Moving Forward: Classically Educating Children With Special Needs

I’ve happily noticed a recent surge of interest in addressing children with special needs in classical Christian education. Writers and educators have noted that this is an area of weakness in the resurgence of classical Christian education. Due to school size, staffing, and perhaps a general lack of energy or time to devote to the issue, addressing special needs has simply not fallen within the top priorities of many newer classical Christian schools.  

However, we know that we cannot ignore the need.  We know this for multiple reasons. First, one of the philosophical premises of classical education is that education is formative—that is, as educators, we are fundamentally about the formation of a human being who is valuable because he is made in the image of God. Cheryl Swope writes, “The formative nature of classical education distinguishes it from much of education today. No matter the skill to be taught in classical education, the formation of the child’s mind and character transcends the skill.” Children with special needs are often labeled as “less valuable” by the world at large because our culture measures worth by skill production. Our view of both God and man necessitates an altogether different perspective. If we believe this to be true, we must seek to make classical education—a formative education—available to all students.  

Secondly, children with special needs do not simply need the school community; the school community needs them. The entire school benefits from a diverse educational community.  Students with special needs offer a unique perspective on learning and personal growth. They are models of perseverance.  They urge us to learn compassion and empathy, and they provide opportunities for us to see world differently. It is important to note here that the term “special need” does not merely apply to those with intellectual dysfunction, behavior disorders, or other needs which cause them to perform below the standard classroom expectation. Children with academic giftedness also have “special needs”. For us to exclude students with challenges placing them on either extreme of the academic spectrum is to create a community which declares “average” as best (however “average” may be defined). Of all people, classical Christian education should seek to dispel that myth.  

While we might all find agreement in stating that classically educating children with special needs is right and good, there is disagreement among educators as to how this can and should happen. Classical Christian schools often lack the specialized personnel to help classroom teachers address special needs. Therefore, homeschooling is the choice for many families who have students with either low or high academic performance. Yet I wonder how many families would be better served by a closer partnership with a learning community. Is there some way we can bridge the gap between the school community and parent-led education of children with special needs?  

What if…

…we offered workshops and seminars for parents (and teachers!) on topics such as classically educating children with dyslexia, anxiety disorder, processing problems, ASD, academic giftedness, or developmental delays? Parents without access to specialized services could be equipped to initiate interventions for their own children, minimizing the impact on individual classroom teachers struggling to meet every special need.

…schools created interest groups based on special needs where parents could find others who are doing their best to address their child’s challenges? We call these kids children with special needs, but truly their parents are carrying an extra weight as they seek to educate their children.  It’s. Just. Hard. In an educational environment specifically geared toward parent leadership and involvement, is there something we can do to lighten the load?  

…we learned to be more flexible with classroom instruction and assessment? Any educator knows that the easiest instructional method is the one already in use. What can we do to motivate teachers to look for new ways to instruct and assess students in ways that don’t simply cater to one type of learner?  

…we created a library of resources for parents of children with special needs? Perhaps we cannot provide all of the specialized personnel necessary to meet each intellectual or behavioral need, but could we collect and provide resources which would better equip our parents for success?  

…we offered training for parents with extra time who want to minister to the parents of children with special needs by tutoring, helping facilitate curriculum modifications, etc…? What an amazing picture of the body of Christ that would be!

I have little doubt that with the intellectual and creative energy in the classical Christian community today, we can dream up many more strategies to meet the needs of our students and families. What other ideas do you have? I would love for you to share them in the comments below!

4 thoughts on “Moving Forward: Classically Educating Children With Special Needs

  1. Although I have spent my adult life educating children with special needs, I am now called to homeschool my grandson. He presents many challenges including dyslexia, ADHD, behavioral difficulties, as well as giftedness. Yet, classical Christian education, with adaptations, has proven to be the best educational program despite his special needs. Regardless of my qualifications and over thirty years of experience, I find the greatest hardship to be the lack of professional collaboration, and curriculum resources available in a school setting. What a blessed encouragement this article has been to myself, and perhaps to others who would welcome such support and guidance as outlined. Thank you.


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    1. I’m so glad you were encouraged, Kathy! I also hope we will begin to see more collaboration on this topic in the coming months and years. I do believe the necessary intellectual and creative energy is out there to address some of these challenges in the classical community; we simply need to begin putting some good ideas to work!


  2. I am so happy to see your post on this topic. My family has fallen in love with classical Christian education; however, my youngest has Down syndrome. Currently our only option for her is homeschool or to send her to the local public school. As you rightly state, this is a major problem. We cannot help but be affected by our current culture and I believe there is an unwillingness or fear to “include” special needs students into classical Christian schools because of the mess it has become in public schools – too much money, too much legality, questionable results…. However, just as classical Christian education broke the mold of what passes for education these days, so too should it break the special education mold. If our schools think they have to replicate what is available today elsewhere, it will never be done – and probably shouldn’t be done. You brought up some great suggestions and ideas in your article but I believe you are still thinking inside the current accepted mold for special education. Instead of asking, “How can we make special education work in classical Christian schools?” we need to ask, “What should classical Christian education look like for students with special needs?” As you said, our quest needs to be based firmly in our understanding that we are all made in the image of God – even if we have an extra chromosome (etc.) Our quest is not found in creating egalitarian utopias or in “fixing” children who are different; rather, How do we raise a child in wisdom, in knowledge and fear of the Lord? How do we cultivate their affections? How do we help them to love what is true, what is beautiful, and what is wise within the limitations they were given by God?


  3. I somehow missed this article when it was first published. I LOVE your ideas for coming alongside the classical school to help create an atmosphere for all types of learners. Unique learners are some of my favorite students to teach! I always learn something from them.

    Let’s keep this important conversation going!


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