If you have a child with learning challenges, you’ve probably wondered at times if they will ever master certain tasks. If learning is represented as a curved line, and the line curves more sharply with rapid learning, then slower learners are more accurately represented by a longer line with a gradual upward slope. Does it ever seem to you that your child’s learning curve isn’t actually curving at all but is more like a straight line extending to infinity? If so, you are not alone. I’ve observed it over and over with multiple learning tasks. My “neurotypical” child has a learning curve that looks pretty much like the majority of learning curves for the general population. My two special needs learners are more like bumpy lines with occasional spikes. Not stairsteps, not smooth upward curves, but jolts and spurts. I still haven’t figured out what actually causes the spurts, or prevents them for that matter. What I can tell you is that they need a whole lot more repetition and practice than the average child does to master a skill. They also appear to finally “master” a skill only to have it mysteriously evaporate by the next day. Then it reappears again, not taking quite as long the second, third, and fourth time around. It’s as if their neurological wiring shorts out, causing them to lose information that had been available to them only moments before. Yes, it’s very frustrating – for me and for them. I don’t know why that happens, but I know it is not uncommon among those with learning challenges. Frustration or not, it’s what we have to deal with and we press on until another spike in learning occurs. Some of you may be visualizing large increases as are sometimes shown on charts in business meetings. The spikes I’m seeing are much smaller. Distinguishable from the bumpy line, but not huge upward thrusts like some people experience when they have a breakthrough. Yet I rejoice in the seemingly little jolts of learning for my children, because I know that eventually those small increases will accumulate and the skills will be successfully incorporated beyond the point that they could evaporate. They will still continue to learn in a manner similar to a bumpy line, but now that line is just a little higher. And if you look really closely along that line, you just might see a tiny slope emerging.
One of the toughest tasks I’ve faced as a parent is teaching my kids to take responsibility. I understand that my children’s particular learning challenges coincide with a two to four year delay in maturity, but even taking that into account I have been only partially successful in teaching them to take responsibility for their actions, time, possessions, and other obligations. When they were very young, it took them longer than most to learn and complete simple tasks and develop routines. I admit, there were times when I went ahead and did things myself because I didn’t have time or patience to wait on them. But most of the time, I allotted the time for the kids to do things for themselves and insisted that they do as much as possible independently. I taught them how to do simple chores, daily self-care routines, cook, and clean. I gave them charts, lists, and all the supplies they needed to be successful. Yet I still watched in bewilderment as my son would walk into a chair and say “That stupid chair!” as if the chair exerted its will and deliberately moved in front of my son instead of my son just taking responsibility for his own inattentiveness. My daughter would trip over one of her toys that she had neglected to put away and then turn around and kick it for being in her way. When they couldn’t find their shoes, I would hear them grumbling about “those stupid shoes” and making comments like “Somebody must have moved them because I can’t find them.” Even though there were designated spots for shoes, books, and toys, when they couldn’t find them my kids never seemed able to connect their actions of not putting things where they belong to not being able to find them later. It is easier for them to immediately ask for help rather than try to problem solve and come up with solutions on their own. My son, who has short-term memory issues, has refused to use aids like calendars, lists, and planners. So when he needs to call someone, he never has the number readily accessible. When he wants to call his Dad at work, he asks whoever is around at the time to tell him the number. Since Dad has been at the same job for years now, I figured that my son should either make an effort to memorize the number or write it down someplace where he can consistently find it. I’ve started asking him questions like “How are you going to remember your appointment date and time?” and “When do you think you should leave in order to get there in time, and how will you prompt yourself when it’s time to go?” His usual answer is to grin and say “You’ll remind me!” This week I’ve instituted a new strategy. I ask him my coaching questions, and then add “Pretend I’m dead!” so he has to come up with a strategy that doesn’t involve me. So far, it has seemed to stimulate his taking a bit more responsibility to come up with his own solutions.