Earlier Rather Than Later: Unique Preschool for a Child with Down Syndrome, by Brit

 

When our daughter was born with Down syndrome, we never questioned whether we would homeschool her. That was just a given: she would be educated at home with her brothers. What we did question almost from the beginning was how, what, and when. As we were moving toward a much more classical approach with our boys, we wondered if we would also classically educate Kate. Would she be able to handle the rigor and work? Could she handle learning Latin like her brothers? We started to question the curriculum choices we were making with the boys, wondering if she would need something entirely different. And we weren’t sure when to start a more formal approach to her learning. Would we wait until she was “school age” to begin formal learning, beyond what she showed an interest in? Or would we take an “early is better” approach?

It wasn’t very hard to realize that Kate, too, would be classically educated. We knew it might, and probably would, look different than her brothers’ education looked. But it would be classical to the best of her ability. I bought Cheryl Swope’s book Simply Classical. Reading her story, and that of her two children made me realize that it wasn’t just possible to educate Kate classically, it was the best way to educate her as a whole person. Sure, she will need to learn life skills. Sure, we will need to help her gain as much independence as possible. But those skills just address one piece of what makes Kate, well, Kate. She is a body and soul and deserves an education that forms her whole being just as much as her brothers do. Recently, our decision was validated and cemented when I read this quote by Martin Cothran of Memoria Press:

If a child cannot accommodate the amount or depth of knowledge of most children, it is not less, but more important that what they learn be of the highest quality.

Now that we knew roughly what her education was going to look like, we needed to decide how it was going to play out. As I read books and on the internet, and as I spoke with others who have walked this path before me, I began to discuss the idea of early academics with my husband. Knowing that all learning for Kate would be uphill both ways, we decided that an early start to building her academic foundation was vital to her potential success later in life. The first place we began was reading instruction. Not only is the ability to read one of the most fundamental abilities necessary to participate in every day life, but learning to read also helps cognitive development as well as speech development, both of which can be delayed in individuals with Down syndrome.

We have put together a reading program using a variety of resources including The Learning Program materials, See and Learn, and the book Teaching Reading to Children with Down Syndrome. Mostly, we use flash cards that have a word on one side with a corresponding picture on the reverse. The flashing through is fast; it takes a couple minutes to go through a stack of ten cards, twice. We have also added books from the Learning Program with simple sentences to help her make the connection between words on a flashcard and words in books. The goal is for Kate to be reading and comprehending at or above grade level when she begins first grade.

In addition to teaching reading in the preschool years, we also are teaching early math literacy – counting everything (steps as we go up and down the stairs, objects on pages of books we read, pieces of food), sorting and categorizing toys, and playing with pattern blocks and attribute blocks, among other more formal activities. Looking back, so many of these early concepts came naturally for her brothers, either through playtime together or through videos from Leap Frog. We didn’t think much of what we were doing, we just included colors, numbers, shapes, and sizes in everyday conversation with our boys. With Kate, though, nothing can be assumed. Yes, we play with her in the same ways, having similar conversations. But we also pull out flash cards, linking cubes, and small math manipulatives. We must be much more deliberate with Kate, much more explicit with the instruction, much more repetitive with her. The idea is that she must have 10,000 times more input than typical children to retain information. She must have her working memory exercised consistently to build connections and synapses. We can never just assume with her that she is learning the ways her brothers learned – just by picking things up in everyday life.

The final, and the most beautiful, piece to the puzzle for Kate’s early preschool education is the new Simply Classical curriculum from Memoria Press. Harkening back to the quote from Martin Cothran, and based on her book, Cheryl Swope is designing classical curriculum for special needs children. We have begun working through the first level with Kate this summer. We start each day with a prayer from the beautiful Little Golden Book Prayers for Children. When we talk about the baby birds and mama bird on the page, Kate practices her speech and her signing. From there, each day includes basic calendar activities (days of the week and weather), counting and alphabet recitation, as well as beginning memory work from Scripture. We then read the book of the week. Cheryl Swope has chosen wonderful books from authors including Beatrix Potter, Richard Scarry, Eric Carle, and Margaret Wise Brown, among others. Because these are board books, they are perfect for little hands and allow Kate to practice her fine motor skills by turning the pages for me.

Fine and gross motor, oral language, and other therapies are wrapped into the weekly readings. We practice making a pointing finger to count objects; we jump, squat down, and push strollers to act out parts of a story; we discuss feelings and learn empathy while learning to read emotions on the faces of the characters. Cheryl Swope has taken those skills that need explicit instruction and woven them beautifully into activities springing out of the books we are reading. She has captured special needs preschool and bottled it inside something true, good, and beautiful.

Early academics is not something I would normally advocate. If I did, it would come in the form of “only if the child shows an interest.” Of my three boys, the younger two did show an interest, but ultimately, it was not the early academics that drove them. It was the desire to emulate their older brother(s) by doing “school” too. We kept it simple – a few Kumon books; a white board and marker to practice “writing;” some paper, scissors, glue, and crayons. If they felt like being at the table with the rest of us, they were welcomed. But it was not planned or forced. We do not have that luxury with Kate. We knew early on that she needed an early start to build a foundation that came easily for her brothers. We knew her development was an uphill climb from the beginning. But we also knew that given the skills, the input, and the time, she would be able to fly. Early academics, beginning much younger for her than her brothers, is the key to helping her fly. For us, that takes the form of early reading instruction, explicit math instruction, and a beautifully written preschool special needs curriculum. And she is thriving.

 

10320484_10152303634377954_6796617664035885030_n1Brit and her husband are living this beautiful, crazy life with their three sons and one daughter in sunny California. They made the decision to homeschool when their eldest was a baby after realizing how much afterschooling they would do if they sent him to school. Brit describes their homeschooling as eclectic, literature-rich, Catholic, classical-wanna-be.

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Parents are Teachers: From Classroom to Homeschool, by Brit

 

 

There are two sentiments I have heard many times over when people learn we homeschool our children. Either they say, “Well, you can homeschool because you are a teacher,” if they know I used to teach, or they will exclaim, “My children would never listen to me to learn anything.” Both statements make me groan internally while trying to smile sweetly on the outside, explaining that no, my credential really doesn’t help me educate my children, and yes, your children can learn from you.

When we made the decision to homeschool, our eldest was only a year old. I had just retired from elementary teaching, was teaching very part-time at the local community college, and was expecting our second child. Though my husband, also a public school teacher, was always supportive of homeschooling, he even expressed concerns that our children would not learn from us but would need a “stranger,” someone outside the family, to teach them.

 

If one thinks about it, we are our children’s first educators. From reading them stories, to encouraging their first words and steps, to redirecting them when they try to play with unsafe or forbidden objects, we are teaching them. We teach them social norms from the time they are old enough to yell loudly in a restaurant. We teach them kindness when we help them apologize for stealing a toy from their siblings. We teach them virtue and faith, letters and numbers, colors and shapes from the time they are born.

Homeschooling is a natural extension of that teaching. Once they know their letters and numbers, then we show them how numbers can combine to make bigger numbers and how letters can combine to make words. We show them how blue, red, and yellow are very special colors and can be mixed to make other colors. Suddenly, numbers become algebra and words become novels and essays.

 

It is interesting that after our daughter was born the sentiment, “You can homeschool because you are a teacher,” was no longer used. Most everyone outside our immediate family and friends assumed we would send her to school due to her having Down syndrome. Instantly our credentials, Master’s degrees, and classroom experience, which were the reason we were qualified to homeschool our sons, were not good enough to homeschool our daughter. Without a special education credential, we were no longer qualified. For us, her Down syndrome has only solidified our belief in homeschooling being the best option for her. Where else will she have a completely individualized education? Where else will she have teachers who love her as their own child? Her education may look different from that of her brothers in curriculum choices, content, and scope. But the journey we take will be no different than the journey we take with her brothers – progressing naturally as we teach her letters and numbers, colors and shapes, virtue and faith.

All this is not to say that it is always rainbow and unicorns in our home. We have struggles like every one else. In all honesty, there have been days where I doubt if I can do this for the long haul. There have been a few times we have had to sit our boys down individually and ask if they want to go to school or if they are willing to buckle down and work hard. We deal with sibling fights and teacher burn-out. I have second-guessed curriculum choices; started, stopped, and restarted subjects; and even dabbled in unschooling (we definitely do not have unschooly children). But at the end of the day, I am so thankful for the opportunity to teach my own at home. I tell my boys often that homeschooling is a privilege. There are times I forget that being able to stay home with them is also a privilege. I know as I lead them towards a life of virtue and faith, ultimately God is leading me to a life of greater virtue and faith.

 

As my children get older (our eldest is finishing seventh grade and I honestly have no idea how that happened), fear tries to creep in. It can be a scary venture to take full responsibility for the education of one’s children. If they go to school, whether that be public or private, there are teachers and principals to blame when things don’t go well. When my children graduate from our homeschool, it will be my husband and I that are judged. Did we do well? That will be measured by whether our children need remedial classes at the community college, whether they are admitted to a four-year university, or whether they even go to college. What I try to tell myself is that I must do my job faithfully; what my children do with that is up to them. For if a parent can take pride in a job well done when one child is successful in life, that same parent must take full blame for another child who is not.

As I type this, my husband is sitting to my left teaching our eldest about LCDs and GCFs. He, the eldest, is not a fan of math. Once he hit pre-algebra, I handed the reins over to his dad. I needed a break from teaching math to a child who would much rather do anything else. The beauty of homeschooling a non-math kid is that we can tailor his education to help him be successful. We are not bound to only one textbook and only one way. We are not bound to Common Core or the latest educational fad. We are free to meet him where he is and help him get to where he needs to be. This is true for all our children, including our daughter.

 

Parents are not only their children’s first educators, they truly are able to be their best teachers. Just because a child turns 3, 4, or 5 does not mean their education must be handed over to an official teacher. Believe me, I am very thankful for my husband, my cousin, and all the other fantastic teachers in our nation’s schools. All children deserve the best education they can receive. But I am also extremely thankful for the ability to continue the natural inclination to teach my children from birth as they continue to grow and develop. It may be a crazy life, but it is a beautiful one I would not trade, even on the bad days.

 

Brit was born and raised in southern California. She and her husband met at UC San Diego; he was taking a class and she happened to be the teaching assistant. You could say it was love at first sight. Brit and John are now living this beautiful, crazy life with their three sons and one daughter, still in sunny California. They made the decision to homeschool when their eldest was a baby after realizing how much afterschooling they would do if they sent him to school. Brit describes their homeschooling as eclectic, literature-rich, Catholic, and classical-wanna-be.