God blessed some families with children who make teaching feel effortless. Mine is not one of them! Borrowing from Charlotte Mason’s analogy of Scylla and Charybdis in her thoughts on power and permissiveness, I felt trapped between drilling my children like a six-headed monster with razor-sharp teeth and sucking their talents into a pool of do-nothing pity. Like Charlotte, I asked, “But is there not a better way?”
God built a better way into the feedback loop that develops between parent and child in the first eighteen months of life. Charlotte described it in her passages in Home Education (pages 119 through 125) about a mother helping her daughter focus on lacing her boots and teaching her son to shut the door. She knew that few words, warm facial expressions, vocal tones, and natural consequences make two-way communication more effective. Formation of Character features this feedback loop in several stories about adults guiding children. Through narration, Charlotte placed the grand conversation between educator and children as the cornerstone of her educational philosophy. She recognized the better way!
Some parents of special needs children have a complete breakdown in this loop. Autism shuts down a child’s ability to send and receive feedback. When my nineteen-year-old daughter with autism lashed out in frustration as a young child, I studied her behavior to figure out what she could not say. Slowly, Pamela began to trust me as her guide when challenged. Four years of hearing me read aloud while she tracked the words on the page with her eyes enabled her to process what she heard. When we found the right language program five years ago, she began to process and express verbal information better. When we implemented a developmental curriculum for autistic children eighteen months ago, she started mastering the nonverbal elements of this feedback loop. For the first time in seventeen years, we finally share a reciprocal dialog at the level of a toddler. Sometimes, finding a better way takes time!
Since two-way communication is integral to learning, parents of special needs children should find ways to scaffold gaps in feedback. Children with ADHD need short sound bytes in a distraction-free setting until their educators find ways to lengthen attention span, such as short, varied lessons. Those with auditory processing disorders benefit from strong nonverbal cues and the written word until they learn how to understand what they hear. Students with poor memorization skills may rely on math tables much longer than their peers do. Visual processing challenges require extra verbal support while they strengthen their visual discrimination through copywork and studied dictation.
Monitoring the feedback loop enables educators to scaffold properly. When my daughter was six, Pamela threw kicking and screaming tantrums whenever her teacher handed her a pencil. I started homeschooling her the following year and took a sabbatical from writing for she was missing prerequisite milestones. After a year of focusing on pre-writing skills, I reintroduced writing letters and there were no more tears. I scaffolded her in many ways: working on the vertical plane and transitioning to horizontal through slant notebooks, enlarging the paper to a size she found comfortable, and using markers and transitioning to pencil. Although she took two years to learn to print words, her positive demeanor told me she was in her comfort zone. Today, Pamela enjoys writing her biographies, making lists, and keeping track of important information in her many notebooks.
Taking a step backward when our children need more time working on developmental gaps can feel like they are only getting further behind. It is tempting to worry about the future on days when our children seem like they are slipping away from their peers. I live in what may be the future for some: Pamela is not ready to live independently and we are not sure if she ever will. We are her legal guardians and plan to guide her in her development as long as she is willing to learn. So far, she is! It is hard not to worry, but I try to keep the words of my guide in mind, “But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. So do not worry about tomorrow; for tomorrow will care for itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” (Matthew 6:33-34)