Saturday, January 10, 2009

Children Who Learn Differently

The Lord, in His great wisdom and sovereignty, has seen fit to give my husband and me some children with difficulties learning. They struggle academically in varying degrees from perhaps one “grade level” behind in a subject or two (who determines grade levels anyway?) to barely reading after years of hard work. One son has been diagnosed with severe learning disabilities. Even though they have not been tested, I know that two of my other children have similar issues, too, though not as severe.

I asked my son who struggles the most in school if he was okay with me writing about his struggles in this article. I told him I would not use his name but only say “my son.” He said “That is okay. Maybe it will help someone else who has trouble reading like me.”

For years, I struggled with the fact that some of my children are not academically “normal” children. I would hear other homeschooling moms talk about how intelligent their children were and how advanced their homeschooling children were. I would wonder what was wrong with our family, most of all, with me as a teacher. I knew that their academic struggles were certainly not from lack of trying on my part, but was I doing it wrong?

Gradually, for I am a slow learner in this area, the Lord has taught me that my only job is to be faithful. God has called us to homeschool our children. My job is to teach them with the best of my ability. The outcome is not in my hands, but in the hands of our Savior. That brings me more comfort and confidence than I can possibly express.

Over the years, the Lord has taught me many things concerning my children who learn differently. Here are some of them:

1) Pray, pray, pray! I cannot rely on my own strength and wisdom to help my child. I need wisdom from my Heavenly Father. So many times I have been SURE I should teach my child a certain way. Then, after prayer, the Lord has led me in a completely different direction. It is important to be open to the Lord’s leading, even if it goes against what we may think is best.

2) Forgive well meaning homeschooling moms who have completely “normal” children and are sure that if you homeschooled their way, your children would not have any academic struggles. They really are not trying to be arrogant. They truly do want to help. Over the years, I have learned to look at their hearts instead of the words that hurt me.
No one can completely understand something they have not been through. I have a friend whose husband was deployed for a year. I could sympathize and pray for her, but I could not truly understand what it is like to have a husband gone for a year, especially being in such a dangerous situation. Likewise, parents who do not have children who struggle in school cannot understand what it is like. They can sympathize and pray for us, and I treasure friends who do this. However, unless they have walked in our shoes, they do not fully understand.

So when another homeschooling mom, or anyone else, comes to you with the perfect answer for your child’s struggles (more often than not, it will be something you have already tried) just smile and thank them for their concern. Usually a polite “I am really glad that works for your family.” is all that is needed. I have learned not to go home and stew about it or think of “the perfect comeback” that I should have said to them. I remind myself that they have struggles in their life that I do not understand.
3) Certain homeschooling magazine articles can be hurtful. I have learned to avoid them. I don’t know how many times I have read stories about the “light bulb” experience. The story will tell about a child who struggled for years to learn to read and then one day he could suddenly read huge chapter books. That truly does happen. In fact, it has happened in my own household. One of my children went from haltingly reading first grade readers to reading chapter books in a two week period.

However, many children never will have that “light bulb” moment. Instead of a light bulb, it will be more like a slow-moving tortoise going up a slippery, muddy hill that slides back two feet for every three feet it goes forward. We waited for years for my son who struggles so much to magically get that “light bulb” experience. It has not happened.

Gradually and reluctantly, I have come to accept the fact that my son may never will have that “light bulb” experience. He will probably always struggle with reading. He will probably never be able to have a job that requires a lot of reading. It has been a hard pill for me to swallow but a necessary and important thing for me to accept.

4) Rejoice in each little victory. I remember the first time my son read the word “of.” He was ten years old. He had struggled with this particular word from age six when we first began his long, difficult up-hill reading endeavor. I had shown him flashcards with this word. I had read him chapter books and had him read this word every time we came to it. He had rolled out this word with play dough. He had written it in sand and in salt. We had cut that word out of newspapers and magazines in many different fonts. Still, every time he came to that word in the books he would read aloud to me, he would not know it.

One day, after four years of working on this word, he was reading a story to me in his usual painfully halting and slow way. He got to the word “of” and he read it!! I held my breath waiting to see if it was a fluke. Sure enough, he got to the word “of” further in the story and read it again. I got so excited and I said to him, “Did you know that you just read the word ‘of’ twice!” He grinned and was as excited as I was. He saw my excitement and heard my praise, but what he didn’t know was that after he finished the story, I went to my room and cried. I was thinking, “I can’t believe I am crying tears of joy because my ten year old can read the word “of.” When you have a child who struggles so much, those little things mean the world to you.

I should tell the rest of the story. The next day, he could not read the word “of.” I didn’t say anything to him, but I was inwardly heartbroken. However, over the next few days, he read it more often than not, and eventually was able to read the word correctly every single time he saw it. That is what I mean about a tortoise going up a slippery, muddy hill.

5) As homeschoolers, we tend to avoid outside help. However, with my son, we came to the point where we knew we needed it. We went to someone who was highly praised by other homeschooling families who have children who struggle. She had helped their children and we were confident she could help our son. That proved to be true. This person gave us valuable information as to how to help our son with his reading and spelling, and we have seen definite, though very slow, improvement since then. I am able to implement these tools with my other children who learn differently as well.

I should caution though, that outside help, however good it may be, will not remove our child’s learning disabilities. The person that helped us was very upfront with us about this. She told us she could give us tools to help him with his particular disability (which proved to be true), but that these tools would not remove his disabilities.

6) Sometimes we get so bogged down in the academic struggles of our children, that we forget about helping them to grow to be more like Christ. It occurred to me once a few years ago, when my son was struggling greatly with a particular sin, that I should be far more concerned about his sin than I should be about the fact that he could not yet read. Yes, learning to read is crucial, but more importantly still, we need to keep eternal values in view.

Sometimes we are tempted to overlook behavioral issues with our learning disabled child. Yet, sin is still sin, no matter what their disabilities may be. We still need to help them grow and become more Christ like with each passing year.

Along the same vein, we should be careful not to pity our child who is learning challenged. We can encourage and help them to achieve the best of their ability. We can sympathize with them when they are discouraged, yes. But never pity them. It will cause them to grow up with a “Woe is me, the world is against me and so unfair” attitude, and that will not help them in any way, shape or form.

7) Another important thing that I learned is not to hold any of my children back from learning because they cannot read well. They can still learn so much about science, history, literature and most of all, God’s Word. I read to my children constantly. It is one of my favorite things to do. I read the Bible, great works of literature, science and history textbooks, character building books and just plain fun books to them. Often my non-strugglers will listen, too, even though they could read the material on their own.

They can also learn in other ways. They can still memorize Scripture if I help them orally. It may take my struggling learners longer to learn verses but they can still do it. We also do science experiments, take family nature hikes and do art projects.

8) I found that I did go through a grieving process about my childrens’ learning struggles, much like what I went through after each of my eight miscarriages. I went through denial, sadness, some anger and finally acceptance. It is difficult to see one’s child struggle so much and it is normal for most of us who have children with disabilities to grieve because of it.

The important thing to remember is something that a good friend of mine said after she went through an unimaginably difficult time in her life, “Run to Jesus, run to Jesus, run to Jesus.” There is nothing sinful about grieving or the Bible would not tell us to weep with those who weep. It is comforting to know that we can run to the arms of our Savior and He is waiting and ready to comfort us. I cried out many times to the Lord in tears and He heard my prayers and brought me comfort in many ways. He brought me hope and comfort through the encouraging words of friends and family, through passages of Scripture, and just from knowing that He cared and understood and loves my children.

9) It is very important to accept our children the way God made them. They may struggle in ways that “normal” children do not, but they are still precious children created in the image of God. If they get even a sense that they are a disappointment to us, it can leave scars that may last a lifetime. God created our children the way He wanted them to be. As hard is it may be to believe this, God loves our precious children more than we do. No matter what their struggles may be, they can be used of God and they can live a life that glorifies God.

Our children who learn differently have their own unique talents and strengths. We should help them develop those gifts to the best of their ability. My son who struggles so much with reading has a tender heart, is very good at crafts, is fascinated by medieval weapons, and wants to be an inventor some day. I have learned to really appreciate his gifts and to focus on those instead of worrying so much about what he can’t do.

One of my editors encouraged me to add something that I realized is very important. Sometimes it may be hard to see their gifts. I have a difficult time with this with one of my struggling learners. We can pray and ask God to show them to us so that in turn, we can encourage our child with the knowledge of these special abilities and help foster that talent or gift in their life.

I have learned not to talk about my children’s learning struggles except with people that I really know well and trust because it opens up my child for criticism and the possibility of being pre-judged. Plus, as I have mentioned before, I have come to realize that most people do not truly understand unless they have gone through it. However, I was sharing some of my son’s struggles with a close friend once. She said something that I always remember. She said basically this, “I am kind of jealous. If God feels you can handle a son with these learning disabilities, you are very blessed.” I have always remembered those words and God often brings them to my mind when I am discouraged.

It is also very important to remember that “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Teaching our struggling learners often seems overwhelming from the human perspective. I have often thought, “Lord, I can’t do this one more day.“ I can’t tell you how many times I have gone to my room and cried. That is exactly the time when I must run to the loving Arms of our Heavenly Father and ask Him for strength, mercy and wisdom to help my children.

God bless you as you homeschool your children, whatever their strengths and their struggles may be.

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