The longer I homeschool and the longer I homeschool children who come from less-than-ideal backgrounds, I realize that learning is so much more than just understanding the next concept in the book. There is so much more that plays into how our children process information. Hunger, fatigue, worry, and fear all play a huge role into how information about the world around them is processed. Academic learning takes a brain that is calm, fed, attentive, and primed for learning. Even at home with me as the teacher, it is all too easy for one of these things to fall by the wayside, at which point, trying to get through an academic lesson is an exercise in futility.
So what are some ways to help a child whose brain has gone off-line? I'll use some examples from the past couple of days to explain some of the things we do around here.
A brain that is suddenly fearful about something... in school work it is often a fear of failure... can divert all energy to worrying and fretting and be anything but calm. We adults do this. Think of a time when you were really worried about something. How well were you functioning? Would you have felt up to trying some new and potentially difficult task? Probably not. Our children are the same. Once a brain has gone into a fearful mode very little learning is going to happen.
This happened to one child this morning. Things were going just fine, and then a couple of math problems proved difficult and all was lost. I've pounded my head against this type of wall far too many times in the past to even consider trying to move ahead in the math book. What was called for was redirection; a chance to move the thinking from the reactionary part of the brain back to the higher order thinking part.
One activity I've had success with is to use a Celtic maze.
I hand a child a stick and have them trace the maze, starting at any point. It has a soothing capacity to it that can calm the brain and bring rational thought back. Other activities can do the same thing... coloring, playing in something very tactile, such as sand, large muscle movement, watching a snow globe.
Once I knew this particular child could at least hear me again, we then moved onto another activity, but not the one that caused the disregulation in the first place. There is a world of time to get back to math, it was more important to repair the child's relationship with learning. I got out our Critical Thinking Skills book. This is at a level a bit easy for the child in question and involves solving visual-spatial type problems. Notice we were still not trying to engage any language centers at all; that would have been too much. Building and matching shapes, though, was easy and also calming. We did several pages and our time together was up. The child was able to sit on my lap for minute, connect, receive reassurance, and then go on to his individual chosen activity. Having done this enough times, I know that math will hold no terrors when we pull it out tomorrow.
We are all about protein around here, particularly with children who either have extremely fast metabolisms or whose brains go haywire when they feel hunger or both. A hungry brain cannot think or do schoolwork. Believe me, I've tried, and it doesn't work. Sometimes I will just need to send a child down to the kitchen to eat something before we can work together. Ideally, this happens in the window I have it planned in during our school morning, but any number of reasons can cause this not to work. I'm pretty sure L. is in the middle of a growth spurt at the moment and for a child who can barely eat the protein she needs normally, to add a growth spurt to that means sometimes I feel as though I should just be continually giving her food. What and when did you last eat is a perpetual question around here.
While this sounds a bit like being calm, I'll define it further to paying attention to what is actually being taught and not thinking of anything else while still seeming to participate in the lesson. I find my children who experienced significant neglect to have the most difficult time with this. Because there was so much they didn't understand about what was going on around them, because things moved to fast or they weren't explained or they had just given up trying, their focus in on reading body and facial language to guess rather than just figure it out. It has taken me a long time to figure out exactly what works to deal with this behavior. It is both infuriating and heart-breaking all at the same time, and does not always bring out the best in me. I'm getting a bit better with it.
For H., I've learned that when confronted with something new that she doesn't immediately understand and that I am unaware she doesn't understand, she will default to guessing. First, I can't figure out exactly why she suddenly cannot do what she could do just a moment before. So I try harder. (This is rarely successful, yet I continue to do it.) Slowly, comes the dawning awareness that we have gotten off-track somewhere and I try to figure out where that point was. Yesterday, we were reading a word problem that involved a boy having marbles. She has become quite good at math, so I wasn't thinking anything would be a problem. And then, all of a sudden, it was as if she had completely forgotten how to read. I do some quick thinking about what just happened and decided to ask her if she knew what a marble was. Ding! Ding! Ding! She had no idea what a marble was. None. This is where all my reading about play has changed how I think about education. Before I would have just gotten the marbles, showed them to her, explained this was a marble, and expected us to move on. We rarely moved on very well. Yesterday, I decided that H. had years and years of exposure to marbles to make up for, so I got out the marbles and tray and said, "Play." H. stared at me for a moment as if she hadn't heard me correctly, but then started to tentatively play with them. It didn't take very long before she was completely absorbed with her play and continued that way for the rest of our time together, about another 20 minutes. Then, for the rest of that day, she would come up to me at random times and just say, "Marbles," as if to continue to get things sorted out into her head. This morning, we opened up her math book straight to the marble problem. I took a deep breath and asked her to read the problem. She read it with no difficulties and proceeded to do the arithmetic easily. She knew marbles. She had felt them, looked at them, rolled them, sorted them, dropped them (on accident), chased them. They had become a part of her knowledge of the world and it made infinite sense that a boy would have some in his pocket. If you take only one thing from this post let it be that when we allow our children to play, we allow them to make sense of their world in a deep, deep way.
Primed for Learning
This is very similar to what I just wrote, but at a more macro level. Yesterday at the neurosurgery appointment (where it looks as though we will never have to visit again), I was discussing R.'s school placement with the neurosurgeon. He didn't question the homeschooling aspect, but wanted to know that I was teaching R. academic skills. I'm sure my face looked a little funny at the thought, and pointed out that we did do school at home, but it was school that would be appropriate for a two year old. "Oh, they diagnosed her as functioning at a two year old level. Who did the evaluation?" he asked.
"Who? I live with her. I have 12 children. I'm pretty sure I know how a two year old behaves at this point." I (possibly a little testily) replied.
The doctor pleasantly backtracked more than a little bit and we go along swimmingly for the rest of the appointment.
The point of this is that for R. we are still building the mental and emotional structures that need to be present before we can even hope to bring up things such as letters and sounds or numbers and arithmetic. It would be foolish and stressful and frustrating and ultimately harmful at this point. Parents know where their children are developmentally. They know what is difficult for a child and what is easy. We do no one any favors by skipping past stages and abilities that are not there, regardless of what age the child is. Yes, it's a bit trickier to do pre-learning activities with an older child, but it is still needed. Skills learned with a brain that is not ready for them will be sorted and stored and understood in less-beneficial ways and will ultimately not be available for doing higher order thinking. There is nothing that says our children have to have learned everything they need to know as a child by 18. We have their whole lives, we don't need to rush and skip what they missed, but can take the time to lay the best foundation possible. If you cannot imagine, play, wonder, and have experiences with how the world works, then you will not be able to really learn the things that come later. Do not feel rushed by the outside voices who say your child must be doing this or that by a certain age. They do not know your child. You do. Take the time you and your child need.