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Learning Disabilities: Fact or Fiction

By Mary Pride
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #10, 1995.

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Mary Pride


Let’s talk about the homeschool subject nobody wants to talk about:

“What do we do when our kids don’t learn what we’re trying to teach them?”

In the public school world, an entire industry has been created out of “learning disabilities.” Briefly, LD includes all the categories of children who have no discernible physical problems but who are slow learners or who don’t behave the way their classroom teachers wish they did.

To date, the homeschool movement has been ambivalent to the concept of learning disabilities. On the one hand, some homeschoolers believe there really is no such thing as a “learning disability.” On the other hand, people credentialed by the education establishment as learning disabilities experts have been popping up with increasing frequency as featured speakers at homeschool conventions.

As usual, PHS is not content to straddle the fence. After years of studying this issue—and years of raising nine children, two of whom at least would qualify for a public-school “LD” label—we have reached the following conclusions:

  1. There is no reason, except for getting government grants, for using the term “learning disability.” The term exists to shift responsibility for a child’s scholastic failures from the school and parents to the child’s DNA.

  2. By definition learning “disabilities” have no physical origin. Real learning problems have actual medical names, such as “brain damage” or “Down’s Syndrome.” So you can’t really blame the DNA anyway.

  3. What one person calls a “disability” could just as readily often be called a “gift.” Picture the difference between, “What an energetic little boy you have!” and, “Oh, that boy of yours is hyperactive.” Or between, “Janie has Attention Deficit Disorder,” and, “Janie is such a thinker!”

  4. More important than labeling is what are you going to do about your child’s slowness or distractibility?

  5. The first step towards solving a problem is getting a correct diagnosis—as opposed to a responsibility-shifting “label.” “Jimmy is disobedient” leads to entirely different parental responses than “Jimmy has ADHD.” “Suzy has poor visual perception” requires a different line of treatment than “Suzy is an LD child.”

With all this in mind, we offer you, not only a set of articles covering the different aspects of special education from a homeschool point of view, but the following diagnostic checklist designed to help you figure out what your child’s problem, if any, really is, and what to do about it.

What to Do If Your Child Has Trouble
Learning

If your child is having trouble with just one subject, try a fresh approach with that subject, or even leave it alone for a while in order to allow him to catch up to it developmentally.

But if your child doesn’t seem able to do grade-level work on any subject, and you are not aware of any genuine physical problem, such as Tourette’s Syndrome or head injuries, try the following:

  1. Check his eyesight. This may seem almost too obvious to mention, but I personally, although blind as a bat, didn’t get a single eye test until I was a teen, and didn’t get contacts until I was 20 years old. If your child holds books close to his face, or rubs his eyes a lot, a vision test should be a priority. Even if he doesn’t show signs of poor vision, it’s a good idea to have vision checked as soon as your child can tell left from right and up from down.
  2. Check his visual perception. This differs from a regular vision test in that you aren’t looking at eye charts. Instead, you are checking such things as how evenly your child’s eyes “track” from left to right. Again, red eyes and having trouble “seeing” the page are a sign of this problem. You may have to look around a bit to find someone in your area who does this kind of testing. However, if visual perception is the problem, eye exercises can make a huge difference in your child’s ability to take in information visually.
  3. Check your child’s hearing. If he’s had a lot of ear infections, he very well may have trouble hearing, especially in a noisy environment.
  4. Check his gross motor skills. Children who are especially clumsy or delayed developmentally may have something physically wrong with them. This is not a learning disability, but an actual learning problem that needs remediation. Neurological patterning exercises, such as those offered by the National Academy for Child Development, can be helpful for children with neurological and other physical problems.
  5. Check his vocabulary level. A reduced vocabulary level can be a sign of genuine physical problems, or of unresolved emotional problems which are affecting his learning.
  6. Check for interpersonal and environmental problems or trauma. All these big words mean, “Has anyone betrayed, persecuted, or scared your child?” A divorce or the death of a relative or friend can cause a child to lose interest in learning. Or, if he has attended school in the past, he may well have emotional baggage left over from unpleasant school experiences. It’s been said that a child needs as many years to recover from public school as he spent in public school. While that’s not true in all cases, giving your child some “time off” after a rough emotional experience won’t “ruin” him for homeschool, especially if you provide lots of library books and interesting outings!
  7. Check his attention span when he’s doing something that interests him. If your child just “can’t sit still” even for activities he favors, he likely has a chemical imbalance or allergies. In these cases, talking to a doctor qualified in these areas can yield excellent results. Beware of practitioners who prescribe Ritalin at the drop of a hat. Also beware of labeling a child “distractible” who is only distractible when he’s doing what you want!
  8. If your child doesn’t have any of the above problems, but is always “zoning out” or daydreaming, consider the following options: (a) Pick more interesting and involving activities. (b) Check up on him frequently. (c) Encourage artistic, musical, and scientific pursuits. (d) Add more hands-on projects. Also consider that your child’s “problem” may actually be a case of giftedness, in which case offering more demanding activities is the solution.
  9. If none of the above applies, you may just have a child who is a slow learner. Throughout the history of the world, some have always been faster and some have been slower. This is really no big deal in homeschool, since there is no class to “keep up” with or “fall behind.” We can afford to let our children learn at their own rates. The worst thing you can do is to keep harping on a child’s failure by repeatedly pushing tasks at them that they aren’t ready to do. In this case, the answer is to lose some of that parental anxiety, scale back on your expectations, pick only resources that break tasks down into simple steps, review a lot, and remember that you have 13 school years to teach this kid to read, write, and do basic arithmetic. If you succeed at these minimal tasks, your “slow learner” will actually be more advanced by high-school graduation time than 99 percent of public school graduates!

What to Do If Your Child Doesn’t Follow
Your Instructions

If your child can see and hear just fine, has an OK vocabulary level and motor skills, is not suffering from any recent traumas, has an OK attention span when doing what he wants, is not a daydreamer, and can do the work “when he feels like it” (except that he rarely feels like it), what you likely have here is an old-fashioned case of disobedience. This is even more obvious in cases where the child explicitly refuses to do what you say, or shows disrespect in other ways.

It happens all the time, and the solution is the same as it has always been: consistent discipline, patience, and lots of prayer. Depending on the circumstances, discipline may mean a spanking, taking away distracting toys, or, “You don’t eat supper until you finish your schoolwork.”

The key here is not to get discouraged and give up prematurely. Contrary to what some child-training books make it sound like, rare is the child who responds with exemplary obedience to the very first time he is disciplined. Your job is to let him know that “school doesn’t have to be fun, it just has to be done,” in the deathless words of Luanne Shackelford (author of A Survivor’s Guide to Homeschooling), and that he isn’t going to get away with a thing. Once he is convinced of this, and you have also made sure that he realizes you are in sympathy with his aspirations and tribulations, most kids will settle down and (even if grudgingly) do the work.

Training in diligence is very helpful, since it’s even rarer to find a rebellious child who isn’t also lazy. Good old family chores are great for this training, which proves once again that it’s always best to do chores first. It’s also important for the parents to show a cheerful attitude about work. The lessons learned in chore time carry over to better work all through the homeschool day.

The one rare exception to the above is the case of a child who is so intensely focused on an interest that he keeps coming back to it in spite of all instructions to spend his time otherwise. In this case, you need to determine if the activity in question is bad—in which case you have a spiritual problem requiring even more prayer and discipline—or positive—in which case he may just be a genius who is following his vocation. Many famous musicians, scientists, and artists started this way!

What to Do If Your Child is
Intellectually Advanced

First, thank God for this special gift!

Second, make plans to spend some time teaching your child basic social skills.

Gifted kids tend to be “project”-focused rather than “people”-focused. That’s what helps them advance so rapidly in intellectual matters. This type of child is unlikely to pick up appropriate social behavior by osmosis, the way other, less focused, children do. However, this type of child also responds well to social skills taught as a “school” subject.

Beside the usual mall manners, restaurant manners, and library manners, you may need to teach your gifted child not to interrupt . . . to listen courteously to others . . . to not share everything he knows on a given subject . . . cues that tell him it’s time to leave . . . how to introduce himself at a gathering . . . and so forth.

Such children also tend to be hypercritical, so time spent teaching him how to encourage others will be well spent.

These social skills will make the difference between raising a hyper-intelligent geek, who people tolerate but nobody likes, and raising a future leader, whose intellectual skills can be used to their maximum capacity and who has the respect of others.

Obviously we couldn’t cover every single situation with the checklist above. But we hope this checklist, and the articles that follow, will help make it clear that kids are never a set of walking “labels,” but individuals with varying gifts and interests.

Furthermore, any “remediation” or “therapy” that doesn’t actually cure the problem it addresses isn’t worth our respect or attention. The public schools’ “special education” doesn’t produce kids who ultimately work at grade level. They don’t even pretend to achieve these results. In fact, they make more money for each child who remains in special education. So why listen to them or use their failed methods?

Although homeschoolers are rightly wary of public education methods and philosophy, at this point we seem all too ready to let them in through the “back door” of special education. If we can be persuaded to label our kids, and call on a public-school-credentialed “expert” to tell us how to homeschool our labeled kids, we’re right back in the public school’s lap.

Homeschool special education has the advantages of common sense, lots of time, one-on-one interaction, and a devotion to results. That is why it gets results. My “dyslexic” daughter now reads above grade level and her spelling has vastly improved. My “ADD” son is doing college work in ninth grade. Hundreds of other homeschool families have similar results. They are the true special education experts, not the guys with the Ed.D.’s and Ph.D.’s.

We don’t need trendy buzzwords and theories, we need results. As long as we only listen to people who can demonstrate results, we’ll be heading in the right direction—and special education at home will be really special.


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