Did you know it’s possible to estimate how much progress your special needs child can make in one year in their core subjects? You only need two numbers to get started: your child’s age and either estimated neurological age or grade level of current curriculum. If your child has scatter skills/splinter skills and works at different levels in different core subjects, you can do this for each subject.

The purpose of this exercise is twofold:

  1. Show about how much progress your child is likely to make in one year so you know whether to buy new curriculum.
  2. Project your child’s potential ability at graduation so you can make adjustments in therapies and supports, and help you plan for your child’s most likely future.

Notice that we are talking about core subjects: reading, writing, arithmetic. Because these are the basis for most other subjects, you can calculate based on those core areas.

FAIR WARNING: Don’t let the numbers you see scare you. This is only a planning tool based on progress to date, NOT a projection of your child’s actual progress in the future. I believe our children are capable of much more than we can imagine. And I believe that sometimes there is a learning block that, when overcome, can catapult your child forward.

Here are some basic guidelines for teaching your special needs child:

  • Understand the brain. Understand how the brain works so you know the proper therapies and supports to use at any stage of development.
  • Assume competence. Assume that your child understands what you are saying, even if he or she can’t motor plan the expected response.
  • Assume intelligence. Everyone’s brain is doing something all the time. You may have to learn new teaching methods to help your child learn, but always assume that they can learn.
  • Expose to grade level concepts. Even though your child may not be able to read, write or do math at grade level, they can often understand the concepts behind the material. Keep moving forward with concepts. This will keep your child from getting bored and build thinking skills without waiting on core skills that require motor planning and executive function.

Step 1: Gauge your child’s neurological age

The first step is to gauge your child’s neurological, or mental, age (versus biological age). You can do this in one of several ways.

  • Observation: Observe what your child likes to do and compare it to when that interest or activity appears for typically developing children. For example, playing with big girl dolls is typically elementary school age. Caring about what you look like out in public is more middle school. Although not at all scientific, going from big girl dolls to caring about your image is a leap from elementary to middle school. This may not necessarily be reflected academically, but it shows the child has that level of awareness intellectually.
  • Neuropsych Exam: If your child has been in the public school system, these are the tests that are done every three years according to the law. You will often get an IQ score on these as a measurement of cognitive development/mental age. You can also pay for these independently (to the tune of about $2,000). Click here for a list of what a neuropsych exam covers.

    Side note: If your child plans to attend college and needs accommodations, have this done within three years of graduation so you can use it for college accommodations at the colleges that offer them. If the test is over three years old, you will have to do it again to get the accommodations. This is a whole other topic so this is just a head’s up.
  • Other Testing: There are other tests that can be done that will give you an idea of your child’s mental age. If you receive test results from a school or doctor related to skills or intelligence, ask them to translate the number into an age-equivalent. Even if the test says your child is in the 1 percentile for a skill, that number can be calculated into an age equivalent.

Do not be discouraged by the numbers, especially an IQ number. IQ tests are designed to test normally functioning children. A low IQ score for someone who is developmentally delayed is more an indicator of neurological organization in the brain than intelligence. Learning this was the biggest eye opener from my class at The Family Hope Center.

Step 2: Calculate Your Child’s Future Progress

NOTE: This calculation is primarily for those with children who have intellectual disabilities or significant delays in core subjects that affect other academic areas. If your child struggles in one area that does not impact all other areas, this calculation will most likely not apply. If your child is consistently behind in a single subject, you can possibly use this to estimate future progress.

Once you know your child’s neurological age (also called mental or developmental age), you can do a simple math equation to figure out how much progress your child will likely make during the next school year.

I created charts that cover from 7th – 12th grades at various levels of function. Remember, these charts are a snapshot in time based on today’s numbers and are for planning purposes only. I doubt if your child will follow this pattern of progress for 7 years, especially if you are doing therapy or other interventions to improve function.

Recall that you only need two numbers to get started: your child’s age and either estimated neurological age or grade level of current curriculum. If your child has scatter skills/splinter skills and works at different levels in different subjects, you can do this for each subject.

Here is the calculation: If your child is 12 and is academically at a 1st grade level, then your child is working at a 6-year-old level, which is 50% of 12. So, take your child’s age next year and calculate 50%. If your child will be 13, then you can expect your child to be at a 6.5-year-old level (13 years old x .5 = 6.5 age equivalent)

But hang on! Before you get too discouraged, remember that this is only if your child continues to develop at the same rate. There are ways to speed up that process, primarily through therapy or other interventions. But that is a topic for another day.

Also, consider that your child is probably functioning at different levels in different subjects. I work with parents of children who are several years behind in core subjects, so this is a helpful exercise to determine how much a child can learn in a year. If your child is struggling a little in one or two subjects, this calculation will not be particularly helpful.


Here are some examples of how to project a child’s grade level into the future, (assuming the child continues to develop at the same rate). The key is below the chart.

Example 1: Functioning at 75% of physical age

Example 2: Functioning at 60% of physical age

Example 3: Functioning at 40% of physical age

Example 4: Functioning at 25% of physical age


  • grade: grade this year
  • physical age: this is the typical age of a child entering this grade
  • %: the percentage of function relative to what is typical for the physical age
  • neurological age: physical age times percentage function (example: 12 x .75 = 9)
  • age next year: age at the beginning of the school year
  • end of year neurological age: where your child is likely to be for the beginning of the next year (example: 13 x .75 = 9.75)
  • end of year grade level: projected neurological age converted to a grade level (example: 9.75 years old would be about 3/4 of the way through 4th grade (4.75)

Step 3: Plan Your Child’s School Year

As you can see, you would plan the school year very differently for each of these students. Each requires different pacing and type of curriculum. Based on your child’s likely future, you can start planning for and teaching towards it: college, workplace, independent with support, independent at home, day program or live-in facility.

If you have a special needs child who is stuck in perpetual elementary school and do not want to spend all your time teaching ABCs and 123s (which gets very frustrating for both you and your child), you will need to find a way to start teaching your child the things that will be important to know in adulthood. This will be a mix of academics and life skills. The lower your child’s function for the planning year, the more time you will likely spend on life skills and therapy.

Heads Up: That is the exact purpose of the ELARP™ Teaching Kits. They provide practical skills and concepts that will help in adulthood, for everyday life and everyday conversations. They include a mix of academics and life skills, and are designed to address scatter skills while building thinking skills.

Whether at home or on their own, thinking skills and problem solving are two of the top skills that indicate readiness for independence. Every Teaching Kit is designed to move your child along that path of higher and more complex thinking skills.

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