special needs

Homeschooling Your Struggling Learner

My friend and colleague, Kathy Kuhl, has written an excellent book (Homeschooling Your Struggling Learner) that provides practical strategies for struggling learners as well as being a wealth of encouragement. Kuhl interviewed homeschooling families with children representing a variety of special needs such as autism, AD/HD, learning disabilities, and more. Many hours were spent interviewing, researching, and compiling information into this reader-friendly and very organized book. Kathy’s book is available at Heads Up by clicking on the “book” category on the web site. I had the pleasure of presenting with Kathy at a conference last October, and while we were there we grabbed a few minutes to do this interview. So here it is, the first “Kuhl and Boring” video presentation for your enjoyment!

Kathy Kuhl, Homeschooling Your Struggling Learner

To Tell, or Not to Tell?

i26I’ve met many parents who are pretty sure their child has AD/HD or some other learning challenge but they are hesitant to make it official by having their child evaluated and diagnosed. The fear that a label may limit their child, be inaccurate, or be used in discriminatory ways is valid. When my son, Josh, was approaching school age I thought about the advantages of private schools with smaller class sizes. Several people suggested that I go ahead and enroll him without telling the school personnel about his AD/HD diagnosis so they couldn’t turn him down. That was before we knew he also had an auditory processing disorder. I was assured that once he was enrolled in the school, they couldn’t kick him out just because he had a diagnosis and they would be forced to work with him. Wow! For one thing, Josh was pretty easy to pick out of a group as being different than his peers. I’d give it 5 minutes tops before things became unavoidably noticeable. So basically I would have had to keep him out of sight until school had officially started. Then there was the whole idea of the people he would be spending hours with each day being tricked into having a student that they weren’t prepared for and apparently didn’t feel equipped to deal with in their classroom. That made me feel sorry for Josh and for the teachers, since having someone who was “forced” to work with my child because I had hidden some vital information from them just didn’t sit well with me. I loved that boy, and the thought of sending him somewhere that he might not be wanted didn’t make sense to me. I had the same dilemma when it came time for Sunday School at church. I didn’t want to bias the teachers against Josh by telling them all his struggles, so I coached him on the way there and dropped him off like all the other parents with their children. The Sunday School teachers, bless them all, are volunteers in the church and most don’t have training as educators – and for most kids that’s just fine. But to do the “drop and run” with a special needs or challenging child is not a good idea, as I came to realize. Every week, the other parents would pick up their children and happily leave. When I came to pick up Josh, I inevitably got pulled to the side and told, “I need to talk to you about Josh.” Then I heard, week after week, a full litany of complaints from frustrated and bewildered teachers who were describing things that were not unusual for Josh but were not typical for most children. For example, Josh was not adept at sitting still for long. He was not deliberately disruptive and was never disrespectful, but his need to stand at the table while coloring his page instead of sitting in a chair like everyone else was considered problematic. His sensory issues led him to sit at the back of the group on his carpet square, and everyone else was huddled together and bumping into each other which Josh was carefully trying to avoid. But that meant he wasn’t “with” the group because he had made a row of one – just himself! And the list would go on and on until I was finally allowed to leave with my miserable son who knew that somehow just by being who he was he had screwed up again and people were unhappy with him. Those experiences led me to advocate more and be preemptive with anyone I left Josh with for any length of time. When there was a sub or a new Sunday School teacher, I made a point of telling them a bit about Josh and strategies that would help them, and I was careful not to dwell on the negatives. I shared Josh’s strengths, too, for I found that if I became negative about my son others felt free to share every little thing they saw as being wrong or weird about him. I was well aware of Josh’s struggles and it served no purpose other than to discourage me when others felt the need to complain about him. All this, and he wasn’t even doing anything “bad” on purpose! When someone was going on and on about all the things Josh did or did not do, I learned to quietly point out something that he had done right, or I’d share something that Josh had enjoyed learning in their class previously. This seemed to derail some of the negativity some of the time. Just as with our kids, nothing works all of the time but something will work some of the time. We need strategies for working with those who are in a position to care for our children, and hope that something will work some of the time. Whether you are a natural advocate or a reluctant one, if you have a child with a learning difference or special challenges, you must be an advocate unless and until your child one day develops the skills to advocate for himself. In my experience, being deliberate in my advocacy was hard but preferable to what happened when I just waited and hoped things would work out for the best.

Making the Most of Your Time

“There is an appointed time for everything. And there is a time for every event under heaven.” Ecclesiastes 3:1 (NASB)
When you are homeschooling a special needs or struggling child, you are not always on the same timeline as others. The curriculum you use needs to be adapted and usually one of the biggest modifications involves time.
Our children with various challenges and differences do not develop at the same rate as those who are typically developing. They need more time to learn skills and retain information. They may mature more slowly and need additional practice and support to progress. My son could take two hours to do an assignment I thought should take twenty minutes, and it was the same way with chores. Other children have medical issues like seizures that can interfere with their ability to remember previously learned skills. They need to re-learn information, and that takes time and makes the rate of progress variable. So given those kinds of situations, how can we make the most of our time and be good stewards of that resource?
One lesson I learned about my use of time was that I really needed to focus on my goals for each of my children. Once the goals were in the forefront of my mind, it was easier to eliminate things that were not conducive to helping achieve those goals. When everything is treated as being equally important, there is no priority and the important issues may get pushed aside by lesser matters.
With my son, Josh, it became clear that he was not going to be able to do many different subjects in a single day and finish all of his work. Although he didn’t need as much sleep as I did in those early years, I didn’t want him spending all day and then the evening trying to get his schoolwork done, struggling all the while. I homeschool for many reasons, including helping my children develop a love for learning. Spending too many hours on school tasks seems like a good way to achieve burnout for all of us. My husband and I agreed to focus on the basics with Josh, and limit the amount of time spent on highly structured learning tasks.
I had to pare down my long list of what I would like to do and instead think realistically about what I could do each school day. Because Josh and his sister, Beckie, had learning challenges I had to eliminate some of the supplemental material I had originally planned on and limit the work to the core essentials of their education.
In addition to recognizing the best way to invest our time, we need to try to teach our children to make the most of their time. Many kids live in the moment, which is a perspective that has blessings of its own. Without losing that ability to fully experience life as it happens, we need to gently guide our children to consider future events and plan for them in a thoughtful manner. This does not come naturally for most children, and there may need to be consequences that occur as part of the learning process.
Here is an example from the Boring family homeschool: I have a lesson planned and go over it with the kids. They start goofing around, are not working on their assignment even though they know what is expected and are capable of completing the work. I do not mind spending more time on a lesson if my children do not understand something. However, when it is clearly a matter of choice and they are choosing to be silly, they are wasting their time and mine and there will be consequences. I think that the children should experience the consequence of their poor decisions so that hopefully they will make better choices next time.
With that goal in mind, we started “homeschool homework” when the children were wasting time. I would set a time limit for a certain assignment, and if they did not complete it within that period, they had homework with Dad when he got home. This kept them accountable to Dad, and kept them from more play time until their homework was done. This worked well for us since my husband did not have to plan or teach the lesson but could just follow-through with what I had assigned.
Making the most of our time will be manifested differently for each of our families. We all have limitations and demands on our time. Finding balance, remembering our goals, and investing time in our children will allow us to experience the satisfaction of time well spent.

He Wears The Chain

My son has never had a good internal sense of time passing. When I said it was time to work on a certain subject, my son always wanted to know how long it would take and how much more work we had for the day. He also is forgetful and inattentive, so even though the answers rarely varied he asked the same questions daily because he didn’t remember from one day to the next. I thought it might help if I gave him a visual and tactile depiction to represent what we needed to accomplish for school each day. I found some interlocking links and selected one link to represent each school task for the day. I told Josh he could remove one link each time he completed a subject. That way, he could see and touch a visual representation of how much more schoolwork he needed to complete. I thought he might even become more motivated when he saw the chain getting shorter as the day went on. One day, Josh was having a particularly “off” day. We all have off days, but when my struggling learner has an off day, it’s really OFF. Josh just couldn’t seem to focus or sustain his attention to anything. By the end of the day, he had draped the links around his shoulders to help himself remember what he was supposed to be working on. All I could think of was Marley’s ghost from Dicken’s The Christmas Carol when Scrooge asks about the chains Marley has and the reply is “I wear the chains I forged in life.” Poor Josh! He looked like he was wearing the chains he forged during the school day, and that was just for one day. Imagine if we carried over all the unfinished links to the next day and the next. Soon, Josh would buckle under the weight of so many unfinished tasks. We had to start each day fresh. I am reminded of the Bible verse in Lamentations 3:23,23 “The Lord’s lovingkindnesses indeed never cease, for His compassions never fail. They are new every morning. Great is Your faithfulness.” Each day is a new day, with new challenges and opportunities. Let’s try to help our kids without dragging any chains from unfulfilled tasks from the past and focus on each new day as a chance to try again.

Only One Shoe

Think for a minute about taking your shoes off. Some of us remove our foot attire as soon as we enter our homes. Others may leave them on all day until bedtime. But as you picture yourself taking your shoes off, I’d like you to think about whether you take one off followed by the other in quick succession, or just kick off one shoe and walk around with the other for awhile and then slip off the remaining shoe. Although I’ve never seen anyone have a significant time lag between removing the left and right shoes, that’s the only explanation I can come up with for why my children can only find one shoe. Personally, I always remove my shoes together and almost always put them – together – in the same place. I can usually find my shoes, but if I’ve misplaced them I’ve always lost both shoes not just one. My children have repeatedly been able to find only one shoe, usually when we are in a hurry to get out the door to an appointment. We have a designated spot for shoes when they are not being worn, and usually ONE shoe would be there. When the dog was a puppy, I thought maybe he was running off with them. But after his puppy year he really wasn’t interested in shoes anymore and stuck to his own toys for the most part. I can imagine my children beginning to take off their shoes but then getting distracted after the first one and bounding off until it registers that they still have a shoe on, so they remove it wherever they happen to be. The children are usually baffled as well. Josh, who is my only son, would stand with one shoe in his hand and announce that “Someone took my other shoe.” Since his shoes did not fit any other family member, it did not make sense that any of us took his shoe. Is it possible to go sleep walking and hide shoes ( or should I say “shoe”) while being totally unaware of doing so? That seems about as feasible as taking off each shoe at a different time and location. Perhaps that’s just another reason that the sports my kids were involved with were a good match for them. Swimming and martial arts are done barefoot!

Reluctant Writers

I wonder how many school-age children could be considered reluctant writers. I know from my own experience and from talking with hundreds of people at homeschool conferences that reluctant writers are not uncommon. It seems to occur with a higher percentage in boys, and there’s a very high correlation in children with fine motor delays and attention challenges. Yet writing is such a fundamental skill for academic tasks, and not just for “official” writing curriculum that we have to help our children attain competency in this area. Students must demonstrate adequate writing skills for math calculations and to provide written responses to questions in nearly every subject area. My son, Josh, was a doodler and picture-drawing fiend from the time he could hold a pencil. That boy loved to draw, and decorated the margins of his workbooks and school pages with detailed artwork. But he hated to write letters and numbers, so the same pencil he enjoyed drawing with became the hated enemy pencil he was expected to write with for school. When you have a reluctant writer, you can end up with a resistant student. There are a few things I tried that helped us get the work done with neither of us becoming too traumatized in the process. First, I acknowledged to myself that boys tend to mature later than girls, and children with AD/HD tend to be 2-4 years LESS mature than their same-age peers without AD/HD. So when I’m working with my 7 year-old AD/HD son, I’m dealing with a maturity level of a typically developing 3-5 year-old boy. Expectations need to be adjusted to fit who you are working with so you can challenge without frustrating as you help skills be developed. The second point I tried to remember was that curriculum is a tool for teachers to measure comprehension and progress. For a handwriting curriculum, that is best assessed by actual writing samples since that is what is being targeted. For other subject areas, I can assess comprehension orally some of the time. I still have written samples of work in each subject area, but I do not need to have my child write down every answer every time when they can quickly and easily tell me their responses and I can gauge their level of understanding. This lessened frustration a great deal for Josh, who was bright and could express himself orally but struggled to form the written words. Writing was a long, laborious process for him and sustaining attention and focus for topics that weren’t highly interesting to him was beyond challenging. Sometimes I let him combine his love of drawing with a writing assignment. I found paper that was lined on the lower half and left the top half blank. Josh could write his sentences on the lower half (half a page of writing was less intimidating to him) and he could illustrate his ideas on the upper half of the paper. This was far more appealing to him than writing alone, so he was less reluctant to do the writing task. Today as a young adult, my son who was an extremely reluctant writer back in elementary school has developed such a passion for writing that he has written three science fiction novels and has plans for several more books. Take heart, teachers of reluctant writers! There may yet be an author inside that child.

“Normal” is whatever you’re used to

My daughter, Beth, has grown up with an older brother and younger sister who struggle with AD/HD, auditory processing, and sensory issues. Any outsider to our family in our younger days would have been able to see immediately that two of the children were not typical in many ways. To Beth, however, she’s grown up with them and is used to the way they need to hear directions repeatedly and have tasks broken down into small steps. She’s grown up seeing strategies in place to help her siblings keep track of school materials, shoes, and of course the elusive and frequently missing library books. She grew up pairing visual cues with auditory information to maximize retention and knows that without writing information down her siblings will not retain it. Beth has an in-depth understanding of the need her siblings have to be in motion, even while they are doing school work. She can list a dozen safe ways to meet the need for physical activity without it being too distracting to others or dependent on the weather. Beth is adept at redirecting a distractible child and helping them get back on track with their focus. Now a college student majoring in special education, Beth recently joined me at my part-time employer to be a substitute teacher in a preschool classroom. She thoroughly enjoyed her day with the children, and those working with her gave her rave reviews. They said she was a natural, and jumped right in without having to be told what to do with the kids. When I passed the compliments along to Beth, she was pleased but really didn’t think what she did was a big deal at all. Beth’s whole life has been part of her preparation, and to her she is truly doing what comes naturally. Her response to some of the challenges of special needs kids comes automatically, through years of practice and observation in her own home. Beth feels passionately about helping children who struggle, and her insight and experiences make her a natural in her interactions. Her responses reflect that “normal” doesn’t necessarily mean “like everyone else”. “Normal” can be whatever you are used to, and will vary from unusual person to person.


Bitterness. It is so easy to feel it and so hard to rid yourself of it. I guess like many things, it’s better if you can prevent it than to try to eliminate it once it’s there. When you have a child who struggles, you have a greater likelihood of being rejected or misunderstood as a parent. Besides that, if you are like many of us, you also feel your child’s hurts as if they are personally happening to you. In a real way, we are rejected when our children are, because we cannot fully separate ourselves from who they are – and I’m not sure we should as long as they need us to advocate for them. When a child acts differently from the norm, or in ways that are interpreted in a negative light, it is a near certainty that sooner or later we will get unsolicited advice from relatives, friends, and even strangers. Sometimes we are just given “the look” of disapproval, and that can be as painful as spoken words. The reality is, not everyone can understand your individual situation. Some people take one look at us and decide they don’t even want to understand us. Here’s the rub: if you let those looks and comments get under your skin it will be hard not to become bitter and resentful, and as a result you will be less effective with your child and will feel less contented than if you can rid yourself of bitterness. I’ve been working on this area a long time in my own life, and the most helpful thing I’ve found is to choose to believe that the person making the comment is genuinely trying to be helpful. Often, they have no clue as to what I’ve already tried, etc. but I let them off the hook in my mind. I pray a prayer of gratitude for them that they don’t have to deal with the struggles I do, and then I let them go and let the judgmental comments and poor advice slide right on by.

We are still alive; Hard times

Sorry for the long delay between posts.

Last month we had an interesting experience. A longtime friend who is very well known among homeschoolers as well as the special needs community emailed us. She was scheduled to speak at a conference in Illinois, but her health just wasn’t good enough to allow her a long drive and then the exertion of presenting workshops. So she was looking to find someone to fill in for her. HUMom accepted. Then we found out that she would be doing six workshops over two days. So……

HUMom learned the material from audio and video recordings, edited the handouts and I modified PowerPoint files. For six, one-hour presentations. In two weeks. In short, this was a rather stressful time. Yikes!

All went well, and actually we had a very pleasant weekend. The most difficult part was that there was so much information that HUMom could have probably presented twice as long and still not gotten through everything. Our friend has over 30 years experience with special needs children and has written dozens of books and curriculum. Her name is Joyce Herzog and if you have never run into her or seen her work, I would urge you to look her up at www.JoyceHerzog.info. She is a wonderful lady, with a huge heart for kids who learn differently.

The point of this post is that sometimes we are put in situations that are overwhelming and seem much more than we can endure. The demands and the difficult circumstances are just beyond us and we cannot win. I’d like to say that we will all overcome and have success, but that just isn’t true. I do want to say that sometimes we need to look from a new angle or point of view to see what is going on. What if your definition of “success” is only one of many? Outcomes that are not what we wanted or desired can still be useful to help us learn about ourselves or life. Or they can serve to strengthen us or teach us endurance.

I have a few heros in life. One was Lou Gerhig. The epitome of consistent, reliable excellence. Until Cal Ripkin broke his consecutive game streak, Lou held the record for most games played without taking a single day off. Not only that, but he was productive – many years leading the league in RBIs, homeruns, etc. If it weren’t for a fellow named Babe Ruth, Gehrig would have been known as the most prolific hitter of his time. Lou was struck down in the prime of life by ALS, which has come to be called “Lou Gehrig Disease.”

Another hero is Brett Favre and here is the point for all my ramblings. Brett is another Ironman, with the most consecutive starts by an NFL quarterback. He recently retired after 17 year career. Sports Illustrated interviewed him in 2007 when they named him Sportsman of the Year.

“Ask Favre for his own favorite memory, and he is quiet for a moment. “I’ve got so many plays running through my mind,” he says, finally. “The funny thing is, it’s not only about the touchdowns and the big victories. If I were to make a list, I would include the interceptions, the sacks, the really painful losses. Those times when I’ve been down, when I’ve been kicked around, I hold on to those. In a way those are the best times I’ve ever had, because that’s when I’ve found out who I am. And what I want to be.”

Working with special needs children is not glamorous. Often it is not pleasant. Most times it is exceptionally difficult. But, in teaching them, you just may find out who you are. And what you want to be.

Special Needs Homeschooling – Memory Difficulties

All children forget things they’ve heard now and then, but for some children forgetfulness happens frequently and is problematic. Parents of the chronically forgetful are faced with the difficult task of trying to determine if their child is genuinely not retaining information or is being willfully non-compliant.

One way to determine if memory issues are causing difficulties is to check in with the child is to see if she can repeat back what you just told her to do. A child who only remembers one out of three directions will not be able to comply with completing all three. Sometimes a child with working memory difficulties can repeat back what they’ve heard immediately, but the information is not retained long enough for them to act on it before it is forgotten. When memory issues are causing difficulties, there are a number of strategies to improve retention and compensate for weaknesses.

One way to help those who have trouble remembering things is to develop routines that can become habits. For example, if you want your child to do the same three things every morning, have him perform the activities in the same order and in the same location each day. Once there has been enough repetition to form a habit, the child no longer has to work to remember the three morning chores.

Some children remember sequences and lists better when using music as an auditory prompt and reminder. Try making up songs that incorporate the task you want your child to complete. Generate your own song or use a familiar tune and change the words to fit the activity.

Songs allow for repetition, which helps with memory and can aid your child in sticking with an activity for an adequate amount of time. For instance, you could sing a song about washing hands to help your child remember all the steps involved and to keep them washing long enough to get clean. They can learn a tooth brushing song and sing it in their minds to keep them brushing and remembering to brush the top and bottom teeth on both sides.

Another strategy to facilitate memory is to use visual cues in addition to the auditory directions given to a child. For young children or those with language delays, use gestures along with your verbal directions. If you need to remind your child to put his coat in the closet, point to the coat and then to the closet as you tell him to pick up the coat and hang it where it belongs.

When a child has difficulty remembering routine daily activities try using pictures, charts, and lists that can serve as constant visual reminders. This will relieve some of the burden on auditory or working memory alone. Post the charts or checklists where the child can see them at the time and place they are needed to complete the tasks. This will also help the child to be consistently reminded through visual cues without the parent needing to frequently prompt and repeat what needs to be done.

For activities that are not part of a routine, the child needs to develop strategies using internal cues to help retain the information long enough to complete tasks. For some children, repeating the directions to themselves over and over until the job is done may be effective. For example, the child who is likely to forget what he was sent upstairs to retrieve might prompt himself by repeating, “Go to the bedroom. Bring back the history book.”

My own children benefited greatly by applying the “make a movie” technique. Before I’d give them a direction, I’d instruct them to “make a movie in your mind” about what I was telling them to do. Then I would tell them step-by-step what I wanted them to do. I’d ask them to picture themselves completing the task and encouraged them to imagine themselves following the directions to completion.

The more color, detail, and even humor that was included in their movies, the easier it was for them to remember what they needed to accomplish. I’d tell them to push the “play” button and then send them off to do the errand with a reminder that if they forgot what they needed to do they could replay the movie in their minds and see if that helped them remember.

Memory challenges can be frustrating for parents and children alike. By incorporating strategies into daily activities, children can begin to develop skills and learn to compensate for their memory difficulties. It’s never too early or too late to work on improving memory.