In this Vital Mercy series, Dr. Brenda Murphy shares letters to help calm the fears, answer the questions and steer parents on a path to successful teaching and learning with struggling learners at home.

Get yourself a cup of coffee and let’s talk.

Fact: Homeschooling a child with special needs is overwhelming. But it doesn’t have be. Homeschooling a child with special needs is no different than homeschooling a typical child, except one factor is more important for these children to succeed than anything else: structure…careful structure. Why is structure so important for these children?  It’s because of the way they see the world. Their interpretation is skewed by a shifting and incomplete perception of life. Visual, auditory, physical, developmental, and memory problems complicate their response to everyday life and learning.

Therefore, a consistent schedule that provides safe boundaries is priority one. You can choose the schedule, just make it the same everyday. This sameness provides the predictability your child with special needs craves. When that need is met, school days are more tranquil for everyone. I know consistency may be a dirty word to you but it’s incredibly important. What does a consistent daily schedule look like?

It begins with “getting up” and “getting ready.” If your child is able, allow her to do the “getting ready” steps she can do independently. For example, if she does not wake independently, set the alarm clock and wake her while it is ringing. Her job is to turn the alarm off.  Before you know it, she will be getting up by herself. Helping your child become as independent as possible is part of learning. It builds competency, and you will see the results in focused academics. Now if anyone asks, these are called self-help, life-skills, adaptive skills, or pre-vocational skills. 

Next, consider consistent personal schedules that are child-friendly and can be manipulated by the child to facilitate ownership. Picture schedules are a time-proven approach to help children become independent, allowing them to transition from activity to activity without stress. Schedules help children deal with time and tolerate waiting. For example, a distraught three year-old, when left in my Sunday School class calms quickly when shown the class schedule. I tell him Mommy will be back and show pictures of the day’s activities, with the last being “Mommy”. We revisit the schedule, mark off activities, and see “Mommy arrives” is the only thing left on the schedule. It works!

Keep picture schedules simple; use stick-figure drawings, digital pictures, or computer icons. The schedule’s important function is to alert the child to what is next. Picture schedules teach important sequencing skills for cognitive development. Pictures velcroed to a schedule are also great fun. Remove the pictures as each activity ends. This helps your child acquire planning skills, knowing what has been done and what’s left to do. 

Another great visual/hands-on scheduling approach is to arrange daily or weekly activities into boxes, file folders, or other organizational tools. Sue Patrick has taken this idea to a whole new level in her Workbox System.  Other methods of organization may be more appropriate depending on your child’s age and individual needs. 

Now, I’ve shared a few thoughts about schedules to get you started, and we didn’t even get to the calendars! Remember, that for a child with special needs (really every child), it is all learning. Every moment is a moment waiting to explode into a celebration of a new accomplishment, and the more you keep to that consistent schedule, the sooner and more often it will happen.

Consistently yours,

Brenda with Libby Moody

Former SailAway Consultant & Staff member

Read the next letter, Spotlight on Success