Taking Courage: Homeschooling a Child With Disabilities, by Jodi L.

 

My oldest child was in the 2nd grade when we decided to homeschool him. It was a difficult decision, one fraught with fear and anxiety. Jack, who has autism, was barely verbal. He had to be taught one on one, required a schedule, and couldn’t entertain himself. I wondered where I would even begin when it came to curriculum. Among the many questions I had, the most ominous was: Could I give that much of myself? Was there enough of me to go around? Jack’s autism was going to make things complicated, and I wasn’t sure I was qualified. I did have four other children at home to consider: a kindergartener and first grader, whom I was already enjoyably homeschooling, as well as a toddler and a baby. How on earth could I balance all of this?

The school was trying the best they could, but it was crystal clear that the system was not designed for children with moderate- to low-functioning autism. They were constantly asking for advice in their effort to improve Jack’s school experience. We worked together to come up with rewards, picture schedules, and adaptations to the curriculum and the environment.

Still, the stress on Jack was causing nonstop meltdowns every morning and afternoon. Jack was refusing to eat at school. He was miserable, we were miserable. I felt sometimes as if I barely knew who Jack was. The only peaceful time we had was at bedtime. I wasn’t sure bringing him home full-time was the answer to a better life for Jack, or if it would just multiply all of our miseries. I prayed fervently about it. One thing was certain: I, as his mother, who knew Jack intimately, was more in tune with his needs than strangers, even if they were well-intentioned strangers.

Just one year, I thought. I mustered all the courage I could, then I launched off into the unknown.

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The first year was an experiment. My main focus was to find out how Jack learned, and what he was interested in learning, and using that to motivate him. It took trying out a few different curriculums and a variety of household schedules to find something that worked. I had to adjust what I was doing with my other children as well, to accommodate Jack and his needs. Nothing is ever perfect, but we found a place where we could function, remain sane, and even have clean underwear. Who says you can’t have it all?

In my search I found that some curriculums were too wordy, others were too abstract. I hunted down the most concrete and simple math and language arts curriculum I could find. This curriculum-hopping was a bit expensive at first, but I didn’t get too attached to any one curriculum. It was still cheaper than the private school tuition we had paid in previous years. I left science and social studies to what I could find for free, and that included mostly student-lead, hands-on activities. I then plugged them into a schedule.

Through trial and error I learned that it worked best to have a “flow” chart rather than a schedule with specific times. Remarkably, Jack’s most peaceful and focused time was in the evening when his siblings were all in bed, and we would sit down and work on math and language arts. This first year was the biggest learning curve, but on the whole, it was a success. I had a happy kiddo whose tantrums had decreased by 75%. He started interacting more with his sisters and brothers, learned how to help around the house, and started making jokes and laughing more.

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I learned more about myself that year as well. I learned that, while I disliked schedules in the beginning, they actually helped me be more productive during large chunks of the day. I discovered that Jack needed everyone’s behaviors to be predictable, which meant we all had to be on a schedule. The day-to-day had been difficult at times, but the year on a whole saw many improvements in Jack’s quality of life, as well as ours. So we committed to a second year.

The second year had a different focus. I knew what curriculum I felt most comfortable with and how to use it as a tool to aid me in educating Jack. I knew much more about Jack’s personality and what made him tick. I wanted this year to be the one that saw growth in his independent work habits and found activities where he could work with his siblings. I needed to find ways to combine materials so that I could work with my 1st and 2nd grader at the same time, on the same thing. I wanted to transfer the chunk of school time that had been previously happening at night to early morning.

I also learned to humble myself and ask for help. I reached out to friends of friends who knew quite a bit about autism. I let other people help me. I discovered that my insurance company would cover ABA therapy in my home, so I had therapists come in and help with areas I knew I couldn’t reach, such as increasing Jack’s vocabulary and independent self-help skills. I also enlisted my other children to help me teach Jack some basic games.

Homeschooling isn’t singularly about academics. It is about developing the personhood in each of our children; it is about relationships, and fostering virtue, within our family setting, to create successful adults. This year I worried less about whether or not Jack was keeping up in the academic sense, and concerned myself more about the adult he would become. I had to redefine what I considered to be of value (and what I considered a reflection on myself) by letting the house be less “kept” than I would like. This is humbling when a therapist is coming to your house every day!

Our second year was also an overall success. So…we committed to a third year, and a fourth.

At various times over these years, our homeschool theme could have been taken from G.K. Chesterton: “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.” However, as we come to the close of our fourth year, one that even included the birth of a baby, I consider it all to be a success. Every trial and failure taught us all a little bit more about ourselves. All of us have grown, academically and spiritually. We are closer together than ever. We are all a little tougher, a little stronger.

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Recently I had the opportunity to enjoy a sunrise with Jack, as we shared some humorous banter over my coffee. Jack was laughing, the rising sun was warming our living room, and my heart suddenly overflowed with gratitude for the opportunity to be there, sharing that moment with my son. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

“In the world you will have tribulation, but take courage, I have overcome the world.” John 16:33.

 

 

Jodi is mom to six kids, ages 12 years to 11 months. She has been homeschooling for five years, four of them have included her son with autism. Her interests and hobbies include allergy-free cooking, r13403663284_0c3085af92eading, hiking, canoeing, and camping. It is more likely that you will find her buried in laundry, however, than doing any one of these.

 

Subtle Vision Issues Can Cause Big Problems

By Jane-Emily

A preliminary note: Although the cause of my daughter’s vision issue is quite rare, the problems we had because of it are pretty common and the therapy we used is helpful for a wide range of issues.  I hope that some people looking for ways to help their kids will find this useful.

My younger daughter’s 3rd grade year was something of a nightmare.  I didn’t know what to do with her.  She couldn’t explain the problem, and it took me a long time to connect the dots; I didn’t realize that the different issues we were having were all caused by the same thing.

Problem #1: She could read perfectly well, but she didn’t like to read.  I know not everyone is going to love reading as much as I do, but I found her avoidance of reading to be a little odd.  In particular, she would not try new books; she had to be completely convinced that she was going to love the story.  I would tantalize her by reading aloud whatever book I thought she would like–that usually worked, but quite often she would read some of a book and then leave it unfinished.  She much preferred listening, and I gave her lots of audiobooks.

Problem #2: Math.  I was mystified.  This kid started off enjoying math, and she had clearly inherited some of her dad’s skill at it.  Even as a toddler, she loved puzzles and blocks, and she grew into a confirmed Lego addict.  During math lessons, she learned well and enjoyed it.  But in 3rd grade, she started having inexplicable meltdowns.  She “hated math.”  We were using Saxon, and she did fine with the lesson part. She loved anything having to do with manipulatives, she understood the concepts, and she knew her math facts cold–but she balked at the problem sets, and the sheets of math facts (the ones with 100 to a page) sent her into an instant tailspin.

She complained of headaches.  She tried to weasel out of the work.  She cried.   But why?  She was perfectly capable.  When I was in 3rd grade we did those math fact sheets daily and I thought they were fun.  I wasn’t asking her to do anything unusual or difficult.

I tried all kinds of things.  We did “trampoline math” for the fact sheets, where I would call out the problems and she would answer them while jumping on a mini-tramp.  I would bribe her with an M&M for every row she finished.  We did a lot orally.  Still she balked and developed sudden headaches, but I didn’t really believe in them.  Since when do healthy kids get headaches at the drop of a hat?  I thought her headaches were fictional, a way to get out of doing what she didn’t want to do.  (This is where I win the Bad Mom of the Year Award.)

She started complaining about headaches more, even when she was doing things she liked to do–even when she was playing.  I took this development more seriously and started wondering if she had a real problem that we weren’t understanding.  My first thought was to take her to the eye doctor.

I should explain why I jumped so easily to the eye doctor idea:  I am horribly near-sighted, and my entire family is prone to having interesting eye problems.  This child invented a new one for us to deal with; she has a particular condition called Duane’s Syndrome.  One of her eyes does not have its full range of motion because the nerves that control the muscles on one side simply never developed.  There is nothing to be done about this, but our regular eye doctor and our friend the ophthalmologist (who explained it to me when she was a baby) didn’t seem to think it was any big deal, and she had never shown any signs of trouble.  I’d been taking her to get her eyes checked since she was 1 year old, and she had just gotten a checkup and a fresh pair of glasses before 3rd grade.  She had even lost the wonky astigmatism she’d had in that eye, so I thought things were going well.

It had only been maybe 6 months since she had last seen the eye doctor, but this time we were looking for a specific problem and he did some different tests.  She did not have good binocularity!  Her eyes were not working together as well as they should, even on her good side.  (Of course they can’t work together at all on her weak side–she sees double there.)  The doctor recommended vision therapy; he was certified in VT and would give us exercises to do.

This all came as something of a shock to me.  I’d gotten so used to her wonky eye that I hadn’t considered all the ramifications of it for her.  I called up our friend the ophthalmologist and asked his opinion.  He (and the pediatric ophthalmologist he referred me to) thought that vision therapy would be a useless waste of time and money.  I’m afraid I broke into tears on the phone and distressed him terribly, poor guy.

We were on a tight budget and vision therapy wasn’t covered by our insurance.  The idea of spending hundreds of dollars on something that might not work was hugely daunting to me, but how could I not try?  Besides, no other option presented itself.  It was VT or nothing.

So we gave it a try.  The doctor gave us simple exercises to do, often with items we had at home, though he also lent us equipment.  Every day, we did a set of exercises, and I learned much more about how her eyes work.   Our goal was to get her eyes working together as much as possible, given her incurable condition.

I’m happy and relieved to report that the exercises worked beautifully.  Over a few months, her complaints about headaches diminished and then ceased.  She became willing to read!  It still isn’t her very favorite thing to do (that would be Legos), but she enjoys books and, to my joy, spent the summer working through the entire “Warriors” series.  It helps if I search out editions with clear type that isn’t too small.  Her distaste for new, unknown books had been because reading was such hard work for her that she had to be convinced that it would be worth it–but of course she couldn’t articulate that.  A child who has never known otherwise cannot explain what is going wrong.

We developed a whole new set of habits for math:  I bought paper that allowed for larger writing, I discovered apps that presented practice problems in a beautifully large font, and we still did quite a bit orally.  Much of 4th grade was spent just getting her over the hatred of math she had developed–not because she couldn’t do the work, but because she couldn’t focus on the small print and it made her eyes hurt.

I’m grateful that we homeschool; I’m convinced that the amount of time I could spend observing her trying to work is what helped us to figure out the problem.   I had a thorough knowledge of her–her personality, talents, and issues from the day she was born–and it still took me months to figure it out.  I’m also grateful that I chose Saxon Math; with its plain layout and lack of fancy embellishments all over the page, it is actually the best text for her, since there is so little to confuse or distract the eye.   We did give up those 100-fact sheets, though.  They have tiny print that is just plain hard to see.

Considering the results, I think the hundreds of dollars we had to spend for VT was well worth it.  I imagine what her life would be like if schoolwork and reading were always a difficult struggle that caused pain.  It would be completely natural to hate school, and math, and reading!  At the time, I worried constantly about the money, because I wasn’t sure that the therapy would work.  Now, I think it one of the best things I ever spent money on.

My daughter’s particular eye condition is a rare one, but the problem that it caused is not.  I am no expert, but as far as I can tell, problems with binocularity are fairly common.  It’s hard to spot, though, because it’s so subtle, and the resulting behavioral problems look like a childish reluctance to cooperate.  Many people faced with a recalcitrant child don’t think of possible hard-to-detect vision issues.  So I am sharing my story here in hopes that if you have a child who hates math or reading for no discernible reason, a visit to an eye doctor who knows something about vision therapy will be on your list of things to do.  Vision therapy seems to still be not very well-known, and it could solve so many children’s problems!

jane-emilyJane-Emily homeschools two daughters in California.  She is a librarian who loves to quilt and embroider, and she’s a Bollywood addict.  Her favorite author is Diana Wynne Jones. She blogs about reading at Howling Frog Books.

Learning Disabilities and All About Spelling

by Siena

Our eldest son went to public school for kindergarten. I wanted to homeschool him, but my husband is a public school teacher and wanted him to go to school. So off he went, away from our happy nest and into the world. Despite my misgivings, I was sure he would do well. He soared in math class and made friends easily. But reading fluency remained elusive. Christmas came and went and he still had not mastered his letter sounds. We buckled down at home. We drilled phonemes and forced him to try to read. And still he stumbled.

By the end of the year, my husband agreed to let N come home for the next year. I had been eagerly perusing catalogs and fell in love with the pictures on the shiny Sonlight brochures. The idyllic pictures of moms reading to well-dressed and well-behaved youngsters looked so inviting! (In retrospect, I should have thought a little longer and harder about using a teacher-intensive curriculum my first year. Especially with five kids ages seven and younger – including a newborn who was delivered via c-section the first week of school! But I digress.) I ordered the curriculum and just about wet my britches with excitement on Box Day.

N enjoyed the science, math and history portions of the day. And I’m sure he absorbed some of the literature that I faithfully read aloud that year (at least what he could hear over the constant bickering and questioning – seriously, do other folks’ kids ask fifteen questions per page?) But reading remained a mystery. I read and researched and tried a couple different programs. The Sonlight “whole language” approach clearly did not work for him. Teach Your Child to Read in 100 EZ Lessons made us both want to cry. We made it through the book, but he still struggled.  He did weird things, like substituting synonyms (“rock” for “stone,” etc) and could not seem to blend sounds. CVC (consonant-vowel-consonant) words were easy, but blends (pl, br, fl, st, etc) baffled him. Articles and small pronouns (a, the, we, etc) were frequently missed as well. I tried using manipulatives, games, computer programs and tutors, and he still struggled. A family member who is a teacher did a screening test with him and said he didn’t have any learning issues. She recommended trying harder. So we redoubled our efforts and scheduled reading lessons twice a day. N was miserable.

The next year continued the same way. By that point, we’d abandoned Sonlight in favor of KONOS unit studies, which we could pursue together with all the kids. They really enjoyed KONOS, but N still couldn’t read. S, his younger sister, picked up reading easily. The contrast between my two students caused me to fret about N even more. I convinced my husband to allow N to be tested for dyslexia (my husband is not a fan of labels). We went to our local Scottish Rite facility’s learning resource center. I cannot say enough good things about them. They tested N (and later, A) for FREE. Yeah, like, no dinero at all. They were kind and professional, and N even enjoyed it. The testing lasted one day, and we came back a few weeks later for a meeting about the results.

Tests showed that N had a very high IQ, but he also had severe dyslexia and dysgraphia. I almost cried with relief. It felt weird to be relieved at hearing that your child has a severe learning disability, but I felt like at least we had something to work with now. For almost three years we’d been beating our heads against the wall and making absolutely no progress. Now, I felt, we could take the new information and run with it.

We initially tried Scottish Rite’s Dyslexia Training Program, a DVD based program that mirrors the highly successful “Rite Flight” that is done at the facility. N hated it. Cried whenever I got it out and was just miserable. We had been able to borrow the curriculum from the local Masonic Temple, so we decided to return it and try something different.

We bit the bullet and shelled out the money for Barton Reading and Spelling. It’s pricey, but it’s pretty much the gold standard for Orton-Gillingham type language programs. N did well with it. I had S do it as well, hoping it would sharpen her spelling. Seeing the two work, N’s dyslexia became even more glaringly apparent to me. Tasks like dividing a CVC word into separate phonemes or playing a rhyming game were a cakewalk for S and a frustration for N. It was clear that something just didn’t click the same way in his head. One day I took N to the park alone for his “parent date.” I told him that I was really proud of his diligence and I knew that he was developing skills and perseverance that would help him in the future. I reminded him that he was highly intelligent, and that his brain was just wired a little differently. And, on the fly, I told him that reading was kind of like storming a castle. Most of the time, the troops can just ride over the drawbridge and raise the door. But sometimes the troops have to flank the castle and engage in sneakier maneuvers, employing siege towers and sappers. But they can still succeed. Kind of a lame metaphor, but it really helped him. Even now, five years later, he still refers to it.

Barton was great, but kind of pricey. At $250-$300 per module (plus the cost of additional readers), it was a little steep for us. A friend mentioned All About Spelling, another O-G program. It was more reasonably priced and looked like it would be more fun. I ordered the first two levels and started it with both N and S.

Level 1 is mostly just teaching the various phonemes and drilling them with flashcards. Simple dictation is introduced, as well as compound words and syllable types. We flew through Level 1 with both kids. N felt especially proud of his speed in completing Level 1. The three levels of Barton he had completed gave him a very solid foundation.

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(Our whiteboard with AAS tiles.  Yes, that is the Holy Family up there.  I have six kids, I need all the help I can get.)

Once you hit Level 2, the lessons follow a predictable format. You have a small review section at the beginning (usually dividing a word into syllables and labeling the syllable types, while reviewing any pertinent rules). Then you do some new teaching. This may be a new rule, a new phoneme or a new syllable type. Words are spelled using small multi-colored tiles. Magnets can be purchased for these tiles (we just bought them directly from AAS) to facilitate using the tiles on a magnetic white board. The student then reads the word, divides it and labels it. After several words are spelled, and you feel the child has mastered the concept, you break out the flashcards. Ten new words are generally added to the flashcard deck each lesson, and you are encouraged to review past words often. (I made some board games to use with them.) After flashcards are done, dictation begins. First words are dictated, then phrases, then sentences. You are encouraged to go as slow as necessary and not move on to the next lesson until a concept is fully mastered.

Early in our AAS journey, we would divide a lesson up into several days. We’d do the review, new teaching and flashcards the first day. Then review the flashcards and do word/phrase dictation the next day. The third day I would make up some sentences using the flashcard words and have the student read them to me. Then we’d finish the lesson with dictation of full sentences. (I always grade dictation immediately and have them write any missed words three times each at the bottom of the page.) S is now in public school, and N is in junior high, so we sprint through lessons. Usually we complete one each day.

N and S have both demonstrated improved spelling and reading fluency after using All About Spelling. They find the lessons engaging and painless. We also use the new All About Reading program, which I will write about at a later date.

Teaching kids with learning challenges is hard. But having a good diagnosis and plan makes a huge difference. I encourage any Mom or Dad with a struggling child to get them tested. Do not ignore your gut instinct! I wish now that I’d pushed to have N tested sooner. I wish I’d advocated more aggressively for him in the public school and I wish I’d ignored the people who kept telling me it was poor work ethic instead of a true problem. Sometimes trying harder isn’t enough and our kids depend on us to get them the tools they need to succeed.

Siena is a proud Kansas City native who was transplanted to Texas thirteen years ago. She has three boys and three girls, and is currently in her seventh year of homeschooling. Several of her children have struggled with dyslexia, dyscalculia, dysgraphia, and other learning challenges. She tells them often that God must have something amazing for them in the future, as they are learning perseverance now.

Classical Education and the Dyslexic Child

by Sheryl

Classical Education has a reputation for being a teaching method for the gifted. It focuses on the rigorous study of things that we don’t think of as part of our everyday lives, unfamiliar things like Latin, Rhetoric, and Logic. It seems intimidating. Unfortunately, this misconception has led many parents of dyslexic children away from the method, which is truly tragic. I have found that Classical Education is, in fact, a very important part of helping my dyslexic child to overcome her learning disabilities.

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Latin

Latin is key to about 50% of our English vocabulary (Classical Education and the Homeschool by Callihan, Jones & Wilson). It is the root of understanding.

Orton-Gillingham, the premiere method of teaching reading and spelling to dyslexics, includes Latin in their materials, and their reasoning is simple: Dyslexics often struggle with dividing words into phonetic bits and then re-assembling those bits into a logical whole. Learning Latin allows students to understand the meaning of those pieces and gives them a more in-depth comprehension of words. Dyslexics, even more than the general population need to have this resource in their tool-kit.

Classical Literature

Language is a large focus of Classical Education, which may make it seem inappropriate for the dyslexic student. Children who struggle with reading are often thought of as incapable of studying great literature with all of its multi-syllable words, complicated language and levels of meaning, but we need to be careful not to confuse isolation from challenging sources with helping our students to overcome their reading struggles.

Great literature increases vocabulary, expands understanding of figurative speech, and exposes us to worlds outside of our own. It is an important window in to the world, and one from which we must not deprive our children.

Reading is necessary to any well rounded education, but this does not mean that students are restricted to only books within their reading level. Technology is a huge asset to the dyslexic student. Audiobooks, text-to-speech programs, and shared reading are all ways to experience the depth of literature outside of independent study.

One of the greatest things I have learned from Classical Education is that exceptional learning comes from exceptional sources. Of course there are a few children that will become an Autodidact, but the dyslexic child (along with most other children) will need to be guided and helped along the way. Experiencing quality literature is far more important than the method of reading. They must focus not just on their weakness, but on ways to work around that that weakness to gain great strength.

A Place to Excel

Children with learning disabilities need to be given the opportunity to find a place in which they can succeed. Many dyslexic students find this in the fine arts. Architecture, movement, and sculpture have all been found to take advantage of the spatial abilities inherent in the dyslexic’s brain. Offering our students time to study the masters and discover their own talent gives them an amazing opportunity to experience success.

The Trivium (stages of learning)

The greatest benefit of Classical Education is that it intentionally and incrementally trains students to learn for themselves. This pattern of moving through the grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric stages is truly beneficial for dyslexic children.

Education is all about challenging children in the subjects in which they excel, and encouraging them where they struggle. Classical Education offers a great balance in this respect. It intentionally divides learning into stages of acquiring facts, connecting those facts, and then questioning and expressing what you believe. It gives our students an excellent foundation.

Parents of dyslexic students must be dedicated to diligently helping their students as they approach more difficult literature, but the benefits are exponentially greater than the sacrifice. In some ways, teachers of dyslexic students are at an advantage. When reading aloud together, deep conversations come naturally and wonderful discussions result. These discussions are the heart of the classical method.

My Reality

Dyslexia isn’t an easy learning disability to deal with. It requires diligent instruction, repetition, and effort. The rigor of Classical Education has offered my daughter not only a thorough quality education, but access to the essential tools that she needs to overcome her disability. We are still walking this path, but our goal is that she will become an adult who is not only capable of learning, but one who can actively and intentionally analyze the world around her regardless of her struggles.

Giftedness is not essential to Classical Education. What is holding you back?

Sheryl G.
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Sheryl is living her dream in the house on Liberty Hill where she is a full time wife, mother, and teacher. She is passionate about turning children’s natural curiosity into activities that will inspire, enlighten, and entertain. Learn more about her adventures at libertyhillhouse.com.