With the increasing numbers of students suffering with anxiety, depression, and school avoidance, schools and parents are resorting to home instruction as a solution. This sometimes happens due to recommendations from psychologists and psychiatrists who don’t understand the purpose of home instruction under NJ law.
Here’s what many don’t realize: home instruction (also known as homebound instruction) is not intended to be a permanent solution under NJ law. It’s also not intended for students suffering from emotional and behavioral problems. Schools that are using home instruction improperly are opening up the school district to legal risk. What’s worse, misuse of home instruction can harm students with mental health issues instead of helping.
Let’s take a look at:
- What NJ law says about when home instruction is appropriate.
- How home instruction causes harm when misused.
- How schools can help students get back to school and achieve success.
Home instruction: what NJ law says
When home instruction in NJ is deemed appropriate
Under NJ law, a student can receive instructional services in the home in the following situations:
- Due to a temporary or chronic health condition that confines the student to bed, requires a level of hour-to-hour medical intervention that can’t be provided in a school setting, or renders the student unable to move safely around the building.
- A student is mandated by state law for placement in an alternative education program, but placement is not immediately available.
- A student is placed on short- or long-term suspension.
- A court order requires the student to receive instructional services in the home or other out-of-school setting.
- A student with a disability can have an IEP implemented through home instruction when it can be documented that all other less restrictive program options have been considered and have been determined inappropriate.
Home instruction is not “least restrictive”
It’s important to understand that home instruction does not fulfill the requirement to provide education in the least restrictive environment. When schools turn to home instruction for students with emotional and behavioral problems without first attempting less restrictive options (such as school-based counseling or placement in a therapeutic school), the district is taking on a significant legal risk.
In fact, we know of several cases where districts have faced (and lost) lawsuits from parents who charged that the school failed to meet a student’s educational needs adequately through home instruction (after the parents initially supported the decision). For details, refer to Case Notes N.J.A.C. 14-4.8 (August 3, 2007) and Case Notes N.J.A.C. 16-10.2 (February 6, 2018).
Home instruction is intended to be temporary
The law also provides for home instruction, in the above circumstances, for a period of 60 days, after which a renewal notice is required. Home instruction is intended to be a temporary measure, not a long term solution.
When home instruction can do more harm than good
Home instruction has its appropriate uses, as described under NJ law. Unfortunately, home instruction can be harmful when misused for students facing mental health issues, such as:
- School avoidance or refusal
- Eating disorders
- Gender dysphoria or questioning
- Medication adjustment
This may seem counterintuitive at first, especially for school refusal. If the student is struggling to attend school, why is home instruction a bad idea?
Home instruction fails to address the underlying issue
When a student experiences emotional or behavior problems at school but feels better at home, educators and parents alike tend to make the mistake of believing that the school is causing the problem. In fact, underlying mental health conditions can be exacerbated by the pressures of the school environment, but school is not the root cause.
Taking the student out of the environment may make him or her feel better temporarily, but does nothing to address the underlying mental health issue. Students fail to learn the coping mechanisms that will help them succeed in school and in life.
Home instruction can actually reinforce mental health issues
The longer the student remains isolated in the home, the more entrenched the mental health issue becomes. Mental health issues are easier to overcome with prompt treatment, but home instruction masks the problem and often delays treatment, sometimes for years.
When a student remains on home instruction for a long period of time (often with no therapeutic intervention), it becomes increasingly more difficult for them to overcome their condition. Anxiety, depression, and social isolation grow over time and become harder to address even when the child finally does get the help they need. Transitioning back into the school after years of being at home can become all but impossible. A child in this situation may suffer for years and possibly for a lifetime.
Schools need to do more to support students struggling with emotional and behavioral problems, so that they can remain in school and receive their education.
A better alternative to home instruction for students and schools
If home instruction is not the answer for students struggling with mental health issues, then what is a better solution that works to get students back on track, and works within NJ law?
Experts across the country are recommending proactive school-based mental health intervention programs to improve outcomes for students struggling with mental health issues. Leading school districts are implementing a three-level intervention program that targets the entire school community and seeks to:
- change the school climate and values
- provide educational outreach and resources to groups of students, parents, and teachers
- provide expert counseling services to support individual students and families in need
Together, these efforts both alter the school environment and provide the necessary supports to keep students in school and help them succeed there.
New Jersey has taken the first step toward supporting student mental health with new legislation that requires schools to provide age-appropriate mental health curriculum as part of K-12 health education, beginning in the 2020-21 school year.
What does a school-based mental health intervention program look like? Get the details in our new guide: Proactive Mental Wellness: The Keystone of Your Strong School Community
Christopher J. Leonard, MSW, LCSW, M.ED.
Chris Leonard is Director of Operations for Sage Thrive and the Sage Day Schools. He is an experienced teacher, school administrator, social worker and psychotherapist with over 30 years of experience working with children, adolescents, and families. Mr. Leonard is married with two daughters and enjoys distance running, mountain and road biking, hiking, and the outdoors.