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Curriculum Solutions for Your Struggling Learner: An Interview with Krisa Winn

May 29–June 2, 2017   |   Vol. 130, Week 14

If your child has developmental delays, ADHD, or some other learning difficulty, you’ve probably experienced the frustration of cycling through curriculum after curriculum. Nothing seems to be working, and your child just isn’t learning.

HSLDA consultant Krisa Winn has been there—and this week on Homeschool Heartbeat, she breaks down the best curriculum options for common learning struggles and offers her advice on finding a curriculum that works for your child.

In this podcast, you’ll learn about:

  • Taking stock of your child’s needs and abilities
  • Curriculum options for common learning struggles
  • Courses for struggling readers
  • The pros and cons of technology and digital programs
  • Accommodations for struggling learners
  • Diagnosing and solving your curriculum issues

“Ideally, you want to choose a program that fits who your child is and where they’re at, and not choose something out of pressure to have your child keep up with others.” — Krisa Winn

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As a parent of a struggling learner, you want to use the best and most effective curriculum for your child. But how do you know what will work and what won’t? Tune in as Krisa Winn explains how to find the best fit for your child on today’s Homeschool Heartbeat

Mike Smith: I’m joined today by Krisa Winn. She’s a homeschooling mom and one of HSLDA’s special needs consultants. Krisa, welcome to our program!

Krisa Winn: Thanks, Mike. It’s good to be here.

Understanding your child’s needs and abilities [0:29]

Mike: Krisa, before parents choose a curriculum, it’s important for them to first take stock of where their struggling learner is—and where he needs to go. How can parents assess and understand their child’s needs and abilities?

Krisa: Well first of all, parents can informally assess their children through observation and daily interaction.

Next, if the child has been involved in some type of therapy, the parents can take the therapist’s input into consideration. There are [also] a lot of placement tests on the market, and they give good information.

And finally, HSLDA has a great tool that we make available to our members called the Brigance Diagnostic Inventories. One of the inventories is a developmental survey for younger children, one is a basic skills inventory for children aged pre-kindergarten to 9th grade, and the third is a transition skills inventory for much older students.

Mike: Krisa, what are the biggest mistakes that parents should avoid when it comes to choosing a curriculum?

Krisa: Sometimes families are tempted to purchase programs or courses that are where they want their child to be, but the child just isn’t ready to be there yet. Another mistake is to choose to keep using the same program year after year, even when the child is not progressing. Ideally, you want to choose a program that fits who your child is and where they’re at, and not choose something out of pressure to have your child keep up with others. Just because everyone at co-op is learning Latin, for instance, doesn’t necessarily mean that your child needs to do that.

Curriculum ideas for common learning struggles [1:58]

Mike: Krisa, can you list some of the most common learning difficulties and talk about the best curriculum options for each one today?

Krisa: Sure! We get a lot of calls from families who have children diagnosed with autism. Generally speaking, children on the autism spectrum enjoy using computer-driven programs, and there are several on the market that are good choices. These children often like routines and consistent schedules, and don’t mind monotonous tasks. So providing a workbook based program that isn’t too cluttered with bright pictures and lots of information on the sidebars would be another good choice.

Children with ADHD are often creative and enjoy thinking outside the box. They frequently thrive on curriculum options that are unit-based and that offer a variety of ways to show what they know, such as through music or various projects. These children often do well with an eclectic approach, where there’s a good mix of hands-on projects, some computer, some workbook, etc.

All children, but especially those with developmental delays, benefit from a curriculum that is multisensory-based. Basically, this means many opportunities are given to students to touch, see, and move simultaneously as they are learning. For instance, when I teach my daughter how to make a letter, I’ll show her the letter, then we’ll make the letter in the air while describing what we’re doing.

Courses for struggling readers [3:19]

Mike: Krisa, we get a lot of questions from parents about early reading struggles. What curriculum is best for young children who are struggling to learn how to read?

Krisa: Well, parents should look for programs that are multisensory-based, that provide direct instruction, that are explicit and systematic. Basically, it should have a strong phonics component, but it should also address the four other pillars of reading instruction: phonemic awareness, fluency, vocabulary, [and] comprehension. Orton-Gillingham is the gold standard for reading intervention, so look for programs that are based on that approach.

Mike: Well, what about students who are entering high school, but are still reading below their grade level? What do you do for them?

Krisa: Well, there are organizations such as Learning Ally or Bookshare. They have thousands of recorded books—including textbooks. So using a recorded book is a great option for teens who struggle with reading, but can comprehend on grade level.
If the student has more significant reading deficits, there are other options for them, too. There’s programming available that offers high school content written at a 3rd to 5th grade reading level. Pacemaker curriculum is one example, but there are others.

Mike: Well Krisa, speaking of high school, many struggling learners have trouble with higher math, such as algebra and geometry. What kinds of math options are available to them?

Krisa: If the student isn’t college-bound, an alternative plan might include consumer math, accounting, or personal finance. Also, parents have the option to have students work at the math level that is developmentally appropriate for their teen. That might mean completing pre-algebra, or another course that is typically done in earlier years, during high school.

For students with more significant learning needs, there is a program called Practical Arithmetic or the Pacemaker series. Both are written at a 3rd to 4th grade reading level but cover basic high school content.

Technology: Pros and cons [5:11]

Mike: Krisa, more and more parents are turning to technology to help their struggling learners understand concepts and develop important skills. What are the pros and cons of that for students with special needs?

Krisa: Well, the pros are that most computer-driven programs today are interactive, thus fulfilling to a certain degree that multisensory component of learning that is so beneficial. Some programs are intuitive as well, meaning the computer can move students back or forward in the program based on their responses. Technology-based learning is also engaging, and that can be a huge motivator for children who otherwise are not motivated when it comes to school.

The cons are that sometimes it doesn’t work. I know we’ve all run into that myself, and it’s very frustrating. Another problem is that some parents are concerned about children having too much screen time. They want to limit it, not add to it, even if it is educational.

The computer can also be misused. Younger children may click answers just to get a certain response that they like to hear. And older students may wander off the program onto other sites.

And finally, it’s sometimes tempting for parents to let the computer be the sole teacher. We always encourage parents to stay engaged, even with their older students. It may be that your child could benefit from additional guided practice or further explanation. What’s happening on the screen can be even more powerful when you’re there to talk about it with your child, because the smartest computer program in the world can’t take the place of a real, live human being!

Diagnosing curriculum issues [6:45]

Mike: Krisa, sometimes parents realize, after they start using a particular curriculum, that something just isn’t working. What can they do to fix their curriculum issues—and how can they know when it’s time to cut their losses and move on to a different curriculum?

Krisa: Well, even if the teacher’s manual doesn’t suggest it, it could be that providing accommodations for your child could make a curriculum that’s not working work. Accommodations don’t make the material or the tasks easier, but there are changes that are made so that a student can demonstrate what he knows. Allowing for the use of a voice-to-print software instead of having the student write out answers by hand, is just one example. An accommodation could also be an adjustment to the way the teaching material is delivered or how the student takes in information. For instance, using the same textbook along with the recorded text could make all the difference as to whether a curriculum is going to work for your struggling student or not.

On the other hand, if the material isn’t a good fit developmentally or learning style–wise, that’s another issue. For instance, maybe the program is heavy on listening to oral reading, and your child has an auditory processing issue, or it’s very rigorous and fast-paced and your child is a slow learner. Then it would be best to start over with a program that would be a better fit.

On the Struggling Learner section of the HSLDA website, parents can find curriculum suggestions and resources for a variety of learning needs.

Mike: Well that’s fantastic advice, Krisa. Thanks so much for joining us this week—it’s been a pleasure having you on the program. And until next time, I’m Mike Smith.

Krisa WinnPhoto of Krisa Winn

Krisa Winn holds a bachelor’s degree in Early Childhood and Elementary Education from Arkansas State University, and an associate’s degree in Practical Theology from Christ for the Nations Institute. For more than 20 years, she has been a classroom teacher in both the private Christian school and public school settings. She has also worked as a private tutor and early childhood intervention specialist.

Throughout her career, she has had many opportunities to work with children with various special needs. Students with attention deficit disorder, attachment issues, developmental delays, auditory processing disorder, sensory processing disorders and autism have filled her class rosters and her heart.

In 2012, Krisa joined Home School Legal Defense Association as an educational consultant. In that capacity, she offers resources, support and guidance to parents who are homeschooling children with special needs.

In addition to coming alongside her fellow homeschooling moms, Krisa enjoys singing, playing piano, leading worship, blogging and taking walks. After almost 23 years of marriage, Krisa and her husband were blessed with the birth of their first child, Grace. Three years later, their second miracle baby, Karis Joy, was born.

Krisa, Byron, Gracie, and Karis make their home in Winchester, VA.

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