Before I start writing this, I need to emphasize that every kid is different. Every kid has different needs, and those needs might not fit the norm or even the average. Homeschooling is about working around the hurdles to meet the child’s needs while helping them grow and learn.
Well, that happened
I drew a little fire this week for stating that my son needs to practice handwriting and reading because of his learning disabilities. Many homeschoolers chose to homeschool because they believe that traditional schools push too hard and too fast, and the studies on early childhood development support less formal academics in the early years.
Because of these two things, homeschoolers tend to react pretty strongly to efforts to recreate “school at home.” We generally suggest taking it slow, doing fun learning, and going at the child’s pace. What people tend to forget is that the child’s pace might not match anyone else in their age range.
What does “working at their pace” actually mean?
Working at the child’s pace might mean doing phonics at age 3. The general public recoils at this and thinks parents are being pushy. Working at the child’s pace might also mean delaying reading until the child is ready, past the average age of 5-6 towards the upwards range of 8-10. This is a much more acceptable approach to many homeschoolers, because we can allow our kids to be self-motivated and not meet arbitrary goals at randomly appointed ages.
But what if your child’s pace means they need help? What if it means that you have to do some formal learning – what’s often termed “drill and kill” for the child to advance over a rough spot? That’s almost never suggested, and if a homeschooler admits to it they’re “damaging” their child or overdoing it.
What if they need help?
In general, I agree that fun learning is best. Interest-led learning promotes retention and helps keep the power struggles down. I absolutely believe in taking academics at the child’s pace, no matter what that is. I also believe that identifying and eliminating issues that hold the child back are equally important.
Kids who struggle because they can’t manage a task that other kids their age can often become frustrated and discouraged. That does not encourage learning. It does not encourage growth, or help their self-esteem. What it does is promote despair, resignation, and frustration. The child thinks “I can’t do this, what’s wrong with me?” Sometimes they’re right – something IS wrong. Not with them, but with the way their eyes work, their brain works, or their muscles.
Look at it like this
Put it this way: if a child is struggling to read because they need glasses, would you ignore it and say “they’ll read when they’re ready?” Of course not! You would go see an eye doctor, get glasses for kiddo, and help them see. Learning disabilities are the same. You get the child help if they need it, do the therapies, and help the child overcome the hurdle.
Sometimes those therapies include things like handwriting practice, in our case.
Highly personalized needs
We’ve been working on fine muscle control since the Engineer was diagnosed at age 3 with Sensory Processing Disorder. We did all the fun stuff: sand writing, play dough, theraputty, art. You name it, we tried it. We still do a lot of it. Despite all of this, the ONLY thing that improved his handwriting is copy work. Boring, simple, basic. Copy work did the trick. As long as we did copy work several times a week, his handwriting was gaining legibility and he struggled less. Less frustration is better for everyone!
Then, summer. I got sick. Copy work stopped. And he regressed, back to where he was last year.
We’ve restarted the copy work, and yikes! It’s a power struggle. If he spent half the time actually DOING the work that he does in whining and complaining, he would be finished in no time. I scribe for him in everything else, I don’t ask him to spell phonetically (an anxiety trigger) and I limit the work to 2 or 3 sentences. It’s still a battle.
Do the thing, even when it’s not fun
In order to get better at anything we have to practice. In order to learn, we have to try, fail, and try again. Gifted kids often become complacent because things are easy for them, so this is an essential lesson. Sometimes you just have to suck it up and do the thing so that you can get better at the thing.
That’s a hard lesson for any kid. Doing something just because you have to, when it’s not fun and you don’t like it, is a hard concept. It’s also part of learning to be responsible. Sometimes you don’t have a choice, you just have to do it. Brushing teeth is one of those responsibilities in our house. I don’t care if you have sensory issues, we still have to brush teeth. We try to do it with a minimal amount of impact, but you WILL brush your teeth. No negotiating, no meltdowns, no refusals. Do it.
Why is practice ok for some things but not this?
Homeschoolers will cheerfully sign their child up for ballet, soccer, or music lessons without a second’s thought. It’s no different than academic practice – you have to do the thing to get better at the thing. Somehow, we’ve decided that forcing our kids to do the academic thing is bad. Because public schools do it, we shouldn’t.
I’m the first person to tell you that if it’s a battle, it’s time to rethink your homeschool strategy. If it’s a battle, learning isn’t happening. That seems like it might conflict with my advice in this post, but it really doesn’t. We all need to evaluate if there’s a better way to help our kids learn, and to try different strategies.
If it has to be done and you’ve tried everything else, then it might be time to pick the least painful method and do it consistently so that kiddo can get what they need and move on. If you have to kill and drill to learn multiplication facts that are holding kiddo back, then do it. Make it fun if you can with techniques like jumping on a mini trampoline while chanting facts. But don’t be ashamed to tell your kid “this is something that you need to do for your own good,” and stick to it. Just pick your battles wisely. Focus on one thing at a time.
You know your kid. You know what they need. Don’t be afraid to homeschool them the way that they need, even if everyone tells you otherwise.