When my son Josh was learning to read, it was an arduous process. He made steady progress, but had to work hard to remember the sounds represented by print and the various ways they blended into words. At the time I was teaching Josh to read, my next door neighbor had a daughter 11 months older than Josh. This little girl took books to bed with her at night, and basically taught herself to read as her mother read to her. Before long, and without any curriculum or structured lessons, this girl was reading independently. In the meantime, I struggled to stay awake after lunch when we did the reading lesson for the day. Sometimes it took Josh so long to decode a word that I’d start to nod off and Josh would ask if I was still awake. It didn’t help that Josh was also hyperactive, and it was not unusual for his head to be on the floor and his rear end up near the book. I decided instead of the “phonetic approach” I was teaching the “bun-etic approach” but it didn’t work very well as a way to teach reading! This was Josh and Beths’ kindergarten year, and besides the actual reading instruction I was reading over 100 books to them each month. We were regulars at the library, and if merely exposing them to reading and books could have taught them to read it sure should have happened. They enjoyed the books, but they in no way taught themselves to read. It took work. The books that motivated Josh to read on his own were from a series with titles that started with “Would You Survive…” as a squirrel, deer, fox. etc. These books featured various animals in their habitats, and at various points choices had to be made. For example, when faced with a predator, the reader gets to choose if the animal runs up a tree or hides in a hole in the ground. Based on the choice, the reader is instructed to go to a specific page to continue the story. In addition to teaching about the animals, the stories would have different outcomes depending on the choices the reader made. Josh, like most children with AD/HD, loved the versatility of a story that could be different each time he read it. These books really ignited Josh’s love of reading, and soon after he discovered the “Choose Your Own Adventure” series which also gave the reader options that influenced the outcome of the story. Finding books that connect with your child’s interest and imagination can make a huge difference in the attitude toward reading. The “Would You Survive” series helped Josh see that reading was not just another required task he had to perform for school, but was actually something that he could enjoy.
“Kata” is a Japanese word, defined as “a set combination of positions and movements (as in karate) performed as an exercise”. Since all three of my children took martial arts classes for years I have seen many skills practiced and katas are more relaxing for me to watch than sparring. Karate has been thought to be beneficial for children with AD/HD and other learning disabilities for a number of reasons. One of the aspects that I like best is that it allowed my children to be involved in a sport yet work at their own pace. They could work toward their next goal even if it took longer for them to get there than for others. Martial arts with an experienced instructor can be individualized to provide challenges and just enough frustration to allow the student to learn how to manage it with self-control. This is especially important for our impulsive children. As a mother of a quirky child, I was appreciative of the aspects of training that taught self-defense. Honestly, there was something different about Josh and aggressive or mean kids would just hit him or give him a shove. This happened often, and I can’t imagine what it would have been like for him if he had been in a traditional school setting. Josh never meant to be annoying, and he was able to forgive and forget pretty quickly. (This was not true for me, and often when Josh was being victimized I’d go all brainstem emotionally and want to retaliate for him, which is not good considering I am the adult and need to thwart such impulses and use my higher thinking skills. I always did, by the way, but sometimes the override of the emotions was tough to accomplish.) Another benefit from martial arts training is the cross-body movements that are incorporated as the student crosses the midline of his or her body, thereby utilizing both hemispheres of the brain and increasing coordination and fluency. Over the years, I saw my inattentive, accident-prone and clumsy son develop quicker reactions, improved balance, and such grace that he could be a ballroom dancer if he wanted to. He doesn’t want to, but isn’t it nice that he has a choice? The ability to transfer information quickly across the corpus callosum, the fibrous band that connects the brain hemispheres, is also important for academic tasks. Yet another benefit gained by participating in martial arts for our children with various struggles is the outlet for excess energy that hyperactive children exhibit. A good class under the guidance of an instructor who understands that some children have bodies that demand to be in motion can provide a safe outlet for physical activity. For children who struggle to learn the rules for sports and remember them from one season to the next, martial arts eliminates those “between seasons” gaps by being a year-round sport. For Josh, the parks and recreation program for sports such as basketball lasted six weeks. By about week five, Josh was finally starting to catch on and things were starting to click. He’d have one good week, and then basketball would be over for another year. Our local school district also refused to allow home school students to participate in any extra-curricular activities, including sports. The martial arts dojo was not affiliated with the school system, so my homeschooled children were welcome there. As a homeschooler, I was glad to find something my kids could participate in with others from our community. The classes blend new learning with review of previous skills, so the retention is easier to maintain. Josh especially loves katas that involve holding something like a long stick in his hands. He performs the moves smoothly, over and over, until his muscles have the motor pattern down. He has generalized this to every portable object that is long, thin, and straight and he performs his own version of katas whenever he has anything stick-like in his grasp. From uncooked spaghetti noodles to broom sticks, pencils, and dowel rods, Josh twirls and strikes away. Josh’s leaf raking kata is a blast to watch, but I think my personal favorite of Josh’s katas is the snow shovel kata. He looks like he’s really enjoying himself as he flings snow up over the wire in a neighbor’s backyard or into the branches of a tree. The snow does not end up in neat rows piled along the side of the walkway, but it does get removed from the sidewalk in creative ways. Josh also changes the kata slightly so the snow shovel kata is different each time it is performed. One more thing to love about martial arts training!
Beckie has always been a bit impulsive, so it comes as no surprise that she has little patience for spending time solving algebra problems. She’s entirely happy to have mastered the basic mathematics functions and as the problems in her current text get longer and more complicated her frustration increases. She struggles with inattention and her working memory is not great, so with multi-step problems she may start strong but fade quickly after the first few steps. I ask her to find X. She perkily points to it in her math book and says, “There it is! And there! And there!” I then more specifically and deliberately ask her to solve for X. She grins at me and wants to know why we can’t just leave X alone, having found it already. She suggests that leaving X unknown will add some mystery and interest to our lives as we just leave X with its potential to be many things. I try to encourage her. I point out examples of how algebra is used in “real life” by adults in their work. She retorts that she will not be pursuing any profession involving algebra or geometry or any other higher math skills, so this is not worth investing her time in. I come back with examples of careers that would not be considered “math” jobs, but that never the less utilize math to some extent. Beckie offers the rebuttal that she will somehow find a way to determine which professions can avoid all but the most basic of math functions. I reply that if nothing else, doing harder math will prepare her for life because it will teach her to stick with things and think to solve problems. Beckie points out that her current problem IS math, and that for any problem she can’t solve she is confident that someone can be hired to do so. I’m thinking of directing her toward becoming a lawyer, since she enjoys making her case whether she has evidence to support it or not. Plus, she can always hire somebody to get her to court on time and take care of the billing. She might be good at it, since she can be tenacious about some things. We have to work with what we have, right?
My daughter, Beckie, has been learning about the endocrine system. I explained that the endocrine system includes hormone-producing glands, which as a teenage she has in abundance. Without missing a beat, Beckie responded in a hostile tone with “What do you mean by THAT?”. This was immediately followed by “I’m sorry!” spoken in a weepy tone. Just her little way of letting me know she was following the discussion on the influence of hormones, cracking me up as usual. When we finished the lesson and were on the review portion, I asked Beckie if she could tell me the names of three glands in the endocrine system. After a pause she replied, “Sure! P…M…S!” I told her I needed something a bit more specific (and accurate!) than that, but it was a nice try. And it did convey the idea that the endocrine system is related to hormonal influences, so maybe I should have given just a tiny bit of extra credit for the response.
I had the opportunity to speak at a homeschooling conference in Michigan over the weekend, and one of the questions I was asked was “How can you be so happy and continue working with such distractible kids?” I’ve had my share of discouragement and anxiety, and wouldn’t think of myself as exuding happiness, yet I’ve found that the perspective I have makes all the difference to my contentment or lack thereof. I used to labor over teaching my AD/HD son, watching hours of my life go by as he managed to stretch a 20 minute assignment into a two hour assignment – again. His distractibility often pulled us both off course, and my need to accomplish certain tasks in a timely manner was repeatedly thwarted. The frustration was constant and intense. One day, as I reminded myself that Josh wasn’t deliberately trying to drive me nuts (although he couldn’t have picked a better method if he was) I realized that Josh really couldn’t meet the goals that were set for him. His difficulty with schoolwork was obvious, but I realized for the first time that Josh couldn’t even meet the goals he set for himself. He was constantly faced with disappointing others with his inability to comply with their agenda, and he was continually faced with his inability to complete even his own personal plans. As frustrating and exhausting as it was for me to try and work with Josh hour after hour, it couldn’t be much fun for him when there were many other things he would rather be doing. Most of us would hurry to complete less enjoyable work if it meant we could then pursue more favorable activities. But Josh never did that. He couldn’t do that. I had a moment of insight that helped me through the frustrations I felt so often when working with Josh. It was the simple thought “The only thing more frustrating than trying to teach Josh right now would be to BE Josh right now.” That freed me up and gave me the extra measure of patience I needed to hang in there with Josh and not give up or take my frustrations out on him.
Recently my AD/HD daughter, age 13, took her annual standardized achievement test. The certified teacher who administered the test worried that my daughter was rushing through the subtests and although she was finishing with time to spare she was reluctant to go back and check her answers. She seemed to be answering impulsively, and was confident that she was doing well in every area. Despite repeated prompts to slow down a little and review her work in the time remaining for each subtest area, my daughter persisted in going at her rapid pace and only skimming through her answers to recheck them. I got the test results in the mail today, and the girl did great! In fact, these scores are the best she’s had over the past few years. So maybe instead of trying to get kids like my daughter to perform the way we were taught to, we should accept their methods and find different ways to support them.