Finding Resources for Your Child with Learning Differences

We sat down nervously across the table from her, wondering just exactly what was recorded about our daughter in the file she had opened before her. Before beginning she paused, peered over her glasses at me and said,

“It must be exhausting trying to teach this child.”

The words startled me, and at the same time I felt tears gather in my eyes and an intense wave of relief flood through my body.

It wasn’t just me!

I wasn’t crazy!

The daily struggles were real and measureable and diagnosable.

Every special needs parent knows this intense feeling of relief to sit with a professional and have them validate all the layers of complexity you walk through on a daily basis.

While there is no easy formula or three step plan for finding the right educational route for a child with learning differences, I do feel like I’ve learned a few things along the way during the past 7 years of parenting children with exceptional learning styles and challenges. Maybe these tips will help you, too.

  1. Trust your instincts. Ultimately, you know your child better than anybody else, and that’s important. If you feel like something is out of sync, you are probably right.
  2. Think outside the box. One of the first things you need to do is start viewing your child’s learning differences as just that…learning differences. This means they learn differently, not more than or less than their peers. It means that their brains process things differently than others and may need things presented to them in unique ways. Don’t try to fit them inside the mold of average. Be a student of your child’s unique, inquisitive, wonderfully complex mind. Study the way they see the world. Take the time to listen to their ideas, the way they describe their experiences and the things that interest them. Once you understand the way your child thinks, feels and experiences the world around them, you will be much better prepared to brainstorm what might assist them in learning and growing. Be warned, however, that you just may fall in love with the way your child views the world and decide you don’t want to fit them into a typical environment. This may prompt you to lead your child on an educational journey that looks very different than what you had previously pictured as success. For example, you may decide homeschooling, outdoor learning programs, a special needs classroom, online education or part time schooling is a better fit for your child than the typical structure.
  3. Do the research. While labels are not always necessary, I have found it is helpful to know exactly what it is that you are dealing with and sharing that information with others so that they can access the appropriate resources, funding, etc that may be eligible for your child. The label is less about diagnosing and more about finding an education path for your child. Don’t be afraid of the labels. They can help. Know the information needed well enough that you can summarize, elaborate and present it in multiple forms to anyone who needs to hear it and understand it. Be the expert on your child.
  4. Find an ally. Whether it’s a teacher, principal, pediatrician, educational assistant, therapist, social worker or special education coordinator, it’s helpful to find a professional who understands your child and is willing to advocate alongside you and hear your concerns. This person can often guide you in the right direction when it comes to finding solutions as well.
  5. Listen. Ask for input from your child’s current and past educators. Give them space to express their concerns, share the observations they have made and the ways they have attempted to intervene. Make sure you know what is working and what is not working, what alternatives have been tried or implemented and why. This is the part where you listen, not criticize or offer your ideas of solutions. Be humble enough to sit and learn without putting up your defenses.
  6. Be willing to give it a try. Most likely after you follow through on number 5, you are going to have some ideas and opinions shared with you that don’t quite match your own expectations or observations. Unless you absolutely know an idea is not going to work and have proof of that, be willing to give things a fair shot. It’s just as important to allow the system to attempt interventions as it is to find that long term plan. Each intervention is building the case for your child’s unique needs, strengths and weaknesses. They will be documented, observed and tweaked in accordance with the level of success they bring. This means finding help for your child involves a lot of patience, trial and error and frustration for both you, your child and their educators.
  7. Honesty. Be willing to be transparent about your concerns and goals. The more honest you are, the more likely it will be that teachers will find you approachable and caring. Admit when you don’t know what to do or where to find answers. Let them know when something just doesn’t feel right. Most of your child’s teachers are parents themselves, and you may be surprised at the journeys they themselves have walked with their own children or past students.
  8. Take ownership and be the advocate. I’d like to be able to tell you that you will find that one person who will do all this for you, or that you can do these things once and then it will be smooth sailing from there on out but that’s just not true. Ultimately, you are your child’s sole advocate and you need to own that and be ready to settle in for the long haul. There will be seasons where the intensity will lessen and you may be able to sit back and relax a bit, having found your child that sweet spot in their education journey where they are thriving or being carefully monitored by a gifted educator. But most of the time, you are the one who will need to monitor the interventions, strategies and progress of your child. Accepting that this is your position will give you confidence and courage to stay involved and positive on your child’s educational journey. It will help you to make the best decisions possible for your child, even if that means going against the advice of the professionals around you. They will come and go over the years, but you are the constant in your child’s life. Take that position with authority and think in perspective of that.
  9. Grieve. If all this just looks overwhelming and completely unattainable, maybe you need to take the time to just grieve. Grieve the loss of your expectations, hopes, dreams and misconceptions. Grieve the loss of innocence your child may have encountered as they struggled to fit in, be heard and seen. Grieve that life may not look the way you had planned. This does not make you a bad mom. In fact, this may be the key to really unlocking success for your child. No matter how hard you work to ensure your child is seen, heard, understood and thriving…children who do not fall into the category of “average” will at some point find themselves in a situation where their differences set them apart and make things more challenging. This can be painful and isolating, and if your child thinks you don’t understand their challenges or differences, they will not see you as their support when those difficulties arise. Your child wants to know that you are equipped both mentally and emotionally to understand their unique hard-wiring. So be real with them. Don’t sugarcoat the truth about their differences and don’t make all your decisions without their input. Let them know you understand that they are different and that you recognize how hard that is at times.
  10. Celebrate your child’s unique abilities and characteristics. Once you have grieved what might have been and acknowledged the ways that your child struggles, intentionally move on and start looking for the gifts, talents and characteristics they possess. Ironically, our strengths are usually merely the flip side of our weaknesses. For example, your child may struggle with impulsivity but it’s likely that same child is brave, curious and uninhibited by worry or fear. Perhaps your child struggles socially but is very accepting of those who cannot relate in typical ways. Take time to intentionally set aside the standard ways we evaluate success in children and look past those to the strengths your child possesses that may not show up on a report card or skills evaluation. Are they gentle, gifted with animals, intuitive to others’ needs, creative, athletic, resilient, dramatic? Your child may not end up at an Ivy League school but perhaps they will make an indelible impression on the lives around them through the unique gifts and talents they are equipped with. Let them know you see these abilities they possess and that they are just as important as literacy and numeracy skills. Create space for them to exercise their talents and encourage them to pursue their interests. Every child wants to be seen, delighted in and loved for who they are, aside from their abilities. This applies to your child, no matter what struggles they may face academically. So make this your number one priority. Before the daily reading, flashcards, fine motor exercises, speech therapy or phys-coeducational evaluations take the time to stop and just love the child in front of you. Their quirks, their flaws, their strengths, their beautiful individuality.

~AF

What I Love About Homeschooling

It’s been a year since we pulled our daughter out of school and decided to homeschool.

She needed to be at home with me; to find a safe haven in the storm of a life that had been constantly changing for the past six years.

I needed her here, too.

I needed to see her.

To know her in the way that mothers know their children from the constancy of life.

To watch her grow and discover and pour out oil on her broken places.

To search out what it feels like to walk in her tender footsteps and breathe in the world around us through her little heart.

The past year has had it’s ups and downs, but there are many things I have learned to love about homeschooling.

It is a year I will never regret.

Now, on the brink of reintegrating her back to school…every day feels a bit bittersweet.

I love these days I have with her, even while I feel tied down, exhausted and claustrophobic!

Here are some reasons why I have loved homeschooling:

1.Flexibility –  It has been so nice coming home from a busy weekend and knowing that I can let my daughter sleep as long as she likes on Monday morning and let her ease back into the routine slowly.  There are days we accomplish tons of work…and there are days we accomplish very little.  The beauty of this, especially with a special needs child, is that when one of those days come along where you just know that learning is going to be a constant challenge…you can just NOT.  Some days we go for a walk instead, or spend our morning running errands.  Some days we visit friends, snuggle on the couch or take a nap.  I will miss this when I have to make sure she’s ready to go out the door every morning promptly, ready or not.

2. Integrated Learning –  I love that because I know exactly what my daughter is learning at all times, I can incorporate it into anything we may be doing.  If we are learning about money, for instance, we notice prices at the grocery store and talk about coin values when we count out allowance money.  She notices anything from spelling patterns to colours to story themes that we’ve been learning about all around her and I love that I know exactly what she is talking about when she mentions them.  I believe this is the most powerful way for a child to learn, when all of life becomes integrated.

3. Growth –  So, so much growth!  There is a huge, indescribable feeling that wells up in my soul when I hear her voice lacing out words and stories and poems as her eyes scan a page.  That was us!  Not me, not her, but us!  Together we have learned that she can read.  Together we have explored the sea and memorized the 7 continents of the world.  We have counted to 100 and explored the relativity of one number to the next.  Building blocks of tens and hundreds.  We can add them together or take them away.  We can write them and say them and see them and feel them.  Together we have bent our heads over books and papers and tiny little bugs.  We have run through the breeze and lifted our eyes to the sky, taking in the big wide world above us.  I have listened and listened and listened to her chatter.  Day after day after day until I thought my ears could take no more!  But in all the words and chatter and stories, she has given me her heart, offering it up to me in each little refrain.  Each and every small moment; put them in a box and you would see that we have learned!  We have grown.  I missed the first five tender years of my little A’s life…so when I look in this box I see a little bit of redemption.  A little bit of grace poured out that we could spend these moments together.

4. Play – Childhood is so short, and in an age where we are constantly measuring our children by charts and graphs and statistics from the minute their eyes first open, I want my children to have the chance to enjoy being a child.  I want to make sure that even while they are learning and growing, they are being given space to be children.  To laugh, to be silly, to explore, to create and to pretend.  Play in a child’s life is an essential part of their development as person.  Children use play to learn, comprehend life’s experiences and to communicate.   It took a long time for my daughter to be able to relax enough to really play, so when I see her carting her babies around, creating sculptures in the snow, setting up a house or building a fort…I cherish it.  It is a sign of the healing of her heart.

5. Sibling Bonds – When we chose to teach our daughter at home, we did not realize we were offering her an opportunity  to build a bond with her little brother that she wouldn’t have had the opportunity for otherwise.  With her older, more capable sister gone, she got a chance to form her own unique relationship with him.  Now, at age 14 months and 8 years, they spend every day together.  She is his favourite person to follow around and the games and stories she makes up for him keep him delightfully entertained.  Together they play cars, dolls, read stories and colour pictures.  Whatever she is doing, that’s what he wants to do, too.  Having the chance to be so adored, despite the many squabbles and struggles of siblings, has given her such a boost in confidence and self esteem.  Every day he proves to her by his little pattering feet following her around the house that she is worthy, she is loved, she is wanted.

6. Individualized Learning – While teaching a child with learning disabilities at home is not for the faint of heart, it is also incredibly relieving to  be able to step outside of the box and teach your child on his/her level with no pressure of ‘grade’ performance.  Most homeschooling families follow their child’s lead as to what they are interested in and then use that as a platform to build upon their learning.  It’s ok to be working at multiple grade levels.  Every child has strengths and weaknesses.  If math is going great and reading is a struggle, it’s ok to be working at a substantially more difficult level for math than for reading.  If your child conquers long division in just a few short lessons, it’s ok to move on to something new without doing the whole unit.  If your child has a short attention span, or learns more kinesthetically you can build breaks into their day that will help them thrive.  Math facts can be memorized while jumping rope.  Stories can be read at the park.  Spelling words can be created with paint and glue and soap bubbles.  If your child can spell orally but not with paper and pencil, it’s ok to test them that way.  If tests make your child anxious and he or she performs less than their best, it’s ok to toss tests out the window.  As his or her teacher, you will have a very good idea of what they are comprehending, so choosing to do tests will only be a formality of what you already both know.  If your child needs a  nap or some quiet time, it’s easily accessible.  If you decide to go on vacation in the middle of October that is perfectly ok!  I have loved being so involved in my child’s learning and being able to make decisions based on her best interests academically.  It has also given us more freedom as a family.

7. Life Skills – By choosing homeschooling you give yourself and your child a great opportunity to get involved in everyday activities that will teach them valuable life skills.  By bringing their learning home, you will be able to involve them in all your daily tasks.  Cooking, cleaning, grocery shopping, making a budget, the arts and music all become intertwined into their daily lives.  A child who has spent 8 hours a day at school will most likely not have the energy to enjoy baking cookies or doing the grocery shopping with you after school, but a child who has more space and free time will be more apt to learn these skills well as they have time to enjoy it.

Homeschooling has many challenges, and like most thing there are pros and cons no matter how you choose to educate your children.

 The past year has opened my eyes to the reality that homeschooling is not only possible but a really good option for many families.

 It is a great way for children to grow and learn and it is ideal for families who are craving connection and freedom from schedules and regulations.  It is ideal for adoptive families who are struggling with attachment issues, learning disabilities and trauma.  We were able to connect with a great homeschooling group locally that offered us support, diversity and fun, which was an added bonus.

We may or may not return to homeschooling in the future but either way I have enjoyed this year in ways I never imagined and I will never regret it!  If you have thought about homeschooling but feel it is too challenging, too complicated or too boring, hear this:

It was easier, more fun and more rewarding than I ever expected!

AF