To Boil, Just Add Ice

Have you ever wondered why your children do certain things?  Maybe you have asked them to explain but they aren’t even able to tell you.  If you are like me, it helps you to understand something when it makes sense to you.  But as in many situations in life, I think there are some things we will never comprehend or know for sure and our kids will continue to engage in behavior that baffles us at times.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Here’s one example.  I have taught my children the basics of kitchen safety and meal preparation.  I’ve shared a few tricks such as salting the water in a pot to bring it to a boil faster and cleaning up as you go instead of having to wash and put everything away all at once at the end.  So when my son, Josh, announced his intention to make some macaroni and cheese for himself I wasn’t surprised.  I had taught him how to make that easy meal years ago and he had done so many times.  As I was putting some clean dishes away, though, I glanced at the pot of water on the stove.  Josh had filled it to an appropriate level for cooking his noodles but there were ice cubes floating on the surface of the water.  Clearly I had missed something, because putting ice in water that needed to boil made no sense to me.

I’ve had similar moments of bewilderment during homeschooling moments.  I knew that my Josh and Beckie had some learning challenges.  They tended to want to cut corners when it came to school work and would be satisfied with doing the minimum amount of work possible.  They were reluctant to go back and correct their work when mistakes were made.  Yet when they did not know the answer to a question, instead of just leaving that space blank and continuing on they either drew a question mark where the answer should be or wrote “What?” to indicate their confusion.  This meant that once I went over that work with them they had to erase their question mark or “what” in order to write the answer.  Wait a minute!  These kids who are minimalists when it comes to writing answers are actually causing themselves more work because they have written responses that just have to be erased later.  Why on earth would they make the work harder than it has to be?

When I was directing the homeschool day, I made sure we hit the harder subject areas sometime in the middle of our school day so we could begin and end each day with non-frustrating work. As my children got older, I allowed them more freedom in selecting when they would work on their various subject assignments.  I think it’s important for children to begin to learn how to budget their time and manage their own schedules. My approach personally is to get the harder work done so it’s not hanging over me until I do.  My two struggling learners took the opposite approach, starting with the easiest task and working through the list until the hardest item was the only one remaining to be completed.  Why wouldn’t they just do it to get it over with?ice melting photo: Melting Ice Cubes Melting_icecubes.gif

Here’s what I learned about my children through these seemingly baffling actions.  My son who put the ice cubes in the water to be boiled?  It’s a little game he plays to watch the ice cubes as they melt and see which one “wins” by lasting the longest.  It has nothing to do with cooking and everything to do with curiosity and making a mundane task more entertaining.  I’m too pragmatic to think of something like that, but it’s the way my son’s mind works and I think it’s actually pretty neat.

All right, so what about adding the extra work to a written assignment by writing “What?” or a question mark?  Interestingly, Josh and Beckie both did this but it occurred years apart and neither knew the other had done the exact same thing.  I’m not sure if it’s related to their ADHD or other learning challenge, but from what they were able to tell me they did it because it was an assignment that required a written response.  Thus, they felt it would be incorrect to leave it blank without writing anything and they didn’t want me to think that they had missed or forgotten that item.  The written question marks and “what?” responses were like place markers for them, ensuring that I knew they had made an attempt to respond even when they weren’t sure how to answer.

How about putting off the hardest subjects until last?  I think there are several aspects to this.  It is not unusual for individuals with ADHD to become overwhelmed if they think a task will take a long time.  My kids wanted to avoid having to work for a long period of time (which to them could mean anything longer than 15 minutes) and so they put it off hoping that something would come up to give them a reprieve or excuse not to do the work.  It’s also known that many procrastinators and individuals with ADHD work best under pressure.  Since they have often difficulty motivating themselves internally for less-interesting tasks, the external pressure of a deadline helps them kick it into gear and get the work done.  This has been the case with my three family members who have the ADHD diagnosis.

Mysteries and novelty keep life interesting.  When our children act in ways that do not make sense to us, it causes us to look a little deeper to try and understand them.  We may never know why our children do some of the puzzling or quirky things they do, but any insight we gain will help us to be better parents and teachers.  As you grow in your understanding it will help you teach your children in ways that are reflective of their unique personalities.

Be Original – Within Reason of Course!

A few years ago I saw a spoof of a motivational poster that said, “Remember, you are unique, just like everyone else.”  I had to laugh because it’s a human tendency to want to believe you are unique and special, which is actually a very common desire.  I wonder how many of us have ever had the thought that there is no one else in the world who can relate to how we think and feel.  Ironically, while we are longing to be unique we also want to be recognized and included as a valued member of a group.  We want to belong, but we want to belong on our own terms and be appreciated for the unique qualities that set us apart.

Our children look for groups with which they identify so they can have a sense of belonging.  It’s reassuring to know that no matter what, there is a place where you are accepted and where there are people who care about whatever is happening with you.  This desire begins in childhood but continues throughout our lifetimes.  Life is meant to be lived within the context of relationships, sharing commonalities as well as differences.  One of the challenges we face as parents and educators is to help our children forge their own identities without being unduly influenced by those around them.

As the mother of three children, I came to realize that my kids often responded in different ways even when they were in a shared situation.  My son, Josh, was usually pretty oblivious to the reactions of those around him.  My daughter, Beth, was so sensitive that she read meanings into situations and was easily offended or hurt.  My daughter, Beckie, was such an optimist that she made excuses for others even when their behavior was blatantly appalling.  In order to help my children learn how to be part of a group while developing their own sense of individuality, I had to recognize that just as each learned academic skills in their own way they developed their personalities differently, too.

Josh, who was diagnosed at a young age with severe attention deficit hyperactivity outside the box photo: Outside the box 100_3099.jpgdisorder (ADHD), has always been an “outside the box” kind of thinker.  So far outside, as a matter of fact, that I’m not convinced he ever truly realized there was a “box”.  His creativity has always amazed me, and I tried to encourage it because I perceived his unusual perspectives as a wonderful gift.  I can’t say I always understood his thought processes, and I certainly was never able to predict what he might say or do next.  Yet it gave me great pleasure to see glimpses into how his mind worked and to consider ideas that would never have occurred to me without Josh to introduce them.

path less traveled photo: The path less traveled Alpha037.jpg            Josh’s various ideas and experiments did stretch out our school days, because he never seemed interested or even able to take a direct approach to a task.  If there was a scenic route, Josh would take it.  If there wasn’t, Josh would forge one and leave the well-worn path to the less adventuresome.  He often struggled academically, but he could leave most people in the dust when it came to creativity.  As a thoroughly “inside-the-box-and-it’s-probably-taped-up” kind of thinker, I made a point to share with Josh my genuine admiration for his ability to come up with unusual solutions to problems.

I have to admit that I was disappointed when not everyone shared my enthusiasm for Josh’s quirky and unpredictable ideas.  Couldn’t they see how special he was?  Josh left many adults as well as other children baffled by his thought processes, and he was equally baffled by their lack of understanding as he expressed his ideas.  In what I considered a “genius-for-being-inside-the-box” idea, I enrolled Josh in art classes where I was sure his gifts would be recognized and appreciated by someone besides me, his mother.

Josh enjoyed exploring new art mediums. He had many ideas to express, but even in art class he tended to be non-conforming to others’ expectations.  When Josh saw how something was done, it seemed to trigger an onslaught of alternative possibilities in his mind.  Instead of being embraced, his creative drive in non-traditional directions was met with attempts to redirect him to more specific tasks.  As Josh grew older he informed me that, “People expect you to be original while following a strict set of rules.”   Apparently Josh was over the top even with other creative types.

If you’ve ever felt like you are just not as creative as a lot of people you know, try to remember that thinking inside the box is not all bad.  Creative people need help to make their visions become reality, and those of us who are generally logical and detail-oriented may have just the skill set they need to help those visions become realities.  For those of you who are naturally creative, thank you for sharing your unique ideas.  While it’s true that in some circles you will be asked  to tone it down and “be original while following a strict set of rules”, please know that there are those of us who will continue to admire and applaud you for your originality.

Do You Need a Roll?

I love my child’s high energy, enthusiasm, and joyful spirit.  I don’t even mind that I will never have any family secrets, ever, because this innocent child will share our business with anyone within earshot and think nothing of it.  Her openness reflects her optimism and her tendency to believe the best about others.  This is another reason for clean living, because if you don’t have anything to hide then having a child spill the beans is no big deal.

My daughter’s activity level has often left me in open-mouthed amazement.  To burn off energy, she will run up and down the stairs multiple times.  She also likes to sprint around the block, and when we have inclement weather she will clear a pathway in the house so she can take off running and then slide across the floor in her socks.  Like many individuals diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) she needs to find outlets for her strong need for physical activity.  Also true of many with ADHD, my daughter has had sleep difficulties and struggles to calm her body and mind so she can fall asleep.

Most of the time I not only accept my daughter’s differences, I delight in them.  Over time I discovered that not all adults shared my appreciation for my wonderfully-spirited child.  At homeschool group classes, I began to hear complaints about my daughter’s non-stop chattering and apparent inability to stop talking even when the teacher was attempting to give instructions.  She was not deliberately rude or disrespectful, just uninhibited in sharing her thoughts.  Every single one of them.  This continual verbal stream was one of the ways her hyperactivity manifested, as if the words just built up inside her and had to come out or she would pop.

My daughter was also wigglier than most children her age, something I could easily accommodate during our homeschool day.  It became problematic when we were out in public and she couldn’t sit still at a restaurant or stand quietly beside me during homeschool field trips.  I remember a very patient AWANA instructor chuckling as he described how my daughter would slide back and forth on a bench while reciting her memorized verses.  She moved around while she was learning the verses, and she moved around while recalling them.  She was consistent, and fortunately had a leader who was able to enjoy having her in his group.

My daughter’s sensory processing difficulties along with her ADHD impulsivity made it a struggle for her to regulate herself to maintain the calm yet alert state that is optimal for learning.  At one homeschool group gathering, I could see that she was talking continually and was starting to elicit clearly unappreciative glances from nearby adults.  Not wanting to squelch her ebullience, I sought a way to help her quickly and unobtrusively so she would not be embarrassed.  Scanning the table laden with potluck offerings, my gaze fell on a basket of dinner rolls.  I quickly snatched one up and extended it to my daughter, asking if she needed a roll.  I figured if she was chewing a roll it would give her a few seconds to take a break and maybe relax and slow down a little bit.  I think it would have worked if my daughter had gone along with my plan, but instead she blurted out, “Hey!  Are you just trying to get me to be quiet?”  So much for subtlety.

At home my daughter could wiggle away as long as she was getting her schoolwork done.  It’s distracting, though, when a child is in constant motion in a group setting.  Have you ever noticed how distractible children always seem to find each other in a crowd, and then escalate the other’s behaviors?  This happened often while we participated in homeschool group activities.  One strategy I used to help my girl was our “meatball hug”.  She would sit on my lap and pull her knees to her chin, and I would wrap my arms around her and gently squish her while rocking back and forth.  She loved this, and it didn’t draw negative attention to her.  Once she outgrew my lap, the meatball hug had to be more of a roll.  Her father or I would give her arms and legs little squeezes as if we were kneading dough, or capture her between us to roll back and forth like a squeeze machine.

The need to calm down was not always apparent to my daughter, but she recognized our family code, “Do you need a roll?” as a signal to try and tone things down.  Your family might find a different code and use other strategies to support your child.  I personally will never hear the question “Do you need a roll?” without thinking of my wonderfully vibrant daughter who did, in fact, need some rolls now and then.


Following the Rules

Some children consistently follow rules once they have been taught to them.  There are those, especially children on the autism spectrum, who can become quite rigid not only in their own adherence to the rules but with insistence that all others strictly comply.  These children are like Rule Police trying to enforce the law.  They are sincerely distressed by perceived infractions and often make statements such as “That’s against the rules!”   If other people continue to ignore what to the Rule Police is akin to a law that must be followed then the Rule Police may become very outraged and angry.

I guess I inadvertently taught my children to follow the rules without exception.  The problem is, life is not always neatly black and white and some rules have limitations and are not applicable in all situations.  For example, I taught my children not to talk to strangers.  I attempted to convey the potential seriousness of interacting with unknown individuals without totally freaking them out or making them anxious and suspicious.

foto of stranger approaching  - Illustration of a suspicious man approaching girls - JPG “Most strangers are not going to try and hurt you, but you can’t tell a good stranger from a bad one just by looking at them,” I explained.

I went on to describe some of the ruses used to entice children into cars, away from their homes, and so on.  I pointed out that some very nice-acting people can have bad intentions and others who look scary may in actuality be quite nice and harmless.

“If an adult needs directions or help finding a lost puppy, he or she should be asking an adult for help not a child.  If anyone approaches you, run home right away and tell me or another adult who is not a stranger.  You must always, always do this.”

It is hard to find the balance between developing a healthy fear of potential danger and a total nonchalance for risks in various situations.  I realized my children’s confusion when we were out walking in our neighborhood and I greeted a passerby.

“Mommy, did you know that person?” my son asked.

“No, son.  I was just being friendly,” I replied.

“You talked to a stranger?” said my son with an appalled expression on his face.

In my son’s eyes I had broken a rule that should always be obeyed.  Ah, those troublesome exceptions.  It did not make sense to my child that sometimes the rule didn’t apply in a given situation.  This incident led to more discussion and questions as I attempted to keep my children safe while they interacted with those around them.   foto of helpful clerk  - woman in a supermarket at the vegetable shelf shopping for groceries - JPG

I had a similar incident while shopping at Wal-Mart with my children.  I couldn’t find what I was looking for but I noticed someone nearby with the Wal-Mart vest displaying “How May I Help You?” written on the back.  I approached the employee, asked for assistance, and the helpful employee pointed me in the right direction.  I thanked her for her help and headed toward my goal item.

“Mommy, did you know that person?” queried my daughter.

That’s when I realized I had to explain another exception to the “Don’t talk to strangers” rule.  Other rules I had to discuss further with my children involved good citizenship and healthy behaviors.  I taught my children, for example, that littering was unacceptable.  I must have done a good job convincing the children that they should never litter, because they generalized this rule to all of humanity.  Not only were they serious about being the Litter Police, they reacted to every infraction with great umbrage and an attitude of being incensed at such unthinkable behavior.  If they’d had the power to arrest people they would have exercised that authority.

I also must have been a bit heavy-handed when I discussed the negative effects of smoking.  I remember pulling up next to cars while waiting for a traffic light to change and hearing one child announce with horror, “Mommy!  That person is SMOKING!”

This report of fellow travelers who were smokers was said with the same disbelief and repulsion as you might expect if someone decided to attach leeches to various body parts and then wave the leech-covered appendages about in a threatening manner.

After the initial shock that someone would actually choose to smoke a cigarette or cigar, the children decided that perhaps the offender did not realize the adverse effects that smoking can have on one’s health.

“Mommy!  We should go tell that person why they should stop smoking.  They will be healthier.  We should tell them to stop it right away!”

While it is true that cessation of smoking would lead to health benefits, the fact is that most smokers do realize the impact smoking can have on their bodies and those around them who inhale second-hand smoke.  Many would love to give up the habit. They do not need my children to point these things out to them, no matter how helpful they are trying to be.  As I explained to my children that most smokers already realize the potential harm, I reiterated that I hoped they would make good decisions for themselves and not start an unhealthy habit that would be hard to break.

Then I went on to tell them that even if they did make bad choices I would still love them and want the best for them.  Yes, even if they became prolific litters and smokers and went out of their way to talk to strangers.

We have all been rule breakers at times in our lives, and we actually need the most love and compassion when we deserve it the least.  Instead of training my children to be judgmental and rejecting of those who don’t follow the rules, I encouraged them to pray for themselves and others because doing what is right is often hard to do.  The challenge for us as parents is to teach our children right from wrong, but also help them experience grace and extend it to others when rules are broken.


It’s Summertime, and the Schooling is Easy

This is the time of year when homeschoolers can finally kick back and relax a bit.  Portfolio reviews and standardized testing have been scheduled or completed by this point in the academic year.  Notification forms and required paperwork for the next school year aren’t due just yet, so let’s all take a deep breath and enjoy reflecting back on what we and our children learned this year.  Ah, that’s nice, isn’t it?

I must warn you that that when I write about continuing school throughout the summer months there are several possible types of response.  I realize that there are men who are homeschooling, too, but most of my experience is with other women so my examples are intended to be simplified by sticking to the gender I know best. Guys, translate these into your own examples and experiences, okay?

stock photo of drama  - Woman actress in white dress acting on stage - JPG First we have the Drama Mama, who with the back of her delicate hand pressed against her brow, feels faint at the thought of schooling year round.

“Hay-elp!” she cries softly.  “Won’t somebody save me?  Hay-elp!”

She looks hopefully around, but her wish for a homeschool substitute teacher for the summer months doesn’t materialize and she realizes that it is up to her to decide whether she should step up to the task.  With practice, the Drama Mama may be able to procrastinate about whether to homeschool in the summer months at least through the month of June.

Then there is the Martyr Mama.  When she hears that some homeschoolers continue schooling during the summer, she believes she is image of dizzy  - Close up of woman who has chest pain - JPG required to do so, too.  She must always do what is best for her family and she folds her hands in prayer and asks for strength to face the trials ahead of her.

“I’ve already given so much to my children, sacrificing all of my own interests just to homeschool them for nine months out of the year.  Now I need to prepare for teaching the summer months, too?  It seems like so much to ask of me, but I will lay down my life for my children even if it kills me.  And if it does, I hope they are at least grateful for all I have done for them.”

Heaving a heavy sigh, Martyr Mama gets down to the business of planning a demanding schedule – for the children.

pic of cheerleader  - Uniformed cheerleader jumps high in the air isolated on white - JPG            Bounding along with zest for life is Cheerleader Mama, who can’t wait to get started on her summer schooling plans.  Her enthusiasm is unavoidable as she shares her plans with other homeschoolers, her church friends, her neighbors, and most of all her children.  All of them wonder if she ever needs to sleep, but they are afraid to ask just in case she gets the idea that night schooling is also an excellent idea.

“There is so much to learn and do!” she warbles as she flits from child to child imparting knowledge and curriculum supplies.

She fans the new books in front of her face so she can smell that new book aroma, and then does a little twirl of happiness.  Sporting her “I ♥ Homeschooling” shirt, manicured nails and a stylish haircut, it is hard not to look at Cheerleader Mama with awe.  A few secretly jealous individuals wonder if she will still look that good after her second year of homeschooling.

Worn Out Mama plugs away, barely realizing that it is almost summertime.  She has been working with her children for so long and hard thatstock photo of drama  - Portrait of a very sad and depressed older woman suffering from stress or a strong headache isolated on black - JPG she squints in surprise when she realizes that bright light she sees is actually sunshine.  Worn Out Mama is on a roll with her homeschooling and she is afraid if she takes even a short break she may never find the energy start up again.  Her momentum keeps her going.

“Should I homeschool in the summertime?  I guess so.  We haven’t finished all of our textbooks yet so we will just keep working away and try to keep up the best we can.”

If you ask Worn Out Mama just who they are trying to keep up with, her eyes kind of glaze over and she begins mumbling to herself.  Then, as if becoming aware that there is more schoolwork to be done, she shuffles over to a large stack of completed work and settles in for a long night of grading papers.

stock photo of wise  - Illustration of a cute cartoon wise owl wearing a mortarboard convocation or graduation hat - JPG   Wise Mama considers her children’s needs and interests.  She knows her struggling learner will fall behind if they don’t do at least some schoolwork over the summer.  She also knows that in order to continue homeschooling over the years to come she herself needs some time to rejuvenate during the summer months.

“What would you like to learn about that we didn’t get to yet this year?” she asks her children.

With input from her students, Wise Mama plans a few field trips and projects that they have not been able to fit into their school schedule during the traditional school year.  She follows a much lighter schedule so she and the children will have plenty of free time just to relax and enjoy themselves.

I have known each of these types of responders when it comes to summertime homeschooling.  Actually, I’m pretty sure I’ve been like all of these mamas at one time or another.  No matter what your reaction is to the idea of year-round schooling, there are many ways that homeschoolers are making it work for their families. Given time and experience you will figure out what works in your own family. When it comes to homeschooling during the summer months, what kind of homeschool mama are you?

Time to Learn

alert photo: alert alert.jpg          Did you know that recognizing your child’s most alert times of the day can help you with homeschooling?  Young children may not even realize that there are periods during the day when they feel more energized, and older children may need you to point it out to them so that they become aware of their own degrees of alertness.  Being observant about your child’s most awake times of the day can help your homeschooling flow more smoothly and be more productive.  As with so many areas of development with our children, though, things change as they grow and the most alert times of the day may also change over time.

Generally speaking, most young children are alert after a good night’s sleep and are ready for tackling the most challenging school subjects right after breakfast.  At this stage in a child’s life, I would suggest starting the day with a devotional time or brief discussion of the day’s schedule.  Following this, I would encourage working on the homeschool work that requires the greatest level of alertness and concentration.  Working in accordance with the child’s physical state is not only strategic but is also consistent with individualizing instruction to meet each child’s needs.  Being able to customize our child’s school day is one of the great blessings of homeschooling and the flexibility we have as home educators to determine the best schedule for our child and family.

When I began my homeschool journey, I started teaching my oldest two children together.  Since they are only 15 months apart, I was able to use the same curriculum for both of them.  My oldest, Josh, was later to be diagnosed with severe Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) although I was only beginning to understand what that meant.  His sister, Beth, was a typically developing child who was anxious to keep up with anything done by her big brother.  They were great kids, generally very active and energetic, so it took me a while to realize that mornings were the best time to hit our harder school subjects.  In our family, the challenging subject was math, and although I loved our math curriculum the children were clearly less enthralled.  I didn’t always teach our school subjects in a certain order, and realized later on that our days would have been more productive if I had provided a more structured approach.

To complicate matters more, I wanted my children to learn to think for themselves and be able to make good decisions, so I started with small things like allowing them to choose their outfits for the day.  Sometimes I thought they looked like they were dressed like circus performers, but it was harmless and they were learning how to make choices.  I also allowed them some say in what subject areas we worked on throughout the school day.  Over time I discovered that they always put off doing math until the very end of the school day in hopes that we would run out of time and they would have a reprieve from math.  With the usual daily life disruptions and a baby in the house, too often their wish to avoid doing their math work became reality.  Live and learn.

Since I eventually realized that if my children had their preference they would always put off doing their math alert photo: green alert alert_green.gifwork, I continued to give them leeway when it came to scheduling work on other subjects but I had them do their math early in the morning when they were most alert.  This worked well because they knew they were getting their hardest subject out of the way early in the day and could look forward to their more preferred school subjects after their math assignment was completed.  Just as I thought I had the best school schedule worked out just right, my older two children entered adolescence.

During the pre-adolescence and teenage years, growth spurts and physical changes wreaked havoc on my carefully plotted school schedule.  My youngest child was still most alert in the mornings and was raring to go from the moment she woke up.  My older two children seemed to be in something like a fog until noon, but they perked up right after lunch.  Their new time of greatest alertness was now early afternoon.  Unfortunately for me, that was not my own best time for being alert.  Given the opportunity, I could easily have napped at that time!  Instead, I once again altered our home school schedule to accommodate what my growing children needed, and we began to work on easier school subjects in the morning while they gradually became more awake and alert as the day progressed.

There is a definite transition during times of physical growth spurts.  For my children, one change I noticed was how different they were when awakened in the morning.  During the younger years they were instantly awake and high energy, ready to start a new day.  During periods of significant physical growth and changes, they needed time to come awake gradually and their energy level didn’t peak until early afternoon.

Working with a child’s alert times just makes sense.  Homeschooling gives us the freedom to teach our children in the ways they learn best, so let’s make the most of the opportunity.  Be aware of your child’s timetable for being able to concentrate and sustain focus on school tasks.  Know that the timetable will probably change as your child grows.  Recognizing and meeting our child’s needs as we teach them is a blessing we can bestow as we raise them up to be the individuals they were created to become.

Teaching Multiple Ages

One of the reasons I chose to homeschool was so that I could meet my children’s individual needs.  When I started homeschooling, I intended to spend lots of one-on-one time so that each child could work at his or her own pace and pursue areas of interest in depth.  My first two children are only 15 months apart in age, and my youngest child joined the family four years later.  I figured I could cover the bulk of material with the two who were so close in age at the same time and then work with each one alone to supplement and enrich their learning. During their independent work times, I would teach my youngest child.  I only have three children, so how hard could this be?
Now, if all of you veteran homeschoolers could stop laughing I’ll go on.  Ahem.  Thank you.  As it turns out, teaching one child could easily have filled my day.  My son, while very bright, struggled with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) auditory processing difficulties, and sensory processing challenges.  An assignment that I planned on taking twenty minutes to complete with my son often stretched to the two hour mark.  With his distractibility, I couldn’t leave him alone or he would stop working on his schoolwork because other things would catch his attention and he’d be off in a new direction. Not only were his assignments incomplete, it took me another chunk of time just to locate him and transition him back to the school task he was supposed to be working to complete.
In the meantime, his slightly younger sister was ready to go.  She was eager to learn and could sit still and listen while I taught her.  She would start an assignment and usually finish it before moving on to something different or requesting a break.  I would present a lesson to my two oldest, then repeat, re-teach, prompt, and rephrase for my son as my daughter got down to work.
As for the baby, she seemed to enjoy watching the activities from her perch on my hip.  Her early education consisted of hearing her mama label items and actions for her and doing other techniques I utilized as a speech therapist.  It wasn’t very structured, but incorporating learning in the context of her daily activities actually taught her a great deal.  She was raised in an atmosphere of learning and when she started talking she had a lot to say.  Within a few years it became increasingly apparent that she, like her big brother, faced the challenges of ADHD, auditory processing, and sensory processing difficulties.

   Whenever I could, I had my youngest sit with her older siblings for lessons.  She didn’t follow everything that was presented but just by listening in she learned and was able to participate at her own level.  When her sister was writing a sentence and her brother was writing a paragraph, my youngest would draw a picture about the topic being taught.  Rather than finding separate things to occupy the little one, I tried to include her and encourage her participation as much as possible.  Even if the concept of the lesson was far too advanced for her, there was always a more general lesson idea I could discuss with her, such as a desirable character trait and ways she could demonstrate that trait with her family.  I encouraged her older siblings to share what they were learning, which helped me gauge their understanding as I listened to their explanations.  While the little one enjoyed the attention from her siblings, the older ones were learning how to express themselves effectively.

One thing I needed to realize was that teaching multiple children of various ages did not necessarily mean spending equal time with each.  I learned that I needed to teach my children that “being fair” meant giving them what they needed when they needed it as opposed to treating them as if they were all the same.  They had different learning needs, strengths, and interests.  Sometimes one of them needed more of my help on an assignment while the other was able to proceed more independently.  Sometimes I felt guilty that I wasn’t able to spend an equal amount of time with each child for every subject, but I came to realize that it was fair to help the one who most needed it as long as each child was getting the level of support indicated by the situation.

Teaching multiple ages can be unifying for a homeschool family.  By being together and having each child contribute what they can during the lessons, children are learning far more than just academic subjects.  They learn that their family does things together and that a few years age difference is not a hindrance to sharing what they have learned.  Younger children benefit from the added lessons learned from older siblings, and the older siblings learn how to communicate and take responsibility as they interact with the little ones.  In the context of daily life and shared experiences, families are strengthened and learning takes place.

It’s The Question Trap, OK?

Have you ever said something and immediately realized it was not what you meant to say?  Earlier this year my husband and I were in Hungary when the bus we were on pulled over and the driver told everyone to get out.  Apparently the driver’s shift was over and there was no replacement driver, so we were unceremoniously left stranded at a bus stop at night in a city we were unfamiliar with and where we could not find anyone who spoke English.  In desperation, my husband called on his nearly-forgotten high school German language skills and along with many gestures attempted to communicate with one of the locals.  This Hungarian native somehow conveyed to my husband that we needed to buy more bus tickets and he pointed in the general direction of some other buses, which we approached and were waved off until someone actually allowed us to board the bus.  In gratitude, as the helpful local man walked away, my husband called out “Gracias!” thereby introducing Spanish into the English-German-Hungarian conversation!  That was, in fact, the only part of that “adventure” that I found amusing.  My husband reported that as soon as the word “gracias” left his lips he realized his error and felt like he could almost see the word move away in slow motion while he thought, “Noooo!” and watched his utterance go irretrievably onward.

That happens to us as parents, too, doesn’t it? There are times when as soon as we say something we wish we could retract it, especially when we absent-mindedly respond “yes” to a child without realizing what we have just agreed to do.  Oops!  I suspect some of our children can tell when we are preoccupied and purposefully plan to approach us with requests at such times.  I was especially at-risk with my daughter who was quite a talker and ended many of her utterances with, “Right, Mom?”  If I just answered without thinking about it, I might find I had just agreed with her that she was my favorite child or that we should have ice cream every night for dessert since it is so delicious.  Right?   It’s a Question Trap that’s easy to fall into.

I also had to be careful with my responses when I was tired.  Having two children diagnosed with AD/HD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, combined type) I learned that they needed less sleep than I did.  Since I could not leave them to their own devices in order to catch up on my sleep, I was often operating at a less-than-optimal state of alertness.  Combine my lethargy with my children’s hyperactivity and impulsivity and I could have agreed to all kinds of things if I weren’t diligent to monitor my responses and not give in to the temptation to agree just to keep the peace for a few minutes.

Besides inadvertently falling into automatic responses, we can set ourselves up for conflict by the way we word things with our children.  What kind of response might you get if you asked your child, “Are you ready to go to bed now?” or “Can you pick up your toys?”  We are raised to be polite and to make our requests in nice ways.  The problem is that we fall into the habit of asking questions when we really don’t intend to give a choice.   That’s The Question Trap all over again.  If you ask a child if he is ready to go to bed, he may interpret that as if he has the option of saying “No”.  After all, you asked and he happily provided his answer.

I’m sure there are some children who understand that when you ask if they can pick up their toys it really means that you want them to clean them up right away.  Some children will comply with that, but there are others who perhaps are more literal thinkers or excel at spotting loopholes who will respond “Yes, I can” but then make no move to pick up their toys.  They answered your question, but didn’t comply with what you really wanted them to do.  When this occurs, you have fallen into The Question Trap and will need to train yourself to avoid it in the future.

Another one of the polite ways we can fall into The Question Trap is to add “okay” onto the end of the request.  Again, we are just trying to be nice about it, but it can backfire because it implies a choice where none is intended.  For example, you want your child to eat healthy foods at mealtimes so you say, “Eat your broccoli, okay?”  Guess what?  To the child, eating broccoli may not seem “okay” and she may feel the freedom to refuse since you implied that she had a choice.  Tagging “okay” onto the end of your statement weakens it from a direct request to a negotiable issue.

Teachers in a group setting  quickly learn that if they say, “Are you ready to line up?” some students will respond by lining up at the door while others exercise their options until they are directly told, “It’s time to line up now.”  Likewise, good teachers learn to use statements when they are giving directions, and avoid tacking “okay” onto the end of their sentences.  Instead of saying, “Are you ready to listen?” or “I need you to listen now, okay?” they make statements such as “It’s time to listen now.”  The teacher is communicating the same message without giving options that she doesn’t intend to allow.  The adult can still be polite and respectful, but it takes practice to choose your words strategically.

There are some children who will attempt to negotiate with you no matter how you phrase your requests to them.  If you find you are frequently falling into The Question Trap, however, avoid asking questions when you intend to communicate statements.  This may help to eliminate some of the conflicts because you are clearly stating what you want and expect your child to do.  The issue of compliance becomes clearer to you and your children as you give directions or make specific requests without unintentionally providing options that are unacceptable to you.

The Question Trap can become a habit that is difficult to break.  It will take practice at first, but this way of communicating will become more automatic over time.  Ultimately, by breaking the habit you will become a more effective communicator.  Are you ready to try it?  I think you should give it a chance over the next few days and see what happens, okay?  J

Sink or Swim

I love to watch my children swim.  Seeing them glide through the water and perform various strokes fills me with a sense of pride.  I’m so glad I had them take swim lessons, because now they have an activity they can enjoy throughout their lives.  Our swim team days are behind us now, but I still enjoy seeing my kids swim.   They make it look so easy and effortless.  I know having children who can swim is not unusual and that lots of people can swim well.  The reason I am thrilled with my own offsprings’ aquatic accomplishments is because I personally can barely swim at all.

I never had any structured swim lessons.  I picked up tips here and there from my next door neighbors who knew how to swim and encouraged me to join them in their backyard pool.  I learned enough to keep myself afloat but I always felt better when I was able to touch the pool bottom even if I had to stand on tiptoe to do it.  I wanted to have fun with my friends in the pool, but bodies of water and I always had an uneasy alliance.

As a young adult, I continued to dog paddle around pools and since I was extremely nearsighted I kept my contacts in so I could see where I was going.  I had tried taking my contacts out at a beach one time, and felt truly vulnerable when I emerged from the waves and realized I could not see well enough to locate my friends.  I had to wander up and down the beach until I heard a familiar voice or got close enough to recognize someone.  Swimming continued to be associated with unease and vulnerability over the years.

Fast forward to my adulthood as a mother with three young children.  I consider the ability to swim to be an important life skill, so I made sure each of my kids had the benefit of swim lessons with someone who could teach them to swim with confidence. I then had laser surgery to correct my vision and successfully achieved 20/20 vision.  I was excited to think that finally I could swim with my children because I could see where I was going.  Guess what?  I still didn’t know how to swim even though my vision was fine.  I only knew how to swim with my head out of the water, sort of like how Tarzan swims only without the yell and with a lot more lurching.

I was thinking about the similarities between my struggles with swimming and my children’s struggles with aspects of their schoolwork.  If you look at me, there’s nothing to indicate that I am not a swimmer.  I look like I should be capable of swimming the way others do.  If you look at my children, they look as if they should be able to complete their schoolwork without significant difficulty.  Their learning challenges are invisible until they are observed in a task that is more difficult for them than for the average learner.

Recently I started swimming at a local gym, doing my lurching breaststroke and my backstroke.  I can keep my face out of the water most of the time with those two strokes but I decided once again to try and learn how to swim with my face in the water.  I borrowed my daughter’s goggles, took a deep breath, and…froze!  There’s something about being face down in the water that panics me.  I try to talk myself through it, offering various reasons why I should be able to do this.  I try to convince myself that I can do it, and that once I learn to swim with my face in the water I might actually enjoy it.

My children who are struggling learners have similar experiences.  I try to talk them through tasks, but there is still something blocking their learning process.  I encourage them to try again, try harder, and try again.  How frustrating this must be for a child who is already trying hard but not experiencing success commensurate with that effort.  It must feel to them the way I feel when I swim as fast as I can, only to have the person in the next lane glide past me with ease.  I’m trying harder to do what others accomplish with ease.  Our struggling learners put forth more effort but often don’t get the tangible results that seem to come so naturally to others.

The saying, “sink or swim” always seemed to me to imply that if you jumped into a task you would learn how to do it because you had to.  Now I’m not so sure.  I know that some of us are more likely to actually sink no matter how motivated we are to learn and overcome challenges.  I am more careful than ever not to compare my children and the ways they learn with other children and their accomplishments. Likewise I try not to compare my swimming attempts with those around me because it’s discouraging and unhelpful.

I won’t give up on my struggling learners, but I don’t expect their learning achievements to look like the average learner’s.  I haven’t given up on swimming with my face in the water, either.  So far no matter what I try, sooner or later I end up irrigating my sinuses with pool water and gasping for air.  On my most recent trip to the pool, however, I was able to swim about 4 feet before I snorted in some water.  It’s not impressive, but it is progress.  Likewise those with learning challenges hit bump after bump in their attempts to master needed skills.  It’s not a nice smooth learning curve, but that lurching progress is still progress in the right direction.  Celebrate that forward movement and don’t compare your efforts to the person in the next lane.  Instead, celebrate YOUR progress and that of your children and allow the joy to follow.

How Children Make Decisions

Have you ever wondered why some kids are picky eaters and others willingly try anything you offer them?  Maybe you have one child who absolutely loves workbooks and another who thinks paper and pencil tasks should be outlawed as cruel and unusual punishment.  Wouldn’t it be great if we could get inside our children’s heads now and then and see what is really driving their decision-making process?  I’ll share a few glimpses my children have shared with me over the years and you can come along, armed with your sense of humor and willingness to try and see things through a child’s eyes.

There was a time when all three of my children loved the “drumstick” part of chicken.  Since I could purchase a package of drumsticks at the store I thought it was wonderful that they could all have their favorite piece without fighting over which two get the drumsticks and who has to choose a different piece.  This worked out beautifully for a period of time, until one day all three children announced that they would no longer eat chicken drumsticks.  I was baffled, because as far as I could tell nothing had changed.  I bought the same brand I always had, prepared it the same way I always did, only now instead of eagerly eating the drumsticks the children were turning up their noses at this formerly sought after food.  It turns out that those noses were the very key to their sudden reversal in their attitudes about eating chicken.  After some careful questioning (okay, more like Mom’s Inquisition) I found out that as the drumsticks were cooking my son had wrinkled up his nose and told his sisters that the cooking chicken smelled like Shadow, our dog, when he was wet.  If you’ve never smelled a wet dog, please take my word for it when I say that even a clean, wet dog does not smell pleasant.  I’m not sure why that is, but once you have that scent memory in your mind and it becomes associated with a certain food, you surely will not be eager to eat that food item again for quite some time – if ever.

Not only are some childhood decisions based on smells, but vision plays a role in their decision making as well.  I have vivid recollections of handing my daughter a page of math problems only to have her shrink back and refuse to take it as if I were extending a tarantula toward her and expecting her to cuddle it. Without hesitation she would pronounce that the work I was offering her was too hard and would take forever for her to complete.  It took me some time, but I eventually realized that it was not the difficulty of the work or even the number of math problems that was causing my daughter’s reluctance.  It was simply the amount of ink on the page that was overwhelming to her.  She didn’t even need to see what was actually written on the page to know that the amount of print represented more time and effort than she felt she could handle.  We were able to work around this by enlarging the print, covering up all problems except the one she was working on, and focusing on one problem at a time.  Without being visually overwhelmed, my daughter was able to complete all of the work.   When I learned that my daughter was making decisions based on how the page looked to her, I could re-arrange and modify the assignment to make it appear more visually manageable.  It wasn’t the content on the page; it was how the page actually looked that was intimidating my daughter.

If your children are old enough to explain their decision-making process it can offer valuable insight into how they make decisions.  For example, long after my son was past the picky eater stage in his development he occasionally refused to even try certain foods.  I would ask him how he knew he wouldn’t like it if he hadn’t even tasted it.  One time his response was to shrug his shoulders and tell me that “It’s colored funny and looks chunky.”  This particular food offering was a dip that had some small pieces of red and green pepper mixed in.  Since my son is colorblind I’m not sure what it looked like to him, but the appearance was enough to suggest to his brain that he might not like it and should proceed with extreme caution or else retreat.  The appearance combined with his past experiences with certain textures and tastes influenced my son’s decision to decline this particular experience.

We know that young children often learn through hands-on experiences, but I think “multi-sensory” is a more accurate description.  Children learn and make decisions based on what they see, smell, taste, touch, and hear.  Much of this type of learning is incidental rather than deliberately taught.  Children are not bound by logic or mature reasoning as much as by impressions and past experiences.  My children did eventually eat chicken drumsticks again, and with maturation were able to express what was influencing the decisions they made.  It seems obvious but is so easy to forget that children don’t necessarily think the way we do as adults. As we teach them to learn our perspectives they can teach us to see things the way they do.  It’s a fresh, sometimes bewildering, and funny way to look at an experience.  Learn it, laugh with it, and work with it!