Home-bound: waiting for the right fit
Parents struggle with selecting educational institutions for their children with disabilities, relying on home-instruction to fill the gap.
April 23, 2014
“Girls, five more minutes!” says a voice from upstairs, directed at the three girls lounging on the black couch.
Two girls on the couch look identical in every aspect. Same short hair, same height. Same brown eyes. Perhaps the only difference between them is what is going on in their minds.
They both laugh at something on TV and then glance at each other, sharing a silent secret only they know and understand. These are the precious moments of sibling connection that are shared by these identical twins on a normal Monday evening.
Here, at home, they share these moments – but not at school.
The girls do not attend the same school. In fact, one of the two doesn’t even attend a school – instead, she learns through ‘home instruction.’
Such is a frequent destination of students with disabilities, retreating to home-instruction because parents are uncertain about the education their children would receive in schools.
“I feel powerless in my children’s education,” says Sadie Somar.
As the mother of four girls, two of who have autism, she says that she knows what is best for her children – from what they eat for lunch to what color dresses they should wear. So when it comes down to the education of her children, Sadie Somar does all that’s in their power to get what her child needs.
For her daughter, Remy Somar, that means to learn from home. At least for now.
Finding the right place
Throughout the year, parents of students with disabilities attend, on average, two meetings at their child’s school. These are Individualized Education Plan (IEP) meetings. During this time, the student, the parents, the teachers, the case worker, and others, discuss what modifications to the standard curriculum would benefit the child.
These meetings are intended to provide the parents with input in their child’s education, meeting the different accommodations the specific child needs.
It has been over five months since Remy, one of the twins, has attended a school. It has been over five months since she has gotten on a bus at 8:00 a.m., went to recess with her friends, or whined over math homework.
For the time being, she’s studying with a home instruction teacher sent by the State of New Jersey.
Yet this set-up cannot continue indefinitely.
“She needs a school that will be both good for her academic needs and make her feel comfortable, as well,” says Remy’s mother.
Many parents have turned to home schooling methods for their children for several reasons, ranging from behavioral adaptions, to bullying incidents, to the belief that the child will do better in more comfortable conditions. In 2007, a home instruction survey administered by the Federal Government National Center for education statistics stated that nationwide 105 million children were being home-schooled.
Sometimes, as in the case of Remy, it’s difficult to find out just where a student might benefit the most. Remy’s developmental disabilities behavioral therapist, Judy, has been attempting to solve that problem.
“We have to find the right school. Not just from the academic end, but from the behavior and social end for the specific child, and that’s not easy,” states Judy, explaining the complications in home schooling for a child with autism.
She explains, “That is what school is all about. It is the interaction between student and teacher, and the student and other students.”
Unfortunately, however, these interactions are limited in a home-schooling environment.
“If you’re missing that basic component, the children do not understand how to socialize properly or attain social queues, be able to have the small inside jokes between friends, things like that,” Judy says. “She isn’t getting the interactions with other kids and different teachers and people.”
Options for parents
Many public schools have programs that adapt for students with special needs: teaching the child within a specific classroom, separating the classes into levels, sending an aid to follow the specific child, and IEPs that alter assessment methods.
According to NJ public records, more than 25% of the children in New Jersey participate in a special education program, specifically children with autism.
“A normal school day schedule in most special schools is very similar to regular schools. The children are greeted in a homeroom and start with the same academic studies,” says Sadie. The only difference is that the students attend counseling sessions; some schools also have different methods of dealing with behavior.
The school one of the twins attends practices these different methods. She attends a “special” school, where the teachers focus on the children’s behaviors and work with them not only on social behaviors, but also academics as well. These schools use many different methods, one of them being a point system.
“At Tammy’s school, she earns points throughout the day,” her mother explains. “For every thirty minutes of class, she earns five academic points and five behavioral points.
These points work. Tammy then has a chance to visit her school store and redeem her accumulated points.
“The point system is designed to give them [students] an incentive to do their school work and behave appropriate,” Sadie Somar explains.
Both low and high functioning children have adapted to this method in their homes, as well.
“My kids love the point system. They do their chores and then they get a prize. Whether it’s a small toy for the younger kids or an allowance for my older kids, they love knowing their hard work is being rewarded,” states Mariana Tavern, mother of two.
Yet not all parents agree with the point system method.
“No. My children do their chores because they have to help out. I don’t believe in bribing my children to do house work they should already do on their own,” says a working mother who resides with her family in a neighboring town.
Remy and Tammy, the twins, have two younger siblings: an eight year old and a one year old.
“[The younger siblings] are influenced by their older sister’s behavior. Their role model is not a typical model,” says Sadie.
Many schools, too, do not know how to react to the behaviors of a special needs child and many of the aids sent to shadow these students have little training with special education students. Perhaps that explains the difficult choice many parents face when deciding where to educate students with special needs.
Parents, much like Sadie Somar, are confused and frustrated about where to send their kids to school.
“I feel powerless in my children’s education,” repeats Sadie Somar with a frown. She looks at her kids sitting on the couch, playing around.
*Names have been changed in order to protect the identity of the people featured in this article.