Homeschooling: Special Needs
Your Child’s Challenge Can I Do It? Resources Find Help The Law FAQs

Identifying Why Your Child Is Struggling

Prepared by the HSLDA Team of Special Needs Consultants

Recommended Teacher Resource Books

Homeschooling Children with Special Needs by Sharon Hensley

Teaching with the Brain In Mind by Eric Jensen

Brain Matters: Translating Research into Classroom Practice by Patricia Wolfe

Building the Reading Brain, Pre-K-3 by Patricia Wolfe and Pamela Nevills

Worksheets Don’t Grow Dendrites by Marcia Tate

Professionals and educators who follow brain research understand that there are four main processing areas or “learning gates” that need to be properly functioning in order for a child to have an easy time learning.

The four learning gates are:

The provided checklists identify some of the characteristics that students may exhibit when a learning gate is “blocked,” or not functioning properly and efficiently. Also included is a list of informal evaluations that parent-educators may choose to perform at home. Additionally, there are some resources for correction that can either be delivered by a professional or in the home setting by parent-teachers.

Learning is all about energy output. Read the characteristics and see if you can identify where your struggling learner may be experiencing an “energy leak.”

Compensation or Correction?

Before you begin evaluating your child, you should know that once the process is complete you might face a fundamental choice: compensation or correction. Many educational experts debate whether it is more beneficial to help a struggling learner compensate for the learning processes that are difficult, or if time and effort should be spent in the pursuit of a correction of the processing problem.

An example of compensation would be for a child to use a keyboard at a very young age to write papers when he or she struggles with handwriting. A correction would be to do a handwriting exercise that eliminates reversed letters, for instance, and helps the child write more neatly. Another common compensation is to reduce the spelling list required at a grade level for a child who is struggling with spelling. A correction would be to train the child's photographic memory so that the task of spelling is easier.

Many times this does not need to be a debate. One can easily pursue both compensation and correction simultaneously. Compensation makes the learning task easier while the correction reduces the stress in the child's learning system so that learning can flow. We call this “opening up the child’s learning gate.”

Sensory Integration Issues

Many times a child who appears to have great difficulty with focusing and attending to a task is really struggling with a sensory processing problem. The child’s sensory system is not functioning correctly, resulting in errant signals. An example of this would be a malfunctioning sensory system that shouts “pain,” when a tag on a shirt touches the skin. Another example is when a child covers his ears at fairly minor unexpected sounds, because the sensory system is giving the errant signal that the sound is too loud. This child is not just distracted by his outside environment, but is distracted by his inside environment as well.

The following are some of the typical symptoms of sensory dysfunction:


  • The child displays sensitivity to loud noises.
  • The child struggles with language skills.
  • The child dislikes being in a group to the point of avoiding most group situations.
  • The child struggles with transitions and changes of any kind.


  • The child is bothered by certain food textures, such as lumps in yogurt.
  • The child won’t eat meat.
  • The child id a very selective eater, preferring mostly carbohydrates.
  • The child dislikes it when food on the same plate touches.


  • The child finds clothing tags an irritant.
  • The child dislikes nonsoft clothing such as jeans.
  • The child insists his socks have to have the seam “just right.”
  • The child grinds his teeth.
  • The child walks on his toes for an extended period of time.
  • The child dislikes his hair being touched, combed, washed or cut.
  • The child finds visits to the doctor to be very hard.


  • Pediatricians may have some insight into this, or they may refer parents to an occupational therapist for an evaluation. With a referral, insurance plans are more likely to cover these visits.
  • For further checklists, see Carol Kranowitz's book, The Out of Sync Child.

Resources for Correction

  • The Out-of-Sync Child Has Fun: Activities For Kids with Sensory Integration Dysfunction by Carol Kranowitz
  • Occupational therapy.
  • Nutritional therapy (very helpful).
  • Brain integration therapy.
  • Music therapy (as described under Auditory Processing Dysfunction).
  • Chiropractic services.

A Right Brain Learner Stuck in a Left Brain Curriculum

You may have noticed that your children have totally different learning styles. Your left brain child tends to like workbooks and working on his own. The right-brainer, on the other hand, likes discussion, prefers projects to workbooks and tends to be a little higher maintenance during the school day, requiring more of your interaction time.

Since most curriculum teaches in a more left brain manner, focusing on auditory and sequential aspects, as well as writing, our children who are more right brain learners often feel left out, and even struggle with learning and retaining material using this same curriculum. Once we have identified the right-brainer who is struggling because he is stuck in a left brain curriculum, then we can tweak our teaching process to help these right brain children get in touch with the “smart part of themselves.”

Before we explore these many different teaching strategies, let’s identify the common learning styles of these children.

Common Characteristics of a Left Brain Learner

  • Tends to seek structure in the school day.
  • Memorizes best by repetition (auditory or writing).
  • Likes to know the plan for each day, week, etc.
  • Tends to work well independently.
  • Likes to make lists, and check them off as tasks are completed.
  • Thinks things through with multiple pieces of evidence before coming to a conclusion.
  • Tends to find math interesting, and is very good at it.
  • Likes the predictability and conciseness of workbooks.
  • Can do well with self-paced and computer curriculum.

Common Characteristics of a Right Brain Learner

  • Likes spontaneous events, versus planned events each day. Seeks change.
  • Memorizes best by using meaning, color, pictures, story, emotion in material.
  • Does not plan ahead regularly.
  • Prefers much involvement with parent while doing daily lessons.
  • Does not do items sequentially, but skips around in his or her work.
  • Makes quantum leaps when learning. Figures things out from scanty evidence.
  • Finds math quite repetitive and somewhat boring.
  • Prefers projects and discussions rather than workbook learning.
  • Does not do well with self-paced or computer curriculum, but rather one that requires more parent and teacher involvement, such as unit studies, or any curriculum that is more hands-on and interactive with the adult.

Many right brain dominant children can adapt to left brain curriculum without much effort. If that is the case, then no changes need to be made for this child. However, if a child is struggling to be successful in learning, then some accommodations need to be made. Sometimes just putting the struggling child in a more right brain friendly curriculum, makes all the difference in the world in how easy his school day goes.

Other times a child needs a totally different strategy to make learning easy. That is when we turn to right brain teaching strategies.

Who Needs Right Brain Teaching Strategies?

  • Children who have underdeveloped memory skills.
  • Children who have an auditory processing glitch.
  • Children who have a focusing or attention issue.
  • Children who have a visual/motor (writing) glitch.
  • Children who dislike school work.
  • Children for whom the more common methods of teaching are not working.

What Are Right Brain Teaching Strategies?

In 1981 Dr. Roger Sperry received the Nobel Prize for his split brain research. Prior to that, little was known about the separate responsibilities of the two brain hemispheres. President George Bush declared the 1990s as the Decade of the Brain. Much brain research came to the forefront during that time. It has been a very exciting time in beginning to understand the processes of learning.

The right brain is responsible for long-term memory storage. Ultimately, we all store learned material in our right brain, for easy retrieval. Generally this process of storing material in the short term memory (the left brain’s responsibility), and then transferring it to our long-term memory (the right brain's responsibility) is automatic, and we don’t even think about the intricate process that is taking place. However, when the left brain methods of repetition (either orally or in writing) is not transferring to the right brain long-term memory storage unit, then we need to look at ways to make this transfer more efficient. This is where right brain teaching strategies comes in. When we use right brain teaching strategies with our children, they are required to use much less energy to store learned material. Both right and left brain learners love these techniques!

Right brain teaching strategies involve using “visual Velcro” to easily memorize material. For example, if learning math facts through oral repetition, games, or writing them isn’t working, then by making little stories (not rhymes because these are auditory) with emotion, and adding picture and color to the math fact, the child finds that it is easy to recall. This is using an easy, inexpensive learning strategy that totally transforms how a child remembers something as important as math facts. This type of teaching applies to all areas of curriculum. When a child says, “I can't remember,” then it is time to use right brain teaching strategies to make the memory process so much easier. Let’s explore some of these troublesome learning areas:


  • Train a child’s photographic memory capability while teaching spelling words at the same time!
  • Teach the word retrieval technique that spelling bee winners use!
  • Avoid using the “writing gate” for learning spelling words, since this technique is inefficient for a right-brained child.
  • Place color and picture with humor on the letter or letters in a word that are silent, or hard to remember. Have the child take a picture of the word using his internal camera.


  • Teaching Your Right Brain Child video by Dianne Craft
  • Right Brain Child in a Left Brain World by Jeffrey Freed


  • Have students draw cartoons to aid in memorizing vocabulary words.
  • Make a drawing of the meaning of the word. Then superimpose the vocabulary word, or science term directly on the picture. The brain receives it in a “chunk,” and then retrieves it in a “chunk.”
  • Use pre-made vocabulary cartoons by homeschool dad Sam Burchers for regular weekly vocabulary enrichment lessons that are easy to remember.


  • Elementary and high school editions of Vocabulary Cartoons by Sam Burchers, available at
  • Teaching Your Right Brain Child video by Dianne Craft


  • Teach the problem and answer as a whole rather than in parts. Make a story and picture for each hard math fact. Keep these on the wall for child to take a mental picture of it for a week. Teach only five hard math facts a week using this picture method.
  • Use Hollywood techniques employing stories, emotion and pictures to help struggling math students.
  • Put math processes such as fraction rules, division steps, decimal rules and algebra steps into long-term memory storage. Keep these pictures of the processes, called templates, on the wall for easy retrieval. They won’t be needed for long.


  • Right brain multiplication cards, available at
  • Right-Brained Children in a Left-Brained World: Unlocking the Potential of Your ADD Child by Jeffrey Freed.
  • “Right Brain Math” by Dianne Craft


  • Use color and pictures to make phonics easy. Every day read lists of long words with the decoding unit in color. If you have a child who is a word-guesser, you will see great results with this technique.
  • Train the brain to store the sound and picture as a unit for easier retrieval of letter sound by placing the letter directly on the picture that gives that sound.


Sight Words

  • Beginning readers who have an auditory processing problem that causes them to struggle to learn the names of sight words learn them easily when a picture of the word’s meaning is superimposed on the letters of the word.
  • “Dyslexia: How do I Teach this Child,” by Dianne Craft.
  • Teach both the reading and spelling of sight words using picture directly on the word.


  • Sight word cards (36 words) by Dianne Craft.
  • Your own homemade cards made by you or your child.

Reading Comprehension

  • Train your children to change words into pictures when listening and reading.
  • Teach them how to make a movie in their head as they read to dramatically increase their reading comprehension and memory.


  • Teaching Your Right Brain Child video by Dianne Craft.
  • Teach Both Sides of the Brain by Tony Buzan.
  • Lindamood Bell’s Verbalization/Visualization program.


  • Model for your children how to see their whole paper, or paragraph, before they write it.
  • Model pre-writing by using webbing (right brain) versus outlining (left brain).
  • Show them how to write only one or two words to remind them of the whole thought.
  • When grading the papers, give points for every positive thing on the paper. Ignore the errors initially, addressing them later when students prepare to write their next paper.
  • Don’t correct spelling errors on the paper. Instead, put the misspelled words into the next spelling list for the student to learn.
  • Don’t require that a paper be rewritten until a child has achieved success at the writing process.
  • Give the child a list of transition terms, topic sentence starters, and concluding terms to use in his writing at first.


Following Directions

  • When giving oral directions, use quick doodles to help a child remember what is said.
  • Later, have the child make a picture in his head of what you tell them to do.
  • Using color and circling to help show a child how to break down the steps of written directions for easy understanding.

Study Skills

  • Teach your child how to take picture notes for history, science, grammar and other subjects. Their test scores and understanding will improve dramatically.
  • When teaching any amount of sequential material, use doodles and pictures, in a story, or in a row, touching each other, for easy storage and retrieval.


Possible Remedial Solutions for Daily Teaching

As a special education resource teacher for remedial reading and language arts I developed this method of teaching these bright, hard-working, but struggling students. The key for you is to have your struggling child work with you in a one-on-one situation for defined periods of time during each day. Struggling children do not learn independently, but need much teacher involvement to be successful. Using this method, I regularly saw a two-year growth in one year in both reading and spelling in the children I worked with, even if they had dyslexia and were non-readers at the beginning. Feel free to modify the plan in any way that works for your family. There are many other methods that work. This is just one of them.

Comments/Suggestions | Disclaimer | Advertising