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Homeschooling Special Needs Children
By John Edelson and Mary Arnold, of Time4Learning.com
I run an online interactive learning service and spend much of each day speaking to homeschoolers. I love hearing the stories of why they decided to homeschool. While some families knew that they wanted to homeschool from the start, it appears to me that most homeschooling families are what I would call "accidental homeschoolers." This is even more likely to be true with parents of children with special learning challenges.
"Accidental homeschoolers" is a term that I created for those families that initially put their children in traditional schools: public, private, or parochial. They expected that their kids would go through a traditional school experience. They found that their children and their institutional school choices were not a formula for success. Often the family had a series of meetings with the schools and sometimes they changed teachers or even schools a few times.
At some point, many families conclude that the only way to do the best thing for their child is to stop trying to get the institutions to accommodate their child's special combination of talents and needs. They decide to try to take responsibility for their child's education in a homeschooling context and another accidental homeschooling journey is launched.
To illustrate this, here is a story that I just heard from Mary Arnold, a homeschooling mother of four boys, three with special needs, in North Florida. Take it away Mary:
Eleven Years Later and Still Going Strong!
If you had told me that I was going to homeschool my children when my oldest son began kindergarten I would have laughed. Me homeschool? However, that’s exactly what happened the very next year! What started accidentally is now the passion of my life! It's almost hard to remember how scary it was back then entering into something so unknown.
Back in 1997, my youngest son Brandon was struggling in his kindergarten class. He had a phenomenal teacher and was eager to learn, but he just couldn’t keep up with the others and quickly fell behind. No matter how hard he tried, concepts would not stick. It wasn’t until I ordered Hooked on Phonics from a television informercial and worked one-on-one with him that I saw the power of homeschooling working for him. In less than four days my son went from struggling with his letter sounds to knowing them inside out and putting them together to read simple words. His teacher was ecstatic and so was I! We decided to check out a local homeschool orientation that was taking place the following weekend. Little did I know that my life was about to change forever. I had so many questions that clamored for attention in my heart and mind: How would my children be socialized? Where would I buy curriculum? How could I teach without a degree? But here we are eleven years later. I survived and my boys thrived!
It wasn't long after we began our home education journey that we learned that my Brandon had something called "Central Auditory Processing Disorder" or CAPD for short. What this means is that when information goes into the brain auditorily, it doesn't organize as it should. I often explain that it's like trying to work on a computer that needs to be defragmented. If you’ve experienced this, then you know how frustrating it is. You try to find a document and it's not where it should be. It takes you much longer.
Eleven years later and I now have three (of four) sons with this same disorder. What I have found is that though they struggle to process auditorily, they all have an incredible visual learning capacity. So anything that uses strong graphics immediately pulls them in and allows information to STICK.
I wish I had understood this from the beginning. The truth is that there were lots of learning curves. One of the biggest mistakes I made early on was insisting that I could make a literature based program work for us. In the homeschooling community, I found this particular philosophy of education is one of the more popular choices. The premise is that instead of using textbooks, you read real literature aloud to teach history, philosophy, science and even art appreciation. Then you have them narrate back to you what they took away. As a literature lover myself, I thought this would be perfect. I would grab our books each morning and begin to read, adding lots of inflection into my voice, pausing to get their attention, making exaggerated facial expressions to pull in the emotional aspect, only to find them staring at me blankly when it was time for them to narrate back.
We invested well over $2000.00 on the different lit-based programs we tried-Sonlight, WinterPromise, Heart Of Dakota and Beautiful Feet curriculum. Though I personally know families who have THRIVED with these different choices, that was not true for my sons with special needs. For a child that needs a strong visual connection, the information learned by listening gets lost as it goes into the brain. This was a costly learning curve as I not only invested large sums of money, but huge chunks of time as well.
I have used and continue to use an array of different materials. I'm always looking for educational approaches that include constant visual representations of the lessons so that my children with CAPD will get it. In 2007, my children began using an online program called Time4learning. It was an immediate hit because they found it fun compared to the labor intensive workbooks we had been using. Because of Time4learning’s strong interactive graphics, my boys can work independently and they hang onto information like never before. Another success in our home was a simple little unit study called Five In A Row (FIAR). FIAR has you read award-winning children's books each day for five days and then teach one subject per day after the reading. Because of the beautiful graphic illustrations, along with the shortness of the stories, my children were able to hold onto the information that was being read aloud. The only other program that I can say really stood the test of time was Accelerated Christian Education paces (A.C.E.). These colorful little workbooks are put together so that the child reads the information and answers the questions. Because everything is in small bites and read by the child this seemed to work as well.
Though I hoped from the very beginning that we would homeschool all the way through, it wasn't until the end of our first year that I had time to really see the impact home education would make on our lives and we were HOOKED! I now homeschool all four of our children, and as our county's homeschool support group leader, I frequently spend time talking to parents of children with and without special needs that are considering homeschooling. It is incredibly rewarding when those parents come back to share their success stories.
I hear variations on this story every day. Some parents homeschool one child for awhile, others switch the whole family forever. I like the "accidental homeschooler" term in that most of them had completely different plans for their children's education. Then, faced with some problems to solve, they detoured into what many thought would be a short-term period (and sometimes it is) and then, as in Mary's case, eleven years later, she is still going strong
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