Have you heard that story about the man watching the butterfly as it tries to break out of its chrysalis? It’s a short story, and you can read the full version here, but what eventually happens is this: after watching the butterfly struggling to break free for some time, the man decides to help by cutting open the chrysalis so the butterfly doesn’t have to continue exerting itself, to continue spending so much energy emerging from its enclosure. His intention was to assist this beautiful creature in its transition. However, the unintended result is a tragedy – the butterfly emerges with weak and unformed wings, never able to fly.
To reach its full potential, the butterfly needed to struggle so it could strengthen its wings and live its full butterfly life.
I’ve heard this story several times before, and when I came across it again recently, it pulled me up short, the moral of the story resonating with me in a much more significant way than it ever had before. I saw myself in the man, and my sons in the butterfly. With both of my boys now in the beginning stages of their own emergence, transitioning from the warm and protected life of our family to the larger world outside of it, the parallels are clear, including the man’s eagerness to help. The lesson is also clear: struggle is an essential part of growth.
Unfortunately, that’s not an easy lesson for this particular parent.
Last week my oldest son and I were researching and talking about the colleges he may want to apply to. He was focused, but kind of quiet, not really “leaning in” to our conversation or the web sites we were exploring. So, I asked him what was up, thinking maybe he wasn’t excited about the schools we were looking at or he was confused by something. He paused for a moment, and then slowly responded, “I don’t know how I’m going to make this decision. I’m afraid I’m going to make a mistake and choose the wrong college or the wrong major.” I shouldn’t have been surprised. In fact, I silently berated myself because I should have seen this coming.
My son, this almost-man, has always been a careful, even reluctant, decision maker (taking him to a toy store to choose something for his birthday was a form of torture for him when he was younger), so I have become accustomed to stepping in and offering my opinion and guidance in these situations to help move things along and minimize the discomfort. That day last week was no different. Making suggestions, laying out the pros and cons (at least as I saw them), listing the factors to consider – I jumped right into the void and did what I have always done: I reached for the scissors.
And now I see that I need to stop doing that.
I need to let him struggle, to figure out what’s important to him without my input or interference. I’ve written recently about the need to trust that things will turn out okay, and now I am realizing that patience is an important part of trust. Not only do I need to give my boys the freedom to set their own priorities and make their own choices, trusting that they have the tools they need, but I also need to let them do it on their own schedule, even (and especially) if that includes some struggling and uncertainty.
This sounds simple, even to me, and is likely obvious to other parents who have done a better job of trusting and being patient than I have. In all honesty, though, this represents a significant shift for me, and I don’t think it’s going to be easy. When I was growing up, I often felt that my parents didn’t care much about what was going on in my life, and I don’t recall that they played any role at all in the decisions I made through high school – class selections, test prep, clubs and sports, and college choices were all on me. When my boys were born, I consciously decided to do some things differently than my parents did, but it’s possible that I “over-corrected” on some things.
Looking back over the years since my boys were young, I see that backing off and leaving some space is something I should have done more of. I probably should have stayed out of the toy aisle and let him ponder his options on his own, allowing him to build more confidence in making his own choices. Yes, selecting a college and a major are much bigger decisions than a birthday gift selection, and parents do have a role to play in these decisions, but I need to be in the passenger’s seat (or maybe even the back seat), not the driver’s seat. I need to trust that he can figure out his own lists of pros and cons, prioritize the things that matter to him, and make his own spreadsheets of school information. As of today, I’m putting the scissors away and recommitting to my own transition – becoming a more trusting and patient mom who can enjoy looking up and watching her boys flying high on the strength of their own wings.
Lori Dunlap worked for almost twenty years in the corporate world, first as a management consultant to Fortune 500 companies, and then at a large research university as a program director and adjunct faculty member. She is now pursuing her long-held interests in research and writing, and recently completed her first book about college admissions for homeschoolers, “From Home Education to Higher Education“, published by GHF Press in 2017.
It’s a rainy Sunday afternoon here, and I had quite a few things I wanted to get done today. I just realized that I won’t be crossing even one thing off my “to do” list, though, and I couldn’t be happier. Instead, as I write this, I’m sitting on the couch, stroking my son’s head as it rests in my lap. He has a cold and is feeling miserable, so we’ve decided to spend the day snuggling, drinking tea, and watching movies.
Afternoons like this used to be much more common when the boys were younger. I was an “attachment parenting” mom, and physical closeness was a big priority during their early years. Even as they have grown older we are still a physically affectionate family, but it’s just not the same. And now that this son, my youngest, will be heading off to boarding school this Fall, I am fully, painfully aware that the daily hugs and regular, casual check-ins that have become part of the fabric of my days will be much rarer. So, any ideas of productivity are easily set aside today as I soak in this precious time together.
I used to think that raising little ones was hard, but I’m finding that parenting older ones is even harder, at least for me. When they were young there were certainly lots of challenges – sleep deprivation and the need to be constantly alert to choking hazards and other potential dangers was tough. I always knew what to do and felt like I could protect them, though; I was in control of circumstances. Now, however, I am not, and the struggle to find the balance between maintaining a close connection and making room for their increasing need for independence is an even more difficult challenge.
And it doesn’t help that I’m prone to worry.
After more than a decade of practice, the pathways in my brain that give me the ability to imagine every possible worst-case scenario for any situation have become deeply-entrenched. Not to brag, but I have developed a type of x-ray vision that enables me to see all the possible dangers that lurk around any corner my boys might turn. You name the situation, and I can deliver a list of possible problems and harms that can come from it, everything from simple embarrassment to heart-stopping physical calamities.
My worry game is strong.
I am convinced that letting go of our children is one of the hardest challenges life presents us. It is a kind of paradox, actually. How do we stay attached, loving and caring for them every moment of every day, and yet unattached so as to provide the space they need to find and follow their own path in the world?
I think it comes down to trust. Trust that we have helped instill in them the confidence and skills they need to meet the challenges coming their way; trust that their choices are the right ones for them, even if they are not what we might choose; trust that they will still come to us when they need us, knowing we will always provide a soft place to land. And also trust in ourselves, that we can find the sweet spot between attachment and independence.
I have my work cut out for me. Cultivating trust in place of worry will not be easy, but as I look forward to these final months with both of my boys still at home, I can clearly see that this will be an important part of the process. Not doing so would stall the healthy transformations we need to embrace and make the transition even more difficult for all of us. So, I will rise to the challenge, focusing on developing a greater sense of trust that my boys will find their way in the world, while also trusting that, on days like today when they need me, they will find their way back.
When I first created the “Teach Your Own” site, my intention was that it would be a source of information and inspiration for other homeschooling families like mine – those who were looking for ideas and insights to help them along the uncommon, sometimes-bumpy, homeschooling path. For the first few years, that is exactly what it was, and I loved sharing my experiences and “wins” while learning about the journeys of other families, too. As my two boys grew into teenagers, though, and as the homeschooling adventure became more predictable and less dependent on me to direct it, I found that thinking and writing about homeschooling, especially the daily and more detailed aspects of it, became less of a priority.
Over time, my focus has shifted from the short-term, tactical considerations of homeschooling, to the more long-term, strategic planning necessary to help my older son prepare for college. New projects have begun to take more of my time and attention, including researching and writing a book about college admissions for homeschoolers and creating a new “virtual college fair” to support non-traditional students planning to apply to college. Both have become true passion projects for me and have given me the opportunity to connect with homeschooling families in a whole new way.
Which is why this past winter I began to think about closing this site.
The issue is not just one of time limitations, but also the realization that I feel less like a homeschooling parent than I used to. As a junior in high school, my older son is managing his education independently now, taking his core classes at the local community college and pursuing his personal interests through online elective courses and local extracurricular activities. My younger son, who discovered a passion for musical theater several years ago, auditioned and was accepted into a boarding performing arts high school, which he will begin attending this fall. In short, with both of my boys taking the reigns of their education now, my days of choosing curriculum, planning projects, and scheduling field trips has come to an end.
So, am I a homeschooling parent anymore? What does it mean to be a homeschooler, anyway?
I’ve spent quite a bit of time grappling with these questions recently. Homeschooling has been more than just an educational choice – it’s been a lifestyle choice, too, with “school” and “life” often blending seamlessly. (I know this is true for other families, too – how often have we laughed at stories about struggling to answer the store clerk’s question about what grade our kids are in? Or what classes they’re taking at school?) Even though the “schooling” part of the homeschooling equation has changed, the “home” part, including the strong family bonds we have woven over years of shared time and experiences, is still very much intact.
As I reflect on these aspects of our journey thus far, it strikes me that homeschooling is really more of a mindset than anything else, one deeply rooted in the core values of family connection, commitment to personal and intellectual growth, and respect for individual choices. Regardless of how a family chooses to formally educate their children, if they are embracing opportunities for their children to explore and pursue their own interests, fostering a love of learning and a sense of independence and ownership in their education, and cultivating curiosity and creativity, might they not be considered members of the homeschooling community, too? Homeschooling is already a rather large umbrella, encompassing all types of approaches to learning and growth, so maybe it’s useful to stretch its boundaries slightly further to include a few more.
With this perspective, I have decided to maintain my “membership” in the homeschooling community as I continue to advise and guide my boys’ education, albeit at more of a distance than before. And I have also decided that I will continue to keep “Teach Your Own” running, but with a slightly different focus. Now it will be more of a “transition travelogue”, sharing our successes and struggles as my boys evolve from self-directed learners at home, to young adults venturing out into the world with a new level of independence and merging into more mainstream pursuits. What has their non-traditional educational background provided that will serve them well? What other tools do they still need to add to their travel kit? I’ll let you know.
So, I’ll be spending more time around here in the coming weeks and months with stories of adventure and insight. I hope you will stop by from time to time when you have a moment. Better yet, pour a cup of tea, pull up to the table, and share your stories of transitions and change, too. It’s always nice to know we are not alone in our journeys, lonely as they may seem sometimes. And, with any luck, maybe we can help each other prepare for some of the inevitable potholes and detours along the way, too.
Lori Dunlap worked for almost twenty years in the corporate world, first as a management consultant to Fortune 500 companies, and then at a large research university as a program director, admissions committee member, and adjunct faculty. She has homeschooled her two boys since 2011, and recently published her first book, “From Home Education to Higher Education”, published by GHF Press in 2017. You can connect with Lori and find more information about college admissions for homeschoolers at: www.uncommonapplicant.com
It’s official! Our sister site, The Uncommon Applicant has launched as of today, and we’re celebrating with our first quarterly newsletter. Our first issue will introduce you to a member of our college coaching team, and highlight some great words of wisdom and special offers from our partners. Please feel free to share with other homeschoolers and non-traditional students, and join our Uncommon Community!
Like many other students around the country, my youngest son will start school in a few weeks – not homeschool, actual school, the kind with teachers and whiteboards, and a gym that smells like a clingy mix of sweaty bodies and floor polish. And his first day of school, just over three short weeks from now, will be the first time he’s stepped foot into a classroom as an enrolled student since the middle of his 1st grade year, almost seven years ago.
Needless to say, I have mixed feelings about this.
Mostly I’m excited for him because this is his choice, one of the first significant decisions he’s made for himself. My husband and I have always told the boys that homeschooling was a choice, and they could make a different choice at any time, but I don’t think either of us really believed they would. My oldest son plans to continue homeschooling through high school, so for my younger son to choose a different option is a big deal. We both support and understand his choice, though, because he’ll be going to a great school, one where the teachers and staff are incredibly warm and accepting, who will be able to challenge him academically while teaching him ways to manage through some of the difficulties he faces with dyslexia. It’s a good choice and a good plan.
But it’s not all sunshine and lollipops.
Amidst the happiness, I’m also feeling quite nostalgic. Homeschooling has allowed our family to spend lots of time together and develop incredibly close bonds with each other, and now an important chapter in our family’s story is coming to an end. And so, even as we prepare for this move forward and the next chapter, I keep finding myself looking back, reviewing the past seven years and examining each of the memorable moments as I would a treasured, precious object, one that I haven’t taken off the shelf to fully appreciate in a while.
A patchy assortment of happy memories spring to mind, of course. We’ve laughed a lot, at each other and ourselves, while exploring countless parks and hiking trails, or creating gooey clay sculptures and muddy paintings. We’ve read and critiqued a ton of amazing books together, and puzzled over numerous math problems. For years, these are the moments that have provided the context for our daily family life and formed the foundation of our relationships as the boys have grown and matured. But none of these first memories to surface are the happiest moments, I realize. Instead, the moments I’ll remember most years from now, that I’ll continue to treasure even when both of my sons are grown and have families of their own, are some of the quieter, unplanned ones that didn’t actually involve laughing or diving into a messy project together, or even being together at all.
For me, the moments when I’ve felt the happiest are the times when I’ve caught a glimpse of the men both of my boys are becoming.
These are the times that have had almost nothing to do with me and any “fantastic” homeschooling plans I’ve come up with, and instead have been entirely about my kids taking the reins on their own learning and making choices that excite them because they’re connected to their interests and bigger goals. The moments are hard to describe exactly, because they’re often fleeting, and almost always unexpected, like when my oldest son disappeared for hours, and later casually showed me a 3-D human figure he’d been modeling and “rigging” (so it can walk and move like a real human) in a software program I’d never heard of and didn’t know he knew how to use, aided by detailed diagrams of human anatomy that he found; or when it dawned on me, as he showed me a spreadsheet to ask a question about modifying formulas, that he had been teaching himself calculus (though he didn’t realize that’s what it was) so he could calculate the trajectory of a spaceship he was designing and wanted to launch in a space simulation program; or when I read a poem my younger son wrote spontaneously because he just read some Rumi poetry and was inspired. There are countless other examples, and I can’t come close to taking credit for any of them — none were part of any of my plans, and I’m certain that if they had been, they would have failed spectacularly. The only credit I can take is that I’ve learned a very important lesson quite well on this homeschooling journey: almost always, the best thing I can do is get out of the way.
I resisted this lesson in the early years — I thought that “real” learning could only happen in an environment characterized by academic discipline, supported by the structure of rules and routines, even though strong evidence to the contrary was right in front of me every single day. The intricate stories and artwork they created, and the earnest questions they asked about the world around them, didn’t count (in my mind) as “real” learning. I cringe now when I think back on those days. The boys were learning every moment of every day, I just didn’t see it, or appreciate it. I wish I could go back and burn each and every one of the daily plans and assignments I created, along with the stacks of textbooks and workbooks I spent countless hours researching and then purchasing. I wish I could go back and tell myself to just trust — trust that nature had already deeply embedded the love of learning in my children, and that all I really needed to do was water it, and maybe pull some weeds from time to time.
This is why it makes me sad when I hear other homeschooling parents ask questions like, “How do I make my lazy son do his school work?” or “How do I deal with my daughter’s defiance when she won’t do what I tell her?” These parents have missed a beautiful opportunity to create some wonderful and happy memories. They have forgotten that they are raising future adults who need to have the experiences (including making mistakes) and to develop the self-confidence that will help them make their own choices when they are out in the world and don’t have us there telling them what to do. As they grow, our children need our guidance and support, without a doubt, but they also need space to grow their own roots, to flower in their own time when the conditions are right for them — we can’t do it for them, and we’ll just delay their growth process (at best) or undermine the full potential of their development (at worst) if we try.
So, this is why I’m happy for my son as he prepares to head off to school. He’s making a choice that is right for him, and I know that he will take his curiosity, creativity, and self-confidence with him, to a place where the staff and teachers know how to support and encourage without interfering. Homeschooling over these past seven years has allowed him to discover his authentic mix of strengths, interests, and goals, so I am confident that even more happy moments are coming our way.
If you enjoyed this post, click on the image below to check our what other homeschoolers have written about their happiest homeschooling moments!
I’ve been doing lots of writing about homeschooling and the transition to college lately, including this recent article I wrote for Homeschool.com where I share some of the information from my new book. If this is a topic you’re thinking about, too, check out the article and let me know what you think!
The perspectives and insights I’ve gained throughout this research have been incredibly valuable in the planning I’m doing with my boys, and I know that there are many, many homeschooling families who would benefit from this information, too. So, I wanted to return and share some of the specific results of this research with other homeschooling families who are also planning for college. Given the large quantity of information I’ve gathered, I can only share some of the specific questions, concerns, and experiences resulting from the research with homeschooling families in this article, and will follow up in a separate article focusing on the perspectives and recommendations provided by the survey and interviews with admissions officers. Read more…
“For educators and others wanting to understand the wide range of homeschooling experiences, examine the myths surrounding homeschooling, and become familiar with some of the research regarding homeschoolers’ academic outcomes, this book is a great place to begin. Dunlap has done a marvelous job of shedding light on the world of homeschooling and how post-secondary institutions might adapt to this growing population.
From Home Education to Higher Education opened my eyes. It taught me a lot about the world of homeschooling and I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to better understand the homeschooling experience.”
You can find the full review here: https://collegeahead.us/home-education-higher-education/
In addition, one of the homeschooling moms profiled in the book recently sent me an email and had this to say:
“I love the book. I mean, I seriously love it. It’s been a great review for me, plus it’s given me tons of new information. I didn’t know it would be as relevant to me as it has proven to be. Every now and then I have a parent who is considering homeschooling ask me questions. I now know I can recommend your book. It gives a great overview of homeschooling in addition to all the information about college and additional resources. It’s also been great timing for me as I think about the coming homeschooling year. Your writing is clear and concise, making it easy to read, as well. Nice work!”
If you’d like to pick up (or download!) a copy, you can find it on Amazon here. Once you’ve read it, let me know what you think!!
And in other news…. I wanted to let you know that I’ll be speaking as part of the Home Education Council of America’s (HECOA) 13th Annual “Not Back to School” event.
5 COLLEGE APPLICATION TIPS FOR HOMESCHOOLERS
Thursday, September 14th
For traditional students and non-traditional students alike, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that when you are applying to college, demonstrating your academic ability is the most important part of the process. For non-traditional students like homeschoolers, though, there are other important criteria that admissions officers also look for — things you’ll rarely find on their school’s admissions page. In addition, there are key choices you can make even before you apply that will help your application stand out during the admissions process. So, if you’re beginning to think about applying to college and are wondering what you can do to increase your chances of getting accepted to the schools of your choice, join us for this inspiring, informative session. By the end you will have a list of easy steps you can take immediately, along with a variety of unique ideas for making your application compelling to any admissions officer.
The conference is online and completely FREE!
Sign up on the HECOA web site!
It’s hard to express the excitement I feel about having my first book published! July 11th, the official launch date, will be a special day this year and for years to come. Here’s a quick overview of the book, which is available for pre-order on Amazon right now — please share with anyone you know who may be interested!
Coming Tuesday, July 11!
From Home Education to Higher Education
College applications are difficult at the best of times: word-count-specific personal essays, questions about what makes their school the best school, and let’s not forget the plethora of paperwork, different for each college. But what happens to those who don’t attend a school where they get official transcripts to give to the college in question or don’t have a school counselor to help them decide their futures? What happens to homeschoolers and other alternatively educated students?
In her GHF Press book, From Home Education to Higher Education: A Guide for Recruiting, Assessing, and Supporting Homeschooled Students, Lori Dunlap seeks to help answer these questions and more by encouraging professionals who work with homeschoolers to develop a plan to recruit, assess, and assimilate these students so that they may better enter and thrive in colleges and universities of their choice At the same time, Lori gives advice to homeschooling families to help them discover what admissions professionals want in an ideal applicant, better preparing them to write those essays, answer those questions, and work with the admissions professionals at their chosen schools.
Whether you’ve been homeschooling for just a few days, or you’ve already been at it for many years, at one point or another you’ve probably asked yourself at least one of these homeschooling “frequently asked questions”:
- How do I make sure my kids learn all the right things?
- What if I leave out important material?
- What is the best curriculum for [insert subject name here]?
- What if my child won’t do his/her work?
I don’t think I’ve met a homeschooling family yet who hasn’t faced these uncertainties at some point along their homeschooling journey. In fact, I think many of us have probably bumped up against these questions multiple times as we gain more knowledge and experience, and as our children reach new phases of development and maturity. The reason you won’t find a printed FAQ with easy answers to these questions, though, is that the answer to all of them (and numerous others) is the same: “It depends.”
One of the primary reasons so many of us have chosen to educate our children at home is because we want them to learn in a way that fits their particular needs and goals, and that allows us to be responsive to our students’ interests and abilities. Once we make this choice, though, we often find that this level of freedom and flexibility is also one of the biggest challenges of homeschooling. There are so many options, so many possible paths, that many of us begin to feel overwhelmed, or afraid to make a mistake, or concerned that our kids will miss out on important opportunities.
This is where learning and personality assessment can be incredibly helpful. Understanding our child’s particular learning preferences and strengths is a great starting point not only for developing our homeschooling plans, but also, as our children get older, for starting to think about post-high school plans, including higher education and career options. One of the most thorough and helpful assessments I’ve found is the one developed by the LearningSuccess™ Institute called the “Self-Portrait™ Power Traits Assessment,” and I recently had the opportunity to interview Mariaemma Willis, a learning specialist at the LearningSuccess™ Institute. (Please note: the above link will take you to a page with more information on this assessment, along with a link for purchasing the assessment at a reduced price.”)
Here are some of the questions I asked, along with Mariaemma’s responses…
- What are the most important things I need to know to homeschool?
The most important thing you need to know is who the student is. When students are in school, teachers and administrators begin their planning by thinking about things like the curriculum, learning materials, and the physical classroom. The individual students, including their learning preferences and interests, are rarely considered in the planning. As homeschoolers, however, you have the freedom to begin with knowing who the student is, and then all the other decisions can flow from there. And while some parents already have an idea about how their children learn best, sometimes a formal assessment can also be validating, in addition to providing insights about areas you may not have considered, like what the best learning environment might be for them. What’s more, students love learning about themselves, and the results of the assessment can be a great basis for involving your child in the decision-making process.
- What are some of the areas the “Self-Portrait” assesses?
There are five basic dimensions included in our assessment are:
- Disposition (personality),
- Preferred learning modality (auditory, visual, or tactile),
- Talents, and
- Best learning environment.
There are five main dispositions we look at, each of which tends to be pretty stable over time. The best learning happens when we understand that a “spontaneous” student, for example, needs to be able to move around and release physical energy while they’re learning, versus an “imaginative” student who learns best when they can piece ideas and information together for themselves. The first won’t learn well if confined to a chair for much of the day, and the second needs the freedom to explore their thoughts and ideas on their own. The three other types of dispositions include “organized,” “supportive,” and “curious,” each of which requires different types of support and opportunities to accomplish their best learning.
In addition to disposition, knowing how your student prefers to take in information, how to incorporate their interests and talents into their learning plan, and creating an optimal learning environment for them (considering factors like noise levels, lighting type, and social groupings) are each important individually and together as you make decisions about different types of classes, curriculum, and other educational activities.
- Could learning style information also help with home issues, such as chores?
Yes, because you can match chores with your child’s disposition. For example, if your child has more of a “supportive” disposition, you can ask them to do chores that involve working directly with other members of the family, like helping to make meals. If you also factor in their interests and talents, you can create a list of chores that they’ll be more likely to remember to do, and will do well.
- Can a learning assessment help me with a child who resists doing school work?
Yes! If a child is balking about doing academic work, it’s a clue that something is going on, and that you may need to find a different approach. The learning assessment is a good starting point, and a learning coach can help you incorporate the results of the assessment into a plan that works for both the parent and the student.
- How do I know I’m teaching the right things? What if I leave out important material?
Nobody knows for certain if they’re teaching the “right” things, not even experienced teachers. Every school teaches different classes in different ways at different times – nobody teaches all the same things, so there’s no important material you can leave out. As homeschoolers, as long as you teach your children the basics, including understanding and valuing their learning preferences, they’ll have the tools they need to be lifelong learners and will be able to fill in any “gaps” in the future.
So, as many of us in the homeschooling community wind down one academic year and begin planning for the next, taking some time to look more closely at our child’s “power traits” could be a great starting point. The LearningSuccess™ Institute would like to help, and is offering two types of support to our community:
- A reduced-rate learning strengths assessment, and
- A free teleconference where you can ask Mariaemma questions about how to incorporate your results into your plan for next year.
Here’s the link to more information about the assessment and how to get your assessment at a reduced price:
The free teleconference will be on Thursday, May 4th, at 10:00am Pacific. You can join the teleconference even if you choose not to do an assessment — you’ll still be able to ask questions and learn a lot from the conversation! Please RSVP here, and we’ll send you the details on how to call in:
(*Please note that the link to the assessment is an affiliate’s link, which means that if you purchase an assessment you will be helping support my work. Thank you!)
He tried to hide it, ducking his head quickly as I walked into the room, but I had already seen his face. He was crying, again, and didn’t want me to see. So I pretended for a moment that I hadn’t, moving through the room and tidying things here and there as I debated whether or not to say something. What could I say that hadn’t already been said many times before? What can a mother do when her child is struggling, and she doesn’t know how to make it better?
This boy, my youngest son, is very much like me. Of my two boys, he resembles me the most in terms of looks, and especially in terms of personality — strong-willed, independent, and often driven by an internal engine that doesn’t seem to have an “off” switch. The latter trait can be particularly frustrating for both of us, especially when we face obstacles outside of our immediate control that prevent us from moving forward — we’re not good at sitting still or waiting. So we have both become very good at work arounds, at figuring out how to get things done in spite of challenges or setbacks, to the point that sometimes other people (even the people closest to us) don’t have any idea how much we’re struggling because we seem to be doing fine. This trait also makes it hard for us to ask for help, because we don’t want to slow down long enough to explain the situation and ask for it, and because we feel like we should be able to figure it out on our own.
Except sometimes we can’t, and by the time we realize that, we’re already overwhelmed and exhausted.
This is the point my son had reached when I walked in on him that day as he was working on a written report. I knew reading and writing were challenging for him, and since they never have been for me, it was hard to know exactly what to do, but I did my best to help him figure out a variety of work arounds, like listening to audio books instead of reading physical books, and typing instead of writing by hand. But sometimes audio versions aren’t available for the book you want to read (which was the case for this project), and sometimes you just need or want to be able to write things by hand. Both of these are very hard for my son, and he has explained to me multiple times that “the words move around on the page” whenever he tried to read, and that he has to focus so hard on spelling words correctly when he was writing, that he lost his train of thought on the bigger ideas he wanted to communicate. I could certainly see evidence of these difficulties in his school work — the simple words and sentences in his papers didn’t come close to matching the depth and complexity of the ideas and questions he could express verbally. This is a kid who barely broke a sweat developing and delivering an hour-long presentation on Hannibal and the Punic Wars when he was in fifth grade, but who cried in frustration as he attempted to hand-write a simple timeline for his presentation board. In short, the gulf between his written abilities and his verbal abilities was wide, and getting wider.
So, as I tidied his room that day, realizing that we were both feeling overwhelmed and exhausted by these issues, I decided it was time to find some help. None of the solutions we had tried seemed to be helping all that much, and it was time to find out why. At first he resisted the idea of visiting a learning specialist and having some testing done, but over the course of a few days and a few more frustrating sessions with his report, he finally relented. In retrospect, I’m really glad that I gave him this time to think it over and to let the decision be his — forcing him to go through an evaluation process would likely have been counterproductive, damaging his self-esteem and undermining his growing sense of independence. Finding the right kind of professional support was an important part of the process, too. Unfortunately, all experts are not created equal, and I had to invest a lot of time in finding someone who could affirm my son’s creative and intellectual strengths, and who could gain his trust by treating him with respect and without condescension.
During my search for professional help, I was excited to find an online tool that gave me a chance to “walk a mile” in my son’s shoes, or, as their web site says, to “experience firsthand how frustrating it is when your hand won’t write what your brain is telling it to.” I asked my son to watch as I tried a few of the exercises, typing, fixing, re-typing, fixing again… the timer ran out every time before I could finish. I couldn’t believe it. How could anyone ever get anything done this way? When my son confirmed that the simulation was almost exactly what it’s like for him, my heart overflowed with compassion and admiration. And then we cried together, but this time out of relief instead of frustration.
So, as we begin this next part of the learning journey together and I reflect on our experiences thus far, I’m grateful that I allowed the extra time for my son to come to his own decision, and for me to find the best learning specialist for our needs. Now that we have a better understanding of how his brain is wired, and why particular activities are harder for him, his whole demeanor has changed. He’s feeling empowered and optimistic, even though we’re still too early in the process to have seen much in the way of results yet. Sometimes just knowing that there’s a path forward, and having someone who is willing to walk it with you, makes traveling even the most challenging of terrain much more bearable.
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