Homeschooling: Special Needs
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Focus/Attention Processing Dysfunction Characteristics

When a child is having to use too much energy to attend to his work, then that is the area that is a learning block to him. This child often has a body chemistry that is upset, and can be changed with simple methods at home. Other times a parent finds that working with a professional in this area is most helpful.

Often a parent will say of such a child: “He can focus on movies, video games, or Legos for hours, but can't focus on his schoolwork for more than five minutes.” It is important to realize what is going on, so we don’t become frustrated with this type of child. Movies, video games, or Legos require little energy because children find them interesting and undemanding. On the other hand, a history or math lesson requires much more effort on the child’s part. If the child has an “energy leak” in a certain area, then he will have to work much harder to remain focused. Therefore it is important to distinguish whether a child is struggling with an academic task because of an actual learning block, which causes task avoidance because of its difficulty, or a focusing problem.

Many times these children are struggling with sensory integration issues that make them look unfocused.

We’ll look at the characteristics of a child struggling with a focus issue, and a child struggling with sensory integration issues separately, even though they often overlap.

The official terms that are often used for children who have difficulty remaining focused on a task that they are capable of doing are Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

ADD refers to a child who is not acting out or moving around, and can even look attentive during a task, but is generally absorbed in his own thoughts and daydreams to the point that he gets little done in the amount of time allotted.

A child who is thought to be ADHD is generally hyperactive. This child has a motor that is always running that he seems incapable of controlling. He does everything in a hurry, and some part of his body always appears to be moving, which keeps him quite distracted.

The hyperactive child (not just hyper-fidgety), is usually easy to spot in a group. The inattentive child, on the other hand, is not easy to spot. This child just appears to be slow in finishing work, or in following directions. He or she may seem lazy or uncooperative.

In a homeschool setting we do not have to focus on labels, or official diagnoses most of the time. We just need to see if the child we are working with exhibits enough symptoms to warrant further exploration on this topic. In homeschooling we can focus on the solution, rather than a label. Since learning is all about energy output, we ask ourselves why a child has to expend more energy to remain focused on a task than his or her siblings. Once this question is answered, then the action becomes clear.

ADD Checklist

  • Distractibility.
  • No persistence with a task.
  • Inconsistency in performance from one day to another.
  • Excessive daydreaming during a school related task.
  • Needs to have mom next to him or her in order to finish work.
  • Forgetfulness (of previously learned material, daily plans, etc.).

ADHD Checklist

A child struggling with the more active form of a focusing issue will display some of these characteristics:

  • Excess motor activity (something is always moving).
  • Impulsiveness (acts without thinking much of the time).
  • Insatiability (never satisfied with an activity).
  • Poor response to discipline.
  • Moodiness.
  • Sleep disturbances (very restless sleeper).

Informal Evaluation

The difficulty with determining if your child has a focusing issue is that parents often do not have a strong basis of comparison if they only have one other child at home who is homeschooling. Thus, it is important to solicit information and observations from the other adults in the child’s life who works with him in both an academic and non-academic setting.

Remember, that to be a real focusing issue, the symptoms must present themselves in more than one setting. It is important to differentiate between a child whose main problem is focusing, from a child who is exhibiting task avoidance because of academic struggles. For example, if your child’s Sunday School teacher says that he or she listens attentively to lessons, and participates lively in the discussions that follow, but “gets silly” or doesn’t complete assigned worksheets, you can consider that this child has a learning glitch instead of a focusing problem. The child with difficulty focusing frequently does not attend to orally presented information enough to participate well in the ensuing discussion.

On the other hand, if your child’s karate teacher says that he needs to continually redirect your child’s attention during lessons (ones that are very active and hands-on), you may consider that this child is struggling to maintain focus when his peers do not need to expend any energy for this task.

How You Can Determine if Your Child Has a Focusing Issue

  • Checklists, such as the one above help identify a child with an issue.
  • Pediatricians can help decipher the observations you have of your child.
  • Conners Behavior Scale, or BASC can be obtained by your physician. These are informal questionnaires to be completed by parents and other adults who work with your child in an academic setting. The results are calibrated to determine if the child is merely at risk of an attention problem, or actually is showing attention problem symptoms in more than one setting.
  • Sunday School teachers, co-op teachers leaders and other adults who work with your children can help determine if he or she is experiencing a problem.

Resources for Correction

There are two ways that children who have to expend more energy than their peers to focus can be helped. One way is to use compensation, and the other is to employ correction of the problem. Since it takes time for any correctional program to work, we really need to do both procedures. We compensate for the problem, while designing and implementing an effective correctional program.

In determining the best way to correct a child’s processing problem that is affecting his ability to focus on a task, we need to consider that this child likely has an upset chemistry. The basis for this assumption is the long history of the use of medication used with children with a focusing issue. These medications are designed to help the child focus with more ease, by making the neurotransmitters responsible for the process of focusing, more available to the brain and nervous system.

If a parent decides to try some medication for this purpose, then the child’s pediatrician is the place to start. Sometimes parents try various medications, only to find the side effects to be unacceptable. So it’s a good idea to also consider alternative ways to help balance the child’s upset body chemistry.

Other times the parents are not interested in pursuing medication at all, but realize that their child is struggling too hard to focus, so still needs some help in producing and releasing the necessary neurotransmitters. This is when parents often turn to a nutritionist, naturopath, chiropractor, or nutritionally oriented physician to explore alternatives that seem to help so many children.

On this website we will explore both compensations and corrections for these struggling children. In homeschooling we have a unique opportunity to help the child learn how to control his own behavior, through gentle behavior modification. We also have the opportunity to give this child more time and attention, taking the burden off of his focusing system. We can plan schooling days that help this child gain as much information as possible from the material, without the frustration of always being behind, or not knowing what to do. It is very rewarding to work with these learners in the home setting.

Compensations

Employ one-on-one tutoring. Children with attention problems thrive when an adult works one-on-one with them. These children struggle to complete work on their own, and find the frequent reminders to hurry up and complete their work debilitating. (See “Managing the Homeschool Teaching Day with a Struggling Learner” in the section following, to learn how to get this important time with your child, while still working with your other children).

Read the article “Reading Comprehension: Converting Words to Pictures” by Dianne Craft

Read the article “Reading Comprehension Strategies” by Dianne Craft

Choose a curriculum that does not require mainly independent work (such as a computer curriculum program, or a self-paced program).

Reduce workbook exercises and busy work, such as copying and repeating math problems, as much as possible.

Buy good quality earphones for this child. He could use them to block out distracting noise, or you could have him listen to classical music softly while working on assignments.

Keep this child close to you throughout the day. Your proximity makes a big difference in his ability to focus. You do not always have to be interacting with him. Just be near him. Even when you are teaching another child, this child can be next to you with his earphones on, completing his work.

Group assignments. When approaching a math page with many problems on it, put a star by the ones you want him to do in that sitting period. If you are only having him do some of the problems on the page, not all, then he can put a large “X” over the ones he doesn’t have to do. This is very satisfying for the child. If you can’t do that, then use construction paper to cover the problems on the bottom half of the page so he doesn’t have to see them when he is working on the top half.

Focus on study skills. If your child is prone to make mistakes when doing math problems, have him mark all the similar problems with red, and do them first. These children don’t transition well, because transitions require more focusing power. Doing all like problems together greatly decreases their need to focus, ensuring few errors on a page.

Take breaks. Many little breaks, versus one big break, helps these children stay on task.

Involve dad. Assign one subject for dad to do with the child in the evening when he is home. Dads often have a different approach to teaching, and the child gets the important one-on-one time that helps him be successful. Make sure that dad knows the chunking approach, and how to reduce mundane, repetitive tasks.

Use more right brain strategies, since these employ color, humor, weirdness, etc., to put “Velcro” on the information presented. These children may not necessarily be right brain learners, but the engaging aspects of right brain strategies keeps them interested, and uses less focusing energy. For example, when explaining a new concept or showing how to memorize material, make it fun by having your child help you draw sketches with colored markers.

Adjust your expectations. Your other children may complete tasks without constant reminders, or may actually be able to perform chores without your intervention. If your special needs child could do that, he gladly would. He wants to please also, but does not have the physical ability to bring this about. He is as disappointed in himself as you are. If you have asked him to do three things, and he completed just one, and comes to you, think about saying, “Let’s do the other two tasks together.” This takes such pressure off the child, and models how to get several tasks done in a row, without the feeling of failure.

If your child had a disabled arm or leg, it would be so much easier to adjust your expectations without feeling that you weren’t teaching him how to be responsible. This child has as real a disability, but because it is not visible it can so easily be seen as sloppiness, irresponsibility, or laziness. God will help you find the right way to work with your child.

Corrections

Medications: Even though most homeschooling parents are not interested in the use of medications to help their child focus, the discussion is warranted here, since there may be times when it is necessary, even if it is only for a short period of time.

  • Serotonin boosting medications:
    • Ritalin (short release time)
    • Concerta (sustained release time)
    • Antidepressants (Zoloft, Prozac, Effexor, Wellbutrin, etc.)
  • Stimulants:
    • Adderall (amphetamines)
  • Dopamine boosting medication:
    • Strattera

All medications come with the risk of side effects, of course. Parents must weigh the potential benefits against the potential risks before deciding whether or not to use medications.

Diet: It has been known for over 20 years, first starting with Dr. Feingold and his famous Feingold Diet, that by reducing sugars, colorings and preservatives, children with attention disorders have a much easier time focusing.

Many parents report that when they change the diet of all children at home, that they see a tremendous difference in learning ability and behavior. Some of the diet recommendations that seem to be the most effective include:

Reduce sugar intake. It’s the hidden sugars that get us in trouble, such as the sweeteners in fruit juice, boxed cereals, granola bars, fruit rollups, soft drinks, chocolate milk, pancakes, waffles, etc. Remember that a Snickers candy bar has about 30 grams of carbohydrates, and 35 grams of sugar. When you add the two together, you get 65 grams. Without realizing it, we often feed our children this same amount of sugar by just giving them juice and a bowl of cereal. For many children, consuming this much sugar contributes to their difficulty focusing and controlling their moods.

Increase raw fruit and vegetable intake. As we know from the research in books such as Children with Starving Brains by Dr. Chandless, many children are low in essential vitamins, minerals and fatty acids. These children either are not getting the daily nutrients they need for their brain to function well, or they are eating the correct foods, but are not absorbing the nutrients found in the food.

The enzymes contained in raw foods greatly assist the digestive system in absorbing nutrients. This can make a huge difference with some children. To make this difference, parents always had grapes, apples, bananas, watermelon, cantaloupe, and other fruit around to eat, and made sure the children had three servings a day. These parents also kept a plate of raw vegetables such as carrots, celery, broccoli, cauliflower, and green pepper strips along with plenty of ranch dressing around for lunch.

Use less processed food. As the pioneering Dr. Feingold, and many of the researchers following him found, when food is boxed, it is filled with preservatives. Those preservatives can be very toxic to a child’s nervous system. Processed food also has no life in it. The rule of thumb for brain-healthy eating is to shop as much as you can in the periphery of the grocery store, where the plugs are in the walls. Buying food that is refrigerated in the store ensures you that the life-giving nutrients are still in there. When it is canned or boxed, the live nutrients, such as the fats that are good for the brain have been removed so that they do no go rancid on the shelf. Of course, there are some good brain fats that are not refrigeratedůsuch as cans of tuna or salmon, and mayonnaise.

Increase water intake. Children are often tired because they are dehydrated. They do not drink enough water during the day. A great book that details all the symptoms of being low in water intake is Your Body’s Many Cries for Water by Dr. Batmangahlidj. He recommends that children drink half their weight in ounces of water. Making adequate water intake during the day a family priority is very helpful for many families. Water helps eliminate histamine and other toxins from the body.


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