Charlotte Mason for Children with Special Needs, Part 2

In my last post, I related how two of Charlotte Mason’s three instruments of education – discipline and life – allow our special needs children to partake of the great feast that is their schooling. By saying that education is life, we acknowledge that our children crave knowledge to the same degree as typical children, and that no area should be closed off to them. By saying that education is discipline, we look at therapy with new eyes, in the hope that learning skills consciously will allow our kids to overcome at least some of their obstacles.

Education is an Atmosphere

Now I will turn to education as an atmosphere. When Mason said that education is an atmosphere, she was not referring to the decor or the background music. She mocks that sort of thinking in Volume 6, the idea of education by osmosis, and I have to admit that having placemats of the U.S. states and the periodic table did not magically help my kids learn their geography or their elements. Atmosphere refers to something modern educators came to realize when they started making the connection between children missing meals at home and their grades at school. If you don’t have your basic needs met at home, you aren’t going to learn in school.

Atmosphere refers to to healthy food, adequate sleep, exercise and fresh air (in Mason’s day, the air was heavy with the products of combustion – ventilation was a must if you expected kids to concentrate). Our kids may have some additional needs that need to be met: their diets may have to be restricted, they may need to bounce as they listen to a story, they may have to wear soft clothing with no labels, special glasses, hearing aids. Their physical needs must be attended to before they can do the work of meeting their academic needs.

The emotional atmosphere is also important – parental authority must be well established and “the strong must not lay their burdens on the weak.” Further, children must be spared the effort of decision (although they don’t need to have all choice removed). The structure of the day, for example, is the parent’s job to establish. This creates a secure environment, and doubly so for our special needs kids. However, kids are not to be sheltered. A wide variety of social interaction is necessary and normal for our kids, the child is not to be “isolated in what may be called a ‘child-environment’ especially adapted and prepared” but allowed to “live freely among his proper conditions.”

The Method

Moving from principles to method, there are aspects of how Mason put her ideas to practice that are already well suited to our children.

  1. Lessons are very short, and varied. This is particularly of value to our ADD/ADHD kids. A lesson may be 5 minutes long, and lessons only reach the 50 minute mark in high school. Our kids may not get to that point, but some will.
  2. Mason encouraged daily out of door time, and some sort of daily exercise or drill. Everyone wins with this.
  3. With varied lessons and activities, one will inevitably support another. A child whose hand struggles to write will be strengthened by piano playing and handicrafts, for example.
  4. Mason said “Let there be a definite time table.” Autistic children feel secure with a lot of structure, and understand better the passage of time. We invested in a tool called the time-timer to keep us both on track. It helped ensure that I didn’t plan lessons that were overly long.
  5. For kids with auditory processing issues, there is less reliance on having to listen to a teacher talk. This gave my daughter time to work up to listening to lectures.
  6. The writing process is broken down into its component parts: copywork, dictation and finally composition. In school, kids are expected to handle letter formation, spelling, grammar and punctuation, and composition all by the age of 7, all at once. Mason recognized that as insanity. Miss T. had issues with eye tracking, so even copying letters was a huge challenge. And the concept of invented spelling made her crazy – if it didn’t look like what she saw in the book, it wasn’t right. Mason’s idea of ensuring the child never sees a word spelled wrong sat well with Miss T.
  7. Hands-on activity, or “education by things” receives equal billing with education by books – or at least books have a supporting role. Science, nature study, handicrafting, these are legitimate areas of study. So a child need not feel handicapped by language if they can draw what they see, or engineer their ideas in some form.
  8. The absence of cramming, or of memorizing isolated bits of information is a relief to those who struggle with short term memory issues.


Even given all of the above, there are aspects of Mason’s ideals that are extraordinarily difficult for those of us with kids who struggle with language. Mason believed in the power of language, in learning multiple languages, and her expectation was that children would easily catch on to difficult vocabulary as long as they had the power of attention to do so. She believed that even slower children had this power. So it is hard not to feel bitter when our children look at us blankly after a reading, without the power of expression, without the ability to make sense of words on a page. In order for our kids to access the power of a Mason education, then, it is possible to support them without departing from the method. Supports can be gradually lessened or even removed over time.

  1. Task your child only with what they can accomplish perfectly. If your child is 10 years only and can only read at the level of a first grader, then that’s where you start. If they can only make straight lines, but not curves, then that’s where you start.
  2. Find the next increment. It may be smaller than you would expect of a typical kid. They may not write capital A’s, but can make upside-down V’s. So there you are. Or, maybe they need to start with cursive writing if they tend to reverse their letters when they print. They may not complete a paragraph for their first written narration, but perhaps they can caption a picture.
  3. Use technology, but sparingly. Just because they cannot read on their own yet does not mean they can’t comprehend it read aloud. This does not mean you quit trying to get them to read their own material, you just don’t close off their access to great works because they can’t read for themselves. The same goes for writing. My daughter is a fluent typist, her written narrations are three times as long typed as written. However, there is a place for handwriting and we don’t give that up. The kid who just can’t memorize his multiplication tables may still be able to comprehend how to solve a tricky algebra problem.
  4. Many children, such as kids with Down’s Syndrome, will need the support of pictures as they learn to translate language into mental images and vice versa. Children who cannot speak can manipulate pictures or figures to narrate while you verbalize what they are trying to communicate.
  5. The choice of reading programs for kids with dyslexia is a controversial one within the Mason community. Most specialists recommend a phonics-based approach, while Mason’s approach was decidedly visual. Because people with dyslexia can learn to read, I would be willing to assume that it was more important to Mason that children be able to access the written word in whatever manner – the most important thing to her was that children belong to the group of people who “read and think.” I think the same is true for math. Mason had ideas about math, she knew it was hard for some kids, but she encouraged them to develop the discipline to solve problems with speed and accuracy.

Education is a lifelong endeavor, and for some of our kids their basic education will not end at age 18. There will be weeks without progress, months of slow progress, and then remarkable breakthroughs. It will feel like all of your time is spent with the neediest child. Give yourself grace, get professional support if you can, and don’t ever give up. And pray.


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