Classically Educating a Special Needs Child

Here’s an article I wrote for the 10 days of Classical Homeschooling over at Milk & Cookies blog.  Heart of the Matter online is sponsoring the 10 days of Homeschooling Blog Hop – check it out!

Classically Educating Your Special Needs Child

I wasn’t always a classical educator.  I once thought that a classical education involved playing classical music while my child did their schoolwork.  No, really.  I had read about homeschoolers teaching their kids Latin.  Really?  Why were kids spending precious school time learning a dead language?

As time went on and I still had a specter in the back of my mind.  Latin…..what was this all about?  I was intrigued.  It wasn’t until a few years (and several homeschooling methods) later that I stumbled across a copy of The Well-Trained Mind by Susan Wise Bauer and Jessie Wise in the bookstore.  I picked it up and found a whole new way of educating children.  This was not the way I was educated.

After buying a copy, I rushed home and began reading it.  I remember standing in my driveway reading while my kids played.  I was hooked.  I knew this was the sort of education my kids were going to receive.  I also knew they would be better off for it.

I started making changes right away and my oldest took to it like a duck to water.  My youngest son was too young to begin formalized schooling, but where his older brother was going, he too would follow in his own time – or so I thought.  At the time, little did I know that we would face challenges that would cause me to question whether a classical education was appropriate or even attainable for my youngest son.

You see, he has Auditory Processing Disorder, a disorder in which the areas of the brain that process speech do not function like they should.  The severity of the disorder can vary from mild to severe impairments.  For my son, his ability to pull meaning out of the words he hears, and then remember it, are two of his biggest challenges.

I knew from my research the grammar stage of a classical education involved a lot of reading to children, dictation, memorization, and writing.  All of these posed huge challenges for him.  I could not read to him or expect him to narrate stories back to me.  Dictation?  Memory work?  Forget it!

Even though I knew a classical education as outlined in The Well-Trained Mind would be nearly impossible to implement for my son right out of the book, I tried anyway.  I needed to see the areas he struggled in for me to make accommodations.

What I saw in those first weeks of working with him was both amazing and disheartening, but not surprising.  He did not understand the stories I read to him.  He could not tell me what happened in the story.  Dictation was an exercise in frustration for both of us.  Writing was not happening nor was memory work.  We were using First Language Lessons, Level 1 from the Well Trained Mind, which is a conversationally-based program and he wasn’t getting much out of it.  He was not able to remember how to spell his spelling words and any math work we had done that day vanished soon after the lesson ended.  Pretty much every piece of curriculum I had purchased was now completely useless.

Like every homeschooling mother, I ran to the internet for help.  I searched for advice on educating a child with Auditory Processing Disorder; I searched for curriculum written for kids like my son; I searched for a scrap of hope that a child who couldn’t remember could be educated.  I found virtually none of what I was looking for.

My head was filled with questions.  Should I send him to public school where “the experts” can work with him?  Would he graduate from high school?  Will he be able to go to college?  Will he ever be able to hold down a job?  How am I going to educate this child when he can’t remember what I taught him?

Fast forward through two years and a lot of trial and error, here are some of the things I discovered:

  • Engage as many senses as you can. This is a good way to cover your bases because if you have a child who cannot process information through one sense, you’ve got other senses working for you taking in information.
  • Be open to the idea that your child may not be ready for things on a particular schedule. If you start a program with your child and they’re struggling, try modifying the program to meet your child’s needs.  If they’re still struggling, try putting the program away for a while and come back to it later.  Children are not made from molds and each one is unique – this is even truer with special needs kids.
  • Often special needs kids cannot memorize something simply by reading through it a few times.  Break memorization pieces into very small parts and offer many opportunities for repetition.
  • Involve your child in their own reading. If a child cannot understand what is read to them, try having them read it themselves.  Stop them frequently and ask them what happened to ensure they understand.  For some kids this means literally stopping them after every sentence; for other kids it means stopping them after a few paragraphs.  Do not assume that because a child can read they understand what they’re reading.
  • Technology is your friend when you have a special needs child. A voice recorder can be invaluable when recording the thoughts of a child who wants to write, but cannot remember their words long enough to write them down.  It can also help a child memorize things like poems and spelling words because they can go back and listen to it again and again.
  • We have also found computer-based modules and programs helpful. They’re fun, colorful and engaging thereby keeping the child’s attention, plus the child can go back through them again and again if they need to.
  • Break dictation down into smaller parts if you need to – even if you’re dictating word by word.  A child will naturally progress into being able to handle longer passages when they’re ready to.  Don’t worry about what others say your child is supposed to be able to handle in dictation at a certain age.  Remember, each one is unique.
  • Developing typing skills in a child who struggles with handwriting helps to reduce frustration when working on an assignment.  Handwriting skills can be worked on later when the child is not required to think about the assignment in addition to having to think about writing it out by hand.
  • Use highlighters to help your child pick out important information in a text being read to them or one they’re reading themselves.  If a text has questions at the end, use a different highlighter color for each question.  Highlight the answer in the text in the same color as its question, thereby visually tying the two together.
  • Give your child extra time to process through things. Whether it’s a math problem or a question you just asked.
  • Don’t assume that just because you’ve been over a concept many times that a child knows it.  Sometimes a child needs a lot of repetition and review before a concept sticks.
  • Give your child lots of breaks. The brains of special needs kids work very hard to learn and can be easily overloaded or exhausted.
  • Remember that things change as kids grow and develop. Children go through phases as they develop and skills can come and go.  One skill will fall by the wayside as another skill comes to the forefront.  Be flexible as you educate your child through these phases.  An accommodation that was used last month may no longer be needed or a skill that was mastered last week may now need review.

Special needs children can benefit greatly from a classical education.  Using accommodations to help counter the challenges a child faces, can help them succeed and learn the information necessary to take them to them further into their education and beyond.

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