Saturday, June 6, 2009

Children Who Learn Differently/Struggling Learner Niche Workshop

Children Who Learn Differently

Thank you for coming today. If you have chosen to attend this workshop, you probably have a child who learns differently. This workshop is not going to have a lot of specific methods in helping learning disabled children. Every struggling learner is different and I have no sure-fire answers for each individual child. I have included some reference pages where my family and others parents who have struggling learners have received some help. I hope you will find the resources listed there to be very helpful. However, the main purpose of this workshop is to encourage you. If you leave this workshop feeling encouraged that you can indeed homeschool your struggling learner, than my goal will have been accomplished.

Let me begin by saying that I do not care for the term “learning disabled.” I much prefer the term “children who learn differently.” However, for the sake of simplicity and because the term “learning disabled” and “struggling learner” rolls off of my tongue more easily than “children who learn differently” you will hear me use them in this workshop.

The Lord, in His great wisdom and sovereignty, has seen fit to give my husband and me some children with learning difficulties. I would like to share several things that have helped me in educating my children who learn differently. First, though, I’d like to tell you our story.

When it was time to begin homeschooling our oldest son, everything went exactly as it should. He was eager to learn and he learned to read fairly quickly. He struggled in one or two areas, like most children do, but over all he was, and is a very good student.

Of course this gave me confidence as a homeschooling Mom and I was sure there would not be any trouble homeschooling the rest of my children.

My second son was eager to learn to read like his big brother. I felt that he needed an extra year of maturity, so we waited until he was six years old to start Kindergarten. The first day of school I dutifully began to teach him the vowel sounds. The problem was that after a month of working on them, he could not remember a single one. I decided that it must be that the curriculum did not work for him so I reluctantly spent the money and ordered a program that was supposed to work wonders with children who struggled with phonics. Six months later, he knew ten letter sounds and had yet to be able to combine them to form them into a word. He had a few words memorized but even sight words were difficult for him. He had also gone from being eager to learn to read to hating every minute of it. It broke my heart.

To make a long story short, it took two long years for him to learn his letter sounds and at least that long to form them into words. Once he could finally read three letter, one vowel words and four letter long vowel words, he had to painfully sound out each word. Now, after eight years of tears, frustration, prayer, research, and even outside help, he is reading at about a third grade level.

I was sure our next three children would do just fine in school. After all, many families have one child who struggles in school. Well, though they do not struggle to the extent that our second son does, all three of our younger children also have learning disabilities from very mild to fairly severe.

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 and advanced their homeschooled children were. I would wonder what was wrong with our family, most of all, what was wrong with me as a teacher. When 80% of the students have varying degrees of learning disabilities, surely it is the teacher’s fault! 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 myself sometimes, the Lord has taught me that my job is to be faithful. God has called me to homeschool my 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:

The first and most important thing I have learned is to 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 which turned out to be the best one for my child. It is important to be open to the Lord’s leading, even if it goes against what we may think is best.

I have even learned to pray through out the day. In moments of frustration, I silently pause for a moment to ask the Lord for wisdom. Occasionally, when one of my children is upset or frustrated, I will take them by their hand and pray for them outloud.

Secondly, I learned to not worry about 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. I have learned to look at their hearts instead of the words that used to 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 a grandma 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. I remind myself that they have struggles in their life that I can’t possibly understand.

Third, while I love to read homeschooling books and magazines, I have learned that certain homeschooling magazine articles can do me more harm than good. 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 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 yet 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 to some extent. 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.

A forth important lesson I learned is to 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, shut the door 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.” But if 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 and weeks, 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.

Each new word that my struggling learners learn to read and spell brings me joy. Every new concept that they grasp is a cause for celebration.

This brings me to my fifth point. As homeschoolers, we tend to avoid outside help. However, with my son, my husband and I came to the point where we knew we needed it.

In the reference pages of the handout, you will see the names, telephone numbers and websites of the places where you might be able to find help for your struggling learner.

I would like to talk specifically about some places we received the most help with our son. The first one was from Lynne Popp, who works out of Omaha. She tested our son and was able to give us curriculum ideas and other tips that have greatly helped him. Lynne Popp helped me realize that my son did not have any phonemic awareness. This has nothing to do with phonics. Phonemic awareness is the ability for one to be able to depict and distinguish the different sounds in the spoken language. It is a step before phonics that happens naturally for most children but did not happen for our son. Lynne Popp taught a two day class that has helped me in teaching our son phonemic awareness. I have also used these principles with our daughters and we have seen great benefits from implementing many of her suggestions.

Lynne Popp introduced us to a great program that has really helped our son and both daughters to have phonemic awareness. You will find it listed on the reference sheet. It is called Lindamood Phonemic Awareness Program. It takes the parents about two weeks of studying this program for about one hour a day to fully grasp it, but if your child has a phonemic awareness issue, it is well worth your time.

The second place we received help for our son was from Dianne Craft. I watched two of her lectures on DVD. They are listed in the handout. I have also purchased curriculum and curriculum supplements from her that have greatly benefited my struggling learners. One example of her material would be these phonics flashcards. Most phonics flashcards have the sound on the back of the picture or down in the corner. However, many children, especially right brain children, often remember the sound much better if the sound is imposed over the actual picture. These cards have helped some of my children learn specific phonics blends that they were not able to learn in other ways. I have brought a few more of her materials and you are welcome to look at them after the workshop.

The third place that we have received great help for our son has been from Dr. Paul Moss. He is a chiropractor in Ankeny. Dr Moss has treated our son with adjustments, supplements and nutrition. He has been treating our son for several months and we have seen improvement in his ability to read, reason and articulate his thoughts.

I should caution though, that outside help, however good it may be, may not remove our child’s learning struggles. Outside sources are often a great benefit in helping our child reach his full potential, but most of the time, they will not remove the child’s learning struggles completely.

My sixth point is that in our desire to help our child academically that we need to be careful not to neglect something even more important and that is to help them grow spiritually. 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. Life is already tough for them and we don’t want to add to their burdens. 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. We do not do our leaning disabled children any favors if we overlook their sins.

Along the same vein, we should be careful not to pity our child who is a struggling learner. 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 life is so unfair” attitude, and that will not help them in any way, shape or form.

The seventh 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.

My eighth point is that over the years, I have learned that the whole world does not need to know about my children’s learning struggles. I have learned not to talk about it except with people that I really 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.

Our personal family choice has been to not put specific public labels on our children. My husband and I do not want our children to be mainly known as the child who has Sensory Integration dysfunction or dyslexia or what ever the case may be though I should add, that personal knowledge about our children’s specific struggles can be helpful because then we can research ways to help them reach their full potential. However, this is a decision that each family has to make and there is really no “right” or “wrong.”

Since my children’s learning struggles are something that is utmost on my mind, it is easy to want to talk about it to every new friend I make, especially if they homeschool. But I know that I would not appreciate my husband going to work and talking to his coworkers about my struggles. Just as I want him to respect my privacy, I should respect my children’s privacy.

I talk about my children’s learning disabilities on a “need to know” basis only. For example, if they are promoting to a new Sunday School class, I will let the teacher know so that they will not ask my child to read something outloud that they are not capable of reading. I also have a couple very close friends that I talk to about my children’s struggles on a regular basis. I know they love my children very much and they will keep what I say confidential.

My next point is one that is hard for me to admit because it shows that I am less than spiritually perfect in my trust in God’s sovereignty. I found that I did go through a grieving process about my children’s learning struggles, much like what I went through after each of my eight miscarriages. I went through denial, sadness, anger and finally acceptance. It is difficult to see one’s child struggle in any way and it is normal for most of us who have children who struggle academically 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. Through this journey of teaching children who learn differently, I have 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 cares about my children, and understands my children and loves my children even more than I do.

My tenth and final point is that it is very important to accept our children the way God made them. Each of our children are a blessing from God, even if they don’t fit the world’s idea of “normal.” And, really, who defines “normal” anyway. They may struggle in ways that most 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.

Sometimes it may be hard to see their gifts. I have a difficult time with this with one of my struggling learners. I will always remember the day she looked up at me and said, with a tearful voice, “I am not smart. I am not good at anything.” That day I began to fervently pray that God would show me her gifts and talents so I could help her develop them. The Lord showed me that she has the gift of a compassionate and tender heart. She has been able to reach out to others and encourage them when they go through difficult times by baking for them, writing sweet notes and things like that. I am still praying that God will show me other strengths she has so that we can develop those as well. We can pray and ask God to show us our children’s strengths 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.

Like my daughter, some children really struggle with the fact that they have learning disabilities. It is hard for them when they are not able to accomplish everything their peers accomplish…or at least not able to accomplish it as quickly as other children. However, it is important to teach our children that our main purpose in life is to glorify God. How ever God created them is how God knew our child could most glorify Him. Our child’s job, like ours, is simply to be faithful and to do their best according to the ability that God has given them.

A friend of mine uses the following example and I have shared it with my children. A butterfly struggles to come out of it’s cocoon but the struggle strengthens it to fly. In the same way, our child’s struggles, whether it be learning disabilities or something else… strengthen them so they can soar spiritually.

In closing I’d like to share something another friend of mine said to me. I was sharing some of my son’s struggles with this 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.“ 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.

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


Christine said...

...And God smiled:)

Everytime I have contact with you I feel inspired to be a better mom, a better home educator, a better friend....but mostly, I feel inspired to love my Lord more and do better so He can be glorified.

Love you, dear friend.

Kim S said...

Thank you, dear friend. I could have said everything you said to me and meant every word!

Kim S said...

Thank you, dear friend. I could have said everything you said to me and meant every word!