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Strategies for Teaching Kids with Special Needs

Kathryn L. Stout, B.S.Ed., M.Ed.
Published: November/December 2004
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Although every child is unique and specific needs vary, there are a number of recommendations I find myself making to almost all of the homeschooling families I work with who homeschool children with special needs. Hopefully, they will prove helpful to you as well.

The Environment:

Children struggling with learning often compare themselves with others and, so, may be easily offended and discouraged. Therefore, it is especially important that there be a calm, blame-free environment. To that end:

  1. Establish a routine based on events, not time, (e.g. breakfast, devotions, schoolwork, lunch, etc.). Knowing what to expect—what comes next—has a calming effect.

  2. Provide a work area that is quiet and free from distractions. This may require a cardboard carrel, use of ear plugs, scheduling work that requires concentration when other children are napping, being supervised in another room, or attending activities outside the home. Obviously, no sounds from a radio or television should hum in the background.

  3. Organize the home. The child should be able to find what he needs without asking or hunting. He should be trained to put things back, obviously, to maintain order. If it’s not possible to keep the entire house in order, at least keep his work area uncluttered, and arranged for easy access to most frequently used items. This type of organization allows children to work more independently, reduces distractions (searching for an item can lead to all sorts of misadventures), and reduces disruptive shouting, whether it’s a frustrated, “What are you doing now? or simply, “Who knows where the scissors are?”

  4. Patiently allow the child as much time as needed to process whatever you are teaching him. You may need to slow down if you are used to speaking quickly. Relax while you wait for him to answer. Don’t let him feel rushed. Imagine the mind as a computer—some take more time to bring up a file than others. Some brains require more time to make all the connections in order to understand what was asked and to then pull together all that’s required to give an answer. One of the greatest sources of discouragement comes from finally getting the answer only to discover the teacher move on to the next question. The great advantage of homeschooling is being given the time to be the one to respond correctly.

  5. Use a positive approach in teaching and in the feedback you offer while he works. For example, instead of, “I told you to stay on the line,” try, “You managed to keep the “c” on the line, good. Now try to do that with the letter “a.”’ Your voice, body language, and words all create either a sense of calming encouragement, or of impatience that leads to his discouragement.

  6. Explain rules and consequences clearly. Then carry out discipline calmly and consistently. Don’t engage in heated debates. This matter-of-fact manner keeps a neutral environment, which is calming even when he is protesting. If you don’t allow yourself to be drawn into his frustration, and reinforce the boundaries established, you will be providing him with a sense of security. This is especially important for children with ADD. Because they frequently lack an inner sense of structure, they find security in knowing the outward boundaries. However, you can expect all children to challenge the rules and protest the consequences, without appreciating your efforts until they are parents themselves. Stand firm—calmly.

Planning the Schedule:

  1. Each day provide an opportunity for the child to engage in something he enjoys or does well. This offers a necessary balance to his struggles in areas of weakness.

  2. Emphasize spiritual training and the development of your child’s own relationship with the Lord. He must have a sense that God loves him and made him for a purpose—that he has a destiny—in order to persevere. Remember, he battles every day in areas that come quickly or easily to others. He not only needs the spiritual strengthening, but the development of the habit of seeking God as his strength. Therefore, devotions or church activities should be part of his daily schedule.

  3. While your plans will include long-range goals, only communicate the small goals within your child’s reach. Stretch him a bit, but be sensitive to what is too challenging. Break tasks into small steps, telling him only the first step. Once he accomplishes that, tell him the next. That way he is not overwhelmed and will have the experience of repeated successes, not one overwhelming failure.

  4. Vary tasks so that he is not using the same type of focus or the same muscles so long that he becomes overly fatigued or discouraged. If he has been reading history, don’t have him begin reading his literature assignment. Instead, have him do something physical, watch a video, or participate in a discussion. Don’t follow a drawing lesson with something requiring lots of handwriting, since both involve the same fine motor muscles. (Note: Teach cursive or italic handwriting instead of manuscript—printing—since it’s ultimately less frustrating.)

  5. Plan daily exercise breaks. Exercise helps concentration as well as the development of coordination. Frequently, children with special needs attend occupational or physical therapy. Those types of activities can be carried on at home during breaks as reinforcement. Some children do well alternating between 10-20 minute work periods with 5-10 minute of exercise. Others can handle 60 to 90 minutes of instruction followed by a 10-15 minute break. Experiment to find out the best routine for your situation.

Teaching Strategies:

  1. Use simple commands with as few words as possible, having the child then carry out that instruction. Follow this with the next brief command. Too much verbiage is often overwhelming for a child with learning disabilities or ADD. He is likely to remember only the first few words spoken, if that, when given a lengthy explanation preceding an assignment.

  2. Demonstrate chores or tasks rather than relying on verbal explanations alone.

  3. Use concrete materials, manipulatives, experiments, and charts to aid instruction.

  4. Include practical applications of academics regularly, including life-skill tasks: measure ingredients in a recipe, determine the number of gallons of paint needed to paint his bedroom, read the map at the shopping mall and navigate to the store of his choice, etc.

  5. Use a multi-sensory approach to introduce or practice a concept rather than limiting instruction to whatever appears to be the child’s learning style—visual, auditory, or kinesthetic. Studies of the brain suggest that the more senses and variety involved in learning something, the more avenues a person has for retrieving that information.

  6. Keep in mind, you will probably spend a great deal more time feeding him information—showing him examples, making explanations—before he is able to understand than with a child without a learning disability. Therefore, plan to stay with him or nearby in order to provide immediate feedback when his attempts are incorrect. Show him again, so that he doesn’t end up with a wrong habit that will have to be remedied later.

  7. Expect to spend a great deal of time on repetition and practice before mastery is achieved. Short, intense, and frequent practices tend to be more productive than longer practices scattered throughout the week. A few minutes several times a day could be spent on various drills of phonics or math fact practice, with a longer lesson scheduled for the next level in phonic instruction, or a different topic altogether in math. Some children have better results with rote memory if physical exercise is combined with recitation—bouncing a ball while reciting math facts, for instance.

  8. Don’t require mastery of everything. Some areas should have simple exposure as a goal so that the student isn’t under too much stress. You may decide to let him merely experience something now with the plan of building understanding in the future, or exposure may remain your long-range goal.

There are numerous books, including Teaching Tips & Techniques, as well as websites that offer teaching strategies and resources helpful for special needs. This list offers a few basics, a place to begin. I pray God will guide you as you continue to look for ways to “train up your child in the way he should go.



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