struggling learners

Struggles With Language Arts

A mom wrote to me about her 7 year old son, asking for suggestions for a language arts curriculum. Her son has been diagnosed with AD/HD, and like many others he is creative, distractible, and likes some subjects better than others. Since my son had extreme likes and dislikes at that age, I could have spent a fortune trying to find a curriculum that worked for every subject area. Personally, I liked the pre-packed, one-company-for-all-subjects curriculum. That would have worked for only one of my three students, and I figured out that the struggles my son had would be an issue no matter what materials we used. So I learned ways to adapt and supplement what I had already purchased. Here are the things I suggested for consideration to the mom who contacted me about language arts: I would suggest that you try and figure out what it is about your current language arts curriculum that your son dislikes or is struggling with as he does various assignments. For example, if there is a lot of writing involved and he is a reluctant writer, then it makes sense that he is resistant with a curriculum that is heavy on writing. Maybe he needs help learning a proper pencil grip so his hand doesn’t hurt, or maybe he needs his vision checked because it’s hard for him to visually track when he reads. Does your son have an expressive or receptive language delay? If so, speech therapy type activities could help develop his language skills so that he can communicate more effectively in all domains. Try to see through his eyes and observe him. Ask yourself questions such as “Is the amount of print on the page overwhelming?” If your son takes one look at a page and thinks “This is going to take a long time”, that notion is enough to send an AD/HD child off on a tangent! It’s not because the work is too difficult for them, but because they dread spending much time on subjects that are not as interesting for them. There may be ways you can modify the curriculum you have now to make it work better for your family. With the flexibility of homeschooling, you can make modifications. Consider doing a half lesson a day, or splitting the language arts time into two sessions with other subjects in between. Allow your son to answer some questions orally instead of writing them down. Yes, he needs to learn to write. But as long as he is writing some of the time, it is acceptable to check his comprehension orally to see if he is mastering the material. Instead of a book report, he could draw you a picture and tell you what he learned from the book. He could do a shoebox diorama to depict some concepts. Remember, the goal is for him to learn the material, not just to finish the curriculum. These types of options allow him to be creative and show what he knows in ways that fit with how he learns. You could also utilize topics that interest him, and instead of using the written passages in the curriculum you have you could substitute sentences or paragraphs from books that you know your son will like while still teaching the skill the text intended. Maybe he could come up with some of his own sentences or ways to practice the skill being addressed by the curriculum. You will still need some written documentation, but a creative child like you described may come up with ways to demonstrate his knowledge that will be acceptable to you in addition to some of the traditional curriculum assignments. I hope this is helpful for you, and I wish you and your son much success in your home schooling endeavors.

Are you absorbing?

I’ve heard that individuals with autism think in pictures, not words. Temple Grandin has even written a book (Thinking in Pictures copyright 1995 Random House) describing her very visual way of viewing and interpreting events. My daughter, Beckie, has learned to compensate for the deficits in her working memory by visualizing what she is hearing or reading. Gander Publishing has wonderful resources for “Visualizing and Verbalizing” for reading comprehension and all three of my children experienced this technique with their “Time Flies” history programs. I think being able to make associations helps Beckie retain information, and I observed one such association last week. I had been asked to come and observe some classes and do a bit of educational consultation with the instructors. I went to observe on three different days, and watched the students as they interacted and engaged in a variety of activities. I took notes as I watched the children, and as an assistant in the classes Beckie knew why I was there and saw me taking everything in. When she was leaving to go assist in the classes last week she asked me, “Are you coming in to absorb today?” It took me a moment to realize that she was asking if I was going to come and “observe” again. She corrected herself and said “I mean ‘observe'”, but I think the association of “absorb” and “observe” is pretty fitting for what she saw me doing. I was observing, by absorbing all I could about the classes and how they were run. In fact, I think if you really want to be observant, you should be absorbing. Thank you, Beckie, for another word picture!

I’m Trying!

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 have no regrets

A few days ago I was doing school with my Beckie, and she was her usual somewhat restless self. She tends to rush through school work, fearing that it will take forever, and wanting to get it over with as quickly as possible. I’d like her to develop a love of learning, but we’re still working on that. As we were going over some geography, I asked if a certain mountain range was along the eastern or western border of the state we were studying. Grinning at me, but without opening the book to look at the map, she confidently proclaimed “Eastern!” I told her that was incorrect, and that she needed to actually take the time to look at the book in order to answer the questions just as we always do when working on geography. Her response is typical of the impulsive, risk-taking kids I’ve worked with over the years. She smiled and said, “I have no regrets. I had a 50-50 chance of being right!” For me, it was about her truly learning something. For Beckie, it was about getting finished with the work. So the compromise? Beckie will learn how to find information, but doesn’t have to memorize facts she cares nothing about. That way, when it does become meaningful to her she will know how to find the information for herself. And I get to relearn all the information I’ve forgotten since it wasn’t meaningful to me when I was Beckie’s age. Beckie, I understand, but I will still work to equip you for your continuing education and any life skills I can pass along to you.


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.

Burning Rings of Fire

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.

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 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.

In her own time

Yesterday, my youngest daughter tested for her black belt in karate. She is 13 years old and has been in martial arts classes since she was 4 years old. When she first started in karate class, the flourescent lighting, ceiling fans, wall of mirrors, parents chatting in the waiting area, and other children working on various skills around the room were overwhelmingly distracting for her. She was such a joyful child in everything she did that she just went with what her brain and body told her to do. Unfortunately for her instructor, that meant holding her pony tail up behind her head and twirling it as she watched herself dance in front of the mirrors, talking to herself or anyone who was near her the entire class time. It may sound cute, but it was disruptive and painful to watch sometimes. You know the looks you get from other parents when your child isn’t conforming to the expectations. I got plenty of those looks. I talked to my daughter, and tried to coach her before and after class, and I let her continue taking lessons long after everyone else had surpassed her in belt after belt, while she seemed stuck on white with a stripe or two. Kids who started the same time she did moved up to other classes. Kids who started quite a while after she did moved up to more advanced classes. I sat there in the parent waiting area, watching my sweet, dancing, singing child enjoy herself but gain few skills. She just couldn’t seem to grasp right vs. left. Her memory issues made it difficult for her to retain the sequences of movements for even the simplest kata routines. I thought maybe one day the belt would wear out and at least that way she’d get a new one. But she was enjoying classes and needed an outlet for all her energy, so we stuck it out with her. Over the next couple years, she grew and matured. And one day, things started to click. It was that sudden – I remember the day it happened. I looked at the instructor, he looked at me, and my girl wasn’t looking at anyone because she had started focusing and remembering what to do. She could follow directions and understand the Japanese words she’d been hearing for years. The forward progress never stopped after that day. Finally, she was able to advance from belt to belt. She could stand still. She could go without talking for a sustained period of time. She became coordinated and strong. She is able to assist her instructor with some of the younger children’s classes, and she seems good at it. Now she is a board-breaking black belt and would tell you it was worth the years of work to get there.

Learning Curve

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.

Pretend I’m Dead!

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.