Charlotte Mason for Children with Special Needs, Part 1

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.

Selling Nature Study: PNWCM Conference Post #1

At the Northwest CM Conference last weekend, I was blessed to not only hear Naomi Goegan speak, but also to take a nature walk with her as she explored Dash Point State Park and the grounds of the beautiful Archbishop Brunett Retreat Center. She posted pictures of those walks on her blog: Living CM in CA.

I’ve mentioned that Miss T. is not a fan of nature study or of being outside, and that last year we were trying to kick start the habit before she leaves parent-led Charlotte Mason education. I had hoped to glean more tools to use to draw my daughter in, as bribery has been effective but it only goes so far. Walking with Naomi is an experience in how to wonder, and such is the essence of nature study – the essence of science, really.  Without taking time to pull out the paints this go-around, she led us to ask questions of everything we saw: what is that?  Is that a worm on the end of the thread? Why is it hanging on a thread? What kind of mushroom is that? Is that part of the moss, or is it another mushroom growing up through the moss?  She looked under rocks, on the underside of leaves, dug into the mud to see if she could reach the clams. Her sharp eye found a camouflaged locust, one we were just able to see as it flew off to another bush. I found her capacity to ask questions far outstripped my Northwest nature knowledge, and that is as it should be.

In her family, there is time for nature study, and then time for outdoor play. Naomi allows those questions to hang in the air and then she, or now her older child, will look up the answers online (nature guides can be rather limited). Sometimes she will bring a specimen home to watch for a few days, or to look at under the microscope. She also will bring along a hand lens for the kids to use.

Our first nature study of the year was inspired by Dave Tucker, the author of Geology Underfoot In Western Washington, who blogs here. We learned a little about glacial erratics, and found our local one after a long walk. For our second, we took advantage of glorious weather and went to our usual park on the lake, with the Audubon Center on site.

Lake WAThis time, Miss T. chose to walk along the water to make her discoveries. And she was appropriately shod for the adventure…

Native Flips

We found plenty of things to question, and once she found her rhythm she was doing all the noticing, finding the bunny in the grass, waiting patiently for the turtles to show up who were hiding under the pond lily leaves.  I did end up asking all the questions, though. Things like: Why does this tree have spines under its bark? What is this tree with seed pods that look like green beans?Pointy things on treePhoto0076

I was pleased when she declared her special study to be waterfowl, because she saw this bird swimming like a duck, but it isn’t a duck. It’s an American Coot . When we stopped by the Audubon Center, the director informed her that they usually swim so closely together that it seems you can walk on them. That is why a group of them is referred to as a “raft of coots.” See, the Audubon Center works particularly well as a bribe for nature study: not only does Miss T. enjoy a bag of chips at the end of our walk, but she also gets to talk to the very nice staff people there who tell her all kinds of interesting things.

I had to borrow the close up picture, but we took one of our raft, and we will be observing them and other water birds over the fall term.


Raft of coots

Coot DrawingAnd, finally, her entry in her nature journal. For some reason, she dislikes using color, which is just fine for the old coot. Although maybe I can convince her to use red for the eye. She included some of the factoids she learned from the Audubon staff, one of which was the fact that the park’s eagles like to avail themselves of the coots for lunch.

Moving the Center

I read an interview of Dan Savage in the Seattle Met while waiting for the dentist yesterday. Savage, if you do not already know him, is an outspoken gay man who not only fought hard for full social equality for LBGTQ persons, but has also from time to time advocated for the restriction of religion. He said:

When you’re trying to move the center you need people at the edges screaming and yelling. You need the unreasonable people for the reasonable people to then move in. This is my life.

The interesting thing to note is that the people at the edges are not moving the center much. They’re expanding it. With people like Matt Walsh on one edge (“Gay Marriage Doesn’t Exist, No Matter What the Supreme Court Says”) and Savage on the other, the center has become a vast chasm is the middle. No one is willing to publically say that it’s perfectly fine for a civil marriage to be between two consenting adults, but Christian florists should probably be allowed to refer that particular business to a competitor.

Ordinarily, this wouldn’t bother me, except that in some cases the unwillingness to concede the center has put some very thoughtful people in some fairly untenable positions simply because they feel the need to play devil’s advocate. Because no one on the right wants to appear to agree with a liberal, they find themselves supporting positions that are simply unsupportable. Take this, for example:

From my point of view, the flag says “White Southern Redneck,” but I grew up in the West. It is not a huge stretch of the intellect to understand that this flag represents a lot of grief to black people, and a very dark time in U.S. history.  You don’t have to have a PhD to understand that symbolism is important (that’s why we fly flags in the first place). So I would have thought that after nine black Christians were shot IN CHURCH by someone who sported this symbol, the most reasonable thing to do would be to take it down so as not to appear to in any way support this philosophy, particularly at a government building. Why would this even be controversial? Sure, if you are a WSR, feel free to display it in your home, but on the state house?

Imagine my surprise to see this on my Facebook feed:

(A picture of a Tylenol bottle with a disturbing reference to pulling out the cotton.)

and, shortly thereafter, this:

(Inaccurate, and since removed, picture referencing those who labored to build the pyramids, who were paid for their work.)


Both of which were posted or “liked” by people I expected to know better. For those of you unfamiliar with the idea of fallacy, both of these represent an attempt to set up a “straw man” argument, with the idea that the humor would get people wondering if opposing the rebel flag isn’t just an overreaction by an overly sensitive group of people.

Except that it isn’t funny. Belittling the community’s reaction to a horrific event (and there are more black churches burning in the South, people) is horrible. And it’s racist. Undeniably so.

I would have thought that after all this time, the center on this issue had moved. That the thoughtful, good people responsible for these pictures on my wall would have agreed that the events in South Carolina called for, if not gun control, at least taking down the flag that stands for hatred in the eyes of so many people. Take it down from public places because it does not represent how we as the public feel today. Instead, it appears that there are people who insist upon finding an opposite edge and camping out there, making an argument where none should be.  Why?  Do we truly fear that there is only so much dignity to pass around? Are there people so afraid of losing their conservative cred. that they have to publish pictures like this, instead of joining their liberal counterparts in the cry to take the flag down out of respect to the families of those who were shot? The effect of pictures like this is to open up a new chasm in the center, and in the process erase 50+ years of progress.

I spend far too much time on Facebook, perhaps. And perhaps people often do not give much thought to what they post. But I would caution everyone to post very carefully, because just as words cannot be unsaid, posts cannot be unseen. And I would think hard about the polarization of society that we support when we spend our lives on the edges.


“I’m going to need to start making money, Mom. I’m a little low.”

I looked at my daughter sideways. She never spends money. She will go hungry and wait for me to feed her at home rather than buy herself lunch. I have caught her with a bag of chips, on occasion. And she does rack up the library fines. But not enough to burn through a large stash of cash.

“Where’s it all going?”

She hesitated. “It’s the people on the corner.”

This would be the corner where she gets off the bus on her way home from school. There is always someone there, someone missing a few teeth maybe, dressed poorly – or with exceptionally nice shoes and no socks. Someone holding a sign. “Homeless. Anything helps.”

“The woman there now is really nice, Mom.”

I want to counter her naivete. I started to tell her that they may be nice, but so many are there because they don’t want to work, because they’d rather drink or take drugs. That giving money to them only exacerbates their problems, allows them to wallow in a sub-civilized existence. That we can help them more by giving our money to food banks and shelters and drug addiction programs. That, in fact, some of them might take advantage of her. That whatever story they give her about their past is probably not true. I am afraid for her sometimes, because lately she wants to believe the best of everyone. Not unlike my younger self.


Yesterday, the woman on the corner gave her flowers.

Father Tony, in one of the last homilies he gave before he retired, implored us to find anything, anything we can do to right the injustices we see in the world. And I am caught up in paralysis – where is the best place for me to put my extra resources? How much am I willing to part with, when I want new clothes and a haircut and organic food and a trip across the country? How do I feel about people who try to con me to get me to give them my cash? Why is it such a big decision every time I drive by someone with their hand holding a sign and a blank, tired look in their eye.

My daughter has decided she has plenty, and that one dollar a day to someone in need is her contribution. One dollar to someone who looks her in the eye and says “Thank you.” One dollar just because someone asks, not because their need is greater. Not because they deserve it. One dollar between two people is not so much to establish a relationship growing out of the sort of kindness that is clothed in dignity. To my daugher that is worth more than clothes, makeup, movies and concerts with friends. She who once cried because she thought that God’s call to give to the poor meant giving up all she had, has now realized that she has enough. More than enough. And the woman on the corner, overcome with wonder, perhaps, by the girl who keeps coming back to give without question, remembered her and gave her flowers.

Coming to Terms with Science

In Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren’s classic treatise “How to Read a Book,” the authors enjoin the reader to be sure to understand the book’s subject fully before undertaking to criticize it. Reading analytically requires a number of stages, they assert, and once the first stage is past – that of knowing what the book is about and what problem it endeavors to solve – the second stage begins with “coming to terms with the author.” In short, this involves identifying the important words used by the author, their “terminology,” and fully understanding the meaning intended by it. For some books, the word may be commonly used in one way on the street, but is given a very specific meaning in the context of the book.

Scientific terminology has exploded. Adler and Van Doren say that good scientific literature, which used to be written for lay and expert readers alike, is now (and “now” was the 1950’s) written for the elite specialists in specialized fields, which have their own lingo, their own terminology. I’ve found coming to terms a much more daunting task with science. Fortunately, there are still books about science written for the curious but unspecialized mind, and these are perfect for introducing your upper grade students to science. This is why I am so enthusiastic about using living literature for high school science, instead of the textbook.

In Charlotte Mason’s educational method, the study of vocabulary outside of its context is not encouraged. Likewise, memorizing long lists of nomenclature – of animal families, or chemical names and the like – would also be discouraged in a Charlotte Mason education. However, most of us, with our kids’ history readings, will jot down two, maybe three words that may confuse our student and define them so they can read the passage fluently. And, we will make sure that our child sees and knows the names of the main characters. A single science reading may be all about understanding the meaning of a given term, just like a history reading may be all about understanding the ideas and work of a given person. A single term represents an idea, a concept, or even something real. Miss T., reading about Metchnikoff yesterday in Microbe Hunters, was also introduced to the phage. Two important characters in the study of immunity to disease.

I’ve found it helpful to think of scientific terms as characters, particularly as Miss T. is reading about electricity in her physics book. She has needed to understand the intricate family relationships between the coulomb, the volt, the joule (whom she’s met before), the amp and the watt. Like Churchill does in his English history series, Asimov often uses different names for the same character – sometimes without much warning. So the volt and “electric potential difference” are the same thing. So are the amp and “current intensity.”

Our science notebook, then, works in much the same way as the spiral bound notebook in which I encourage my daughter to jot down the names of her historical characters. She needs to keep track of all these new ideas, and their names and relationships as well. Pictures work especially well, mathematical relationships with labels are also good, but at the very least a few notes should show up. One of my favorite (though difficult!) chemistry works is P.W. Atkins’ Periodic Kingdoms, which likens the periodic table to a map, with different areas of similar elements representing countries. Diagramming relationships in this way in your science notebook can also be fruitful.

Further, because the “characters” in a science text are still very much alive, I will try to introduce her to them personally. I will prick my finger and introduce her to a living phage. We will play with an electric circuit and meet volts, and amps, and watts, and see how they play together. In this way, science is truly “living” science.

Understanding Physics

Miss T. understands physics, far better than I ever could. So while our less than traditional method of learning it at home – without a text or math problems – may not help her pass an SAT, I know that once she takes one of those courses she will be in a better place to put the math in context than I ever was.

This week we started in on the wonderful world of electricity in her book, Asimov’s Understanding Physics. First, we worked on understanding magnetism. Now we’re on to what is known as static electricity, the first form of electricity studied in the 17th and 18th centuries. Electricity and magnetism, as any quantum physicist knows, are pretty much two forms of the same phenomenon. I thought I had a pretty good grasp of this, but, as it turns out, my grasp was limited. And I worried that Miss T’s was as well, because she refused to take what she learned and diagram it into her notebook.

Miss T. just hates to draw, but she does love painting word pictures and she also loves the science blog “what if?” on xkcd. While the section she read for the day was only 4 pages long (science readings being far shorter than a comparable reading in literature or history), we still broke it into pieces for her narration. She reviewed the discovery of subatomic particles, the understanding that the electric “fluid” of Ben Franklin’s day is actually flowing electrons, and the reversal of the concept of “positive” and “negative” charge. (Miss T’s dad, who studied electrical engineering in college, confirmed that electrical engineers still maintain the idea that the direction of flow is from positive to negative, and use the concept of “hole current” to describe this flow). The next concept she narrated concerned how electric force is measured, and while she understood the idea that gravitation is a far weaker force controlling electrons than electric force, she skipped over how Asimov demonstrated this mathematically. Finally, we arrived at the concept of electric lines of force.

Here’s where my understanding fell apart. Because electricity and magnetism are basically two forms of the same phenomenon, as any quantum physicist knows, there are analogous terms for similar observations. However, the ideas started to challenge what I thought I knew about electricity.

The permittivity of substances is just such a challenge. Permittivity refers to the attraction a substance has for electric lines of force. A substance is an insulator if it allows the lines of force to pass through it, and the ratio (or relative permittivity) of the density of lines of force through the substance vs. through a vacuum is called the dielectric constant. Air has a permittivity of close to 1, the value of water is 78. Water is considered an insulator or a dielectric.

“Whoa there!” I said. “I thought an insulator stopped electricity! It couldn’t possibly attract lines of electrical force.” And, in fact, Asimov had said so in the preceding section, when discussing Stephen Gray in 1729 discovering that certain substances resist the flow of electric fluid. They are called insulators from the Latin word for “island” because they “wall off electrified objects, preventing the fluid from leaving and therefore making the objects an island of electricity, so to speak.” (Asimov, Understanding Physics, p. II-159)

Miss T. was silent, so I read aloud the concluding paragraph:

Electric forces between charged particles decrease, then, if a dielectric is placed between; they decrease more as the dielectric constant is increased. The constituent particles of a substance like common table salt, for instance, are held together by electric attractions. In water, with its unusually high dielectric constant, these forces are correspondingly decreased, and this is one reason why salt dissolves readily in water (its particles fall apart, so to speak) and why water is, in general, such a good solvent. (p. II-165)

“The only way that makes sense to me,” I said, “is if you can separate the idea of electric force from the flow of electrons.”

Miss T. was silent, her eyes closed. I thought she was shutting me out, but she only said, “Wait a minute, Mom, I’m going to help you with an analogy.”


Finally, she came up with this word picture, illustrated above in the xkcd style. “Imagine you are an electron, and you are running. Think of your kinetic energy. Now think of a brick wall.”

“The brick wall takes all of your force, your kinetic energy, and disperses it through the bricks. Air will not absorb your kinetic energy, so the force stays with you and allows you to pass through. That’s what happens to the electrons.”

So I, who spent most of her life thinking that “ekeltricity” (the word of a semi-famous wizard) was just some form of wizardry, may just get a handle on this, thanks to my daughter’s power of analogy-making. This further demonstrates to me the power of narration, even at the high school level, even with a subject I couldn’t possibly understand well enough to teach. For if my daughter can understand it well enough to make me understand it, she’s learned her stuff. In science, particularly upper level science, it doesn’t do to let a less than complete narration pass. Find a way, any way, to help the student access the idea.