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Learning Disabled and Gifted: A Homeschool Perspective

By: Terrie Lynn Bittner

When I was ten, my family moved to California, where I had to attend a school with a new experimental program. All students were grouped by I.Q. for academic classes. After my I.Q. test placed me in the highest class of the grade above mine, I lived in fear that someone would finally find out what I had struggled all these years to hide. I wasn't really smart, no matter what the test showed. I read at the college level, and enjoyed books and conversation that baffled my friends, but some parts of my brain just didn't seem to work the way I thought a smart person's brain should work. I understood what I read, and came away with all the concepts, but I couldn't remember the details. Literature classes were a nightmare for me, as I struggled to remember the names of characters, and the details of the stories. Math classes were even worse. I left out steps, couldn't line up the numbers in the problems, and reversed digits. Problems that were easy one day were impossible the next. I developed a tendency to intentionally fail classes by not doing the work, and by not studying. There was a terrible fear that if I really studied, and really worked, I would fail, and then I would know for sure: I was stupid. I preferred to be lazy, and my teachers thought I was anyway, because I worked so slowly, so it was an easy game to play.

It wasn't until my oldest daughter was found to be both gifted and learning disabled that I understood the complications of my childhood. I had seen her symptoms early, and had been determined to prevent her from feeling stupid. In her first years of school, we had no problems. The school worked hard to meet both aspects of her educational needs. Then we moved. I explained to the school that Colleen was gifted and also had a learning disability called dysgraphia. Their response? "Oh no, it's against district policy to be both. You'll have to choose one or the other." For some reason, Colleen's brain just refused to cooperate with district policy, and she continued to be both. After two schools and increasingly frustrating years, we gave up and decided to homeschool.

Homeschooling has many advantages for the gifted and learning disabled child. The curriculum can be personalized to the child's strengths and challenges. Most children with reading disabilities will learn to read much faster in a one-on-one session, and you can pace the lessons to the child's abilities. In the meantime, you can read his texts to him, allowing him to learn material far beyond his reading abilities, but not beyond his comprehension abilities.

To see how a homeschool environment can be personalized to challenge a bright LD child, let's take a unit on the Revolutionary War. There are many ways to study the war, and methods can be found which will meet any style of learning, while still satisfying any accountability you might need to provide to the government.

If your child learns best from reading, your task is easy. Just supply him with a textbook and some good library books. If a child has severe writing disorders, you can evaluate his knowledge through conversation. You might try getting the overview first, and then focusing on specific aspects of the war. Start out on Monday by asking him if he would please find out how the British felt about the war. Be prepared to help him find sources on the Internet and at the library, and you might want to do a little research yourself so you can steer him in the right direction. As he researches, let him take notes on paper if he writes well enough, or on a computer, or even into a tape recorder. Each day, ask him to tell you what he learned. At the end of the week, discuss the question and find out how much he knows about the week's topic. A child who doesn't read well might listen to you read to him, or watch videos, or even play an educational or computer game based on the subject. An artistic child could be asked, after the initial overview, to make a poster or book showing how people dressed during that time. Research could include finding out why they dressed that way, and whether everyone in the colonies dressed the same way. What did fashion tell you about a person's occupation or status? While fashion might seem like a flaky topic, it leads to research on religion, morals, trade, and so on. The fashions of the colonial era had a great deal to do with the culture of the era. The architectural child could build models of the buildings and find out how they were used. Why were the materials chosen? Did homes serve different purposes or hold different people than the average home today? Almost any interest or talent can be used to teach history, once the basic material has been learned.

Being able to adapt the curriculum to the child's learning style is one of the best advantages of homeschooling. One of the hardest aspects is meeting all the complicated needs without the education and experience to back up our love and good intentions. I have gained a greater respect for the teachers who drove me crazy when my children were still in public school. There are days when their slowness makes me crazy. How can it take a week to do one math assignment? Why can't he keep his mind on this chapter for more than ten minutes? How can a child who can spend four hours correlating statistics for her favorite basketball team have so little interest in her math book? I'd find myself saying "You're just way too smart to be turning in this kind of work." I sounded just like the teachers I had criticized. Teaching a bright child with learning difficulties is tough. We know there is no cure for learning disabilities, but we also know these kids can make it in the world. The challenge is to figure out how.

Often, these kids start out in the public school system, as mine did. If they've had a nightmarish experience, the first step is to help them rediscover the joy of learning. They had it when they were little- that's how we knew they were smart. In the confusion of school, that joy can get lost.

Schools have too many children and too many rules. Every day becomes a race for good test scores, and teachers don't want the pressure of a child who demands more. That's not to say a good teacher won't find a way to meet the needs of these children, but it's harder.

When I first started homeschooling my oldest daughter, she was in the fifth grade. The purpose of school work had become the grade. The first thing I did was to stop grading her work. This made no sense to her. "If I don't get a grade, then why am I doing it?" The younger children started in second and third grade, but even they still say, "Does this count for school?" It took time, but with the pressure of grades off, the children eventually learned to learn just for fun again. They had to redo missed problems, but that was to make sure they understood how to do it. Tests were taken until they got the knowledge down-if I gave tests at all. Eventually, we learned to blend our school day into our full day. We had set hours for school, to be sure they were in Learning Mode, but outside of school hours, we played curriculum related games, watched documentaries on the subject, (I'll give you school credit if you watch this) and went on educational field trips. (Well, I don't know. It's a school day. I'm not sure we ought to waste valuable school time at the history museum. That's a weekend thing, but maybe just this once . . ) I often wondered how to record for legal time charts the fifteen minutes we spent at the dinner table discussing Shakespeare, or the ten minutes spent adding prices at the grocery store. Could I count the time a friend came from the church childcare room and told me my second and third graders were leading a rousing discussion on ancient Egyptian religion?

Once learning becomes a way of life, school becomes more fun. The child's self- esteem is usually destroyed by this time, and I've never thought these self- esteem lessons the schools teach really work. Real achievements are the only way to create strong positive self-image, and homeschooling can be really good for this. You should have a pretty good idea as to how your child likes to learn.

When he enjoys the project, he's more inclined to be successful. If you look at the ways a child spends his free time, you can get a good idea of how he learns. Try to plan lessons that create success. In the tough subjects, you might want to back up. Sometimes it gives a child confidence to realize there are aspects of a subject they have mastered. I used this to teach my preschoolers to read. When the lessons seemed too hard, I held review days. When they realized how easy the previous stories were, they saw that they really had been learning. As we gradually reapproached their current story, their confidence was regained. When you're working in their strong areas, try advancing their level. My kids take a lot of pride in being ahead of their peers in their best subjects. With children who have learning disabilities, however, it is easy to underestimate their abilities, simply because it can be so difficult for them to demonstrate what they know. My son recently had a full evaluation at the public school for his learning disabilities, and I was shocked to realize how advanced he was in many of his subjects. Because he couldn't give me good written answers to the questions, I hadn't realized how much he knew. I took away the sixth grade history book he and his sister were using and gave them both high school books, with the promise that we would move up to college books next year if they did well. Reading is their strongest subject, but I had not realized they had college reading abilities until they were tested. Both children enjoy history more, and my son likes to carry his history book to the grade school, where he attends part time. When his classmates do their grade school history, he pulls out his high school book and works independently from it. Surprisingly, this has also increased his ability to fit into his public school class. He had been the youngest child in his class, has an assortment of disabilities, including speech disorders, and hadn't been in public school since first grade. He had complained that the public school class he had longed to try was boring, but after I increased his challenges at home, he seemed to adapt better at public school as well, choosing to participate more in the group activities, and making new friends. I don't foresee Nicholas ever going back to school full time, but Washington State allows homeschoolers to attend part- time, and this helps him to prepare for the day he'll go to college.

Since we're the special education teachers now, it's important to be sure we have all the training we need. There are many books on teaching gifted children, and on teaching LD children. There aren't so many on teaching children who are both, but the Eric Digest article I have on my page includes several sources. Another good source is the public school system. I have always been fortunate enough to know wonderful teachers who were willing to help me out, but I've never been afraid to ask the public school for help either. Homeschooled children are entitled to special education services at no cost. Ask to have your child evaluated. It helps to have a statement from your doctor saying that the child demonstrates symptoms of a disability. Just go into the school your child would attend and request services. Either put the request in writing or ask to fill out their permission for testing right there, because there is a legal time line the school has to follow, and it starts with the written request. You will not be required to accept any services you don't want. They can't force you to put him back into school. Frequently, you will be able to bring him in for an hour or two several times a week to meet with a special teacher. One warning though: gifted children frequently don't qualify. The guidelines usually require children to be behind several years in various subjects. Even if the child doesn't qualify- and my son didn't- the evaluation is extremely valuable and the IEP (a meeting to plan your child's personalized educational needs) was a good opportunity for me to ask questions. Now that I know everyone involved, I feel more comfortable asking for advice. Be sure you write a nice little note telling how you have used what you learned. You never know whom you will need in the future.

Overall, homeschooling can be an excellent choice for gifted and learning disabled children. It takes an enormous amount of patience, because the combination of gifts and challenges is baffling and frustrating even in a child you love, but you are in the best position to create a safe learning environment for your child. Get educated, be creative in choosing learning methods, and have fun.

Good Luck!

Terrie Lynn Bittner (1998)