life skills

Celebrate the little things, because the little things are BIG

When you have a child for whom learning the ‘traditional’ way is not effective, you really begin to appreciate the little things that many parents of neurotypical kids (myself included) take for granted.  Both of my daughters have had little to no struggle with school, and have thrived in a bilingual program with the added intensity of a second language alongside the three ‘R’s’.  When Berrik was born the girls were already in preschool and kindergarten and were progressing along the typical trajectory developmentally and academically.  I assumed Berrik would be the same.  But as you know, his trajectory has been considerably different, with ups and downs that can likely only be fully understood by others who have a similar journey.  While I would give anything to remove the struggles that Berrik has endured, I am able to see the value in how it has created a resilient, empathetic little boy, and how it has reminded me that success comes in many forms.  For someone as naturally competitive as I am, you can imagine that this is both a necessary and important lesson for me.  One of the many these kids have provided me with over the years.

This week Berrik turned 10.  It’s hard to wrap my head around that number.  And the fact that he will soon be taller than me, which will leave me as the shortest member of our family as the girls have already surpassed me.  It’s been a fantastic week of celebration and success for my boy.  While these are things that many would take for granted in their 10 year old children, for us it’s a week of celebrating the little things, that are in fact so big that I get tears every time I think about them.

Let’s start with the birthday party.  Berrik has struggled with reading.  It has been nothing short of hours, days, months and years of multiple strategies to get this boy reading.  Sound Connections, homeschooling, my mom (I cannot emphasize how instrumental my mom has been on this reading journey), the best teachers in the best school for Berrik, daily reading, flash cards, sight words, phonics, and any trick I can think of to make reading enjoyable rather than a chore (incidentally, we are not there yet but I have hope that one day he will love to read like I do!)  But I digress.  At Berrik’s party as he opened his gifts he (without being told to) read every word on every card.  And he did this with relative ease.  Because he wanted to.  I think it may be the first time outside of reading instructions on video games that Berrik has voluntarily read a significant amount of text with very little help and no prompting.  This is such a huge step for him, and it’s these moments when I know that his potential is unlimited and the future will be bright.  I can say with honesty I had trouble imagining a day where he would do this voluntarily.  img_0413

One of Berrik’s gifts were two ‘lego-ish’ building set of Hello Neighbor – a bizarre nasty neighbor character that exists on youtube and video games.  He was excited to put it together.  For context, these sets have 90ish small pieces that go together in a specific order to create a little scene.  Just like lego, although technically not lego-brand.  Berrik was able to do this on his own by reading the directions and following them.  The dexterity required for this task was the most challenging – developmental coordination disorder means his fine motor skills are a bit delayed – but the following directions was not an issue.  This takes attention, and sequencing, and reading comprehension, and dexterity.  For kids like Berrik, these can all be difficult tasks individually, but having to manage all of that at the same time, and to start and finish the project, is big.  So big.  img_0466

In the moments where I lay awake at night wondering about the future for my kids, and especially for my sweet boy, these are the moments I need to hold on to.  They are the very clear signs that he can do anything and that with the support of this great big team we have, he will do whatever it is he wants to do.  Currently he would like to be an engineer like dad, a policeman/superhero, and also invent time travel.  Can’t wait to see which direction he goes with that! (I’m hoping for time travel).

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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

Let’s KISS

Keep it simple, stupid.  Having had a child who felt he was ‘stupid’ based on his school experience, I tend to dislike the word.  I still feel an emotional response to hearing it, because it takes me back to 8 months ago when Berrik told me he was too stupid for school and that the kids didn’t like him because he was stupid.  I worry that the word will always be a trigger for him, like it now is for me.  In spite of that, I have always loved the KISS principle.  I like the simplicity of the statement and how much applicability it has to pretty much everything.

KISS is an acronym for “Keep it simple, stupid” as a design principle noted by the U.S. Navy in 1960.[1][2] The KISS principle states that most systems work best if they are kept simple rather than made complicated; therefore simplicity should be a key goal in design and unnecessary complexity should be avoided.

That said, I am pretty darned terrible about applying it.  In fact, I would say I have a tendency to overcomplicate most things in my life.  This past year with Berrik’s diet changes, supplements, and schoolwork, I have ventured down the path of overcomplication a few times, but I am happy to say that I am slowly getting better at keeping it simple.  It is my tendency to start out with a simple plan, and then I will find myself complicating the situation, and then I pull back and reset.  Again.  I suspect I will do this over and over for the rest of my life.  The key for me is recognizing it sooner and resetting more quickly.

Some key areas where I (attempt to) apply the KISS principle in our family life are as follows:

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  1. Food.  While Berrik’s diet may sound complicated, it’s actually incredibly simple.  Is it real food in it’s original form?  Great, he can eat it.  It’s really that simple.  In pretty much every restaurant (less so in fast food, but we avoid those place for many reasons and always have) will have the option to order a protein and vegetables.  It won’t likely be on the menu, but ask for a grilled chicken breast and some steamed or raw veggies, and almost everyone will accommodate, no questions asked.  When I do this, I usually get a chef or manager coming out to ask about allergies.  I confess that I don’t outright lie, but I do let assumptions work in my favor.  “Exposure to gluten or refined sugar will make him very unwell.”  This is 100% truth, however, the assumption is often that these things would be life threatening or that he has Celiac disease.  I feel ok with that if it means that Berrik can have a regular piece of meat without any breading or unknown additions.  More importantly, at home, this way of eating is very, very simple.  Once you get into the swing of things, you start to change your ideas about what convenience food is as well.  For me, convenience food is making enough dinner to have a day or two of leftovers in the fridge for lunches so I’m not scrambling or feeling like I have to resort to something processed because there is nothing else and I don’t have time to prepare real food.  Having a lot of fresh produce in the house at all times requires a bit of planning, but is also very convenient.  As are nuts and seeds.  We use SPUD.ca for produce delivery every week, so I know that even if I can’t get out to the store, we will still have produce (as well as many other items from SPUD.ca). I know not everyone is into baking like I am, but I find it convenient to make a large volume of ‘treats’ like coconut balls or ‘fat bombs’, and keeping them in the freezer.  Last minute play date where the kids are having cookies?  No problem.  I pull out a couple frozen treats and send them with Berrik.  It can be quite simple.  It should be simple.  All kids are better off with this simplicity in my opinion.  Not to say there should be no ‘treats’ ever, but I do think we can redefine what ‘treat’ means, and I feel like many of us misuse or misunderstand the term moderation.  Everything in moderation is a common adage these days.  The problem is that most of us take every category of ‘treat’ and have a moderate amount of each of those treats regularly.  Moderate consumption of each of bagged snack food (chips), fast food, processed foods, and sugar on a regular basis is no longer moderation.  Let’s say we have 3-4 things from each of the above mentioned categories on a weekly basis (and I would venture to guess that most of us eat more than that), we are eating up to 16 servings of ‘treats’ each week. The reality is, in my opinion, that we need to combine all ‘treats’ into one category and choose 3-4 per week.  Would it take some planning and a major lifestyle change?  Of course.  Would it be just too expensive?  Nope…it’s actually not that expensive to eat only real food.  Processed foods and eating out are more expensive in the long run.  We would all feel better and many of the diet related issues that plague North Americans would be minimized.pexels-photo-199093
  2. Schedule.  Oh how I struggle keeping a simple schedule.  Our family calendar is a gong show.  But where I implement ‘simple’ is we use one digital iCal. Anyone with iCloud can access it.  This means everyone in the family has access to it.  Kevin isn’t an apple user, but he can log into the calendar through iCloud in his browser, and see exactly who is doing what, where and when.  He and I both add all of our activities in it as well, so when we are planning something, we can instantly see what is happening on that date and decide if we can add another item or not.  This keeps things relatively simple, and we rarely forget to take ourselves or one of the kids to where they need to go.  Our day to day lives are not simple.  McKenna dances pretty much every day.  Avi has choir, basketball and sewing club every week.  Berrik has Cub Scouts, karate and of course his school activities every week, plus skiing and skating when there is time. Super complicated.  However, it is all in the calendar so we have a relatively simple system that works for us.  We carpool where we can which further simplifies life.   Simple doesn’t always have to mean doing less.  In this context, simple is just finding the most efficient way to manage our crazy lives, simplifying wherever we possibly can.image
  3. School.  Homeschooling is simple.  Or it can be.  I have overcomplicated it a few times in our short homeschooling career, but I know that we both fare significantly better if we KISS school.  We have developed a routine and a rhythm that works for both of us and is proving to be highly effective.  The three R’s of my childhood (Reading, wRiting, and aRithmetic – Um, who determined this was the three R’s???) make the foundation of what we do on a daily basis.  While the details of each may seem complicated, they really aren’t as they all are areas of learning that have a foundation from which you continually build in increments.  Quite simple once you wrap your head around it.  Science, social studies, art, phys.ed, music, all can stem from the three R’s.  Reading and writing about social studies topics, music is very mathematical, art and science can include all sorts of information about scale, measurements, estimation, and pretty much every other foundational math skill that exists. I have learned that it is not necessary to do a separate ‘class’ for each subject.  We integrate the three R’s into all subjects and so everything we do has some math, some writing and some reading.  We learn about scientific process, making inferences, geography, community, culture, art, physical activity, music etc., throughout our days in different ways, using those basic skills.  The huge benefit of homeschool is the ability to make it simple in the way that works best for Berrik.  He needs considerably more time spent on reading and writing than on math, so we integrate that into more of our activities on a daily basis.  It works for us and he is thriving.image
  4. Family time.  This is also simple.  It did not used to be, but because we decided it was a priority, it has become more simple.  We eat together almost every day at dinnertime.  No technology is allowed and we catch up with everyone about their day. All other family time is scheduled in a different way – daddy time with Berrik or the girls or just one of the girls whenever there is a window of opportunity.  Bedtime chats with the girls most nights (individually), so they can tell me about what is going on in their heads, in their relationships, in their lives.  It’s such a short amount of time.  Sometimes only 5 minutes.  But it’s frequent and almost always available to them, so it works. Trying to schedule whole family outings is nearly impossible. So I stopped trying to do it beyond our dinnertime.  No need to complicate it.  And as we see that one or more of the kids (or Kevin and I) need more time together, we find the time in the schedule and we do it.  I will say that being home this year has facilitated this, but even if I was working, it’s more the commitment to it and doing it no matter what that keeps it simple.  “Can I go to a friends after school?”  “Not tonight honey, I want you home for dinner.”  It’s really that simple.  I hoard and protect that time because it’s my only guaranteed time.image
  5. Relationships.  I am fortunate to have a pretty large circle of pretty cool friends.  Some I see regularly thanks to dance or other kids activities that we both have kids involved in.  Some I see regularly because of a shared activity that we (the adults) participate in.  Some I see only once or twice a year, and a few even less than that.  The beauty is that all of my friends seem to look at our relationship in a similar way.  We don’t complain or berate each other when we haven’t seen each other for  weeks or months. We just take our opportunities where we can, and enjoy the time we have when we have it.  Not to say we passively await a perfect storm of opportunity, we sometimes make considerable effort to find a time that works, commit to it, and make it happen.  But on the same token, I never feel pressure.  I know we would all like more time together, but we are each prioritizing our lives in a way that makes sense for our families or ourselves, and I rarely feel that anyone is frustrated or upset about time span between visits.  I guess the KISS principle application is that you need to surround with friends who share your outlook, who love you no matter how much they see you (and vice versa), who are there when you need them (and vice versa), and who can pick up where you left off no matter if it’s been 2 days or 2 years. Make a simple list of the most important qualities you want in a friend, and if anyone doesn’t meet the criteria, (hint: if they don’t meet yours, you likely don’t meet theirs either) then keep them at acquaintance level and move on.

Every time I write a blog post like this one, I read and reread, and often feel like whatever I’m writing about sounds way easier than it is.  This post is no exception. My philosophy is really that everything is a journey and that we can only do what we can do.  Some people are the masters of simplification, right down to having only a handful of outfits and just rotating through them…or like Mr. Facebook himself, wearing the same thing every single day to remove the need to make a fashion decision on a daily basis. Or having limited ‘stuff’ in their house, or even limiting activities or friends!  Simple is relative.  Simplify where you can, in baby steps. And because you’re human, things will likely get complicated, so when they do, step back and figure out where you can simplify again.  Keeping it simple is anything but simple.  Ironically, it can start out quite complicated!  Do what makes sense for you and forget the rest.  It’s that simple ;-).

And for all my friends who I haven’t seen in awhile (assuming any of you actually read my blog!), I can’t wait to see you again.  Call me, or I’ll call you.  Soon.  (TG, stay by your phone.  We are due).