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    Educational Philosophy, Home Education

    Who Benefits Most? CM and Learning Disabilities

    April 23, 2024 by Brandy Vencel

    I have tried to write this post for a long time. I looked it up. My first draft began back in 2020! I don’t know why it’s taken me so long. I’ve been talking about this sort of thing in Charlotte Mason Think Tank for years now. Perhaps I just needed a little more confidence in saying what I had to say. Perhaps I needed another graduate under my belt before I knew for sure that I was correct about this. Perhaps it just wasn’t fully formed in my mind.

    Let’s compare two fictional little girls, sisters: Susie and Jenny. Susie was a born tattle-tale. She loved to talk, to express her opinions. She had many opinions early in her life, and she liked to make them known. Susie was precocious. She began reading at four. At five, she demanded geography lessons because she saw her older sister doing them, and this was complicated for their mother because Jenny … wasn’t like Susie at all.

    Jenny really struggled. Jenny wanted to read as young as Susie did, but her memory did not function well at all. Jenny could only remember the names of a handful of letters at a time. When she learned new ones, she lost old ones. It took Jenny ages to learn all her letters. Phonics were no easier. Jenny had days where everything went swimmingly, followed by days when she went backwards, when weeks of work completely disappeared out of her brain.

    Narration was another thing that came easy for Susie and very hard for Jenny. Think about it: born tattle-tales are partly that way because they love to tell and it is so easy for them. Susie didn’t really need to be taught to narrate; if anything, she needed lessons in being concise. Jenny, on the other hand, was painful to teach. Charlotte Mason said to teach it paragraph by paragraph, but Jenny’s memory was so poor her mother had to do it using only a sentence or two at a time.

    It wasn’t just her memory. Jenny also had difficulty getting words out of her brain and into her mouth. Her mother could tell she had many thoughts, but they just wouldn’t come out! Narrations were so hard … for so many years. Jenny slowly improved, but then it was time to begin written narration, and what a mess that was. If Jenny found it hard to speak her thoughts, it was ten times harder to write them. Plus she couldn’t remember how to spell many of the the words.

    Fast forward to the future; Susie and Jenny are both grown. They both read well — and the books they choose to read are wonderful. They both have strong opinions and know how to voice them. They both know how to write. In fact, Jenny even wrote a novel! Jenny still cannot spell, but she invented work-arounds for herself that are so effective most people can’t tell.

    So tell me: Which sister benefitted most from her Charlotte Mason education?

    My contention is that Jenny did.

    Of course a Charlotte Mason education was good for Susie. She was given thousands upon thousands of pages of wonderful books over the course of twelve years. Who wouldn’t benefit from that? But Susie also came into this world with natural ability. It is highly likely that she would be an articulate communicator regardless of what methods were used with her. She probably would even have loved to read.

    But Jenny? In the public schools, she would have been labeled and “accommodated.” No one would have called her to higher living. No one would have given her books far above her level. No one would have made her speak when she didn’t want to, or write when it looked like she couldn’t.

    To whom did oral narration do the greatest service? The one who could already speak well, or the one who struggled every step of the way, but eventually reached the point where she could clearly articulate her thoughts on beloved books and more? To whom did written narration do the greatest service? The one born with a pencil in her hand, or the one who struggled to form letters and to spell, but eventually reached the point where she could write a whole book?

    A Charlotte Mason education gives the greatest gifts to the ones for whom it is most difficult as long as they do not give up the struggle. I’m not saying a nonverbal autistic child is going to give an oral narration just because he’s Charlotte Mason educated. But I have seen beautiful fruit born in the life of an autistic child given living books (when others would have doomed his mind to the mundane and uninteresting).

    Charlotte Mason once led a movement promoting a liberal education for all. Not for some — for all. In her day, this meant giving a beautiful education to the lowest classes. In our day, I firmly believe it means giving it to the kids who struggle. They are human. They may be humans who need medicine or vision therapy or whatever, but they are humans nonetheless. They deserve a human education.

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  • Reply Rachel May 21, 2024 at 1:21 am

    Thank you.

  • Reply Bethany May 2, 2024 at 3:51 pm

    One of the (many) reasons we finally jumped into cm was because of my special needs daughter. She learns along with her younger sister and this has been a gentle and rigorous education even for a girl who is mentally challenged. I am so thankful that God brought us to cm, and AO specifically.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel May 3, 2024 at 1:12 pm

      I love this, Bethany! What a blessing for your whole family. ♥

  • Reply Debbie Googeg April 27, 2024 at 2:13 pm

    I am glad you finally put this post out. I have children that struggle. I have not always used a CM education, but I see so many benefits. I went ahead and put my kids in the “age-appropriate” AO year. It was hard. The first couple of weeks, I simply cut books. I had to learn how to fit them. I also had to learn how much they were able to do, once they were challenged to do it. It can be surprising sometimes the ability even our struggling learners can attain when they are challenged. It’s always a balance of slowing down and pushing up.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel April 27, 2024 at 6:11 pm

      Debbie!! I absolutely love how you said this: “It can be surprising sometimes the ability even our struggling learners can attain when they are challenged. It’s always a balance of slowing down and pushing up.” SO true.

  • Reply Rondalyn April 24, 2024 at 8:56 pm

    Thank you for this post! I almost cried because it is so encouraging for those of us who know our kids aren’t “at grade level” and would suffer in public schools. Like Rachel above, I appreciate hearing what adjustments you (and others) make, but it’s really hard to find information like that. I just haven’t found many sources with suggestions about adapting a CM education for special needs. But going through the 20 Principles study in the Think Tank a couple of years ago helped me so much – partly from hearing some specific examples of things you, Brandy, did differently than AO, and partly from having a better understanding of the principles so that I could evaluate the suggestions of others.

    Handwriting struggles is a prime example at our house. I realized that I wasn’t exercising the authority I needed to in pushing my daughter to write, but I also realized that my daughter truly had a brain-body disconnect with writing, and expecting her to do the AO copy work (and written narrations and dictation) as prescribed only made her feel hopelessly inadequate, which certainly was not Miss Mason’s intention! On the other hand, the prevailing accommodation suggestion was expensive voice-to-text software that would eliminate the need for any writing, or even proof-reading. We opted instead for a free online voice-to-text that saves her a lot of writing, but also supplies laughs (and sometimes frustration) and which trains in perseverance as she reads over documents for accuracy and clarity. At the same time, we have lightened waaaayyy up on copy work and dictation (basically spelling lists) to slowly keep pluggin away at writing and spelling, while not hindering her creative writing.

    Anticipating that she would need to type if she struggled with writing, we started using a typing program in Y4, and continued in Y5, but she complained constantly because the typing exercises were always nonsense. And she believed she typed faster with one or two fingers. In Y6 (after a catch-up grow-up year similar to what Mama Rachel described), we dropped the typing program, but I required her to use correct hand position for 10 minutes of typing each day, whether for email or a book she is working on or whatever. For several weeks, as soon as she finished her ten minutes, she went back to hunt & peck. But the week before last she told me that I was right (!), her typing was faster with the correct hand position. She said it’s not as accurate, but it takes less time to type and then make corrections than it takes to type with two fingers. (I am finally seeing how masterly inactivity on my part really does work! And I wondered if you post would point that out too – that Mom benefits!)

    • Reply Brandy Vencel April 25, 2024 at 9:38 am

      I wasn’t thinking about how Mom benefits when I wrote this, but it’s interesting that you and Rachael both point that out. I think it’s SO TRUE. I know so many women who are better — not just better mothers but better PEOPLE — because of rising to these sorts of challenges in their lives.

  • Reply Mama Rachael April 24, 2024 at 8:15 pm

    I want to give a resounding AMEN! My oldest is ADHD, just like his dad. We’ve talked about this before, years ago when I was in CM boot camp. Yes, we did turn to med help for parental sanity. But I can also see how all the work I did to teach him to pay attention is paying off. In the middle school class at church, he pays attention, while all the other “normal” kids can’t seem to keep their mind on a single topic. I see how I have made him work hard over the past 8 years and it is paying off. I knew he was capable, even he has a tendency towards sloth. I’ve played to his strengths while helping him grow in his weakness. Yes, I’ve found ways I’ve failed him in this, ’cause when you are 12 about to turn 13, all those weaknesses come blarring out at everyone.

    In his mother’s excitment, I did start him in Y1 of AO 3 months after he turned 6. When we got to the end of Y3, I thought he might ought to do Y3.5 and give him that extra year to grow up, but he didn’t want to, so we didn’t. We get to the end of Y5 and I can see he is struggling to keep up with the work. It just feels like too much, he says. We were looking at moving that next year, which gave me the perfect excuse! I split Y6 into 2 years! I added books to flesh each year into a full year of work, and let him have that extra year of growing that he needed. As we end Y6b at the end of May, he is finding all this Y6 work easy and often finishes before I finish working with my Y2 kiddo. This kiddo, who at age 6 I wondered if we would be able to finish a year of AO in a year is rocking school. We have good habits (which I fought for), and though he might not like it, he knows what is expected of him. This CM education is shaping my child in wonderful ways (even if I am, again, waiting for the Holy Spirit to do all his work).

    Brandy, you were the one who really opened CM Educational Philosophy to me, and I am so thankful.

    • Reply Mama Rachael April 24, 2024 at 8:18 pm

      And to add, that even if its hard, its worth it. Its worth the struggle. And when we struggle with our children, it makes us all stronger.

      • Reply Brandy Vencel April 25, 2024 at 9:37 am

        I really appreciate this point. When we rise to the challenges in our lives, WE benefit. These children are a challenge in every sense of the word, and they are instrumental in the growth of their mothers.

  • Reply Rebecca April 24, 2024 at 4:26 pm

    So encouraging! I’ve got children with learning disabilities although I hadn’t discovered CM when I was schooling them. Now I’ve only got one at home and she moans about narration something fierce. I admit that I’ve looked over the fence at other families with natural narrators and been envious. This post was a shot in the arm – even if it’s difficult, this waybof teaching is the best for her.

    And I think there’s a typo in paragraph 5: Susie slowed improved (should be Jenny?)

    • Reply Brandy Vencel April 25, 2024 at 9:34 am

      Thanks for the correction! I’ll go fix it.

  • Reply Elaine April 24, 2024 at 1:38 pm

    Wow, this was so encouraging today! My child with learning difficulties has been plugging away slowly at AO. We haven’t dropped much and she’s years “behind.” I’m convinced a slow and steady diet of great books is better than switching to something else “on level,” but it’s easy to second guess myself as she starts high school. Thanks for putting it into words for us!

  • Reply Lori C April 24, 2024 at 11:20 am

    Thank you for this.. my son is autistic and up to when everything shut down in 2020, was in public school. He started in a special needs class at 2 yo. I avoided his class because he would act like a baby if I was there but I got a really good look at what the school was giving my son academically during the lockdowns and I knew he was not being challenged in any way. We started homeschooling at that time and found that there were some areas where he definitely needed extra help and was struggling but he can read, and very well. He devours our school books and I usually have to stop him from reading forward. He doesn’t narrate well but I know he understands what he’s reading because it comes out in other ways or he’ll bring it up later. Anyway, thank you for sharing this. It always helps to have others affirm what your doing.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel April 25, 2024 at 9:33 am

      I keep wondering if the secret blessing of the Covid shutdown is that a lot of parents got a chance to really see what was going on in their children’s classrooms and then make changes! What a blessing you are to your child. ♥

  • Reply Rachel April 24, 2024 at 8:32 am

    I can hardly believe this popped up in my inbox today, as this past month I have just received a diagnosis of ADHD, dysgraphia and discalculia for my 8.5 year old, Form 1A Upper student (this is after years of perfecting diet, outdoor time, early morning sunshine, vitamins, supplements, immaculate digital hygiene, excellent sleep, integrating retained primitive reflexes etc). I am struggling with what this means for our CM education, especially since the advice from professionals to use accommodations that seem to go against everything I have learned about the CM philosophy over the past seven years i.e. use frequent rewards to stimulate the ADHD brain! use online interactive math programmes to do the same,! use a typing program since writing is so hard! Your words were very encouraging, to keep looking at the big picture, but I would also love it if you have time to delve deeper into how lessons looked on a daily basic for “Jenny”…how much did you accommodate? What are the areas where we should “trust the method” and not employ modern methods? And thank you for continuing to blog, in this world of bite-size media!

    • Reply Brandy Vencel April 24, 2024 at 8:52 am

      I have always felt so cautious about sharing what we have done, just because I feel like it’s such a personalized thing and what I did for my children who needed assistance may be too much or too little for another child! With that said, I can say that one consistent accommodation I did was slowing down. A good example is Robinson Crusoe. It’s supposed to take two terms on the AO schedule. I had to use a slower pacing for one of my children, which meant that I cut a different book to make it fit in the third term. The prevailing advice at the time was to skip Robinson Crusoe because it was “too hard” — but struggling through that book together was one of the best things we ever did and it ended up being that child’s favorite book of the year! For one of my children, I took AO years 7 and 8 and spread them out over three years (mostly using the AO for groups pacing). Again, this meant I had to re-pace other things later, but I found it so rewarding to not skip all those valuable books at that age because it really built the foundation for doing the uppermost years, even if we had to do less because we had less time. I *did* accommodate, but I feel like my philosophy of accommodation was very different from what I was seeing at the time (I don’t know if it’s still this way). I never wanted to send the message that the world will adjust itself for you because it won’t. I wanted my children to be able to live in the world as it was.

      I think it’s great that you’re turning to typing to help! Again, that has the effect of keeping them writing! And maybe that is really what I think is key: keep them writing and keep them reading, even if that means that we end up like a friend of mine, still reading a lot of books aloud to a dyslexic student in Y12.

      I do also encourage you to keep seeking out physical aspects. We had a child with after-effects from a concussion. That came out mostly as dysgraphia. Because it was a physical brain injury, high dose DHA was what finally got rid of that problem. With our vax-injured child, there hasn’t been an equivalent magic bullet. We just keep trying the next thing, keeping the things that helped, and letting go of the things that didn’t. But the improvement we have seen in plodding along in that way is actually remarkable!

  • Reply Adelaide Garner April 24, 2024 at 8:06 am

    I was particularly encouraged by this today, thank you Brandy. Additionally, I finally ordered the Healing Complex Children book a few days ago.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel April 24, 2024 at 8:40 am

      Oh!! I hope you find that book to be as helpful as I have. ♥

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