Working with a variety of modalities also increases the likelihood of later recall of material. When we incorporate auditory, visual, tactile and kinesthetic input in subject areas where our children struggle to learn, we will also be helping them learn to pay attention for longer periods of time. With that in mind, I want to share with you one of my more successful teaching activities that kept my children engaged and made the material we were studying more memorable for them.
When my son was having trouble with the concept of “borrowing” in math, I lined up my children in place value positions, gave them Cuisenaire cubes and rods, and we acted out a story. I was the sheriff from Robin Hood (one of their favorite movies at that time) and came to collect taxes from the “ones” child. When she didn’t have enough cubes to pay her taxes, I showed her how to “borrow” from her neighbor and explained that she could only borrow 10 cubes from that neighbor. We did the same thing for the “tens” child borrowing from the “hundreds” child, and enacted several scenarios for practice.
I had lined them up in birth order with my youngest, Beckie, in the ones place. My middle child, Beth, was in the tens place. Josh, as the oldest, was in the hundreds spot. I recently asked my children if they remembered doing that activity, and they responded with an enthusiastic “Yes!” Josh also pointed out to me that a variation of the activity has continued over the years, because Beckie asks to borrow money from Beth, who in turn asks to borrow from Josh. He blames me for this generalization of a skill learned in those early years of our homeschooling. Before you feel too sorry for him, I want to point out that I’ve also taught him how to say “No” nicely to refuse requests.
Have you ever heard your kids say something like, “See? I’m not dumb!” ? I don’t know if there’s a connection to learning disabilities or not, but I’ve heard this type of statement from all three of my children at different times. It bothers me, because I have never told them or believed that they were “dumb” and in fact I went out of my way to be sure they knew I thought they were great. Sure, AD/HD has its challenges and my children may not always present as if they are on the ball. But I, the mother, never waivered in my belief that they brought a lot to the table even if what they brought was not traditionally appreciated! And how can I explain my “neurotypical” daughter also trying to convince me that she’s not stupid even when I never thought she was? Maybe it’s just a manifestation of self-doubt and a glitch in self-esteem that everyone experiences at times. Yesterday, I was talking with my daughter about her struggles with math, and she quickly pointed out that she got an A in English, adding “See? I’m not dumb!” Let me back up and say that I told her I knew she could do the math and was smart enough to understand it. I told her that her teacher was new to teaching this course and that sometimes the way information is taught can make the subject matter more difficult. I encouraged her to take advantage of the math lab, where she might find someone who could explain how to solve the math problems in a way that made more sense to her. I encouraged her to problem solve how she could help herself, and reminded her that I was proud of how hard she’s working. Hey! That could be in a parenting book! Except…somehow Beckie was still worried that she didn’t measure up in my eyes. When my children imply that they think I might have the opinion that they are dumb, I feel both surprised and saddened. I want so much for them to know I love them no matter what, and when they make statements like that I feel like I have failed them somehow. Then on top of that guilt, I feel dumb for not communicating my unconditional love to my children. So I ask them, “Do you know that I love you no matter what?” and they tell me yes and we hug. See? I’m not dumb, either!
As long as I’ve been a homeschooler, I always seemed to have some very portable items I could grab as we headed out the door so we could work on something in waiting rooms. For one thing, my kids were NOT good at the waiting part whether it was a doctor’s office or a grocery store line. For another thing, I thought they might as well be learning or reviewing rather than complaining or getting into things. Now that I have an IPhone I have downloaded all kinds of educational aps so I always have something to do while I wait. Yesterday I had an appointment with my allergist, and while waiting for him in the examining room I pulled out my phone to work on my Spanish skills. I especially appreciate being able to push the speaker icon and hear the Spanish phrases spoken aloud. I was diligently concentrating on learning the phrases when my allergist walked in. He said, “Hi. How are you?” just as I pushed the speaker icon and my phone loudly pronounced, “Tengo hambre” which means “I am hungry”. I sheepishly looked up from my phone and told my doctor, “I guess I’m a little hungry?” He laughed and said a few Spanish words to me so that we could further our rapport before getting down to business – in English, so I’d actually understand what he was saying besides discussing our hunger. That was not the only part of the visit that amused me, however, as I had earlier been reviewing my information with the nurse. This office has transferred all of the patient information to computers and it was all typed in by hand. The resulting file on me indicated that I get vitamin B injections (I never have) and that apparently I use my asthma inhaler as a nasal spray. Interesting picture. I do have an asthma inhaler, but since it’s for my lungs I use it as, well, an asthma inhaler. I have two nasal sprays for my allergies, so it really never occurred to me to also sniff my asthma inhaler. I think I set the record straight, but now I really want to see what my primary care physician record says that I’m up to! Waiting rooms are a great place to learn all kinds of things.
Research has shown that strong emotions make memories stronger. Likewise, if you can connect something familiar and chain it to new information it will be better understood and more likely to be retained. For a child with Asperger’s or any child who has a particular area of interest, you are probably finding ways to tie the interest to many areas of learning already. If a child is fascinated by Thomas the Tank Engine (and there’s something about that train that especially appeals to many on the autism spectrum) then you could use train cars to represent the components of a multi-step direction. The train cars could be used as manipulatives in math, or to demonstrate how to connect ideas in a writing assignment. For a child with a short attention span who’s always asking you how much schoolwork is left to do, the train could have a car to represent each subject and as the subject is concluded the car is removed so the train gets visibly smaller as progress is made throughout the day. As an added bonus, your child won’t have to keep asking you if they are finished for the day since a glance at the train will tell them the answer. A train could be used to represent minutes earned on the computer, for example, so each car earned for a desired behavior equals five minutes of computer time. If you can’t figure out how to use your child’s areas of interest, ask your child for ideas. It’s likely that they can come up with something and you can tweak the ideas to find something that will work satisfactorily for both of you. As with any new strategy, you will need to give it some time to see if it’s helpful. Once you get past the novelty stage you will have a better idea of how to enact your plan. Keep in mind that children with learning challenges perform inconsistently from day to day – even minute to minute on the off days, so what works one day may not work the next. In a week or month it may work again. Not all children have a particular interest area. Some, on the other hand, are downright obsessed. This fixation may change from one thing to another in phases, or it may be lasting. Your child will show you, over and over, what they like and are seeking. The general strategy of using what the child is interested in will stay the same. Some people are hesitant to encourage their child’s passion about a given topic, and that’s understandable. Yet with many less-desirable behaviors we can’t merely remove them or they will just be replaced by something else. My own son has always been fascinated by weapons. Of course I’m not going to look for ways to include that in our school studies or incorporate weapons as reinforcers no matter how engaging that would be for him. Since he also hyper-focused on Legos we could use those. Try to think creatively and be more flexible than your teacher’s manual instructions. If you know there is something that will engage your child, try to think of a way to use it. When my daughters went through their “Pretty Pony” phase or the “Teeny Beanie” era they were included in many academic realms. Now my girls are beyond that phase, but I’ll fondly remember teaching them as they included their ponies and encouraged them to boldy go where few Pretty Ponies had gone before.
Beckie and I finished reading Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and I wanted to give her a non-traditional assignment in addition to traditional assessment measures. So I went through two week’s worth of advertisements from the Sunday newspaper and cut out pictures that could be tied in somehow to a line from the play. For example, I used a picture from an ad for Glade air freshener and paired it with this line from Act 4, Scene 3 when Juliet says, “Shall I not then be stifled in the vault, to whose foul mouth no healthsome air breathes in, and there die strangled ere my Romeo comes?” Beckie’s assignment was to tell me the context for the line. The pictures were not in a sequential order, and Beckie surprised herself with her ability to remember details from the play. Her favorite quote was paired with a picture of Yoplait Go-gurt with large letters proclaiming “With calcium for STRONG BONES!” and Juliet’s line again from Act 4, Scene 3 asking “And, in this rage, with some great kinsman’s bone, as with a club, dash out my desperate brains?” I chuckled at the picture from the Hamburger Helper ad with the friendly little hand for Act 5, Scene 3 when the feuding families are reconciling and Capulet says, “O brother Mountague, give me thy hand.” Beckie had fun with that part of the assessment, and also wrote an essay response and took a multiple choice test. Those were the three components for her final exam on Romeo and Juliet. Just for fun we also watched a movie version, and I found a “Shakespeare Manga Romeo and Juliet” in graphic novel form at the library. Manga is a Japanese art form, I think, and this one portrayed the story as taking place in Japan with the two main families being rival mafia families. Now that Beckie has the idea of using pictures from ads as part of her assessment, she can find the pictures herself for the next time we want to use that option as part of an assessment.
Although I’m not AD/HD, I sometimes do things without thinking them through, just like my family members who do have that diagnoses. Recently, our church’s women’s ministry offered a series of courses titled “Captivating and Capable”, featuring such topics as cooking, baking, cleaning, ironing and laundry, car care, basic home repairs, make up and hair styling, etc. I read over the descriptions and decided I was definitely not capable in the areas of car care and basic home repairs, so I e-mailed the organizer and signed up for those two classes. The night before my first class I mentioned to my husband, Scott, that I would not be home the next evening because I had the basic home repairs class to go to. Scott looked confused, and asked what the class was for. I told him what would be covered, and then proudly announced that on Valentine’s Day I would be in the car care class. Very romantic, no? Scott continued to look somewhat mystified and told me, “I could probably show you all that stuff.” It wasn’t until that moment that I realized I had inadvertently insulted him by signing up for classes to learn skills that Scott could share with me. I had never even told him I wanted to know those things, so lacking the ability to read my mind he had no chance to meet a need he didn’t know existed. Actually, I don’t even really want to know all that’s being covered in the classes, it’s more a matter of feeling like I should learn it just in case a water pipe breaks and Scott is not around to take care of it. In any case, I did not intend to hurt his feelings, but after reflecting about how I handled things I realized I did a pretty good job of it anyway. So I apologized to Scott, and canceled my attendance in those two classes. I hope that someone else (without such a capable man as I have) will benefit from filling in my spots in the class. And so, although I originally intended to improve myself, I find that I remain neither captivating nor capable. Having dropped the ball, I find that I must continue pressing forward on both counts.
Beckie and I are working to learn Spanish together. We are using one main program, and supplementing by using more right brain strategies to include visual images and make colorful flashcards to help us with vocabulary words. For example, one of our chosen vocabulary words for today was “el bano” for “the bathroom”. With a little help from my artistic Beckie to help with the drawing part, my flashcard has both the Spanish and English written words on it along with a picture of a man sitting on the toilet playing the banjo. The banjo keeps him modestly covered, and since “banjo” and “bano” (pronounced “bahn-yo”) sound similar it will help me make a connection between the word and the meaning by using that auditory similarity and the visual cue of the picture of the man in a bathroom. Beckie has a good ear for languages, it seems, and she picks it up quickly. For some reason today, she had a hard time pronouncing the Spanish word for “brings”, which is “trae” and is pronounced “trah-ay”. After several models and some struggling, she finally turned to me and said “I’m trah-ing!” instead of “I’m trying!” It’s good that she has a sense of humor as we hammer away at our practice.
I recently had a conversation with my son, Josh, who told me he was weary of people asking him where he attends college. When he tells them that he is not in college but works full time, they look at him expectantly and ask, “But you’re going to go to college, right?” Josh goes on to explain that he has taken several college classes, but with his various learning challenges it has been much harder and more time consuming for him than it is for most people. Given that experience, he does not want to take more classes until he is sure of what he wants to do so that he can make every bit of effort count toward a goal. The people who are talking to Josh share the expectation that bright, young adults who can go to college will go to college. Josh told me that for him, going to college seems like jumping through burning rings of fire to get a little piece of paper at the other end. Stop and think about that for a minute. If you know something is going to be that difficult and potentially painful, you think long and hard about whether it’s what you really want before you go forward. Furthermore, you consider other options and devise strategies that increase the likelihood you will succeed. Josh is doing exactly that as he works, writes science fiction novels in his time off, and stays away from the burning rings of fire until he is sure he cannot attain his goals unless he moves through them. I think that’s pretty good problem solving for a young man who knows himself and his strengths and weaknesses. Perhaps he will take more college classes someday, but for now Josh is making the decision to put that on hold and develop himself in other ways. A lot of people would benefit from taking such a thoughtful approach to why they do what they do, and to what end.
Those with AD/HD are known for their impulsive actions and high energy. But there are also those who are excruciatingly slow for some tasks despite their hyperactivity in general. My son Josh, well-known to the homeschool groups I’ve spoken to, had no difficulty stretching a twenty minute math assignment to two hours. Even when he took a few college classes, one of his “two hour” finals took him over six hours, even in a quiet room with material he understood. He got a “B” in the class, but probably put in ten times the effort of the “A” students over the quarter. You can see why going to college full-time is out of the question for Josh. There aren’t enough hours in the day for him to complete all the assignments at the rate he works. His work is of good quality but it takes him much longer to get results than his neurotypical peers. His keyboarding skills have also progressed, but not in a typical manner. After trying four or five different keyboarding programs, including one based on basketball, one on a favorite video game character, and one that is widely used to teach typing, Josh gave up and persisted with his hunt and peck method. He uses the index fingers on both hands, and his speed is not bad considering his unorthodox method. Since Josh is writing a science fiction novel, I asked him if he wanted to try some of the keyboarding programs again to help with his typing. His response was “I type at the speed I’m thinking, so what I do works just right for me.” He has always had his own pace, and eventually gets done what he sets out to do. It doesn’t match the pace that most others have, but it’s a fit for how his brain works.