homeschooling

Socialization and Homeschooling

This is one of those things that non-homeschoolers (myself included at one point) feel that is a critical piece missing for the homeschooled kids vs. kids attending school.   I have heard and read comments about homeschooled kids growing up to be anti-social or just plain weird because they don’t know how to socialize with ‘normal’ kids.  I can only speak to my own experience on this one.

When Berrik was in grade one, he was struggling.  In every sense of the word.  He came home crying or sad many, many days.  He told me he had no friends because the other kids thought he was stupid.  He told me about kids throwing leaves and twigs at him on the playground.  And he hated being singled out in class to do ‘special’ work because it meant he was singled out as ‘different’.  In his mind, this equated to ‘unworthy’.  Now… I spoke to his teacher and she felt Berrik was over reacting to what was happening.  And at the time, I agreed that his reaction probably didn’t match the situation from the outside looking in.  But what I knew was that Berrik’s perception was that he was unworthy of friends, and he was not smart enough.  So, does the reality even matter, when that is his perception?  Not to me.  My formerly happy, social boy was beaten down.  He lacked confidence.  His self esteem was about zero.  He didn’t want to try anything.  He was negative.  ‘I can’t do it’ was a consistent phrase.

Fast forward 10 months.  Ten months of encouragement, cajoling, celebrating successes, learning from failures, and my confident, happy kid is back.  It took months for this confidence to come back.  Months.  Imagine a kid who felt like Berrik did for years!?  They might never recover.  And you know what came with the confidence?  Friends.  The more sure of himself and his own intellectual abilities (and otherwise), the easier he has made and maintained friendships.  He’s back to assuming that kids actually WANT to play with him, and he easily marches up to kids he doesn’t know and chats them up.

img_8404My point in this is that the socialization that Berrik was getting at school, was not beneficial to him.  Because of his learning disabilities, he was identified (possibly only self-identified, but likely more than that) as being the weird one.  So, I would rather my kid be the ‘weird’ homeschooled kid who is confident and friendly and secure in himself, than the kid ‘socialized properly’ at school feeling like a weirdo and feeling like he isn’t worthy, lacking in confidence, and feeling miserable.  Is it harder to find friends to play with when you aren’t in school?  Yes.  But Berrik has friends that he met on the toboggan hill, at Cub Scouts, in the neighborhood.  I have to work a bit harder to arrange play opportunities, but it’s not that difficult.
And let’s not forget that socialization happens within families as well.  Berrik has to navigate the scary, time-bomb laden world of having teenaged sisters!  Talk about reading social cues and adapting to actions and reactions often well out of proportion for the situation!

Homeschooling isn’t for everyone.  Neither is a bricks and mortar school.  Kids can socialize regardless of how they receive their education. Nothing is black and white (read more about my feelings about ‘black and white’ here).  My homeschooled kid is very social and very happy.  He’s not a weirdo. (Or at least not any more than his gene pool would indicate!).

Teach for Mastery, Not Test Scores

I will admit that I am a bit of a Ted Talk junkie.  Add to that a healthy respect for and frequent use of the Khan Academy learning materials and you’ll understand why I LOVE this particular Ted Talk by Sal Khan:

I recommend watching the Ted Talk – it’s 10 minutes of simple brilliance.  But the general overview is that our current education system that teaches for test scores rather than mastery is causing a multitude of issues that could be overcome with a shift in mindset.  My favourite analogy in the talk is about Math.  Kids learn math concepts from an early age.  They are tested.  Let’s say they get 75%.  That’s a good grade.  They move on.  After a few years of 75% mastery, you can imagine that the 25% gaps in knowledge will create some critical issues.  Without mastery of earlier concepts, at some point, more complex concepts will become extremely difficult, and you will start to hear kids say, “I’m just not good at math.”  You can apply this to many subjects.  If kids were expected to achieve mastery before moving on (by using technology and any number of free and easily accessible resources – thank you, world wide web!), then nearly 100% of the population would be able to read, do calculus, organic chemistry etc.  He goes on to talk also about the benefits of kids learning to seek the information they need, the perseverance, taking agency over their own learning, as critical life skills.

As a homeschooling mom of a kid who has had significant challenges learning to read, and as a result also struggled in math, I fully subscribe to this philosophy of mastery over test scores.  My first introduction to this concept, or at least the first time it was articulated to me in a way that really hit home, was in Sound Connections.  Berrik does not move on to a more complex concept until he has mastered the concept he is currently working on.  And we constantly review earlier concepts as full mastery and ability to quickly access those concepts results in faster and more successful mastery of more complex concepts.

Imagine a kid who has trouble learning to read due to a learning disability that is diagnosed in grade 3.  In a typical classroom, that kid who may now have accommodations or therapies is just starting to learn to read.  What are the chances that anyone at school will go right back to the beginning…the early reading skills that kids are exposed to in preschool, kindergarten and grade 1?  Slim.  There just isn’t time. So unless he’s in a program like Sound Connections, there are going to be some gaps that will make things more challenging down the road.

img_8508

If only all kids were given the opportunity to master all pre-reading concepts and then early reading concepts and so on and so on!  Watching my kid go from low self confidence and feeling as though he was ‘stupid’ to successfully reading, and learning to decode words, and understanding advanced sound rules (and learning that the rules are all made to be broken in the English language), and learning to spell and write stories has been an incredible journey.  Yes, I homeschool so I have time.  But it’s not the time so much as the access to resources and guidance that have allowed us to efficiently work on mastering concepts. We are playing catch up.  But if these resources and methods were implemented in all kindergartens and grade 1 classes, the foundations would be strong for all kids.

Knowing that mastery is the key has changed the way we approach everything.  This is the true beauty of homeschooling for me.  We do NOT move on until a concept is mastered.  And there is no one telling me I have to.  And not surprisingly, ensuring mastery along the way has resulted in Berrik moving more quickly (especially in math) even as concepts get more complex.  We are still unravelling the puzzle pieces of why Berrik struggles so much with reading and writing – more on vision therapy and other things later.  However, in Math, we started in September doing Grade 1 Math.  We are now working on Grade 2 Math and I expect Berrik to be ready for Grade 3 Math in September when he enters Grade 3.

img_8485

My two older daughters both do well in school.  Even so, Khan’s example rang true for both of them with regard to Math.  Lack of mastery of some concepts (like memorizing timestables, for example) took 3-4 years before it truly came back to bite them. Suddenly more advanced math concepts that require an ability to recall single digit multiplication became onerous and challenging.  I remember McKenna at one point, maybe in grade 7, realizing that knowing multiplication tables like the back of her hand was a critical skill, so she took the time (on her own time, because that is a grade 3 concept!) to memorize them.  This year in Grade 8, Math is one of her strongest subjects.

It is so very simple, and it is now scalable in the classroom like it never has been in history.  It simply requires a shift in thinking.  An example Khan talks about is hearing from teachers who started assigning the Khan Academy math videos as homework and then doing the practice in class time, instead of the typical method of lecturing and teaching concepts in class and sending kids home to practice on their own with their busy and bewildered parents.  It’s no surprise that this resulted in significantly higher success rates.  And as a parent who has spent many an hour at the table doing math with kids (in spanish no less), I would be over the moon if our homework was to watch the video instead of do the practice.  For the record, many times I had to Google translate the instructions to english and then watch a Khan Academy video to teach myself what my daughters were supposed to be practicing, and then try to help them! PAINFUL.

I think a lot of homeschoolers choose homeschooling for this ability to allow kids to learn at their own pace, and achieve mastery before moving on.  It has been life changing for us this year.

Screen Shot 2017-03-09 at 1.22.50 PM

I am going to throw in a final plug for the Khan Academy.  This website/app is FREE, and you can learn just about anything.  We are using it for math and it’s pretty fantastic.  Sal has created videos about concepts which you can watch as many times as you need to. Then you practice.  A specific number of correct answers identifies mastery.  If you struggle, there are links back to the videos right in the questions, and there are also hints to help you. If you have an account, your data is tracked and you can access and analyze your child’s (or your own) progress.  Even better, the site has been gameified which I know from my L&D world is excellent for motivation and engagement.

My engineer husband who works in the construction industry would never consider building a skyscraper on a foundation that is 80% complete, so why are we building the minds of our children on these faulty, incomplete foundations?

It’s Not What You Think…

Like most people at this time of year, our family life is feeling particularly hectic. Christmas concerts, Christmas parties, dance open house, holiday prep including baking, buying, wrapping, decorating, and entertaining….and all of this on top of the regular, day to day stuff that we do year round.  It’s exhausting.  And a bit overwhelming at times.

christmas_tree_covered_with_gift_170128Berrik and I are trying to stay focused, but it seems as though the ‘to do’ list is so long that it keeps interfering with our daily routine.   A friend texted me yesterday that I must be enjoying being a stay at home mom due to all the free time to get ready for Christmas.  The truth is that I’m the least prepared for Christmas that I have ever been. It’s difficult not to be a bit sensitive about the insinuation that staying at home means having lots of free time.  The ‘stay at home’ moms (SAHMs) I know are rarely home.  They may not all be homeschooling, but they are volunteering, supporting family members, driving, fundraising, and doing so many other unpaid jobs.  I’ll admit that I didn’t fully understand this when I was working full time.  I thought it must be easier to be at home.  There are perks for sure.  I like getting up and putting on sweats and starting my day with a coffee while chatting with the kids over breakfast.  When I was working, I didn’t get to do that as I was out the door before the kids were even out of bed most days.  But after the girls leave for the bus at 7:30, Berrik and I are often busy right until the girls arrive back home again at 4…and then the real craziness begins.  There are many days where I know it would be easier to get up early, dress in my work clothes and head into the office for a day talking with adults, going to the washroom SOLO (I truly thought that having the kids join me in the washroom would end after the toddler/preschool years, but I was mistaken.  Even my almost 14 year old knocks on my bathroom door to inquire as to what I am doing!), feeling respected for my knowledge/expertise, and receiving a lovely paycheque every two weeks!

It’s quite fascinating to talk to people…both those I have known for years, and people I have just met. Invariably the question comes up about either how things are going ‘at home’, or in the case of new people, questions about what I do for a living.  It seems many people have some interesting, but not totally accurate, ideas about what I’m getting up to these days. I’d like to take this opportunity to dispel a few myths that I have heard in my short time away from work:

feet-932346_960_7201.MYTH: Homeschooling is easy and you get everything done by noon so you can spend the rest of the day relaxing.  Oh how I wish this was the case. And I only have one to teach.  I know people teaching 3, 4,5,6, even 7 or 8 kids at once.  Or teaching 5 with a toddler and newborn!  I’m teaching one grade only.  And I need to prepare for that.  It may not be the same amount of prep that a teacher with 25 grade two kids would have to do, but it’s still quite a bit.  Especially because doing worksheets is not the way that Berrik learns best, and therefore it is not the way we do school.  And can I add that without Sound Connections and the ability to use their materials, I’d have considerably more work to do. The language and literacy components of Berrik’s homeschooling are almost exclusively using materials and/or techniques we have learned through Sound Connections.

money-case-163495__3402. MYTH: Homeschooling is lucrative.  Ahahahahahahahaha.  Um.  No.  In total I received about $1000 in funding for Berrik this year.  And every dollar must be accounted for, and used for specific education related items.  His funding is pretty much already gone for this year, so anything else we need (and any other classes I want him to attend) are out of pocket.  I once heard someone suggest that a mom chose homeschooling her multiple children because she wanted to ‘give herself a paying job’.  What a joke that is.  Even if we could pretend that the $5000 per year in funding that she receives (for 5 children) is a good salary (obviously it is not, by anyone’s standards), she can’t use any of it for stuff for herself anyways…  we buy curriculum, perhaps some field trips, or a few classes from our homeschool board if offered…. and oops, it’s all gone.  Not lucrative.  This is not something people choose to do for financial gain.

3. MYTH: I COULD NOT homeschool my kids.  I would go crazy!  Admittedly, these words have come from my mouth. And not all that long ago either.   The truth is that homeschooling is not as crazy-making as I would have thought.  In fact, I quite enjoy it most of the time.  It’s busy.  It’s not easy.  It takes some discipline and some preparation. But overall, the rewards are daily, and limitless.  There are so many benefits to being able to spend time on areas that require additional support and speed ahead in areas of strength, to explore areas of interest further, and move more quickly through topics that are less interesting.  The benefit that I didn’t anticipate is the bond with all of my kids getting stronger as a result of my being more available to them.  My daughters confide in me, they know they can depend on me, and I now know their friends better because I get a chance to drive them all to the mall, or to a sleepover.  Berrik and I are closer than ever. And I know him so much better now.  I know how he likes to learn, what he is interested in, how he feels about his friends.  These are the priceless benefits that I didn’t expect but that I so enjoy.  All this to say, if you feel it would be the best choice for your family, but are hesitating because you feel like you COULD NOT DO IT, then call me.  I’ll explain why you totally CAN do it, if that is what you want.

stretching-498256_960_7204. MYTH: Stay at home moms have time for the gym, lunches out with other SAHMs, and watching soaps.  Sadly, I go to the gym less frequently now than when I was working, I almost NEVER go out for lunch, unless you count feeding Berrik in the car while driving from Sound Connections to a school class or function, and I haven’t watched soaps for 20 years or more.  As I said above, SAHMs are busy doing many of the unpaid tasks and roles that the working moms can’t do.  I was (and am) always thankful to the moms (and dads) who volunteer at the school or for other organizations as we all benefit from their hard work and commitment.  When I was working full time, I didn’t have time to do those things, much as I would have liked to, and my kids fully benefited from the work of those moms who were willing and able to sacrifice their precious time.

5. MYTH: Working moms have it better.  SAHMs have it better. This is a ‘grass is always greener’ style myth.  There are pros and cons to both.  I liked working.  I like being at home.  One is not easier than the other.  One is not more fun than the other.  One is not more time consuming than the other.  They are just different.  Completely and totally different.  One pays better in terms of cash.  The other pays out in other less tangible ways.  Every family is different.  And it changes. What worked this year may not work next year etc. etc.  Having been raised by a working mom, I know that working moms can raise successful and relatively well adjusted people.  (I’m mostly speaking about my brother here… ;-))  Having known many people raised by SAHMs, I know that staying at home produces some pretty cool adults as well.  The fact that we, as women and mothers, (and dads!) have a choice to have one or the other or a combination of both is what we should be celebrating.  That is all.

 

Executive Function – It’s not a VP luncheon!

The first time I heard the term Executive Function, I immediately envisioned the executive team where I worked attending a luncheon. Which didn’t make much sense considering I was in a conversation about Berrik.

Executive function (and self-regulation) is defined by the Center of the Developing Child at Harvard as:

…the mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully.

This requires three key components:

  1. Working Memory
  2. Mental Flexibility
  3. Self Control

Children are not born with these skills.  They are learned, and continue to develop into early adulthood.  Many kids will pick these up through lived experiences combined with direct instruction that they will be exposed to as part of playing, school, interactions with family and friends, and just about all life experiences.  For many kids, it is relatively seamless over the developmental years.  Three and four year olds learn about turn taking and are able to grasp and apply the concept, either through learning at preschool, interactions (read: squabbles) with friends at play dates or with siblings.  As kids’ brains develop, their working memory, mental flexibility and self control, typically develop as well.  For some kids, the development of executive function isn’t quite so seamless, for a variety of different reasons.

We are working on executive function skills with Berrik all the time.  Some of the potential reasons why he hasn’t had a seamless development of these skills is likely due at least in part to receptive and expressive speech delay.  When you don’t totally understand what is being said, and you aren’t able to express yourself in those early developmental years, it’s easy to understand why a kid may not ‘intuitively’ develop these skills from play and life experiences.  It’s difficult to relate outcomes to what is going on, when  you aren’t quite sure what just happened or why.  For this reason, Berrik and I work on building his capacity with these skills.  The wonderful thing about brains and neuroplasticity is that it is possible to improve capacity in these areas, and I see the evidence in Berrik consistently.  Because of the challenges he faces with receptive and expressive speech, I assume that he will always require strategies to support his executive functioning skills.  (If I’m wrong and he catches up to his peers, then all the better, but in the mean time, he needs strategies now, so that is what we work on).

Working Memory – Berrik can be challenged to keep information in his head long enough to manipulate that information.  As a result, we work on building his capacity to do so through practice using a variety of different games and activities, as well as through modelling and practicing strategies to support this.  Things like visualization, repeating things back, taking notes or drawing pictures are all helpful.  This is something that we practice as part of all subjects (and all parts of life, actually).  It’s pretty easy to incorporate.  There is always something to ‘remember’ as we do schoolwork, so I will often help him use his strategies to keep the information in his head, and then ask questions or ask him to do something that requires him to manipulate the information in some way.  For example, if we are doing a science experiment, we will go through a few steps that we will  need to take to complete the experiment (or a portion of it).  Then I may ask him to skip a step and come back to it.  Initially we will do this using visuals, so he can physically move the skipped step and put it in the new order.  Depending on the topic (it’s easier when the material is familiar), I will have him do this only in his head, using visualization, and repeating.  As he gets good at doing this, I up the ante and add more steps, or make the manipulation more challenging.  I see this as a two-fold exercise.  First, I am helping him work his brain and develop new neural pathways.  You can read about Neuroplasticity here.  Second, I am helping him develop strategies that he can use throughout his life in the likely case that this is always a challenge for him.

Another great game for working memory is the game of ‘Memory’  (Go figure). The game is also called ‘Concentration.’   We use it with sight words (thank you Sound Connections for that idea!), and also with facts in science, social studies and we are just starting to use it in math.  In science we recently did a unit on the Earth’s water cycle.  In the Memory game, I created cards for different parts of the cycle – words on one card, pictures on the other set – and Berrik had to not only match them up, but remember where each card was as we flipped them over.  We started first with matching only, with all cards visible.  Then we moved to the actual Memory game, where all cards are face down, you flip two and find the matches.  Memory, reading practice, and learning about science all in one activity. In Math, I will use two different depictions of the same numbers (as we work with base 10 blocks), and Berrik has to identify which ones represent the same number and then match them.  I am currently building a game where the cards are addition and subtraction problems and he has to find the two that have the same answer.  The key is to make sure he is pretty strong on all the cards first, and then use them in the Memory game.  It then doubles as a working memory exercise and a review of whatever subject we are working on.  It’s quite effective, and it can be used for pretty much anything.

Mental Flexibility – This comes into play when something unpredictable or unexpected happens and Berrik needs to be able to adapt and adjust to the new situation and respond appropriately.  This is fun to work on, as it’s almost like you can see the wheels turning inside Berrik’s head as he tries to figure out how to apply old rules to new situations.  We play games and then I will switch up the rules.  This helps with working memory as well, as he now has to remember the new rules as well as apply them.  Starting simple and then scaffolding is the key.  Build on skills rather than trying to jump ahead.  For a kid who had a rough grade 1 year, confidence is something that is coming along, but still needs work.  When you develop the base skills and then build on those, you are setting up for success.  Success means confidence.  Confidence means willingness to take some risks.  Taking risks means increased learning opportunities.  It’s a process.   And when he takes some risks, we really celebrate the effort as opposed to the outcome.  Outcomes will vary throughout life – for all of us – but those of us who aren’t afraid to make the effort and take a chance will see more success in life, in my opinion.  I know this from my experience in both learning, and in people management.  It rings true over and over.

Some examples of ways to do this:  In the Snakes and Ladders game, play it the normal way and then play it where you must go up the slides and down the ladders.  Play basketball, and instead of dribbling the ball, you have to toss it up and down in the air instead (this is great for all kinds of brain and coordination work).  Or if you have enough people, only allow passing, no dribbling.  Or only shoot backwards.  Anything that changes the rules, will work.  Simon Says is another good game to play for mental flexibility, working memory AND self control.  It’s also easily adaptable for kids Berrik’s age depending on interest.  When we play, Simon will often say “kick like a ninja” or “turn into the blue power ranger” etc., as that is what Berrik is interested in.  The sillier ‘Simon’ is, the more fun Berrik has with it.  I also let him be ‘Simon’ as this is great for his planning and language skills.

Self Control – In terms of impulsiveness, Berrik is fine.  The ability to set priorities is likely behind what most 8 year olds are able to do.  We work on this every single day as we plan our days.  We will talk about what is important to get done, what we would prefer to do, and how we should set up our day to get these things accomplished.  We look at the week ahead, and the months ahead as well.  Even on individual tasks we will set priorities.  What I have found is that sometimes Berrik’s priorities will be ‘out of order’ but when I ask him to explain his rationale, he has a very rational reason (rational reason for an 8 year old!).  It occurred to me after one of his explanations that if I asked my neurotypical daughters to prioritize their day for me, I suspect theirs would be ‘out of order’ as well! Sometimes I need to be reminded that it is completely typical for kids’ priorities to not match parents.  Duh.

In the photo below, Berrik and I created this camel by looking at a photo and building it, step by step.  So much planning and prioritizing with these types of activities. And if you get it wrong, it just doesn’t work.  Berrik is actually very strong in this type of planning.  If he loses patience with the activity, I’ll just do the building and have him correct me.  I will do something wrong to let him catch me. (Full disclosure, I only ‘accidentally’ mix it up some of the time.  Often I mess it up without realizing.  This type of detailed planning is not my strength.)  Variations on the game Red Light Green Light are great for self control as well.  When we play this, I usually do bear crawls or crab walks or hopping/jumping.  When physical exertion is part of the game, it requires more concentration to listen and stay focused.

image

As you can tell, we do things here with as much efficiency as possible, with the most possible gain.  It would be overwhelming if I tried to individually teach or facilitate each area that Berrik needs to work on.  Combining activities and outcomes is not only more efficient, it’s actually more effective as it almost certain to require a multisensory approach.  Additionally, it’s more similar to real life in that you don’t ever just get to use one skill in whatever tasks you’re working on from day to day.  You need to be able to access it all, at the same time, in varying levels.  What is exciting, is that I can consistently see progress in all areas, and even though I may have been focusing more on one area than another, I will see the benefit show up in unexpected places.  That application of knowledge and skills in different contexts is really the key outcome for me.  It tells me that what we are doing is working.

If you’re looking for more information on executive function, or on child development in general, the Centre for the Developing Child at Harvard site is excellent.

Labels are just labels. But what does it mean for us?

Graphic credit toClick here for reference

I am always searching for more information, more ways to teach, more literature to help me understand what Berrik faces on a day to day basis, in hopes that I can help him manage the challenges, and build on the strengths.  One of the things I find difficult is trying to explain what is going on with Berrik to family or friends, who understandably do not really get it.  And how could they?  Most days I don’t feel like I totally ‘get it’ either.  I will admit that from time to time I feel defensive; and I find myself using defensive language to explain what we are doing or what is going on with Berrik.  On good days, I don’t give a hoot what anyone thinks, as I can see the progress and the potential in my child (all my children, for that matter). On bad days, I will feel defensive and protective and incredibly annoyed by the ‘sympathetic’ comments, or what I perceive to be falsely encouraging responses from people who have asked me about how Berrik is doing.  I hate feeling defensive, mostly because I know there is nothing to ‘defend’, which invariably leads to feeling guilty, since I can intellectualize that these defensive feelings I have are likely rooted in my own doubts and fears.  But let me be clear…. I have doubts and fears about the girls as well.  I think this is a normal parenting response….I assume all parents have moments where they worry about the future for their children.   That said, the girls are thus far on a ‘typical’ trajectory, and therefore it is easier for me to visualize what the future will bring (as naive as that is considering how young they are and all the chance and deliberate occurrences that can alter one’s path, repeatedly).

I came across an internet article that fairly effectively describes Berrik’s ‘labels’, DCD and Associated Disorders.

Understanding what, is helpful.  But the meat of the situation is the ‘so what?’.  How do these comorbid conditions impact Berrik?

Where to begin?  Developmental Coordination Disorder (DCD) – for Berrik, this manifests the most challenges in printing.  He was a bit late learning to dress himself, zip zippers, button buttons, brush teeth, feed himself with utensils, etc.  But he has all that figured out and manages very well in that regard.  He’s a bit awkward with gross motor skills at times, but generally can function well enough.  Definitely some challenges on the playground with some kids that are super athletic and appear to be part gorilla, part cheetah for how they can run and swing around the park, but generally speaking, Berrik holds his own.

Printing legibly is very difficult for Berrik, but he has come a tremendously long way.  His printing is actually quite neat now. He strongly dislikes printing (truthfully he HATES it, but I am encouraging him not to say ‘hate’…haha).  We practice daily.  Every single day.  In any way I can find to motivate him.  We write cards to his best friends next door, or fill in the blanks on an order form for an app or website he would like to join (I print the screen where you are asked to fill out your name etc., and make him fill in the blanks on paper, and then I transfer to the screen).  Another example of a situation this morning, “Mom, can I have a banana?”  “Sure, but this is a restaurant and you have to write down your food order on a paper.”  “Sigh.  You make everything difficult.  I think you like to do that to me.”  “Yes, sweets, that’s my job.” <insert eye roll from Berrik here>.  “Fine.  I’ll write it down.  Are you happy?”  “Yep.  I feel such joy in this moment.”  <another eye roll and audible sigh>

So…when you’re slow at printing, it’s easy to imagine how that impacts everything you do in school.  Slow to write the answers on a test, even if you know the answers…  makes it tough to demonstrate your knowledge.  Slow to write a story in Language Arts… so slow that it feels pointless to even try, as you are on your first sentence when other kids are done the whole assignment.  Homeschooling makes this a lot easier as we can take all the time we want.  And if we are assessing scientific process and critical thinking, I scribe for him.  Ditto for if the focus of the lesson is on telling a story with a beginning, middle and end.  I’ve been told by some teachers not to do this as he needs to be able to print.  I disagree with this philosophy.  We are working on printing, and he has/will have the ability to print.  He may never be fast at it.  And it will likely be a non-issue in the future.  The only time I EVER use a pen these days is when I’m working with Berrik.  I type or text or voice type everything.  He will too.  But he ABSOLUTELY needs to have the ability to process information, tell stories, think critically, understand concepts etc.  So if I have to do the writing so that he can achieve these goals, then that is what I will do.  (I almost went back to rewrite that last bit, since I can see how defensive I sound…. but I decided to leave it in there for demonstration purposes…)

ADHD, LD and SLI – these impact every aspect of life.  Berrik is better with attention than he was pre-diet change etc., but he still is challenged to hold his focus for long periods of time.  This manifests in reduced ability to follow multi-step directions (also impacted by speech and language issues), because he either doesn’t hear all the directions, so has no idea what he is supposed to do after step 1 & 2, or he did hear them, but gets distracted half way through whatever is supposed to be doing and ends up doing something completely different. Add to this the fact that he doesn’t always understand the meaning of some of the words in the directions, and now he’s both confused and distracted…  Think about when someone is talking to you and you have no idea what they are talking about (say, for example, your husband is an engineer and is talking about HVAC and electrical set up in a skyscraper… that is just a random hypothetical example, of course).  It is so difficult to stay focused and engaged.  That is a big challenge for Berrik.  As soon as he no longer understands what the conversation is about, he tunes out completely.  Most of the time I can’t tell whether it’s the SLI, ADHD, or a LD that is the root cause, and most probably it is a combination of all of the above.

I am constantly on the look out for strategies to single out and/or address the issues individually to see what will improve the outcomes.  Having Berrik repeat instructions back to me as I say them helps with short term memory, and focus.  If he can tell me what he’s supposed to do by repeating my words, but still isn’t sure what to do, then I can tell it’s likely a receptive language issue.  If he’s fidgeting and not engaged with me, then I can see it’s an attention thing.  Of course it’s never so simple as being one issue vs. another.  And to be clear, it’s not like this is an issue with every thing we do all day long… it just comes up in certain situations.  (Thank goodness, because it’s exhausting).

In our math studies, the SLI causes us much grief.  With the help of the ever amazing Sound Connections people, we realized that Berrik doesn’t understand the meaning of some critical math language.  What makes it more interesting and a bigger challenge, is that he understands words in some contexts but not others and the only way to determine where the deficits are is to go through each word in many contexts to tease out the areas for improvement and then work on them, one by one.  For example.  In one activity Berrik was asked to identify a row with ‘more’ of something in it.  It was a multi step problem that likely contributed to the issue, but in that context he didn’t understand what he was supposed to do.  Once he was shown what to do, he had no problem replicating it in different contexts.  So that tells us that the issue was the understanding of the words, not the actual computation of the math skill.  But on the same day, he was able to articulate and demonstrate the concept of more in a few different ways, and this occurred quite randomly in the context of some other activities we were doing.  This was a big clue that we needed to break down every ‘math’ concept word and identify exactly what didn’t connect for him, and then work with him to make those connections.  If this had not been pointed out to me, I would have never realized what was going on.  I would have assumed he understood the concept of the term ‘more’ because he does understand it in many contexts.  More, less, most, least, except, either, neither, add, subtract, plus, minus, multiply, divide, double, triple, ahead, behind, above, below, first, second, middle, last, high, low…..  these are just a few of the words that we will work through one by one.  The beauty is that some he will have no problems with, and the more foundational words he understands, the easier future ones will be to explain, as we can use the previous words to help explain the future ones.  And through all of this experimenting, his foundational math skills are being worked on, so we are accomplishing many goals with this exercise.  This both overwhelms me and gives me such hope.  All of these foundational skills will be critical to his future, and had I not stayed home with him this year, and had my wonderful friend Barbie not mentioned Sound Connections to me, we likely would have never realized these issues existed, and maybe, we would have eventually started to believe the teachers that Berrik just isn’t that smart. (Even typing that makes me tear up.  Oh the struggles this kid has endured).  I always feel like I need to put in a caveat in defense of teachers when I am writing about Berrik.  I don’t blame teachers for thinking Berrik wasn’t very smart.  I strongly believe teachers are under resourced.  Even as his mom, spending hours every day one on one with him, I find it hard to understand what is going on at any given time.  He is progressing so well this year, but it’s because I have time to spend several hours per day one on one with him, adapting and adjusting based on his specific needs on any given day.  Teachers obviously do not have this luxury.  So if anyone interprets my blog posts as teacher blaming or shaming, you are misinterpreting.

Berrik is reading SO well these days.  Particularly in comparison to where he was 6 months ago.  He isn’t caught up to grade level, but he is progressing at a fantastic pace.  I have zero doubt about his ability to read, and I am happy to see his comprehension of what he is reading also keeping pace.  Sound Connections works on phonological awareness, and through this he is learning to spell, to print, to decode words phonologically and for meaning, and eventually he will write sentences and stories through this process.  He is at different levels in different subsections of language and literacy, so we just keep moving along in all areas working harder on some than others.  For example, he is reading at a higher level than he’s at with more advanced sound blends like ‘th ‘(loud, like in ‘they’, and whispered, like in ‘think’) or ‘sh’.  The cool thing is that as we add the sound blends, he is already able to read many of the words that use those sounds, so he is able to quickly relate the sounds to words he knows, and then from there decode other words that he doesn’t know.  Because of how well he’s reading, his sight word acquisition is rather dramatically quick…  for whatever reason, if he learns a new word in a book, he is easily able to remember it for future, so we just add it to his sight words pile.  The pile is unwieldy now, but because of the reading, he no longer needs to review the earlier words as he reads them so frequently that they are solidly in his brain storage and easily accessed.  He will still from time to time read a word from back to front – meaning he starts decoding using the last sound as the first sound in the word, or confusing ‘b’ and ‘d’, or reading ‘on’ as ‘no’ or vice versa… These are typical dyslexic things, further impacted by focus or attention issues, but he manages quite well overall.  He is getting good at self correcting when he does this, which tells me he understands that the word he is saying either isn’t a word, or just makes no sense within the context of the sentence or story.  This is huge in the world of language and literacy, learning disabilities, and speech.

Hopefully this has been helpful to those wondering exactly what the heck is going on with Berrik, and how we are working through it all.  I am learning as much as Berrik is, if not more, and as an aside, thanks to his social studies curriculum, I am getting pretty informed on some Canadian culture.  Ask me about the Inuit, or the Acadians…. or about weather patterns in Iqaluit vs. Saskatoon.  And can I just brag that Berrik saw the word Iqaluit and told me it was spelled wrong , “Because every time you write a ‘q’ you always have to write a ‘u’.”  Welcome to the multitude of exceptions in the english language my boy.  Welcome.

Nothing is Black & White

Wouldn’t it be so much simpler if everything was black and white?  I have friends for whom some things are totally black and white.  In some ways I envy them their strong convictions and their ability to feel so confident in the perceived obviousness of their beliefs.  At the same time I wonder about whether they truly believe with 100% certainty that the issue is totally black and white, or do they, deep down, struggle like I do.

I know people….many people, in fact, who would say that getting all vaccinations on exactly Alberta’s vaccine schedule is critical and anyone who feels or does any differently is completely insane, and possibly even criminal for the potential harm to the community.  I’ve heard people say parents should lose their children if they choose not to vaccinate.  I also know several people who feel that all vaccines are evil and have no place in our children’s bodies.  I always hesitate to bring up this topic in a public forum as it is SO contentious for so many people.  The vitriol spewed online from both sides of the issue is so offensive and ridiculous that I refuse to read it anymore.  At the end of the day, I don’t care if you are pro vaccine or anti vaccine, or vaccinate on a delayed schedule, or pick and choose vaccines that you feel comfortable with.  I really don’t.  It’s none of my business what you choose to do for your children. (and yes, I know that from a herd immunity perspective many feel it IS their business…that’s ok.  I don’t agree.) I am not anti-vaccine.  But I’m also not pro-vaccine.  It’s not black and white for me.  It’s so grey that I have lost sleep over it.  Numerous times.  I am suspicious of the entire vaccine issue because it is BIG BUSINESS. On both sides of the issue.  I’m a naturally suspicious person, and I have a hard time believing that Big Pharma is totally benevolent.  That said, there is definitely plenty of research that overwhelmingly supports vaccination as a public health life saver.  I have also seen plenty of literature to support that vaccines can do plenty of harm.  Given that money talks, and both sides of the issue have much to gain financially by promoting their ‘side’, I often wonder what we should be believing.  Then you see articles like this: Harvard Sugar Conspiracy and Junk Science and you wonder if ANY of the literature on either side of the issue is valid at all.  And let’s not forget that the media is held even less accountable on how they spin ‘news’ stories, so even reading the above two articles has to be taken with a considerable ‘grain of salt.’  Websites are filled with propaganda and it is IMPOSSIBLE to feel confident that anything you are reading is real.  Or at least it’s impossible for me.

Now take a kid like Berrik.  Diagnosed with ADHD a couple years ago.  The kid is definitely fidgety, and needs help staying focused.  The psychologist who diagnosed him recommended medication.  His teacher recommended medication (is that a teacher role? at the time I didn’t think so). My family doctor felt he was too young and that we should try other interventions first.  If you look online, you can find information supporting all types of medication, as well as all types of alternative methods of supporting a kid with ADHD.  I have talked to many people about it.  Some have told me their experience with medication was life changing in a positive way.  “Wish we would have done it sooner.”  Others describe horrible side effects that were also life changing on the other end of the spectrum.  Some swear by homeopathy (I can literally see my pharmacist friend cringing here), and some speak highly of essential oils.  The amount of information available is OVERWHELMING.  And to be quite frank, there is so much judgement around this that sometimes I don’t even want to mention it.  Much like vaccines, I’m not pro or anti anything when it comes to ADHD.  Well, I suppose that’s not true.  I’m pro-doing what is best for your child and your family in the context of what is going on at any given time.  And I’m anti- judgement.  I’m not perfect.  And yes, I definitely judge other people.  Anyone who says they don’t is, in my judgement (see what I did there?), lying.  But if I have learned anything about parenting from my experience with Berrik, it’s that the vast majority of us are doing the best we can with the information and tools we have, and that it does no one any good to blame parents for what is happening with their child.  We have no idea what has happened, is happening, or will happen in the future for that child and family in the context of what their life looks like.  We can only fully understand our own experience – or maybe we can’t even do that!

Breastfeeding vs. bottle feeding.  Another contentious one.  Ugh. I had a nursing student say to me one time that breastfeeding beyond 6 months is ‘not natural’.  I laughed out loud at that one.  Breastfeeding is natural.  Drinking milk from other animals, while socially acceptable, is considerably less ‘natural.’.  But I also always advised new moms when I was teaching breastfeeding, that breastfeeding is natural like learning to skateboard, not like breathing.  It’s hard.  And you may fall a lot.  And sometimes you scrape your knees and it takes a while to heal (this is a metaphor for blistered and bleeding nipples…hahaha…it’s actually not funny.  It hurts.  like nothing else I’ve ever experienced, but I digress)  And some of us really dislike skateboarding. And some of us have a skateboard that doesn’t work that well.  And some of us just need to use a different mode of transportation all together because skateboarding is not the way we choose to get around.  Perhaps breast milk vs. formula is proven to be better when comparing the two liquids from a nutrition or antibodies perspective.  Perhaps that is closer to black and white?  I put a ?, because I’m not sure if that even qualifies for black & white distinction.  However, formula unarguably also grows healthy infants into (usually obnoxious) 2 and 3 year olds just as breast milk does.  It’s not black and white.  Grey, grey, grey. And if formula works better for the family, for WHATEVER reason, then it is the better choice.  Period.  Ditto for breastfeeding.  To me, that is what is black & white.

Low carb, low fat, vegetarian, vegan, paleo, gluten free, organic.  OMG.  Eat what makes you feel best.  I believe that eating real food is important.  But I know that some people feel better eating vegetarian – and others feel better with lots of protein.  If you truly pay attention to how you feel, you will be able to figure out which foods make you feel best.  I know there are people who think that I am a bit over the top with how I feed my family, and especially Berrik. But it works for us, so if you want to know more, then read on.

I’m going to tell you a little about what has worked for us, and I will ask you to remember that this is us doing what we felt/feel is best for our son and our family in the context of what was/is happening in our lives.  It may not work for you.  You may feel we are crackers. Or you may think you might want to try some of what we tried to see if it makes sense for your family.  Take what you want.  Leave the rest.

  1. Diet.  I cannot talk about this enough.  I really do believe that what we put into our bodies impacts pretty much every system.  I think most of us can anecdotally understand and agree with this.  Maybe not.  But I have seen enough evidence in my own body and the bodies of my children to feel like this is important.  For Berrik, this means a focus on whole foods.  Period.  It’s really as simple as that for him. Is the food in it’s whole form?  Then it’s probably good.  Fruit, vegetables, whole cuts of meat, nuts, seeds.  This forms the vast majority of his diet.  I make muffins with coconut flour as a treat.  He has the odd gluten free bun.  We aren’t perfect. But we strive to stick to this way of eating.  For all of us.  And we are all better for it.  Berrik is more focused, and is more able to self-regulate when he eats well and drinks lots of water.  For Berrik sugar and chemical food dyes etc., are like poison.  In his words, they make his brain feel crazy.  In my words, he becomes an unhappy, emotional, unfocused whirlwind of a boy. So we completely avoid those things.  Always.  No exceptions.  It’s what works for him, and he knows it.  When I put him on a very strict diet last January, after 2 weeks he told me his brain no longer feels crazy.  He sees other kids eating candy and he doesn’t even comment.  That’s all the evidence I need.
  2. Exercise.  This seems like a no brainer.  Of course all of us need exercise.  But Berrik functions exceptionally better when he has had time outside. Unstructured, run around, ride bikes, jump, throw balls, chase the dog, play with the neighbor boys time.  When he comes back in he is more able to focus.  He’s happier.  Aren’t we all?
  3. Supplements.  We work with our naturopath to ensure that if Berrik is lacking in any area, that we use supplements to support him until we can address it effectively through diet.  I won’t get into what he has taken, and takes now, as it is completely individual.
  4. Only recently have we started using essential oils. The more I talk about Berrik, through the blog and with other parents, the more anecdotal stories I hear about essential oils and how they have helped other children.  My daughters already use them to diffuse in their rooms (Grandma got them started with a diffuser and some oils).  I am currently trying a blend from Saje that is meant for focus.  It’s hard to tell how well it’s really working as we are always trying new things in terms of how we do school and even timing of the exercise and fresh air…  so nothing to report yet.  I have a few other oils on order based on the anecdotal feedback of several moms.  I’ll keep you posted on how this goes once they arrive.  I will say that he has been more focused at Sound Connections and school lately, but it could be a few different things contributing to that, so we shall see.
  5. Behavior modification.  I dislike this term because in my head it is harsh sounding. I don’t know why I have that perception.  But regardless, for us it means teaching Berrik appropriate ways to behave in specific situations.  It’s so interesting to me how some kids instinctively know this and how many do not.  Being home with Berrik has really helped in this regard as I find the best way to teach Berrik is ‘in the moment’ in the context of his real life.  Consistency is the key to this working well, and to be honest, we have never been really great at that.  Now that I’m home, it’s significantly better, so we are working on it as much as we can.  Berrik knows the basics – sharing, being polite, not interrupting (although he has some trouble with this one…all 3 of my kids do for some reason), playing and cooperating with other kids etc. etc.  It’s the nuances that can be challenging (and are equally challenging to teach), but we work on it through talking about how people are feeling based on what they look like, their body language or what they say.  It’s a work in progress, but we are making progress, so that’s what counts.  As an aside, I believe the unstructured time playing with other kids is the best teacher for some of these skills.  Kids are great at letting you know if you’ve said something inappropriate or aren’t following the ‘rules’ of human interaction.  And kids are more likely to express their feelings in a more obvious way, so it’s easy for Berrik to see that his action caused a specific reaction (whether positive or negative).

When I was thinking of a name for this blog, I wanted something that reflected our journey with Berrik, because that is what the blog is predominately about.  I liked the ‘gut feeling’ reference for 2 reasons.  1.  I believe that what we put into our bodies (and therefore our gut) has the most significant impact on our overall health when compared to any other thing we may do; and 2. Every decision we are making has been based mostly on instinct.  I tend to ‘go with my gut’ in most of my life decisions, but especially in parenting.  I have to give credit to Maritza for doing a bunch of research trying to find a domain name with the gut feeling reference, that wasn’t already owned by someone else.  She found it.  I bought it.  And the blog was born.

This brings me to my point.  Nothing is ever really black and white.  Do your homework.  Ask the experts.  Talk to people about what works for them.  Question everything.  And then just GO WITH YOUR GUT.

 

A day worth documenting…

I already posted early this morning, but we had such an amazing day that I wanted to document it here.  I am posting a second time today, as a reminder to myself, as a future reminder to Berrik, and mostly because I am so proud of my boy for how hard he works and how much success he achieves in spite of whatever life throws his way.

First thing this morning we did a quick review of sight words.  We typically do sight words by making a trail through the house and jumping over them as we read them, or lining them up in a row and bouncing a ball beside each one as we read them.  The extra movement/activity makes Berrik at least twice as fast at getting through his sight words.  There were a couple of newer words that were stumping Berrik this past week, as well as a couple BRAND new words.  He flew through the words and got them all!  He has many many sight words mastered now… well past 200. We don’t review them all each day.  I usually do all the newest ones, plus about 10 – 20 of the ‘old ones’ and over the course of a couple weeks he ends up reviewing them all.  The newer ones he does daily until they are totally mastered.  Because he is reading so much now, we add words from his books as well, so he is picking up new words at a pretty impressive pace.  Which of course makes his reading that much better.

img_6846

After breakfast and getting dressed for the day, we headed off to Sound Connections.  Berrik was focused and worked so hard with Lucy.  He never ceases to amaze me with what he knows how to do, and how he can figure things out.  He impressed both Lucy and I today in several areas, which means he’s moving on to more complex things.  The line to learning for Berrik (and everyone else, I would imagine) is not linear.  He progresses so quickly, then plateaus, sometimes regresses a bit, and then leaps ahead again.  This post is a reminder to me that when he plateaus or regresses that I need to breathe and let him get through things at his pace.  I think those plateaus are when he’s really processing things in his head and by relaxing and staying with him where he’s at, he’s able to create a solid foundation, maintain his confidence, and leap ahead when he’s ready.

After Sound Connections we headed to Phoenix Foundation for Count Day celebrations.  September 30th is the final day for registering with the school board of your choice, and therefore after today, wherever a child is registered is where the government sends their funding, whether it be a homeschool board or public or independent or whatever.  At Phoenix this is a big day with lots of fun activities scheduled.  There was a huge bouncy castle which was a big hit with the boy… and I was so proud as he was extra careful around the littler ones, and even used his own body to shield a toddler from a very rambunctious bigger kid… I love that he is aware – it isn’t always the case, so when it happens, it’s exciting.  Self-regulation doesn’t always come easy to kids like Berrik.  They also had a school photographer there to do school pictures if we so desired.  We so desired.  Berrik sat up there and worked so hard to follow the photographer’s instructions.  It melted my heart to see him trying so hard and doing well.  I think it’ll be a fantastic photo.  At noon, there was a hot dog lunch that consisted of a hotdog, a bag of cheese puffs or Doritos, and either a pink or purple pop of some kind.  (GROSS).  As usual we had packed lunch so Berrik happily ate his veggies, fruit, cheese, crackers and a homemade banana coconut flour muffin.  He doesn’t even notice that the other kids are eating all that other stuff.  There was a bake sale going on as well, so many kids were walking around with candy apples, cupcakes and other sugary treats but again Berrik didn’t even comment.

When we were finished lunch, we rushed into the gym for the Karate demo.  Berrik loves Karate (and was pretty sure the two guys were real ninjas).  When the one guy broke through 2 pieces of wood at one time with his bare hand, Berrik just about lost his mind.  It was awesome.

img_6939

Next on the list of activities was Mad Science.  All the kids that had registered in that class were called into the classroom about 10 minutes before it was scheduled to start and asked to sit at tables.  I went in to observe, although most parents did not. Many of the kids (likely hopped up on sugar and chemicals) were bouncing out of their seats, banging on the table, scrapping with each other, and even melting down completely.  Berrik just sat there holding his stress puck (more on that later) and watching the chaos, but not participating in it. Not a very scientific study, but I’d say in the case of  Sugar Lunch v. Healthy Lunch, sugar lunch was the LOSER.

Finally Mad Science started and the teacher went over a few ground rules and then started her presentation.  She asked the kids what electricity was for.  Berrik’s hand shot up and she called on him.  He said, “Electricity is what powers everything we use like computers and electronics.  Electronics… electricity…see?” (emphasis on the ELECT) After I picked my jaw up off the ground, I almost cried.  Berrik didn’t have the opportunity to participate in class in this way when he was in school.  Twenty seven kids in a class, and being slower to process information due to expressive and receptive speech delays meant the chances of Berrik being able to answer a question in class were slim. I think he even surprised himself!  What a kid.

 

stress-pucks-box

At Count Day there was also an opportunity to buy resources from KidsSource (I think that’s who it was).  I bought Berrik a stress puck (one of those squeeze toys shown in the photo) as he focuses better in class if his hands are kept quietly busy.  The one he chose was black (it was the only color left).  He held it up to me and said, “Mom, what if this was red?”  And I was like, “Um, ya.  What if?”  And he persisted, “Mom, if this was red it would be just like those little things that float around in our blood.”  Again, jaw drop.  “Um, you mean red blood cells?”  “Ya, ya, red blood cells…  it totally looks like a red blood cell.”  Indeed it does my little smarty pants.  Indeed it does.

Berrik does amazing things every day. But today was one of those days where he just rocked it out the whole darned day.