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Is Testing Right for Your Special Needs Child?

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By Robin McDonald

Is testing right for your special needs child? Will giving your child a label help you find a solution to his condition? These controversial questions start many discussions in the "teacher's lounge" at cooperatives and other homeschooling venues. Some homeschooling experts believe that labels only hurt a child, while others believe that they name a child's condition, giving a parent a better grasp on how to help him.

Testing has always been a tool available to help a parent guide a child through his homeschooling adventure. In some states, testing, or some type of assessment, is required each year in order for parents to continue homeschooling. In other states, like my home state of Texas, there are few regulations that restrict homeschooling.

On the other hand, public school testing has shown homeschoolers that the education system often falls short on teaching a child to learn, particularly when students are only being taught to the test. The schools succeed with statistics, displaying their five star statuses on their marquis, but students fall through the cracks nonetheless. I remember one time my current 16-year-old son, then 10 years old, was actually removed from the WASL test bank in Washington state because his preliminary test scores were low. In other words, they just didn't count his scores, so the numbers were skewed on the final results. Not all children were counted, including my son. He later entered a gifted program in school, but with continued issues, we pulled him out in sixth grade and started homeschooling him, along with my younger son.

With a special needs child, however, it is often important to have a star in the sky, to guide parents who are navigating through the rough waters of remedial education. Parents may need answers to questions such as:

  • How can I as a parent be trained to help my child?
  • Do teaching techniques exist that will work best with my child?
  • Is there a perfect curriculum with which to teach him?
  • What coping skills can I teach my child so he can grasp concepts in a different way?
  • Are there any specialists or tutors who can help my child in areas where I fall short?

In our case, my husband and I believed that testing would rule out possible problems and target areas where we would be able to help our son through his learning challenges. This then, is our story as we treaded water through those rough seas, but discovered that God is our everlasting lifeboat, keeping my son's head above water with his learning challenges.

Last fall, after complaining of seeing double, my youngest son, at that time eight years old, was diagnosed by a developmental optometrist with a condition known as convergence insufficiency, or the lack of ability to see words on a page in the correct order. After many months, he continued to have problems even after two separate visits to an optometrist.

The initial visit with a regular optometrist found nothing wrong with his vision. A second visit with a developmental optometrist, however, resulted in him wearing prism glasses for a short time. After continued frustration, I decided to take him to a more comprehensive developmental clinic to get more information.

We went to University of Houston's Eye Institute, headed by Dr. Jerome Rosner, who has written a book entitled Helping Children Overcome Learning Difficulties, which has sold over 80,000 copies. The newly revised third edition has been updated to include information and activities to help children with learning disabilities, dyslexia, attention deficit disorder, and other learning challenges. The book provides ways to test your child, and what to do with the test results afterwards. Better yet, Rosner goes into detail for why such steps should be taken.

The web site for the clinic is: http://www.opt.uh.edu/uei/

It includes a downloadable book, entitled the Parent and Teachers Guide to understanding and treating children with puzzling school learning problems: Dyslexia, ADD, Learning Disabilities.

Long title, right? But filled with information. These books is free, so I recommend that anyone with a child who has learning disabilities go to the web site and download the book.

On with our trek to finding a label for Hunter's condition. As I mention, this option in itself is controversial with some homeschoolers. Many people believe that labels aren't always the best option for children who have special needs or any type of learning disability. I personally believe, however, it is easier to help Hunter if I know what to name his condition or at least have something more tangible than "your son can't read" as a guideline when attempting to enable him to become autodidactic.

Hunter was tested completely with a variety of results. From my own research and "homeschooler's intuition," I suspected some sort of auditory or phonemic awareness problem. He was unable to sound out words, and had little short-term memory recall (he couldn't say things in sequence or follow verbal instructions). Some of his achievement test scores were low, but it may have been because he was unable to process the questions in the manner they were given (mainly verbal). He had high scores on spatial abilities, low scores on verbal, possibly because of an auditory or similar challenge.

In the meantime, he continued to learn very well, except in the area of reading. In that, he was at the Kindergarten level because he could go no further until we assessed how to teach him to read. Dr. Rosner discovered he no longer needed the prism glasses (or may not have needed them to begin with - the doctor said the glasses were a band aid for one of the symptoms, not the cause). But he no longer had convergence issues, which was a blessing.

At the time we received the results, I had mixed feelings. On the one hand, I felt like I finally had something tangible on which to focus. On the other hand, I feel guilty for not seeking this information earlier. Then, if I had another hand, I wondered if all the testing was necessary and/or healthy? As a homeschooling parent, of course I desired to focus on gifts and successes, not disabilities and failures. For example, the report I received did say all the phonics programs I've introduced to him only served to confuse him, not help him. So I felt as if all I had done was to confuse my son, which certainly discouraged me at the time.

In addition, a myriad of thoughts were going through my mind because of reports I had read online - such as whether or not I should have had him vaccinated, whether his condition is an effect of him being sick with asthma as a baby, whether or not he should have taken prednisone, the list goes on. The only thing I knew for certain was my resolve to homeschool became even stronger, because I knew he would most likely flounder in a public school, and even in some private schools.

Dr. Rosner reassured me that Hunter should be homeschooled, and he told me that if he were enrolled in public school, it would be highly likely he would be labeled with several different disorders, and he would most likely be in special education because of that. He was found to be above average in intelligence, but he was unable to learn the "normal" ways, not really a special education case, so he would have been one of those children who fell through the cracks.

He then recommended that we work on some developmental/perceptual issues first, so he would be equipped to learn to read. Then afterwards, we would start a reading program that would work well for him, and only then would I be concerned with teaching him at his grade level. As a relaxed and eclectic homeschooler, I suspected my teaching style might have accounted for gaps in his education compared to his grade level in public school, on which the tests were based. I wasn't too concerned about this aspect, however.

I had been researching several curricula and teaching methods, and finally settled on a combination of methods that worked well for my son, including the gentle teaching methods of Charlotte Mason and Waldorf, along with a smidgen of Classical education. In addition, he started thriving in his Suzuki violin class, as well as his art class, which also gave him confidence.

Hence, I found a way to focus on his gifts and downplay his weaknesses. He is still struggling with reading, and may well have challenges in that area throughout his life. I am still plugging along, however, helping him learn to read and to cope with the fact he does not read at the same level, at least at this point, as most of his friends.

My current challenge is to find a curriculum to suit his maturity level. Other special needs parents who are looking for something useful for their children may also struggle in this area. I believe that in Kindergarten through first grade, a homeschooling curriculum assumes a parent assists a child. Starting in third or fourth grade, in most cases a curriculum assumes that the child can do some of the work on his/her own. Even in the unschooling world, certain things are relaxed, like reading at a later age, but others are more structured, like math. My son, however, isn't always able to read on his own, and I must help him.

As a parent, I am not very concerned with my son's ability to catch up. Now that we have found a problem and are working on it, he will eventually be able to fill in the gaps during his upper level elementary education. As Hunter's primary educator, however, I also want to prevent becoming a crutch to my son; where he relies on me so much he can't do things on his own when I'm not around. As a semi-attachment parent, I have focused on staying close to him - but I also know now is the time to give him some room to grow. I want to equip my son to be successful in life, whatever that means and whatever it takes, and I can't keep trying to do everything for him. I want him to be self-sufficient.

In a way, this situation reflects the empty nest issues I had with my young adult daughter a few years ago, when she graduated high school and moved on to college (she also reviews a few books at EHO). We have always been very close, but now that she is a sophomore in college, I know she needs to spread her wings as a young woman. Sure, she still relies on us for certain things, but she's also trying to make it on her own. Hunter is doing the same thing, in an academic sense. So in that way I'm comfortable with helping him, knowing when to hold him close and when to release him.

Along the same lines, my nephew, one year older than my son, has sensory integration disorder. My sister and I were recently reflecting on why both of our sons seem to have learning challenges, when neither of us had these types of problems as children? We figured out that God must know what He's doing, because He put our sons with us, and at least we are equipped - and where we are not equipped we are eager to learn - in order to help our children continue to learn. The Bible states in Galatians 6:9-10, "Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up." And I believe God's promises for my son, my nephew, and for all of your children as well.

Copyright ©  2004  Eclectic Homeschool Association

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