An Honest Assessment

I shared over on Instagram that it’s Laurel’s assessment day. Meaning, she has to complete a series of tests highlighting her abilities as well as her disabilities.

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It’s pretty stressful.

It requires about four hours of sitting and doing.  For a homeschooled student who does not do standardized testing it’s a lot. A whole lot.

I spend the time in the waiting room. It’s not bad, really. They have wifi, I’ve caught up on writing and reading. I don’t hate it.

I also reflect on our road to saying ‘learning disability’ out loud. It took some time, for sure.

When my husband and I were dating I remember teasing him that perhaps he had dyslexia. We were in college and writing papers was tricky for him. He basically wrote eight pages of run on sentences. Punctuation, capitalization, spelling – none of it was there. What was there was content. He was a great writer, and still is, but something wasn’t right. It was as if he didn’t even see what was missing.

He shared one of his most memorable moments from school, which involved not being able to memorize his multiplication tables. His parents and teachers often told him that if he would only try harder his work would improve. It boggles my mind that no one every noticed how his intelligence didn’t match up with his level of work.

Lee was left with the notion that he was lazy, didn’t apply himself, and was probably a little stupid.

That is the story of so many adults who have undiagnosed learning disabilities.

I don’t understand the shame that surrounds learning differences. The first time I asked Lee’s mom if she thought he could be dyslexic she blasted me. She angrily told me that he had a very high IQ, that he had been tested by several people, that there was nothing ‘wrong’ with him.

I quietly replied that dyslexia has nothing to do with a person’s intelligence. We never broached the subject again, but the shame card had been laid on me.

When our first child showed signs of struggling to read the first person I called was Lee’s sister. She was a teacher, and I knew that teaching reading was a passion of hers.

Dyslexia is tricky, though, and many teachers are not trained to see its symptoms. Many times the symptoms are seen as stubbornness or an unwillingness to learn.  Lee’s sister suggested I call the local school and ask them. It was not a homeschool friendly area, though, so I opted to just figure it out on my own.

Man, was it rough.

I was so young and so new to homeschooling that I was overwhelmed by all of the choices. I tried to stick it out with a reading curriculum that came highly recommended. It was tear stained and tattered within the first three months of using it. Kiley and I both came to hate that book.

We were not like the homeschool families I read about or the ones who were highlighted in the news. I was not raising a future Scripps Spelling Bee Winner or someone who would be ready for college by 6th grade.

Which meant we were failing.


I don’t know why people do this, but when you homeschool friends and family think it’s fun to quiz your kids. Holidays and birthday parties became dreaded events because you never knew who was going to say, “What have you been learning?” or “Come read this book to me.”

Nobody likes that.

My oldest girls were in second grade and kindergarten, and both struggled mightily with reading and spelling. They went to stay with my husband’s family for a weekend.  After they’d been home for a couple of hours my oldest one told me they played school with a relative all weekend.

I felt the pit in my stomach and asked her to tell me more.

“We practiced spelling and writing,” Kiley said.

I smiled and asked if she had fun while inside I was fuming.

That’s the day I became an advocate for my children.

Perhaps there had been no malice behind the relative’s actions. When you homeschool there is often a feeling of suspicion behind questions about school, family or not. I’d way rather someone ask me, “How do you know what to teach your children?” than sneak them off and quiz them.

That incident taught me a valuable lesson, though. I learned that my children had no voice. They did not have the vocabulary to say to someone, “I have a learning disability.” or “I don’t want to do that.” “Mom makes me do that stuff every day. Please don’t you do it, too.” 

I became their first voice, teaching them to self-advocate.

Up until that point I’d been hesitant to share our struggles in traditional school. I felt like I was scamming people when  I said  my kids had dyslexia because I didn’t have an ‘official’ diagnosis from a psychologist. I also struggled with how hard to push them.  There were times when I allowed outside pressures (real or imagined) to influence our homeschool. I became the enforcer and said horrible things like, “If it’s hard we try harder.”  There was a lot of sitting at the table, and a lot of crying.

There were other times that I declared we would only read aloud and do art. I have tried to forgive myself for those early days when I was uncertain of what was going on. I was truly doing my best.

I see that shame had a huge role in my behavior. I was ashamed that I wasn’t a better teacher, that I didn’t homeschool hard enough.

I am so grateful I’m not in that place any more.

After that I decided to become an expert in dyslexia. I read as many books as I could find about dyslexia. Pro-tip: only read the most current material, otherwise you’ll end up even more confused. I told my kids they had dyslexia, and maybe some other issues that we would figure out.

Then I studied how they learned. I paid attention to what gave my girls a spark, what caused them to dive deeper, what made them ask questions. Then I did more of all of those things. Gradually we all began to relax about school.* When number three got to school age I didn’t panic when he began to show the same symptoms.

Also, there was never anymore ‘playing school’ while they were with relatives. If well meaning friends asked if they would read to them I gently informed them that reading wasn’t their thing, that it required a lot of work for them and that they just wanted to relax and have fun.

The only thing that exploded was my shame. It was gone the minute I said ‘dyslexia’  out loud to the first person outside of our family. It gave me permission to ask Sunday school teachers and co-op teachers to skip over my children when reading out lout in class. 

The amazing thing that happened was that people began telling me about their children’s struggle with learning, or there own struggles. Me sharing my stuff invited others to share theirs, which led to more exploding shame.

Hooray for exploding shame!!


I am still sitting in the waiting room, which means Laurel is still working. One of the things I hate about the assessment is the feedback. That’s when we sit down with the psychologist and review the test results.

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I’m not going to lie. The first time we did this I sat in the car and cried for a good thirty minutes, and that was after crying in the psychologist’s office. It’s one thing to know your child’s struggle. It’s another to see it written down in black and white, to see numbers attached to your child, numbers that cause that shame thing to rise back up.

I will push it down, though, because I have the secret.

I know that my children are more than numbers. I know that those tests cannot calculate their potential, cannot know that they were each handmade for a life only they can live.

Those tests cannot tell us what they were created for.

I know those things, but I also know my girl will be hurting this evening when she reflects on the parts that were especially difficult. I think I’ve heard it compared to asking a person confined to a wheel chair to show someone how hard it is to get up a flight of stairs. Alone. With no help.

These assessments, while necessary for now, are not the whole truth.

I will be content with paper telling us part truth, but my heart will know the whole.

 

My heart will give the honest assessment to anyone who will listen until my children can.

 

Be brave, misfits. Be a voice for anyone in your life who needs it.

 

 

*Mostly. I think when you have a learning disability ‘school’ automatically conjures up all kinds of weird, uncomfortable feelings. We can talk more later about anxiety and how kids with learning disabilities are more likely to deal with it.

When to Push

I try to remember the first time I thought that my kids might have learning issues. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when the light bulb went off.

That’s the beauty of homeschooling. You figure out how your kids learn and you keep moving forward. At first it was hard for me because I’m a rule follower. If the instructions say to do it a certain way I tend to believe that’s how it must be done. I have figured out that instruction manuals are not always right.

I’m guessing it was around seven or eight years ago that it dawned on me that my teaching wasn’t the problem.  Well, I should say it wasn’t the only problem.

 

I’m a paper and pencil girl. I love to write. I think in words; short and sweet words, or long and lively ones. I learned to read before entering kindergarten. I any free time I had reading throughout my growing up years. I loved to practice handwriting for fun. Math and I have always had a tumultuous relationship, though. 

Reading made all of my children cry. All of them. It caused them great anxiety. For two of my kids writing is possible but laborious and not quite worth the amount of effort they have to put in. 

Dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia. We’ve got it all.

So how do you teach when learning is really, really hard? How do you know when to push, and when to back off?

First, observe how your child learns.

I was so surprised that my second daughter actually finds it distracting to be read aloud to, especially if she doesn’t have something to do with her hands. Her younger brother is the same way. We do read aloud with play dough, drawing books, and Legos. That’s also where audiobooks come in handy. They can do other things, and so can I, while listening to great books.

Another miracle came in the form of YouTube. There is total trash to be had there, for sure, but there are also some awesome learning channels. Spencer, my third child, takes in information best from videos or hands on learning. Then he dictates information back to me in a journal because writing is his mortal enemy. (We’re working on keyboarding and speech to text but this is a great way for me to see what info he’s taking in.)

If a certain curriculum that you bought because it was the best, or worked really well for someone else, doesn’t work for you DON’T USE IT. Or feel free to modify so that it does work for you. Ask your child how they think they could learn this thing.

Second, observe what your child is curious about.

 

My boy always has a frog or a lizard somewhere.

 

For kids with learning disabilities passion about a subject will always drive them over the speed bumps. It’s worth doing the hard thing if there’s a reward at the end. Plus, research shows that interest led learning is the way to go for children who learn differently.  My kids have taught themselves knitting, sculpting, chemistry, herbology, herpetoculture, drawing, cake decorating, ukulele…I could go on and on. I imagine that this goes for kids who don’t have learning issues, too. 

Don’t we all learn best when we’re excited about a subject?

Find what they’re interested and allow them to pursue it. Start with books at the library then try and find real life resources in your community. YouTube is an excellent source for this kind of stuff as well.

Build on their interests to teach them other subjects. Geography is not fun when you’re just memorizing things. However, when you’re learning where your favorite scientist or composer lived it suddenly becomes interesting. I tend to teach grammar through editing but we don’t get bogged down in too many details. If we’re feeling curious Purdue has an awesome website for that.

Thirdly, don’t feel sorry for them.

Frankly, this one was hard for me in the beginning. I still struggle with it a little now. Feeling sorry for kids who struggle with learning won’t do them any good. In fact, I look back I can see where I made some mistakes by parenting through guilt rather than compassion. There were times when I inadvertently gave my kids the impression that they were not capable of something hard. Then I had to do the  work of undoing that message.

The best thing I ever did was stumble upon Marianne Sunderland’s site Homeschooling with Dyslexia. I read a post about struggling versus stubbornness and breathed a huge sigh of relief.  Knowing I was not alone, that I was not the only person in the world who had multiple children with learning challenges gave me courage. I re-evaluated how we had been doing school and I changed some things.

I’m still learning about education with my number 3 and 4 kids. I tease mine all the time about how it would be much easier for me if all their learning differences were the same. I do know now that to prepare them for the world I’ve got to teach them to work around their learning issues. We are realistic about what’s difficult but choose to focus on their strengths.

When my children were really little I used to say, “When things are hard we just try harder.” I DO NOT say that any more, partly because of this article. I have no understanding of how hard it is to learn to read and write with their issuesNow I ask them how we can work around it, what I can do to help. By allowing them to part of the solution I give their power back which helps negate the learning disability’s power in their lives. 

There are sometimes, though, that we take breaks from certain subjects. I do think that the brain needs time to process information. We don’t do spelling every day because 15-20 minutes three days a week is a lot of spelling for someone with dyslexia.  I’m using game schooling for math because paper and pencil just don’t work for Spencer.

To tell you the truth I quit doing spelling with my oldest two kids when they were in middle school. I didn’t know about All About Spelling back then, which is the best thing ever in my opinion. Every week the spelling list left them defeated because no matter how much time they spent trying to memorize their words it just didn’t happen.

If frustration levels are too high learning isn’t going to take place anyway.

Once we took the source of frustration away their spelling improved on its own. Texting, keyboarding, and speech to text apps were a huge part of that advancement. Some things you figure out along the way.

Asking my kids to explain to me what they’re learning about helps them, too. It’s called multimodal learning. Taking in information is important but so is relaying knowledge. 

Legos are an essential part of our homeschool.

 

Ultimately, figuring out when to push and when not to is about knowing your child.

I have to trust my kids when they say, “I cannot do this right now, Mom.” This requires me to take a step back from shoulds and have-to’s. I have to evaluate WHY I feel it’s important they learn this thing I’m pushing on them. Occasionally I’ve caught myself pushing because  I want to impress people with our homeschool powers.  I may have to remind myself (again) that education is not an emergency.

I don’t believe tears should ever be part of learning.*

I’ve learned that if I’m always pushing my kid they don’t learn to enjoy pushing themselves. I want them to enjoy learning for the pure joy of it, not because they have to. I’ve found thinking of myself as a guide helps. I’m not here to force them to learn things they don’t want to. Rather, I’m here to guide them toward the things they’re interested in.

Allowing my kids to be in control of what they learn has made them brave. They’re more willing to take risks knowing that ‘passing’ a class isn’t the goal. Although my second born loves to get A’s and complete assignments and make sure her grades are recorded. Still, she knows that’s not the most important thing in life, she knows that’s not what’s expected.

I think my kids are the biggest, best Brave Misfits ever.

I’m amazed that when I quit pushing they began to excel in certain areas. Sometimes I still have to nudge them along, and sometimes I have to say, “This is really important to me.” and we figure it out together. Overall, though, I’ve quit pushing. I’ve quit forcing, and we rarely have tears. I’m good with that.

 

Are there any areas you’re struggling with? Do you find it hard to know when to push and when not to?

 

*I am talking pre-school to third grade here. Sometimes as kids get older tears may be part of the process of finishing a project or a assignment. Tears may happen when you put down boundaries with them. I do not believe, though, that tears should be part of acquiring new information. That part should be fun and if it’s not I do think it’s important to take a step back and figure out the why of the tears.