At the PNW Charlotte Mason Conference, I gave a short presentation that outlined why I thought using Mason’s methods worked well for children who have special educational needs. Here is that presentation in written form.
This June, my daughter will graduate from home education, eight years after we made the decision to pull her out of public school. It had never been part of the plan. My commitment to public education was solid, in fact, until I realized one fine spring day that no amount of advocacy and involvement in my daughter’s school would change the fact that her needs did not fit the resources available. Not only would the process of setting up an IEP (Individual Education Plan) forever doom our relationship to focus on the negative, but the relentless negative feedback from her peers and teachers would have shredded any sense of personal efficacy and hope as well. Rather than being a source of intellectual nourishment, academics would have been served with heaping platters of stress.
What is a special need? How do you diagnose it? In a group, this is easy – the kid that’s falling way behind in the classroom is the one with the special needs, right? Maybe he or she can be diagnosed: dyslexia, dyscalculia, autism, ADHD, NVLD, Down’s Syndrome, seizure disorders, OCD, SPD, and various physical disabilities that rob children of the use of their limbs or their senses – such as CP, deafness and blindness. What do they have in common? Language and communication are difficult, and abstract thought may take more time to develop, if it develops at all. Unusual thought processes and behaviors interfere with learning.
If you have been home educating for a while, you may not recognize a need until you notice they have been stuck at the same reading level for 3 years. You may have found that when you bring up your child’s challenges to family and friends, they laugh and say “Oh, you did that as a child,” or “My kid does that, too.” You wonder if you are just a bad parent, until you notice that the difference is one of degree. I notice many children skip down the sidewalk when they are happy. My girl skips every night at 7 pm, no matter where she is or what she feels. Many special needs are often the needs of neurotypical children, on steroids. I would argue that Mason’s methods, because they respect the personhood of the child, are the best methods with which to address our kids’ education.
Brandy Vencel believes we start to understand Charlotte Mason’s method by studying her 20 principles first (Brandy’s study guide is here. Soon her conference presentation will be available). When looking at the application of her principles to children with special needs, we turn our attention to her 5th principle, which concerns the allowable instruments of education: atmosphere, discipline, and life.
Education is a life: What does that mean for our kids? It means that there is no reason to believe that a child with disabilities has any less of a need for a “wide and generous” education than typical children. Not too long ago I read of a teen with Down’s Syndrome who was accepted into a university. However, as I read further, it turns out he was accepted into a special program that taught independent living skills in the university setting. It is my fervent prayer that his parents are not paying university tuition for their son to learn how to write checks. Is there any reason to believe that this young man cannot benefit from learning about great works of art, or by seeing the wonders of the world as revealed under a microscope?
Education is a discipline: Mason believed in the power of Habit to fix just about anything that may be wrong with a child, and she believed in starting early. With our kids, it not only means starting early, but keeping at it for a long, long time. In Volume 2 of her 6 Volume series, Mason says
We know how the tendency to certain forms of disease runs in families; temper and temperament, moral and physical nature alike, may come down with a taint. An unhappy child may, by some odd[ity] of nature, appear to have left out the good and taken into him only the unworthy. What can parents do in such a case? They may not reform him–perhaps that is beyond human skill and care, once he has become all that is possible to his nature–but transform him, so that the being he was calculated to become never develops at all.
Never succumb to the idea that your children will never read, or go to college, or earn a living, for your efforts have the power to transform them. Let everything be within the realm of possibility. Can that be true of our children, some who are profoundly disabled? Well, if you’ve ever taken your child to therapy, you’ve learned that it is nothing more than extensive, professionally guided habit training. A good friend of my son has CP, and he drooled through preschool. He was not doomed by his nervous system to drool all his life; however, because he learned in therapy how to make a conscious habit of closing his mouth and swallowing. This did not come naturally, but after a few years of patient teaching on the part of his mom and therapist. This is a fact of life for all of us – if it feels you have to teach everything, that nothing is merely figured out, then you might have a kid with a disability. In your kiddo’s area of weakness, you do indeed have to teach everything.
Once you are in a position to choose a therapy, choose carefully. We are working on one habit at a time, remember? You don’t need to work on habit training to the exclusion of the rest of the feast of education; you didn’t choose home education to spend days in the car shuttling your children to and from appointments. Miss T’s best therapy was a friendship group where she learned emotion regulation. She learned how to deal with disappointment with a tool called “The Big Deal Scale” The lesson plan I linked is very similar, although Miss T brought home a big thermometer and I learned that the group could make up some very wild stories about what might be a big deal. Therapy is often the only place our special children can pick up these tools.
Would you tell your child about their diagnosis? In Volume 5 Mason says “I do believe it’s best to deal with a child’s faults without making him aware that he has them.” She was afraid that a child would “own” their fault, when she would rather the child felt empowered to let go of it. So rather than say that whatever tendency is part of the child’s neurological makeup, she would call attention to how the behavior affected the child and the child’s loved ones, in order to plant a desire for change. On the other hand, most of our kids know already that they are different. They need to know that we know it’s hard for them. Further, a diagnosis tells them that there are other people who struggle like they do, too. A diagnosis can help a child advocate for themselves, but even so, it is best to do this not from a blanket diagnosis, but from a knowledge of what the child needs to succeed. So the decision to tell or not tell depends on a lot of factors.