Homeschooling Children With Special Needs
By Sharon Hensley
Editor’s note: In this 3rd edition of her book, Home Schooling with Special Needs, Sharon has added a few new chapters and added up-to-date information for families homeschooling with extra challenges today. We enjoyed reading the newer version very much and know that this will be one of your favorites too.
Here is a chapter from the book called, Acceptance (Realistic Expectations for Our Children and Ourselves).
Acceptance is crucial in helping us be successful teachers of our children.
Wrapped up tightly with the grief process (of getting through the idea that our child is indeed different and will not ever be completely whole, this side of heaven.) is the process of acceptance.
I constantly meet people, especially fathers, who feel if their children just tried harder, all their learning problems would be solved. I also meet people who say they don’t want to accept a diagnosis because they feel that means they are giving up on their children. Let me explain why I think that acceptance is so crucial in helping us be effective teachers.
I believe that in order to effectively educate our children we have to have a plan that is both appropriate and realistic. Appropriate planning comes from understanding our children’s unique blend of strengths and weakness and how they can best learn. We find this out primarily through testing and then educating ourselves about the particular learning problems that our children have. (This is what the first section of the book is about!)
But realistic planning can only come from acceptance. I can tell you from personal experience that knowledge and acceptance are two different ball games! When we first realized that our daughter wasn’t developing language the way she should, I took her for testing and found out all I could about language delays. I also began to recognize that she had many “autistic-like” behaviors, and I was sure that as soon as we got her language problems taken care of those would go away. In the meantime, I began reading all I could on autism, and, again, I was very knowledgeable. But I kept telling myself that this was not really the problem we were facing. After two years of language/speech therapy that didn't fix the problem, I embarked on my quest for the “magic cure” that I mentioned before. I read all the miracle story books on diet, auditory training, sensory integration, holding therapy, and Lovaas. Nothing was the miracle I wanted, but I still resisted the idea of saying my daughter was autistic. (don’t forget that I went through all of this even though I already had my Master’s Degree in Special Education! Knowledge alone does not automatically lead to acceptance).
As I look back, I now realize how this kept me from being realistic in my expectations and my work with my daughter. I was determined to not accept that she might be autistic, so I began to work as hard as I could to make her normal. But the harder I worked and pushed her, the more frustrated and angry I became. My anger became directed towards her, and her behavior worsened instead of improving. When I was finally able to accept the fact that she was autistic, and that no matter how hard I worked or she worked, we would never change that, I was able to relax and create a more realistic program for her that has ultimately been more successful than all the pushing and anger.
Do we have unrealistic expectations for our children?
Many of you don’t have children nearly as severe as my daughter, but in talking with the many people I have worked with in both schools and home schooling, I find this pattern to be the same. Let’s say we have a boy who is experiencing some relatively mild difficulties in written language and who has difficulty with attention. Many people would say that those aren’t really disabilities, but that’s not how it feels to the parents. To them it feels like their child has just as big a disability as my daughter. When the disability is denied by others, it makes it harder for parents to work through and accept the child the way he is, instead of the way they wish he were.
Why do we have unrealistic expectations for our children and why is it often so hard for us to accept the learning difficulties that our children have? As I have stated earlier, our society is obsessed with over achievement. When we do find out that we have children with learning problems, we desperately try everything we can bet our hand on to “fix” them so they can be “normal”, just as I did. One of the most common questions I am asked after testing a child is, “What do we do, or what can we use to fix this?” Accepting all of our children as God has made them, whether high achievers, average learning disabled, or more severely handicapped, will help us to be realistic in our expectation and to set realistic goals for their education.
What is normal?
I think another reason we want to try to make our children “normal” is that we tend to take at least part of our own self-worth from our children’s achievements. When we have children who don't “measure up” in the eyes of society, it is easy to feel that we don’t measure up. This is further compounded when we encounter professionals who view the “norm” as the only desired goal, and that nothing less will do. This only added to the feelings of worthlessness of the parents who are often already doing the best they can. Because our society is highly literate, and knowledge and literacy are highly valued, it is easy to think that those things are the only measure of our children’s and by extension, our worth. Of course, some weaknesses can be strengthened or even remediated with the proper therapy, and if that is the case, then those goals are realistic, but many learning difficulties are not “fixable”. That doesn’t mean that we are any less because we can’t do the impossible!
Our children’s disabilities...
A reflection of us?
I believe that there are two things we need to do when we start feeling that our children’s difficulties are a reflection on us. First, we need to educate ourselves thoroughly about the particular learning problem our child faces. (I know I keep saying this, but I can’t stress enough the importance of accurate knowledge to the success of our schooling efforts.) We need to know what the realistic expectations for this child are. What parts of his learning problems are possibly open for remediation and what parts do we need to just accept and work with the best we can to bring him to his highest potential.
Of course, it may be easier to agree with that in our heads than in our hearts. We may have friends or even family members who feel we are just not working hard enough, or we are too soft on little Johnny, or we don’t discipline enough or in the right way, or...I could go on and on. You know the comments or the feeling you get from other people. When my daughter was younger and would throw one of her screaming tantrums in a store, I would get the “bad mother” looks from people too. (In my less charitable moments I have thought of having a T-shirt printed that says, “I’m Autistic. What’s Your Problem?” but I know that wouldn’t be very nice. Still there are those days….)
Whether it is a grandparent who just can’t accept that Susie wouldn’t have a reading problem if she just weren't so lazy, or people in the grocery store who have gotten my little “crash course” in autism, the idea is the same - when we stop feeling guilty or responsible for our children’s difficulties, we can deal openly and confidently with other people. And I think our positive, accepting attitudes carry over to other people and, most importantly, to our children.
Second, we need to focus on our children’s strengths and abilities. It is easy to become so consumed with our children’s difficulties that we can forget about the things they can do. Seeing more than just our children's weaknesses can help us be realistic in a positive way. Again, though, we have to be careful not to take the “norm” as our only measure. Some strengths are relative to the child but still may not reach “normal”. That is OK. If it is a relative strength, we need to recognize it and build on it just the same. And remembering to build on strengths can make our goals and our teaching much more realistic.
Is phonics for everyone?
We hear so much about how phonics is the only “good” way to reach reading. However, if I had a child with an auditory processing difficulty who is not learning to read using phonics but has great visual skills, I would be silly not to use those visual skills to begin teaching reading by sight while working on phonics as a side issue in an effort to build auditory skills. Yet, so many times we think that our children must learn the way “normal” children do, or we have failed. Looking realistically at our children’s strengths can help us use more appropriate teaching methods for those children and can keep us reasonably sane in the process! Look in my book for more chapters on using strengths when discussing the process of planning your program!
(Note from Sharon Hensley for her third edition of her book: This book originally came out when I was expecting our youngest child, who is now fourteen years old! Throughout the book, you will see mentions of my children at various ages. As this edition went to print in 2008, Alison is now twenty-one, Laura is twenty and Logan is fourteen. Many things have changed over the years, but the basic principles that I have used in our fifteen years of home schooling and have used with countless families remain the same. Therefore, although resources have been updated and new sections have been added, the bulk of the book remains unchanged from the original.
I have now experienced almost every stage of homeschooling from preschool to high school, from multiple children to only one at home doing school. And we have experienced the many stages of having a child with severe disabilities from diagnosis to conservatorship. I hope that whatever stage you are at - just beginning or a seasoned veteran - you will be blessed and encouraged as you read: Home Schooling Children with Special Needs.)
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Almaden Valley Christian School