Online education for children with learning disabilities and special needs

tour special needs family

What does online education have to offer for K through the 12th grade education?

There are a number of compelling reasons to choose online education, as well as multiple delivery options. Below you’ll find our review of the basic formats offered for online K-12 education: Blended learning; Entirely online-based learning; and Online support for students in full-time physical schools.

Online education programs, whether they’re fully online or blended, can be a beneficial approach for students who have specific needs for alternative course work. Most often, these students are: homeschooled students; advanced or accelerated students; disabled students; students who travel frequently, students who struggle socially at school, and students who need extra support or tutoring in a specific subject.

Blended Programs

A blended online program, in which students split their time between a traditional classroom and an online one, is a great option for parents interested in acquainting themselves and their children with online learning. Courses in a blended program are meant to complement the coursework a student completes at a traditional school or as a homeschooled student. These programs afford students the flexibility and autonomy of self-guided online study without forcing them to miss out on the social and collaborative learning atmosphere of the traditional classroom.

Blended Programs and Homeschooling

Before Internet access was integrated into homeschooling, parents received training materials, text books, and worksheets in the mail. It was entirely up to parents to administer these lessons and keep their child on track. Students enrolled in online homeschool programs will benefit from features like video lectures, interactive media, and remote instructors. This takes some of the pressure off of parents who no longer need to oversee their child’s homeschool development full-time.

There are many popular homeschool methods, such as the Classical Education and Montessori styles. These have already been converted to digital formats that take advantage of the technologies available.

Fully Online Programs

Families living in rural locations, students unable to attend traditional schools because of long-term illnesses, or families constantly traveling for work are all good candidates for fully online programs. Students can progress at their own speed and benefit from personalized instruction, however, the lack of face-to-face interaction and physical activity in online education continues to draw criticism.

Fully Online Programs for Mobile Students

Some special circumstances will require full-time online elementary school enrollment. Families in the entertainment industry, in the military, or in international business may find themselves constantly traveling. Such families don’t have the scheduling and location stability necessary for traditional brick-and-mortar programs.

With a fully online program, kids can progress through elementary grade levels and avoid potential gaps in education, since they need not enroll at a new online institution every time they move. For example, many military parents become concerned with lesson continuity if they have to enroll children in new schools during multiple re-locations.

Fully Online Programs for Ill or Disabled Students

Chronic illnesses can prevent a child from attending a traditional school, even if they are healthy enough to complete course assignments and socialize. George Mason University professor Carol Kaffenberger points out that long-term school absences due to chronic illness can be a detriment to a child’s social and educational development. A full-time online school can provide a student with an education regardless of whether the student’s care is administered at home or in a hospital.

Fully Online Programs for Students in Rural Areas

Rural elementary schools often have trouble drawing in high-quality teachers and funding school facilities, according to a 2010 report by the Center for American Progress. These challenges faced by low-population, remote parts of the country can be alleviated by blended or full-time online learning. In fact, there are over 6,000 families living in rural communities in Idaho who have enrolled students in virtual classrooms. Families in rural areas may also find that online education reduces the amount of time, stress, and money required to commute to the nearest school. As Internet access continues to improve throughout these locations, more students are turning to digital lessons.

Supplemental Education Programs

Parents and students are often comfortable with their local brick-and-mortar school, but find certain programs lacking in academic support. If your child is struggling with specific skills, you can sign them up for virtual tutoring services. Additionally, you can explore accelerated online courses for students with interests or talents in particular subjects.


Since you don’t have to visit a tutoring center after school, home-based online tutoring can reduce commuting costs and time commitments. Virtual tutoring services, such as Growing Stars and Smart Tutor, have developed supplemental curricula for elementary students struggling to keep up in math, reading, and science classes. Distance learning platforms put students in touch with carefully-vetted educators who may be located all around the globe. In 2007, the Los Angeles Times featured children whose grades improved after using digital tutoring services.

Gifted Students

Since most traditional schools operate on standardized benchmarks, gifted students are often required to work at the same pace as their classmates. They may become bored with the curriculum and lack the option to advance on their own. Supplementary courses can help advanced or accelerated students excel through access to more demanding materials and activities. Several studies monitoring gifted student engagement in online programs corroborate this and also indicate that self-motivated learners can especially benefit from online study.

Target Student Groups

While online education is not designed for everyone, fully online programs and blended programs have proven to be highly beneficial for certain types of learners.

  • Some students also use virtual learning to make up missed or failed classes, while others earn extra credit by enrolling in courses that aren’t offered at their school.
  • Students who struggle socially or have a hard time relating to their classmates may find that online tutoring relieves some of their daily pressures and allows them to perform to their highest potential.
  • Students who travel frequently, either due to their parents’ occupation(s) or their own activities (such as athletics or entertainment), will find that web courses help them stay on-track, allowing them to complete middle school in a timely manner and be ready to look ahead to a 4-year high school track.

Consider how online schools can meet the unique needs of unique student groups:

Advanced Students

Studies have shown that advanced (or ‘gifted’) students thrive within the online learning environment. Middle and junior high schools across the country now offer courses that help these above-average students earn credits that are required for high school education, while private online academies have created comprehensive curricula designed to build skills and competencies for gifted preteens and teens.

“For any student who seeks advanced course work, studying online does more than just offer the sought-after content. It also offers an opportunity to use and become comfortable with the kinds of information technology that are fast becoming an integral element of so many living-wage jobs.” – No Child Left Behind’s ‘Connecting Students to Advanced Courses Online: Innovations in Education’

Students with Special Needs

Special needs or disabled middle school students can also benefit from online courses. Most web-based programs are structured for independent study, allowing learners to absorb information and complete assignments at their own pace. Some online schools also offer curricula specifically designed for students who struggle with reading, writing, math, or other core subjects; certified instructors are available to work directly with students and address individual concerns with each offered course.

Online education can serve students with a wide range of disabilities, such as autism, ADHD, and physically limiting conditions like multiple sclerosis, but K12 blogger Lauren Martin adds that the benefits go beyond academic performance. On top of learning difficulties, classroom settings can add stress and ultimately discourage special needs children.

“Some may not pick up on social cues. Others may be bullied. Online education allows children to interact with peers on their own terms with activities, clubs, and play time.” — thinktanK12 blogger Lauren Martin

At-Risk Students

At-risk students may also thrive in an alternative online program. These students can be defined by poor academic performance, but other factors, such as low socioeconomic status and lack of positive role models at home, can also qualify a student as ‘at-risk.’ Lack of encouragement from parents and educators is one of the primary reasons why many young people drop out of school and enter the real-world without the preparation they need to launch successful careers. In order to create the supportive environment these students need, online learning centers pair students with learning coaches to help them stay motivated in their course work.

“Many educators are finding that online and blended learning are effective ways to reach students who fail one or more courses, become disengaged, or who seek an alternative to traditional education.” — ‘Using Online Learning for At-Risk Students and Credit Recovery,’ a report published by the North American Council for Online Learning.

Students in Overcrowded Schools

For students who live in overcrowded districts, schools have started offering online courses to mitigate problems associated with high student to teacher ratios. During the 2011-12 academic year, Kapolei Middle School on the island of Hawaii began allowing students to enroll in online courses that cover math, language arts, and other subjects. These classes were created after 1,450 students enrolled at the school, which was designed for no more than 1,200 students. The school is working to further develop these online programs so that they can handle hundreds of multi-track students every semester.

Ultimately, the decision to enroll your middle schooler in a blended or fully online program will depend on a number of factors, including: the options available in your state or district, the type of learner your student is, and your family’s lifestyle. If your child is a gifted student, special needs learner, at risk of failing in school, or otherwise requires specialized course work, a good first step is to meet with his or her teachers and school counselors to determine which (if any) online program may be the most beneficial.

Please visit Online Schools for more information.

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