More about kids who need extra help

I just dropped my 12 year old off at Rita’s house. Rita Cevasco is the Brave Writer instructor who is our reading and language specialist. She’s testing our fourth child, Liam, for issues similar to Noah’s. Because I now have a better idea of what the issues might look like in a home that accommodates their non-traditional learning styles, I felt it would be helpful for us to get a better picture of what we might be able to do for Liam so that he doesn’t have quite as bumpy a transition to a traditional schooling environment (whenever he chooses it for himself). He hopes to be a zoologist some day and we both know (he even more than me) how much science and math that requires. It’s quite possible that he’ll uncover a non-traditional route to his dream job, but in the meantime, the primary requirements of every zookeeping and zoological post we’ve discovered include at least two years of college heavily focused on science and math.

Liam happens to be gifted in both… but can’t handle learning them in anything resembling a traditional educational format. He learned his math facts literally through playing online games. He has never used a math text until this year… which is a chore for him, but given his maturity, he is more willing to keep at it in spite of frustrations and tedium. All his natural science knowledge has come through reading, observation, zoo classes and Discovery channel. He retains animal related data like a steel trap!

Rita and I chatted a bit about my recent blog entry and many of your questions. The truth is, Rita says that she rarely sees a parent who comes to her that has misread her child. Usually a mother does know when something isn’t quite right. Sometimes the disparity is that the child is so amazingly gifted or bright in one area and then is profoundly average in others, that that gap between the brilliance and the average performance gives rise to concerns. And those concerns are often warranted because for a talented, smart child, the frustration of being held back by lacking verbal skills or poor handwriting or the inability to write or sit or organize thoughts is more frustrating than it might be for a child whose skills were more balanced.

As I read through the questions and comments in last week’s post, I thought I’d address one at a time as I have time and the ability to post. (My Master’s thesis is in revision right now so I’m juggling that in the midst of everything else!) Clare asked about the articles I read related to brain development. Because it’s been ten years since I read them, I no longer have the specific articles in hand. But interestingly, through a quick google, I did find an article that stated something similar to what I remember reading. (Note the happy placement of the word jungle as his metaphor for how the brain functions!)

Recommended educational approaches, then, consist primarily of trying to maintain a relaxed, focused atmosphere that offers options for learning in individually satisfying ways. The old paradigm of students as empty vessels waiting to be filled with knowledge has given way to the constructivist belief that students continuously build understandings based on their prior experiences and new information. The idea of a fixed intelligence has given way to a more flexible perception of gradual intellectual development dependent on external stimulation.

Gerald Edelman, chairman of the Department of Neurobiology at Scripps Research Institute and 1972 recipient of the Nobel Prize for Physiology, offers a view of the brain that could influence the future classroom. Edelman’s vision of the brain as a jungle in which systems interact continuously in a chaotic fashion suggests that learners would thrive in an environment that provides many sensory, cultural, and problem layers. These ideas suggest that students have a natural inclination to learn, understand, and grow. Surround students with a variety of instructional opportunities and they will make the connections for learning. (

The primary breakthrough in brain research has been that real learning occurs through relationships between ideas, building on previous learning and engaged interest. For kids who struggle with verbal skills, sitting still to study, handwriting, sequencing and so on, this kind of brain research would indicate that perhaps you can cut a different path through the jungle. Capitalize on your child’s interests, hook up learning to areas of competence, and immerse your child in a subject area long enough for a child to form a relationship to that subject matter. Learn through channels that work rather than trying to beat a path through dense forest and obstacles.

When we first “deschooled” Noah based on the brain research I had read, the revolutionary new concept I incorporated into our lives was to focus on a single topic of interest at a time. We didn’t study math, spelling, writing, reading, history and science all in a day or even a week. Instead, when Noah showed interest in origami, we got books from the library, we bought the little colorful square papers from Michael’s, we looked up origami artists online and then, we made origami… for weeks. It’s not that origami was all we did for those weeks, it’s that we gave into it fully while the interest existed. I didn’t think to myself (as I had been likely to do previously), “When can we get done with origami so I can get him to do his mathbook?” Origami was sufficient for that season.

Origami naturally led to an interest in Japanese culture. I found and read the book Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes aloud to the kids. This book led us to World War II. My husband started checking out old WWII videos from the library and he watched them with Noah in the evenings. Noah became fascinated with old tanks both due to the movies and due to a computer game he liked to play with his dad called Bolo. So I checked out Dorling Kindersley books about WWII tanks from the library. The Internet was in its infancy at the time and Jon (my husband) was a big Internet dabbler. He set up a website for Noah and Noah built a website to feature tanks. It was never finished, but it did host photos and diagrams of the tanks and gave Noah his first taste of the power of html.

I could go on from here, the way his love of computer languages (and our family obsession with Shakespeare) has climaxed in his interest in linguistics in college. I see it now. I did not see it coming then.

Sometimes when I give this example of Noah’s, it looks too pristine, too obviously educational and wonderful. You must know that in the midst of this learning journey, he still had a hard time coming when called, remembering to brush his teeth (and other ordinary daily life kinds of expectations), and he became a target of bullying in our neighborhood. Learning became wonderful for a time (until I panicked again and imposed schoolish learning), but life was not without challenges.

Our fourth child, Liam, exhibits many of Noah’s traits, but his interests have been far more narrow and less obviously schoolish in disposition. His primary area of interest has been a couple of computer games he plays online. Having raised Noah and having watched the way pushing him to learn backfired so many times, I have been more hands off with Liam. His computer gaming led us to making a notebook (of about 20 pages which took a year to complete) that featured maps of an island chain he created out of his imagination. Because of his online gaming, he became deeply interested in maps, languages, flags, wars, topography. We used “Mapping the World by Heart” as a way to understand things like longitude and latitude, how to indicate mountain ranges and so on. Handwriting has consistently been a struggle for this left-hander so half of the text is in my handwriting as he narrated to me.

It was fascinating to see that his love of gaming led to this creative project. Immersion has been key to keeping his interest. It’s taken some creativity on my part to see how to capitalize on it.

Time’s up! I need to go pick him up from Rita’s right now. I’ll continue this entry tomorrow.

5 Responses to “More about kids who need extra help”

  1. Katie says:

    Hi Julie,

    I just want to comment about the confusing nature of the brain in my ds – almost 11. I can totally relate to the “exceptional in some areas and below average or average in others”. We have learned a lot through very non-traditional routes (lots of hands on and oral learning). I enjoyed a book called “Upside Down Brilliance” – the visual spatial learner by Silverman and also am enjoying “In the Minds’ Eye” by Thomas West. Although teaching him has had its challenges we have seen much fruit from just relaxing a bit and daring to be different from traditional learning methods. Thanks for sharing your educational journey with us. Each of us learns with each of our children different ways to learn and teach.

  2. Valeie says:

    Congrats on the nomination! I love your blog. I am also nominated for Best Variety – just4homeschoolfamilies. I voted for you…

    Thanks for making a great blog to visit!

  3. Mary says:

    What I find so interesting is that the children we are talking about, despite their commonality ‘needing extra help”, also have their own learning style. It would have been my assumption that these children would fall into similar ‘categories’ as learners. Which is obviously not the case. Katie’s post above reminded me of a Learning Styles Evaluation that I did for each of my boys.
    Cole, whom I have that ‘gut’ reaction with (though not quite sure what to do about it) scored the highest as “Intrapersonal”, then “Logical/math” followed by “Musical”. Is he ADD?? I really don’t know, but feel like there is a piece of a puzzle missing, one that I’m not getting.
    I would appreciate any suggestions for books that may be helpful to understand him a bit better or more specifically mothering him in the best way.
    Thanks for this opportunity to share!

  4. Julie Bogart says:

    Yes, I agree with you Mary. The learning styles differences often do account for their different ways of learning. And like you, I too still felt like there was a piece missing.

    What will be interesting for me to observe over the course of the next few years is how support in college makes a difference or not. One thing I do know is that for my other son who shows some similar characteristics, I’ll be attentive to what the colleges offer in terms of support for kids with ADD or other learning issues before having him apply to them.

    As far as books go, I really like both of Dr. Mel Levine’s books: A Mind at a Time and The Myth of Laziness.

    You can read more about his philosophy of learning here:

    All Kinds of Minds


  5. Rita says:

    Praise to the parent who works so hard to find the paths to learning! Julie, I know from experience how hard it is to find those creative paths, as you outlined with schooling Noah and Liam. So bravo, really! We all know it would be so much easier to just hand our child a book, especially for a subject like math. We all want to know that we covered the necessary scope and sequence– so we feel more secure in our teaching. It is a worry knowing that at some point, if a child pursues college, he/she will need to function in a traditional teaching environment. For that reason, I like the way you have convinced Liam to do the math workbook this year. You gave him time, but you are also luring him along in this one subject. And you picked one of his strongest subjects, which was also wise.

    As you know, I homeschooled with a few more traditional demands than you make, but still really tried to allow my children to “learn how to learn” and to stretch their abilities by focusing on ideas that they loved. I think the quote about forging a path through the jungle raises one troubling question–the question we all struggle with: can we allow our kids to “overspecialize” (as Mel Levine termed the idea) in some areas while allowing them to completely avoid others? As adults, we live lives filled with specialization. I don’t draw or paint for a living, because those tasks are difficult for me. I use skills that I am good at. However, in life and household management, I have had to continue to engage in tasks I am less skilled in. But mostly, I find ways to avoid those things I really flunk in. Levine contends that we need to find a balance between building on strengths and simultaneously strengthening weaknesses. Education, in his view, compells us to help kids to grow in areas they would naturally avoid completely. In the case if the ADHD child, the areas of struggle are primarily in the types of skills needed to succeed in traditional educational environments.

    Each parent struggles in finding the perfect balance between teaching through the strongest skills and interests and not avoiding the weak areas of learning. I did, too, with my oldest daughter, who was diagnosed “borderline” ADHD. Most of home school was focused on exploring learning through her primary areas of interest. But I added a few traditional demands. The balance was not always right. The results were not always pretty. But she is coping in traditional high school now. However, Emma takes summer school classes each summer by choice. She told me she would rather go to school all year, in order to have fewer core courses in any one trimester, because too many demands and too many pieces of information overwhelm her. I was so proud that she was able to figure that out for herself and she is willing to do what it takes to succeed. BTW, she wants to stay in traditional school, for all its faults.

    We had spent a lot of time in home school talking about how Emma thinks and how she learns, as I know Julie has done. I outlined my own strengths and weaknesses and often used myself as an example. As a result, my kids can catalog my faults on a dime! Also, we tried to find strategies to help her cope, which I think Julie seems to emphasize. I used almost all of her ideas, even if I thought they wouldn’t work, to help Emma to see that this was “her” life, not mine. I talked her into trying my strategies, too, and gave her permission to criticize my ideas. I really wanted Emma to take ownership for her own life and her own dreams… really the most important goal to me. Ownership is a tough balance too, for both the parent and the child.