A Charlotte Mason Education, Educational Reform, Philosophy, Students with Special Needs, Testing
Comments 9

Rethinking the Culture of Therapy by Tammy Glaser

Parents and teachers of special needs children try to catch them up to standards hard to reach for typical children. Every Wednesday afternoon, I help students with homework. Second graders parse parts of speech. Third graders write rough drafts, edit, and revise stories. A bright third grader guesses at multiple-choice math questions. This child mispronounces radius, diameter, and circumference, has no clue of what they mean, and muddles through improper fractions when denominators and numerators are still riddles. My heart breaks to hear “I wish I could cheat” and “I’m so stupid.”

Such unreasonable standards crush atypical learners and their teachers. A life of therapies burden busy schedules. Delayed children need Mason’s ideas about the preschool years even more than their peers. “A great deal has been said lately about the danger of overpressure, of requiring too much mental work from a child of tender years. The danger exists; but lies, not in giving the child too much, but in giving him the wrong thing to do, the sort of work for which the present state of his mental development does not fit him.” (Volume 1, pages 66-67)

We give toddlers special services when they should be playing in the fresh air. The outdoor life is an antidote to the culture of therapy: physical, occupational, sensory integration, social skills, speech, and more. Dressing for romps, sand and water play and picking up tiny treasures target fine motor skills. Children climb trees, leap over sticks and stones, walk up and down hills, and swing and twirl outside. Nature’s gym develops gross motor skills and integrates touch, joint movement, and balance. On walks and outings, children meet all sorts of people, not just overstimulating peers. Little chats about what they did offer rich content and context to build language. Reciting nursery rhymes and poetry makes articulation fun.

The goal of early intervention for children with autism is success in a typical classroom. Our focus on speech and academics glosses over nonverbal communication. Mason knew its power for people talk with their eyes, hands, and bodies too. She relied on hopeful looks, warm voices, indirect hints, and “various little devices”–not just commands. She guided little ones to help themselves through calm inspiration. They could learn to wash carefully when not scrubbed, poked, and prodded into seeing it as torture. She depicted the relaxed, mindful parenting style taught in a new program that helps these children think for themselves.

Mason let incidental learning in the real world lay the groundwork for academics. Children picked up their colors in talking about flowers and choosing outfits. They sorted and matched by setting the table and folding socks. Nature study taught them words for weather, calendar, shape, and size. Shopping and baking built math skills among other things. She encouraged interest in the alphabet, writing, and reading with a casual atmosphere of books, letters, puzzles, and paper. She resisted the urge to push young children beyond their attention span. She demanded no formal lessons of children under the age of six and those not ready developmentally.

Mason believed the “dead wall of a systemized education” hindered the most delayed child more than the disability itself. She picked this quote from Annie Sullivan’s description of Helen Keller’s program, “If the child is left to himself he will think more and better, if less showily. Let him go and come freely, let him touch real things, and combine his impressions for himself, instead of sitting indoors at a little round table, while a sweet-voiced teacher suggests that he build a stone wall with his wooden blocks, or make a rainbow out of strips of coloured paper, plant straw trees in bead flower-pots. Such teaching fills the mind with artificial associations that must be got rid of before the child can develop independent ideas out of actual experiences.” (Volume 1, 196)

I used to wonder why Helen Keller picked up language so quickly when she had been cut off from words for four critical years of her life. She learned many things by following her mother around the house, doing chores. Her father led her from vine to vine and tree to tree while she sampled treasures from their ample garden. Little Helen even knew how to fold and put away clothes. She was quite resourceful in developing her own sign language and paid careful attention to events in her home. She knew how to lock people in the pantry for her own amusement. Outdoors, she fed the poultry, hunted eggs, milked cows, and hung around the barn and stable. Except for words, Helen experienced everything she needed to know through the outdoor life and household ways.

Helen may have been in a dark, silent prison, but her family gave her the freedom to live. When Annie Sullivan came into her life, Helen already knew much. She knew how to think. When she realized that things had names, the world bloomed for her like it never had before.

© Tammy Glaser 2011


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. jsmph48 says

    YES! YES! and AMEN! The time will come soon enough for formal lessons, in the meantime, let the children be children! Thanks for echoing the thoughts of my heart!!

  2. Kathy Wickward says

    “Mason let incidental learning in the real world lay the groundwork for academics. ”

    I realized there was something amiss with my daughter when it became clear that she did not benefit from incidental learning. She doesn’t just “pick things up” or “figure it out.” It all has to be taught. That is what therapy is for. Not that it should be done in isolation from the wonderful therapy of nature, but there’s a place for deliberate training. Mindful parenting for me involves spelling it all out, not significant looks that are lost on her.

    • Exactly, Kathy. Balance is needed and there is room for both natural learning and intentional teaching. Therapy is the “intentional teaching” component. We then offer natural ways to incorporate those taught skills.

  3. Jen says

    Thank you!!! I really needed that today! You have put so simply and eloquently what I need to remind not only my family and peers, but myself too. Wonderful!

  4. Great article Tammy! Touches the heart and is heartwarming. Government programs with their workers are constantly on the prowl for new ‘numbers’ for their funding which lands those precious toddlers who could be outside taking in so much at their own pace smack into those ‘therapy’ rooms – stimulating their motor skills as if Mom couldn’t have done it by playing with her child. They go directly from ‘therapy’ right into government schools where teachers are told from the top what they can and cannot do, instead of letting them use their talents. Funny, seems more and more , even teachers tell parents to homeschool their kids.

    Love the article, perfectly written!

  5. Kathy, I understand what you are saying. My daughter had similar issues when she was younger and we focused on deliberate training (the association method for her aphasia and Relationship Development Intervention for flexible thinking and relationships) in the home, natural, and community setting rather than the walls of a therapy room. Even typical children need mindful adults guiding them and asking the right questions (those that draw attention to something or encourage them to think).

    When my daughter was young, I ignored learning by meaningful looks and I regret it. I believed that all children in the autism spectrum were unable to learn body language and facial expressions in a natural setting. I found out how wrong I was when she was a young adult. She can learn incidentally once she learned how to pay attention to people. Relationship Development Intervention, which fits Charlotte Mason’s ideas nicely, was the key for her.

    Today was a lovely example. We were delivering meals on wheels on a dreary rainy day. It required us to walk under the same umbrella while she split her attention between carrying the food and adjusting her pace to mine. To make sure she was paying attention to my actions, I did not tell her to turn. I slowed down and slightly altered my direction. She followed me beautifully, an accomplishment she could have not done four years ago!

  6. Theresa says


    Do you have other articles written here in regards to homeschooling children with autism or special needs? My son is 8 years old and has been developmental delays since birth – he is now diagnosed with high functioning autism and I am trying to figure out our schooling for him next year. We used My Father’s World for kindergarten and 1st grade but I know he is no where near using further curriculum from them or others that I have used with my older children. I am considering writing my own for next year with an emphasis on seasonal/nature themes since he enjoys this area. Still, I would love to hear more about homeschooling a child with special needs so if you could point me to any articles you have written or other blogs who address this I would be so grateful.


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