When educating a child with special needs, the tendency is to want to lower our expectations of what he can and will do. Today, I offer a different mindset for planning for a child with special needs. Rather than lowering your expectations, consider meeting your child where he is at.
Meeting your child where he is at means assessing his strengths and focusing on those for educational purposes. It might be tricky to get into that mind-frame especially since so many interventions over the years have aimed to improve your child’s weaknesses and challenges.
When you focus on what your child can do well, you can help him build a skill set that he can use for life. You’re targeting the positive parts of his identity and helping him become more of who is meant to be.
Unfortunately, as a society, we gravitate toward the things we can fix about a person.
- “He’s great at writing, but he can’t speak well, so let’s have him join a social group to build his speaking techniques.”
- “She’s a fabulous designer, but her math skills are lacking, so let’s get her a math tutor twice a week.”
- “He’s an amazing athlete, but can’t read, so let’s keep drilling those sight words before he joins a track team.”
While all of those skills are indeed important to address, we often make the mistake of coaching a child through his weaknesses rather than honing his strengths.
- What would happen if the writing skills were tapped into more than his speaking proficiency?
- What would it look like if her design aptitude were fostered more than her math exercises?
- What if you allowed the athlete to train and loosened up on cranking out sight words?
By focusing on the strengths, you are helping your child:
- build self-confidence and self-esteem
- develop skills that could become a future career path
- become autonomous
- acknowledge himself as capable
- help others see him as capable
When we constantly remediate difficulties, we lose sight of the purpose of education and the gifts of homeschooling.
Wikipedia has a terrific definition of education:
Except for the part about one generation to the next (because education also happens within a generation), education is not defined as hammering endlessly on things we do not know. Instead, education is a transfer of information and skills through guidance, practice and research based on one’s personal interest.
What does this concept look like for homeschooling children with special needs?
Rather than focusing on performance or results (which tend to be superficial anyway), the idea is to follow and encourage the progress your child is making from where he is presently at developmentally.
Progress is the journey in comparison to where your child first started, performance is the outcome in comparison to others. Stay away from performance-focused teaching.
When working on a new skill with my son, I ask:
- What is he already great at doing?
- How does he thrive best?
My son learns best through repetition and verbal routines. In order to teach him a new skill, I work on building a new routine that he will be comfortable with – even if the skill doesn’t necessarily require/ come with specific word patterns. I usually set him up with the routine in advance (through play), so that when he’s finally at the task, he can recognize what to do, even if the medium/ materials are different from the “training”.
For instance, this week, we worked on lacing hearts with ribbons. I knew that this was going to be challenging for him because of his fine motor difficulties. I not only adapted the materials to better suit his hand skills, but I also thought to use the song “In and Out the Window” while he threaded the ribbon through the holes. I set it up so that there were many opportunities to sing that song throughout the week. We went in and out a “window” (a hole or a space): we sang it through his play tunnel, as he “walked” (with support) through two chairs, and we also played with his toys (balls, figurines) going in and out actual windows!
By the time he got to the lacing cards, my son was familiar with the song, and he understood that something goes through a space while we sing that song. He was intrigued as we pulled the ribbon through the spaces in the cards. The skill was practiced for a very short amount of time before he lost interest and squirmed away. But, it was a starting point. It was progress for him.
In comparison to other children his age (performance), you would say the skill wasn’t even tackled since he stayed with it for only about a minute. In comparison to himself (progress), however, you would see that he went from never having held a lacing card and ribbon, to holding the lacing card in one hand and briefly holding the ribbon in the other and watching as I guided his hand through at least 2 holes before calling it a day.
What I didn’t do:
I could have started with the lacing card and insisted that my son thread that ribbon an endless amount of times because it was a skill he needed to practice. I could have done that all day long until he mastered it. But, how much success would I have gotten? Most likely, I would have been met with resistance, a meltdown and possibly a shut-down to the activity altogether (making it almost impossible to have him attempt the task again in the future).
I didn’t focus on the fact that he couldn’t do it even though I knew it would be a challenge. If I had drilled the skill endlessly, it’s likely that his self-esteem would have suffered as well.
How to think of progress versus performance:
If your child is at point A, meet him there. Don’t hang around point B or C and wave over to him to join you. Don’t toss ropes or life jackets at him because you think he won’t make it there on his own.
Instead, nourish the stage your child is at in his learning. Foster the activities. Even if adapted/ modified, they differ from life jackets that keep him afloat or ropes that drag him to shore. Listen to his interests. Learn about his life vision for himself. Support his every step. Cheerlead. Encourage. Celebrate. Walk right beside him. No matter how long it takes. Enjoy the journey.
If you guide your child from where he is at, you will both begin to see point B more clearly from this vantage point. I guarantee that the frustrations will lessen for both of you, the progress will be staggering, and your child will be able to hold his head up high when he touches that point B flag (and, then, you can wipe your tears away proudly).