Practical Curriculum Considerations and the LD Child
Have you enjoyed God’s creative gifts lately? He didn’t choose just one color to paint the trees in autumn or one flower to grace the perennials in spring. He doesn’t recycle the same glorious sunset every evening or give a monotonous sunrise every dawn. And He didn’t create just one bird’s song or one baby’s cry. In His infinite wisdom, He has made every person different, too. Not everyone plays the piano; some can only play the radio. Not everyone is tall; some come in small packages. Some are dark and some are fair. Our God is a magnificent God of creative variety.
Children come with special differences, too. While some learn best by hearing, others learn best by seeing. Some are “movers" or jabber constantly, while others sit quietly by the hour. Some love math, while others prefer a good book. Some love to put their thoughts on paper, while others prefer creating a masterpiece from the recycle bin. Some are compliant and cooperative, while others are argumentative and always challenging your authority. Some excel in sports, while others can’t chew gum and walk at the same time.
Since you are reading this article, chances are God has given you a wonderful, frustrating, perplexing bundle called a “child.” Nobody else has one just like him. She is one of a kind. Someone has suggested the label of learning disability or ADD or ADHD. Please understand that a learning disability is not a learning inability. Rather, it is a learning difference! Your home schooling mission, should you decide to accept, is to discover the unique way God wired your child. Be forewarned that discovery’s very nature requires trials - and errors - and it won’t happen overnight. And since there is no one curriculum that works for every child, let’s explore some practical, realistic answers on how best to choose the closest curriculum match to your “gift."
Your home schooling mentor, Susie Q, has been teaching her 42 children for 500 years. Her son, Sam, is just like your son, Jeff. They both play baseball, have shaggy brown hair dangling in their eyes, hate baths, and eat spinach. Should you take her curriculum recommendations as gospel?
Before you plunk down your money on Susie’s suggestions, take a few minutes to think it through. No one likes making expensive curriculum mistakes.
Let’s briefly look at how people learn. Information comes into our brain through our five senses - sight (visual), hearing (auditory), touch (tactile), movement (kinesthetic) and smell (olfactory). Most people depend upon one dominant sense, reinforcing it with the lesser others. This dominant strength, or information gathering preference, is better known as a “learning style.” Once the message arrives at the brain through your preferred "style," it must be processed into meaningful information. This information is then acted upon or stored for a later time.
Each learning style manifests itself in particular ways. In general:
Visual people tend to enjoy beauty, noticing tiny details the average person overlooks. They are good picture readers, discerning the story by its illustrations. They love finding hidden pictures, too. Visual people tend to be the most successful in school because nearly every curriculum is aimed at them.
Auditory people love to listen to music or tapes, don’t fall asleep in lectures, and usually love to talk. They chatter away asking questions, interrupting, and supplying the last word in a sentence before you can say it. They love to rhyme and ‘play with words’, often making up new vocabulary. Auditory children often whisper to themselves as they read silently (sub-vocalize) for reinforcement. They are usually good in phonics, but poor visual memory is present, spelling and math memorization become hard for them.
Kinesthetic people are “movers and shakers” - ones who can’t sit still and are movement oriented. They are frequently athletic and very competitive. Very little holds their attention. They are the hardest to teach because they don’t stay still long enough to learn. They frequently get labeled ADD or ADHD.
Tactile people are “huggers and touchers.” They are your cuddlers and “lap children." They immediately reach for the toys on a shelf, caressing each one carefully, running their fingers over its contours or stroking the fur on stuffed animals. (If they turn it over in their hands and examine it visually, this indicates visual, not tactile, strengths.) Most kinesthetic learners are tactile, too.
Olfactory people are very sensitive to smells (as are many gifted children). These people must depend on other modes of information gathering. Since you can't learn to read by sniffing, however, we will skip this category.
Two people must use a curriculum - you and your child. If it doesn’t fit one of you, it won’t work. You want a curriculum that helps you teach, not a task master. Since no one knows your situation better than you, examine your needs first.
Realistically, what are you able and willing to do for your LD child’s curriculum? Look realistically at the demands on your time - from family, friends, telephone, outside employment, etc. You have other people in your life, not just your special needs child. In fact, many of you have your “quiver full” - and one on the way. Other family members deserve some of your time, talents, and energy, too. And don’t forget your needs - you can’t run on empty.
Do you prefer Christian or secular materials? Do you like textbooks or unit studies? How much time do you have for preparation?
Do you like curriculum already laid out, with every little detail highlighted and underlined (highly structured)? Or do you prefer to “do your own thing”, with minimal direction supplied by the author (creative/flexible)?
Do you have the time to select library books by the dozen, or do you need to have the whole package come in the box so you can pull out Book 1, knowing that Book 2 will be next? Do you want flexibility (where you can decide which unit to use, or its presentation order), or do you want to be on page 44 on the 22nd day of school (highly structured)?
Do you like all explanations written as a script you read to the child, or do you prefer explaining things your own way? Does he understand your explanations or do you end up arguing a lot? Do you have time to watch a video or read the Teacher’s Manual? Or do you already know how to explain it?
How much “hand-holding” do you need to make this curriculum choice workable for your child? Will too much help from the curriculum confuse you?
From your viewpoint, this makes curriculum selection a two choice process:
1) Create your own curriculum - Maybe you have lots of time on your hands, are a very creative person, and have resources which tell you the sequence of skill introduction for each grade/age level. If that is the case, God bless you in your efforts for your child.
2) Buy someone else’s curriculum package - Most of us don’t fall into the above category, so don’t feel guilty. There is absolutely nothing wrong with buying a set curriculum. Hopefully, we merely supplement and/or minimally adjust these into the best materials for our child.
By knowing what you expect - and need - from a curriculum, you can avoid expensive time and money wasters.
For most children, when several senses can be used at once, they fare better. This may or may not be true for certain children with learning disabilities. Sometimes the weak links (areas with disabilities) overpower the strengths. But sometimes the strengths are strong enough to overcome the weaknesses. Since you always want to teach to the strengths, it is time to analyze your special child’s curriculum needs.
Learning style - Does he have a long attention span? If not, what seems to hold his attention the longest?
Is his visual mode stronger? - Visual learners tend to work well with shorter, workbook pages. Children with visual processing problems do better with explanations accompanied by demonstrations with manipulatives, even if you need to explain the manipulative step by step.
Is his auditory mode stronger? - Auditory learners thrive on tapes, explanations, and explaining things themselves - better known as chattering. Children with auditory processing problems requires the opposite - short, simple, to-the-point explanations. The longer the explanation, the more potential for problems. Manipulatives and examples only work if they make sense without much explanation.
Computers - Does he like working (not playing) on your computer? Can he touch type/keyboard? Computers stimulate all senses, often giving the best opportunity to absorb new knowledge for many LDs. Unlike people, computer software is great because it is willing to do the same task thousands of times without a complaint. An appropriate choice in software can save your sanity.
Assignments - Is he easily frustrated or overwhelmed by assignments? Does a full page of work bring on tears? Do you shorten assignments to alleviate this? Can he follow an assignment sheet (a check list or other organizer method) or does he need you to keep him on track? (“You’ve finished math. Now do spelling.”)
Preferences - If he could choose a curriculum format, what would it be? Are workbooks his favorite? (He likes short assignments and can make an A+.) Does he avoid writing or coloring at all costs? (paper-pencil resistant or poor motor control.) Does he like doing crafts and activities or view them as a time-waster? (Some children prefer to finish their work quickly so they can do what they want.) Does he prefer doing everything with you watching over his shoulder or does he have the abilities and stick-to-it-iveness to do the task on his own (self motivated)? Pay special attention to his interests and where he is successful.
Skills - What skills has he learned that can be a foundation for others he needs to learn? Does he just need more practice/drill work to be successful? (Try to find a computer program that will do it. You have laundry to do.) Can he read well enough to be independent or does he still need you to explain the directions? Is he a strong reader, but poor in his written work? Does he pass spelling tests, only to miss the same words in his everyday work? Can the assignment be simplified into an oral exercise rather than always written?
Educational expectations - What are realistic expectations for him? Is an apprenticeship more appropriate than college? If so, what areas of interest would he choose (auto mechanics, computers, veterinarian assistant, etc.)? What will he need to know to be the adult he is capable of becoming? Are his disabilities severe enough to limit his achievements? If you are looking at severe disabilities, some major curriculum adjustments will be necessary. It isn’t important for a child to know the difference between a noun and a verb if he will only learn to read on a second grade level. I am not saying, “don’t challenge”; I am saying, “don’t frustrate.” Dream “achievable dreams” for his success - and be willing to change them as he reaches (or misses) milestones.
Now take these personal answers and apply the next considerations to them.
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Curriculum doesn’t have to be expensive or filled with flashy color to be good. In fact, color can be more of a distraction for certain learning problems. Color printing also increases curriculum costs. So, if it isn’t art, don’t make cute, color pictures a priority.
Assignments - and directions - should be short. Keep assignments to 20 minutes or less. Short, concise explanations are your best approach with virtually every LD child.
Manipulatives are NOT needed by every child. Sometimes, they are so abstract it takes a college professor to see their reasoning. Video tapes are usually good if the child has the attention span for TV. Audio tapes are good if the child has a long attention span, likes to be read to, and doesn’t need pictures to figure out what is happening. Coloring pages are good if the child likes to write, can stay within the lines, or doesn’t care if he goes out of the lines. Coloring pages do not promote much creativity, however, unless a green elephant is your child’s idea of creativity.
Keep distractions to a minimum. Distracting color pictures that have nothing to do with the task, work pages with lots of “stuff," and working on more than one skill at a time often confuse LD children. If possible, find materials that work on one skill long enough for the child to master it before he must see how it fits into the whole. LDs often need interrelationships pointed out, so skill presentations which are not sequential and jump around do not work for them. A little bit of this and a little bit of that may give you a lot of nothing in the end.
Consumable workbooks/work sheets are better to use than having you or your child copy. Because you are working with children who have short attention spans and high frustration levels, don’t put them through more work than is necessary. If it isn’t handwriting, don’t have them copy.
Large writing space is another consideration. Many children with learning differences have a hard time “putting it on paper." Make sure there is enough room for their answers.
Materials which review old material every few weeks may require much reteaching. Yes, children do forget and LDs need much repetition for mastery. But how important is it to review “counting change” in the middle of a “time” unit? Focus on one thing and get it down well! Then go back and review.
Demand practical skills from your curriculum choice. Focus on skills that he will need to master to become a functional adult. In other words, focus on life skills, not fluff skills. If you haven’t used it since you left school, it might not be worth the battle for him to learn it either. Focus on the important, not the useless.
Look for flexibility. You may have more than one child and wish to use the curriculum with all of them. Computer programs are especially good for being flexible.
Consider allowing your child to help with this decision. Older children and teens definitely should be consulted. Give them a “curriculum budget”, telling them what subjects must be covered. Point out advantages and disadvantages that you see with their choices. If it is a joint venture, ask him if he is willing to work with this curriculum and whether it will be sufficiently challenging to him (‘easy work’ or ‘constant review’ become very boring). If he participates in the decision, tell him that this curriculum now becomes his commitment for a year’s study - no excuses.
If you cannot find a curriculum which meets both of your needs (his learning style and your teaching style), think hard before purchasing it. Your child’s optimal learning is your goal. If only one person’s needs can be met, consider meeting the child’s. Your learning disabled child can't adjust to your needs, but maybe you can make a change a little for his.
Curriculum which requires a big change in your life schedule will not be suitable. If it requires a big time commitment on your part to prepare the lessons, you will grow to hate it, feeling it is the master and you are the slave. And then you will feel guilty because you didn’t sacrifice enough for your child. Don’t let this happen!
Is there a program out there that fulfills you and your child’s needs? Probably, but it may need a bit of modifying to suit your home schooler’s special needs. Should you listen to Susie’s 500 years of home schooling experience and go with Program L-M-N-O-P? Only if it meets your needs. You may need more hand-holding than a person with years of home schooling experience. Other than interests, your child isn't ‘exactly’ like hers. God made every child different - even identical twins.
God gave you wisdom. While it is wise to seek counselors, weigh the options and think for yourself. Be strong enough to go against Susie’s suggestions if it is not right for your home school’s success. Just because “everybody is using it” doesn’t make it appropriate for special needs children.
And expect a mistake or two. No one knows their child so well that they don’t get surprises occasionally. Your situation may change - chicken pox, death in the family, move to new state, or some other stress producer. Accept it and go on. Looking back, you will see that overall, God did use it for good.