinking of homeschooling them, but is that the best choice?
There are so many reasons to consider the homeschool life, and many scenarios to consider. From the freedom to work at your own pace, to educating in a Christian environment, many people are choosing to home school in order to provide the best life for their children. The duty to ensure the best has been granted to us as parents from the Creator Himself: “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.”(Proverbs 22:6)
Homeschooling a sensory child can be beneficial in controlling and avoiding stimuli that trigger sensory symptoms. You do want to make sure that you work to your child’s level, go at their pace, provide the sensory environment that suits their sensory needs and work on their character to bring out the very best in who they are and were made to be.
In this guide, we’ll tell you what you need to consider as you decide whether to homeschool your sensory child or place them in school.
How Does Home Education Work?
According to FutureSchool.com, more than 2.2 million school-aged children are homeschooled in America and is growing over the British Isles and many other countries.
What’s homeschooling like? You provide your children with the education they need to excel and eventually graduate (if that's what's best), to College and University education levels.
Depending on where in the world you live, your state or government may require you to pass along standardised test results or a portfolio of a child’s educational background before they’re approved for homeschooling.
If you live somewhere where no such documents are required for homeschooling, then you can get started whenever you’re ready. Parents don’t need a teaching degree or certification to begin homeschooling their children, as the child is really the best lead to discover what makes them motivated, inspired and keen to learn.
You can buy materials that can act as a homeschooling curriculum or create your own lesson plans that suit your sensory child best. You can also do a combination of curriculum lessons and your own.
Most of your child’s homeschooling schedule is at your discretion. If you want to do a Monday to Friday schedule, you can. If it’s better to take days off in the middle of the week and educate your child through the weekend, that’s your choice as well. In reality, all of life is education so some prefer to use the split to refer to “academics” and non-academic learning. Some say home education rather than home schooling, but we will use the term interchangeably for this article.
Remote Learning Recommendations through the Illinois State Board of Education as published in a SheKnows article suggest the following schedule for homeschooled children. This is much more the 'school at home' model rather than 'home education' - the latter being much more flexible:
Keep in mind those recommendations are not for children with a sensory issue, who may not be able to handle this academic sit down focus per day.
You may notice that focusing an hour or two on lessons each day is not nearly as long as your child would spend in school. They’d be gone for six or seven hours, so aren’t you putting your child at a disadvantage by reducing homeschooling time to such a degree?
Not at all. According to the SheKnows article, “though your kids might be in school for six or more hours a day, they’re not spending all that time listening to academic instruction.”
Between the time your child would spend slacking off, as well as lunch breaks, playtime or other breaks, and time between classes, if you follow that schedule above, your homeschooled child is not being deprived of an education in the least. Time wise, it’d be on par with that of children in the school system but there’s so much more to home education than dedicated time for academics.
The Benefits of Home Education
Homeschooling can definitely be a challenge, but it comes with many benefits. As someone who home educates, I have found that the blessing far outweigh these obstacles. We learn in Proverbs 24:16, “For the righteous falls seven times and rises again, but the wicked stumble in times of calamity.” This means we must rise up and meet the challenge, no matter how difficult things become. When it comes to doing what is right and what is best for our children, there is no feat too great or mountain too high. Although it can take a period of adjustment on both your part and that of your child’s when homeschooling them, education at home has many benefits. Let’s talk about these more now.
Learning in a Comfortable Environment
The environment a student is in all day can make learning a challenge, especially for a sensory child (we’ll talk more about this in the next section). Rather than sit in a classroom all day, you can educate your child in an environment that they know and love best: their home.
Some people like to have a dedicated space, so if that's you, perhaps best to choose a room that’s not used for recreation, like a bedroom. A spare office or guest bedroom might be the site of your homeschooling lessons instead. This creates a sense of separation between your child’s schooling and the rest of their life.
This however, is the exact reason why you may NOT want to have a dedicated space, as you prefer to 'home educate' and think that all of life is education and therefore all the house, all the rooms, all outdoor activities and spaces can be used as you live life and learn from life together.
Going at Their Own Pace
It happens to almost all students at some point in one subject or another. They fail to understand what the teacher is explaining, but out of fear or embarrassment, they don’t say anything. The teacher continues with their lesson, delving into more complicated topics. Now your child is even more lost, but again, they don’t say anything.
It’s only on the eve of a test on the confusing subject that your child might go to you or a teacher for help. By then, it takes a lot of hours of cramming to teach the child what they need to know to be ready for the test.
By homeschooling your child, you can ensure they learn at a pace that’s comfortable for them. If they don’t understand something, you can take extra time to make sure they do without the need for them to be embarrassed.
In an average classroom, 20 or 30 other students are all competing for the teacher’s attention. Even if a child has a question about something they don’t understand, a teacher can only spend a few minutes on the question before they have to move on with their lesson.
At home, perhaps your child is the only one being homeschooled. They may have another sibling or few, but even the most fruitful of families can't fill a classroom. This makes it far easier for you to grant your sensory child the individualised attention they may need, either regularly or when they don’t understand what they’re learning.
Better Test Performance
If you’re worried about how your homeschooled child’s academic performance will be affected, don’t stress. According to the link from FutureSchool.com from above, homeschooled children perform incredibly well.
They tend to do better on the SAT and ACT tests when compared to non-homeschooled children. Homeschooled students are also at an advantage on standardised tests, with a better score than children at private and public schools. Their score can be 15 to 30 percent better.
These stats do not accommodate for sensory children, so those results won’t necessarily be guaranteed. Still, annually, it’s believed that homeschooling will increase by eight percent, so it’s certainly becoming an option among more and more children, including those with sensory issues.
Why Homeschooling Is Better for a Sensory Child
“An intelligent heart acquires knowledge, and the ear of the wise seeks knowledge.” -- Proverbs 18:15
Imagine feeling trapped in your own flesh: unable to focus on the overwhelming words, the chatter and laughter, or on the board of jumbled letters. This is not the way God intended any of us to feel. In fact, He strives to set us free! One of the reasons home education has become so popular for many families is that one word: freedom.
Freedom to choose what, where, when, why, and how all aspects of education are implemented. For a sensory child, this opens the door to knowledge and skills that they aren’t able to reach amongst their peers for many reasons. Despite the efforts of teachers and staff at a school, children are often not able to reach their full potential. God has much more planned for your child than to shuffle them along without a change to increase in knowledge and achieve spiritual wisdom. Let’s take a look at the specific reasons homeschooling can be better for a sensory child.
We talked before about the environment that children learn in. If a child spends seven hours in school, they won’t be in the same room all day, but different rooms with the same look and feel.
The average classroom can negatively affect a sensory child in many ways. Their chair may be too rigid and uncomfortable. The bright florescent lights overhead could bother them. The sights outside of a window in the classroom can be a tantalising distraction all day. Unexpected sights, touch, smells, sounds can all impact arousal levels and stress levels that do more harm than good to anyone's learning.
At break time, when your sensory child gets a much-needed chance to stretch their legs and move their body, the sounds of kids screaming and the sights of large groups moving around erratically could trigger sensory symptoms in your child as well.
By controlling the home environment your sensory child learns in, you can prioritise their needs. If that’s comfort, you can opt for teaching on couches or soft chairs rather than a hard-backed plastic or metal chair. If your child spends all day looking out the window, you might cover windows at home with curtains or blinds.
Breaks When Your Child Needs It
A sensory child could have a hard time spending long periods paying attention in class. They begin tuning out or even acting up, getting in trouble with the teacher. This can happen several times a day.
The whole class can’t take a break just because your child wants one, but in a home environment, that’s exactly what happens. You can stop if you suspect your sensory child needs to take a breather, get up, or otherwise pause the lesson. Then, after five or 10 minutes (maybe more), you can resume, hopefully with your child’s renewed interest.
Learning That Suits Your Child
Another great benefit of home educating sensory children is how you can customise the curriculum. On days when your child is having a lot of processing problems, perhaps you shorten what you are doing, or go with a lesson that engages them more.
You can also teach at a pace that suits your child or at a level that’s appropriate to their current educational background and learning abilities.
Homeschooling Ideas and Tips for a Successful, Educational Experience
If you’re about to embark on homeschooling a sensory child, congratulations are certainly in order. The road ahead may be full of ups and downs but it can be hugely rewarding for yourself and your sensory child.
Here are some tips and ideas to keep in mind as you get started with educating at home.
Create a Quiet (or noisy!), Comfortable Environment
As we’ve touched on a few times, a comfortable nook is recommended for home educating your sensory child. Make sure the space has room for your child to perhaps have several work position options (e.g. balance stool, standing up, gymball, hammock) or move their seat around the room several times a day if that’s what they need to do.
You could even have two other spots for your child as part of their home educating experience: a sensory centre and a quiet corner.
The sensory centre, which is especially great for sensory-seeking children, could include items like swings attached to the ceiling, rockers, musical instruments, plastic tubs full of rice, Play-Doh, gymballs, trampoline and fidget cubes. Using these items during a sensory child’s break can help fill up their sensory tank, especially in sensory-seeking children.
The quiet corner, as the name implies, is a place to relax, rest, and take a break. This may have a beanbag chair or another comfortable seating option, a dark den, headphones, perhaps eye mask or weighted blanket. It should be basically be low on stimuli.
Keep the Day Distraction-Free
Distractions for sensory children can be just about anything. For example, if the room you’re in isn’t well insulated, the traffic noise from the street below could rise up, interrupt your sensory child, and distract them from your lesson.
Other distractions as we’ve discussed include bright lights, loud sounds, movements from outside, and uncomfortable seating. Don’t forget smells as well. Some sensory children can smell better than the average person, which means any scent that might smell faint to you could set the child off. Avoid air fresheners, scented candles, perfume or cologne, or anything else with a strong odour.
Take Frequent Breaks, Especially for Movement
Breaks will likely be a regular part of your day. You may have planned breaks, but anticipate a handful of unplanned ones as well. You might create a code word or hand signal your child can do to tell you that yes, they need a break, if it's too disruptive for the rest of family if they don't.
The quiet corner is one such place to spend their break, but your child might need to move more than sit. In that case, you can let them outside for a little while to fill up their sensory tank. How long these breaks last will be your choice, and it will take a little experimenting to know when to say they've had enough and it's time to come in.
Your child may move in other ways throughout the day, such as chewing on their clothing or biting an eraser off a pencil, tapping their feet, or hitting their pencil against the desk. These movements are distracting to you and them, so come up with some alternatives. A ball to bounce is better than tapping a pencil against a desk, for instance. Chewing gum will keep pencils and pens out of your child’s mouth, as well as clothing.
Find a Routine and Keep with It
Lots of sensory children are creatures of routine. Once you figure out one that works for you and your child, stick with it. That means starting and wrapping up lessons at around the same time every day if you can help it. It also means perhaps having four or five days each week that are dedicated to schooling and then a few days that act as a weekend.
The schedule will change at times, mostly because of your sensory child, but maintaining this sense of routine as best you can is normally to your child’s benefit.
Expand the Academic Year
Speaking of changing the schedule, some days of home education will unfortunately be a wash. Your child just doesn’t want to pay attention, or some stimuli keep bothering them. No matter what it is, on those days when your child just isn’t feeling their lessons, don’t push.
It’s problematic if you have day after day where your child doesn’t want to pay attention, but a day or so every week might be what you should come to expect. For that reason, rather than homeschool your child from September to June like a traditional school, you could see your child growing and learning all year long. This will keep them up on what they perhaps ought to be doing, but give them plenty of leeway for those days where things don’t go well and you need to do something completely different.
For children with sensory processing disorders, home education is a super option. You can go at the child’s pace, build in plenty of breaks, allow for movement, teach them in a comfortable environment, and value them for who they really are.
Homeschooling a sensory child is not necessarily easy, but it can be a great way for your child to get a full education without triggering their sensory symptoms. So often we choose whatever road seems to be working for those around us, but God may have a greater plan in store! Working with your child at home can lead to improving or overcoming sensory challenges but perhaps most importantly of all, opens the door to share the love of Christ with your child in everything that you and they do, say, and think at home.
Have your mind put at peace by calling and talking through the challenges of parenting or living with sensory issues.
We’ll uncover hidden processes that could be sabotaging all your best efforts. You’ll leave the session renewed with hope for the future, understood, your faith honoured, and inspired to finally put plans into action for your family that will last a lifetime.