Practical Application
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Charlotte Mason and Special Needs Children by Tammy Glaser

The Charlotte Mason philosophy of education fits well with my autistic teen. Other special needs students also benefit from this style of learning. A few years ago, I wrote an article spotlighting the elements of her philosophy that work for these learners. I have revised it to reflect what I have learned since then:

* Short Lessons – Special needs children often have short attention spans. Moving quickly through short lessons, shifting from one topic to another, helps them gradually lengthen their attention. The advice given to Inconstant Kitty’s mother in Formation of Character (Volume 5) is perfect for children struggling with inattention. Charlotte considered attention the most important intellectual habit, and all children benefit from improving their ability to focus!

* Habits – Rushing special needs children develops the habit of frustration. They thrive in a gentle atmosphere where they can develop habits slowly, one at a time if necessary. Often the steps required in learning a habit must be broken down into very tiny, baby steps. Over the long run, baby steps add up to very meaningful, lifelong habits. Research on child education confirms the wisdom of her strategies. Sow ideas that make habits worthwhile. Focus on one habit at a time. Replace a bad habit with a good one. Prevent bad habits (meltdowns, inattention, and frustration) by observing body language. Be consistent, firm yet encouraging, hopeful and expectant. Avoid prompting through nonverbal communication. Target the most beneficial habits first.

* Atmosphere – Too much stimulation overwhelms some special needs children, while the excitement of change inspires others. Since each diffability has its unique set of issues, educators can tweak the atmosphere for the individual child. For example, experts recommend a highly stimulating, engaging, over-the-top environment for a child with Downs’ Syndrome. However, they generally recommend calm, quiet, non-stimulating environment for children with autism due to sensory overload, meltdown, and shutdown. If you are not familiar with the term meltdown, Charlotte Mason described it beautifully in “The Philosopher at Home” from Formation of Character (Volume 5).

* Scattered Abilities – Some special needs children are very scattered in skills, advanced in some areas while delayed in others. A Charlotte Mason approach is perfect for them because of the emphasis on habits over grade levels or test scores. The special needs child works slowly and steadily without the stress of knowing how far behind (s)he is

* Developmentally Based Learning – Rather than pushing early creative writing on young children, Charlotte Mason zoned language arts based upon maturity. Today, standards-based education starts children on formal language arts in preschool! She knew that children under six are receptive only when developmentally ready. For children six and older, she built the foundation of writing: oral narration (composition), penmanship (physical writing), copywork (mechanics), and living books (style and vocabulary). She introduced studied dictation and grammar only after the child mastered copywork and written narration only after the child has mastered all of the elements previously listed. Standards-based education forces students to write paragraphs in second grade before many children are developmentally ready!

* Narration – At the 2005 ChildlightUSA conference, Carroll Smith compared the neuroscience of learning to narration. To store information in long-term memory, the child must make connections, process it, and reproduce it in some way. Thus, reading and narrating completes the learning. While language-delayed children may not be able to narrate, educators can find other ways to reproduce learning. The student can draw, point to pictures and places on a map, dramatize, etc. Children who struggle with writing, answering multiple guess and true/false questions, etc. find oral narration efficient and personalized. Comprehension questions reveal deficiencies, while narrating spotlights what they remember. Success stimulates more success, building confidence. Narration reinforces speech therapy goals. Books and things give a child fresh ideas for speaking. Children with dysgraphia need a longer transition into written narration. They avoid the habit of frustration by learning developmentally appropriate skills.

* Read Aloud – Some students may need read aloud longer than typical ones. Charlotte Mason advised having children read their own books as soon as possible. Some diffabled ones may find reading silently or aloud so laborious that they require audio books or read alouds. The key is to find the best way for children to learn and reproduce knowledge from books. Some challenged in receptive language improve their auditory processing from read alouds and oral narration. My daughter progressed from not processing one thing heard in a conversation to eavesdropping from another room, thanks to an extensive read-aloud program. She can now read aloud and read silently sixth-grade-level books.

* Things and Life – Since education is the science of relations, Charlotte Mason students related to things and books. Special needs children are often concrete learners and relate to things easily. Inconstant Kitty’s mom taught adding and subtracting with manipulatives like dominoes. In teaching arithmetic, Miss Mason emphasized manipulatives, hands-on learning, and real-life math (operations, money, measuring, weighing, etc.).  Children with diffabilities often need special exercises to develop fine motor skills, making things a great source of practice. Games, handicrafts, drawing, musical instruments, and life skills are much more pleasant and practical ways to refine fine motor skills.

* Books – While special needs children may extract fewer living ideas from classical literature than peers, they can absorb enough to be meaningful. Like all students, they build knowledge of the unknown on a foundation of the known. When they meet classical references in real life, they will already have connections upon which to form new ones. They have the same right to enter the world of living ideas as every other child. Some experts recommend only functional and lower level reading materials for special needs children. I am so thankful we ignored such ideas with our autistic daughter. She enjoys unabridged living books and has found her own way to connect to books. She clearly relates to these books with very strong connections in her favorites; she associates and generalizes information from one book to another.

This entry was posted in: Practical Application


Carroll Smith has spoken on various topics related to Charlotte Mason. Currently he teaches at Gardner-Webb University and enjoys working with children, teachers, college students, and Charlotte Mason Institute. He was a teacher and a principal for 21 years before coming to Gardner-Webb University where he has been for six years. Having grown up in eastern North Carolina, he attended East Carolina University for his undergraduate degree and his master's in school administration. He completed his terminal degree and wrote his dissertation on Charlotte Mason at Virginia Tech. Carroll enjoys reading, gardening, and discussing ideas with friends. He and his wife, Andra, and their two young adult college-age children, Corban and Anna, enjoy living, working and playing in North Carolina.


  1. Tammy, It is incredible to me to read your blog again and see the number of connections you make to so much understanding about teaching and learning in general as well as to Mason’s work. You very clearly have a thorough understanding of her work and can apply it to so many areas of education. Not only that, but most of what you say for special needs children can also be said of regular children. Matterialism has consumed American education and pushing children to be what and where we want them is now the norm. What a blessing you are! Carroll

  2. recnepsrefinnej says

    I had a conversation today at my school with a parent who is frustrated over being asked to medicate her child. As a preface, I am staunchly anti-meds when it comes to psychological drugs because doctors really don’t know what the long-term effects are. But also, philosophically speaking, I take issue with creating “round pegs”. ADD/ADHD are not new phenomena, and yet more and more children are given drugs to control them. God created each of us with unique mental capacity, talents, gifts, and weaknesses for His own purpose. If we accept these characteristics and work with them rather than against them, then the results can be adults who have developed strength and self-discipline as a direct result of the “disability”. Sedating children so that they stay in their seats is an infuriating example of the conformity desired in the industrial model of schools.

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