Can I 'catch my child up' by homeschooling him?
Of course there are exceptions, but in general, the answer to this question is "No." It is important to remember that home schooling is not a cure for learning difficulties. If a child has dyslexia, ADD, auditory processing problems, or more severe difficulties, home schooling will not cause these interferences to go away. You will still battle attention and processing difficulties at the kitchen table - not just in the classroom. Home schooling does allow you to create a positive learning environment for your child where areas of weakness can be addressed and areas of strength capitalized upon. Don't think of home schooling as a cure, think of it as an opportunity for your child to be educated as a whole person and for his school program to be tailored to his needs.
How can I do everything that my child needs?
It is easy to feel overwhelmed with all of the things that you COULD do with your child. Especially if you have reports from specialists, they often make you feel that if you don't do everything right away, you are dooming your child in some way. Before you move into your car, think through the following things:
How do home school children develop language and social skills?
Children who learn at home do have good language and social models - their parents and siblings! A family is the most fundamental social unit of all. Family and community interactions such as church, scouts, sports, and home school play groups provide our children with opportunities to use language and social skills in a variety of settings. At home we can work on specific social skills and practice them in a safe environment free from teasing and ridicule. Of course, this doesn't mean that our children won't have language or social difficulties if they are at home. Just as the different attention and processing issues mentioned above come home with a child, the language and social areas are no exception. However, within the home and community setting, there are ample opportunities to teach and practice the skills our children need. We do have to set aside the time to incorporate these skills into our home school, but home is a completely adequate place to teach our children behavior and language skills.
How do I teach a new concept without reinforcing a student's errors?
(One of our families offers this suggestion in the context of introducing a new concept in math.) Originally Error-Free Learning was a therapeutic approach for rehabilitating people who had undergone cognitive impairment because of some kind of brain injury. I am adapting error-free learning to mean breaking down a concept so that students can practice initially with lots of support. Then gradually as more of the concept is mastered, less supportive cues are given. For example, I am currently introducing my child to the concept of multiplication. So we have been making charts (drawings of 12 cookie shapes, each with 2 chocolate chips for the x2 facts; and 12 cookies each with 3 chocolate chips for the x3 facts). Then we have been practicing the 2 and 3 times tables on a giant chalk number line (1-36) on our driveway. My daughter holds both charts so she will always have the answers (hence, error-free support). Then we take turns calling out a problem such as "2x6 = ?" and then the other person runs to that number. She can look at the charts both when I give her a problem and when she gives me a problem, so she is repeatedly getting the visual input of these problems and getting exercise reinforcing them as she runs from answer to answer on our driveway. (She likes being in the teacher/quizzer role too.) In the future as she gets more familiar with the x2's and x3's, I plan to let her use post-its to cover up a few numbers on her charts when we practice... and then block out more and more as she gets more internalized. But she will always be able to peek under the post-its if she forgets a multiplication fact so she doesn't have to practice mistakes... Testing will come later, and covering those she knows fairly well.
I'm not a trained teacher. How could someone like me ever be equipped to home school?
As a Christian, I believe first and foremost that if God calls you to do something, then He will equip you to be able to do it. Look at the disciples of Jesus. They were not trained pastors or leaders. They were fishermen and tax collectors! Yet, they preached some of the greatest sermons ever preached and wrote letters that guide millions of lives today - all by the power of the Holy Spirit. If God can take a bunch of fishermen and build a universal church - He can surely give you what you need to home school one small child!
As a teacher myself, I can also tell you that nothing going on in the school systems is magic. Most good teaching is a lot of common sense with some creativity mixed in. You likely taught your child how to use the toilet and how to put his toys away. There is not a huge amount of difference between those skills and academics. However, there are things that an experienced teacher does better than an inexperienced teacher due to, well, experience! Therefore, it is wise to not try and reinvent the wheel if you are going to home school any child - but especially a special needs child. There definitely are many ways of teaching that will work better than others, so it is important to learn from others who are more experienced in this field. This can be done through books, tapes, workshops, or by working with consultants and others experienced in special education. You don't have to know all the things to do - but you do have to be willing to learn.
And finally, as a mother, let me address your concern over frustration. Don't think that first you need to be patient and then you can be a good teacher for your child. Patience is most often developed through difficult circumstances - not before them! It is important that as parent's of special needs children we acknowledge that our kids try our patience. We are not perfect. We get frustrated because we have to explain things multiple times or because our kids just don't "get" what we are trying to do with them. When frustration occurs, it is important to look objectively at the task we are attempting. If what we are asking our child to do is really too hard, we may need to back up or change the way we are teaching. If our child's difficulties are just part of his disability, then we may need to dig in and persevere through even if the progress can only be measured in baby steps. Either way, frustration can be replaced by positive action if we train ourselves to step back and take our emotions out of the picture. This can be a long journey, but is a big part of our own process of maturity!
My child reverses his letters and numbers. How do I know if this is a problem or if he will grow out of it?
While it is true that all children reverse letters and numbers when first learning to read and write, if this continues past first grade (or after your child has turned 8), it is an indication of a possible vision related learning problem. If this is the case, I recommend having your child's vision checked by a developmental optometrist. The type of exam that a developmental optometrist gives is different from a standard eye test. A developmental optometrist will check to see if your child's eyes are working efficiently in relation to the vision skills needed for learning. This is quite different from the 20/20 eye exams that are routinely given in pediatrician's offices and by most general optometrists. For more information on vision problems and learning, I suggest that you visit the following two websites:
Parents Active for Vision Education A national non-profit whose mission is to raise awareness of the crucial relationship between vision and achievement. It also provides information on Vision Therapy and Developmental Optometrists. One feature of this site includes a checklist of symptoms of vision related learning problems. College of Optometrists in Vision Development A certifying body and organization of doctors who specialize in Behavioral/Developmental/Rehabilitative Optometry. The site has a referral database of doctors throughout the world. Issue #13 of our newsletter, Turning Challenges into Opportunities, is all about vision and learning. It contains several articles along with information on resources for improving visual processing skills. To order this issue, send $4.55 to: 2000 Barrett Ave Morgan Hill, CA 95037 and indicate issue #13 on your check. Checks should be made out to AVCS Books.
Should I have my child tested?
Testing may seem scary to parents who are concerned about "labeling" a child unnecessarily, and I would certainly avoid using anyone for testing who was ONLY concerned with a diagnosis. However, testing is a very important part of gaining a full picture of your child's learning struggles. First of all, an IQ score can help you see your child's overall learning potential. This is important because if we have two children who are struggling, but one has an average IQ and learning disabilities while the other has a lower IQ and is working up to his potential already, we would treat these two kids entirely differently. Without the testing, their problems may look similar, but the testing helps us to see how different their situations really are. Secondly, it is important to know not only learning potential, but also the specific perceptual or processing glitches that are causing the learning problems. This gives us both a good picture of a student's strengths and weaknesses and points to areas to work on with remedial exercises or with a certain type of therapy. This type of information helps you to put your time and energy into what will really help your child instead of trying a hit or miss approach without the testing.
That being said, it is important to remember that testing is only ONE of the tools we use to gain a full picture of a child's learning struggles. You as parents know your children and your observations and knowledge of your child is invaluable to the process of understanding their learning struggles. When I explain test results to parents, I always want to know if what I am telling them lines up with their own observations. If not, I think it is important to take time to explore why there are differences. Sometimes we find that a child has not truly mastered material the parent thought was mastered. Sometimes parents come to see how they have created such a predictable, helpful environment for their child that only rote learning, not true understanding has taken place. Sometimes parents realize that they help their child too much and don't push enough. And sometimes we find that the tests are only showing a limited amount of information due to test factors such as time.
I have a friend who recently had both of her children tested for very different reasons. One child's testing revealed very subtle dyslexia, which explained a lot of his struggles. The other child did not have any learning disabilities and this helped answer a question about a mis-match between her and her school setting. Both problems had been guessed at by the mother as possible situations, but with the actual testing in her hand, she was able to make more effective and specific decisions about directions to take for each child.
What can I do to help my learning-disabled teenager build friendships?
Friendships is always a hard topic for kids with learning issues - but never more so than in the teen years! Unfortunately, there are no easy answers - but I can tell you a few things to consider and to talk to your teenager about.
One thing to keep in mind is that teenagers are hard on each other even if they are all "normal". Being different is considered unacceptable (no matter what kind of "tolerance training" they may have had) and they are extremely self-absorbed. All of this makes friendships a challenge in the teenage years for kids with no disabilities - much less add in language problems, etc. and it becomes almost impossible. Here are a few ideas for to assist either a daughter or a son:
Help your teen to focus on building relationships with a wide range of ages. Help her get her focus off of peer friendships as the only or even most important kind of relationship. Talk about relationships - not just friendships. Help your daughter to lower her expectations (you may have to do this too). Help her realize that her language difficulties make it more of a challenge to make friends. Talk to her about the kinds of things she likes to do and that friends can also be people who are younger or older than she is. A slightly older college or young career age woman might be a great "big sister" type of relationship to cultivate - you might even look into the Big Brothers/Big Sisters program and see if they do mentoring for teens with disabilities.
Try focusing on family activities that include another family that has a teenager that your daughter would like to be friends with. That way she can have some time with another teenager - but all the focus isn't just on them - in other words there are other people to interact with and the likely-hood of the two teenagers just sitting and staring at each other with nothing to say is reduced. A family BBQ or picnic with a couple of other families with teens is a great way to provide peer interaction without it feeling like a failure.
I'm sure you are already doing this - but I'll throw it out here anyway. Pick specific social skills that are difficult and practice them at home. Talk with her about praying for God to meet the needs she has that aren't being fulfilled in friendships. Help her identify what she is looking for in having a friend and help her identify other ways that those needs can be met. Sometimes we all get tunnel vision and think that the one "normal" way of meeting our social needs is the only way. You might also help her look for other people around her who are socially isolated. Do you have an older relative who needs relationships - or even someone from your church who lives alone? There are lots of lonely people out there and they want friends regardless of their age!! Once she gets past the teenage years - some of this may not be as difficult, but some if it may remain difficult her whole life. Some of it comes down to accepting that and making the most out of the relationships that she does have.
What do I do if my child is resistant or won't listen to my instruction?
Children with learning disabilities can definitely be resistant when they are frustrated. However, there is a difference between children who are frustrated over difficult work (who probably need a break) and a child who is defiant or won't take instruction. Even if you have to take time away from academics, establishing respectful obedience from your child is vital to successful home schooling.
In my home, I use the "one more rule" when children start to become resistant to difficult work. We finish one more of whatever we are doing and then take a break - along with the reminder that we will return to finish the work later. This allows all of us (me too) a chance to cool down and release the frustration that builds over something difficult. No one can learn with their heart pounding and their eyes filling up with tears! Those are the time for a break and a hug. We often take a walk or do some house cleaning. Then, it is easier to sit back down and resume work with a clear head. During the time we are breaking, I have a chance to think through how we should approach the difficulty we are encountering. Sometimes I realize we need to back up and review something else before re-tackling the difficulty. On the other hand, if the resistance was the start of a defiant attitude on the part of one of my children, a break vacuuming the house or walking the dog usually allows them to calm down and return to work without having to have a confrontation.
What is the best curriculum to use?
In general, the best curriculum is the one you modify to fit the unique needs of your child. There are no perfect curricula, so the best I think a better question than what curriculum to use is "What are the most important teaching techniques to use with my special needs child?" A curriculum cannot solve learning difficulties, but solid teaching will take your child to his or her potential.
There certainly are curricula and books more suited to children with learning disabilities than others. In general, you will be creating a group of resources based on your child's weaknesses and their interests and strengths. Meet your child where he/she is. If he is in 5th grade, but can only read himself at first grade level, then use remedial reading and low level/high interest reading material (such as High Noon Books from Academic Therapy Publications) to work on reading, but read history, science and literature to him (or get textbooks on tape from Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic) at his comprehension level.
The most important thing you can do when teaching a child with learning problems is to make them THINK up to their intellectual potential. Almost all children with learning struggles are passive learners. They truly believe that unless information just soaks into their heads, there is nothing they can do to aid the learning process! Our job as teachers is to activate our children to become as engaged as possible in the learning process. No matter what curriculum you use, you engage your child by asking questions and pushing them past their "I don't knows." The two most important questions to ask any child are: "What does this mean?" and "How are you going to remember this?" Now, with more severely disabled students, these questions may not be feasible, but even my autistic daughter can be pushed to engage in the learning process by my asking her questions and not allowing her to do things the same way every time we do a task. This forces thinking - even on her limited level - to take place.