Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Patterns & Sequencing Activity

Ok, today was the first day we tried out one of the many cool activities our speech therapist shared with us. For those looking for hands on resources this is just one of many excellent ideas that can be done with materials that are easy to get or already in your house. For this one the only cost was a set of plastic bracelets I spent $2 on yesterday at Wal-Mart. The other items were from around the house. This idea and many others can be found in a book that my therapist was a consultant for. Its titled Early Childhood Materials and Equipment by Janice Schultz. It covers areas like gross motor skills, sorting, lacing, patterns, language and comprehension, creative play and more. It has color photos of the activities set up with an explanation of where the items came from and what to do with them.

Today we did a lesson in patterns and sequence. This helped to not only enhance the skill of order and placement but also her language skill as we emphasized concepts such as "first," "last," "next," and "after." Our therapist said the key to the success is the presentation. You have to present it to them in a manner in which encourages their success. So instead of just handing them stuff to sequence you set the table or area up in an organized format that helps them know what they need to do.

Here is how we started. We took the bracelets that I purchased and laid them out on a strip of cloth. The cloth for me was added simply to keep the background from becoming a distraction since we were doing it on the floor. It also helped to draw attention to the workspace. On the cloth we placed the bracelets in sets of fours and put a stick between each set so that my daughter can see when the set is over and it is time to begin again.

Now I was ready to present the activity. We began with some various blocks placed in random order and then did some based on colors. We even did one with candy since I had four different types of candy to work with (do note that three of them were sugar free!). You can see from this photo how the activity was presented. Above the line of rings was the sample pattern I wanted her to repeat. All of the pieces she needed to complete it were placed in a basket in front of her. It was presented in such a way as to encourage success, but still, she needed some guidance. This is where the language skills come in. We talk about which one comes first. She would physically point to the first one in the sample pattern and then realize it went first. At that point I showed her where it went. Then we talked about which one came next, which one came after that, and last, etc. Often when I would try to let her do it on her own but there were times she would pick the wrong ones. At that point I had to take her back to physically pointing at the next one in the sample pattern again. After several activities though she was doing really well and starting to get it. Positive reinforcement goes a long way with things like this. She really loves it when I get excited about her doing a good job. Of course on the candy one I let her have a treat when she completed it correctly.

The objects can either be random or related. The point is for them to repeat the pattern. For beginners you might want to start with a pattern of only two or three. The rings can be smaller too. In fact, our therapist had a chain belt that she used. The key is to have something that shows the child where the object will go and how many objects will be needed to complete it. That needs to be divided by using a rod or something similar. The sample pattern placed above the activity can also be laid upon rings which help enforce what those are for. I simply didn't have enough rings to do that. Below are a few more images of some of the other sequences we tried. Remember the length can be as long or as short as you want it to be.

Blocks in Random Order


Random Objects

Celebrating Success!

Thursday, August 21, 2008

The Decision to Homeschool - Part 2

Learning you have a child with Down Syndrome is overwhelming at first, at least for those of us who really did not know much about it. When I thought of Down Syndrome I generally just thought of mental retardation. Well there is SO much more to it than that! I didn't realize all the medical problems that came along with it. I did not even really care that my daughter had Down Syndrome because that information was immediately followed by the fact that she had a congenital heart defect and would need open heart surgery! My father just had a quadruple bypass the month before and it was very tough on him. Now they want to open up my daughter's chest, remove her heart from her body and fix it? No way! As I promised in my previous blog, I will one day share all about Down Syndrome but we are still on the subject of our decision to homeschool so let me get back to that. The point of all this is that all of this information about my daughter's condition made us seriously reconsider homeschooling.

Its not very often that you will find many people encouraging you to homeschool, unless that person already does so themselves. With every doubt I confided in to others they were always quick to confirm those doubts right along with me. The main argument we had is really a common argument for children with or without Down Syndrome: Socialization. However, this time it had a little bit different spin on it. It was not the general “they will miss out on all the socialization” kind of argument. It was spoken of as if that was all there was for our children! I would hear things like, “they are such social creatures” or “they thrive on socialization.” I begin to feel that my child had nothing else to hope for in life other than being “social,” they made me feel as if my daughter would never be able to learn. It was pretty frightening.

Then there was the advocacy angle. Many parents have worked long and hard for children like my daughter to be given the right to be integrated into the public school system, and rightfully so. While I do choose to homeschool I will fight along with families in my group for their children to have the right to attend school with their peers. My most basic desire for my daughter and others who have DS is that they have the same opportunities given them as anyone else would have. Our children have hopes and dreams like everyone else and should be given every opportunity to see those dreams come true. Well, some parents in our group felt that homeschooling would be taking a step backwards in the fight and I was told that I should reconsider for the benefit of every other child with Down Syndrome. They said it was important that I allowed her to go to school to be an advocate and keep the fight going. Wow, that really put the pressure on me. Could I harm the work that had been done for those kids by doing what I felt was best for my family?

The other main consideration against homeschooling was the special services my daughter would need. Before she was even two months old and we already had a case manager, para professional, occupational therapist, physical therapist and speech therapist that she saw on a monthly and sometimes weekly basis and all that was in addition to all the medical professionals she had to see. We had to teach my daughter how to do the most basic things like how to eat, roll over, sit up and crawl. Those things come naturally to most children, but my daughter needed someone to teach her. If I needed help to teach her that, how was I going to teach her the more complicated subjects on my own?

Well, of course the decision did not have to be made at the moment we found out her diagnosis so all of these doubts came up over the course of the first three years of her life. (While one might think I still had a few more years to figure it out, as I mentioned in another blog, at age three children with special needs are expected to enroll in a special needs preschool or a private preschool through which the public resources are available for PT, speech and stuff like that.) However, we had come a long way in three years and we had learned a lot about Down Syndrome. So much so, that our primary care physician commented that I would soon know more about it than she did, and I believe in some areas I did. Now that I was more educated about DS I felt that I might just actually be able to pull it off. A few events helped to assure me that was indeed the case.

When my daughter was born there was no Down Syndrome support group in our area. Another mother of a baby with Down Syndrome (he was 10 months older than Gess) contacted me about becoming a part of a new support group. She had one other person, her and now myself. We got together and started the Southeast Kansas Down Syndrome Society. It was great to have other people who had similar experiences to share. We all had basically one major concern and it was about the lack of information that was available to us. So we formed our group and committed to not only supporting each other but providing information for other families and teaching others that our children were more like other children than they were different and should be afforded every opportunity that any other child might have. Our group started to grow quickly but it was not long before we began to see some conflicts in our philosophies. We had a couple of parents in our group who had a negative attitude concerning our children's capabilities. We were working on getting a college scholarship fund for people with disabilities when one parent asked, “can our children even go to college” and another said, “you need to wake up to reality, your children are not going to be able to go to college.” Well, I do not believe that is necessarily the case. I think our children need to at least be given the ability to try. They may not always be able to succeed at everything they try but they most definitely should have the opportunity to attempt their goals. In fact there are many people with Down Syndrome who go to college and do pretty well. So anyway, I began to see that some people were always going to judge my daughter based upon her condition, not her potential. If some parents feel that way, how much more would a teacher? Do I really want her going to school where she might get some teachers who do not expect her to perform?

I also joined some other support groups which were for parents of children with any special need and they would hold workshops to educate parents about the IEP process and their rights in advocating for their child's public school education. I tell you, when you listen to the nightmares that many of these parents have gone through to get their child an appropriate education and how often the system failed to do that, it certainly starts to make the idea of homeschooling look like a viable option again. In fact, we had one member start to consider homeschooling who might not otherwise have thought about doing it. Meeting some of the paras that work with special needs children was also not an encouragement to send my child to public school. These people are paid minimum wage and have very little training and quite frankly some of them were not very bright. There was no way I would want some of them in charge of my daughter's education. Of course some of them were really great, but those people would probably move up or move on pretty quickly since the pay for this job was really horrible. One mother in our group had just that problem with her son. As soon as he got used to one para, they would leave and he would have to get used to another. It was quite stressful on him breaking up the routine every few months.

Then you find out some of the things they do with our children during the day at school for their “life skills” training. In the middle school here kids with special needs do the laundry in the gym. I am sorry, I send my child to school to be educated academically, not in basic household chores. If the school was not really going to “educate” my daughter well there was no doubt that I could do a better job than they could. Heck, by age five my daughter was already helping the laundry (as well as a five year old can) and other household chores, she certainly doesn't need to wash other kids clothes at school to figure it out. That I definitely can teach her at home.

I also had some great support from homeschooling families I knew that encouraged me to try it anyway. They put me in touch with the HSLDA (Homeschool Legal Defense Association) and I found that many parents were homeschooling special needs children with great success. After visiting the website NATTHAN (National Challenged Homeschoolers Association Network)I realized that homeschooling was probably the best option because it allows a child to advance in subjects they are able to do even if they can't grasp other concepts. For instance, my daughter was delayed in her speech and used a lot of signs. When children in my DS support group started preschool they made them stop using sign language and forced them to advance in their speech. Not because it was best for the child, but because the teachers would not know how to use it. In homeschooling I was able to allow my daughter to continue using a tool that was beneficial for her. Just because she couldn't say her shapes, colors and things like that did not mean she did not know them. With signing we continued to learn while other children had to stop until their speech could catch up with them. Its the same now with her math and writing skills. While her speech has greatly improved her writing is still not very good. So we found ways to work around that last year, such as getting stickers and having her place them in the appropriate place. If we needed to write how many objects there were, she would find the sticker with the right number and place it there. She could even spell her name (well the shortened version of Gess) with stickers and magnets! It was great.

So all of these things made me begin to realize that homeschooling was still a very viable option for us. When I began to really think about all the work our support group was doing and how we felt about Down Syndrome I began to realize that not homeschooling simply because my daughter had Down Syndrome was just as bad as not allowing a child to go to public school just because they had Down Syndrome. The most important element of advocacy for me is that every child should have the same opportunities as everyone else. If other children can be homeschooled, than so could my daughter! So the decision was made, Gess would be homeschooled, just like we had originally planned to do (I really don't think my husband had the doubts about it that I had anyway). I did realize that it was probably going to be more difficult and challenging than when I had originally planned to do it, but I know without a doubt that I was going to be able to handle it. Her diagnosis of Down Syndrome was not going to be an excuse for us not to try it. Sure, there may be things in life that having Down Syndrome will make it more difficult for her to do and there may even be some things that it keeps her from ever being able to do, but it certainly is not going to keep her from trying if she wants to. Seriously, you should watch this kid, she does not know the meaning of the word can't.

With our decision having been made, we joined the HSLDA when Gess was three years old and they have provided some great resources and encouraging information about others who were already successfully homeschooling their special needs child. The HSLDA assists with information about the laws in your state and they offer guidelines to make sure that if ever questioned you can provide the information to prove that your child is getting the services they need. They will also provide free legal council if anyone challenges your right to homeschool. I have to say those last three years of preschool at home were very successful. Gess was reading even before Kindergarten and her speech just seemed to really take off. She is getting even more conversational each and every day and her recent visits to hear speech therapist and ENT doctor have confirmed just that. They commented on how large her vocabulary was, the intelligibility of her speech and how great they thought it was that she was already reading.

While doubts about my own ability will always be something I consider, doubts about my desire to see my daughter learn will never be in question. One thing I think I do well is research. I am not necessarily creative on my own but I definitely know how to search out ideas that other creative minds have come up with. It was that kind of research that enabled me to find the things that worked for my daughter and helped her speech to start to really take off. No speech therapist we had seen had come up with many of these suggestions. In fact, when we were getting regular services through birth to three, I often was told to just keep doing what I was doing because Gess was doing really well. So thats what I intend to do, to keep doing what we are doing. When I find an area in which Gess struggles I spend hours researching what to do about it, brain storm ideas with my husband, ask for ideas online and with real life support groups and usually we find something that truly works. I love going to conventions and last year I was able to attend both a homeschool and Down Syndrome convention and each one offered invaluable information. I just keep thinking, it shouldn't always be this hard to find the information we need.

Thats why I am starting this blog. Maybe other parents who take the adventure of homeschooling a special needs child might find some of the ideas I have spent hours upon hours gathering from lots of different sources all on one page. Even if you do not homeschool, remember your school may not always address all of your child's needs. Many of these resources were made to help integrate them into a child's public education. Use them at home, share them with your child's teacher and do whatever it takes to help your child with that need. Don't allow them to make you feel that since you are not a professional you do not have the ability to assist your child in their education. Believe me, you are your child's greatest advocate and everyone should respect that. It's not an easy job, but it certainly is a rewarding one.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

The Decision to Homeschool - Part 1

When I was pregnant with my daughter my husband I were determined to homeschool. Two of his siblings were homeschooling their children with great success and we both had pretty much the same point of view. We felt it was the best option for us. As parents we wanted to be the ones to direct our child's education in a manner that is compatible with both our belief system and academic standards. Let me explain a few reasons as to why we wanted to homeschool.

  1. Religious: Our faith is more than just a Sunday activity to us, it is an integral part of our lives. We do not like a system in which our faith is ignored for most of the day. In homeschooling you can integrate your faith into many aspects of learning. I tell you, pronouncing Bible names and praying at night were very beneficial in helping my daughter develop intelligible speech let alone helping her with reading comprehension and things like that.

  2. Academic: We have seen the way the schools work and their standards are simply not high enough. You want to know what my son learned in high school? I will tell you. He learned that you only needed to work half a semester (the 2nd half of course) in order to pull out a passing grade. He would not turn in work and get all kinds of notes about his poor grades, then when the time got close he would buckle down and pull out that C. Now, don't get me wrong, this kid did not hate learning, he just didn't like it if it wasn't interesting to him. He would go to the library and check out tons of books on one subject. The librarian would ask what he was doing in school that he needed them for. He would say “nothing,” which was true. Instead of doing his homework, he was studying what interested him. Homeschooling offers the best opportunity to channel those interests and use them to his educational benefit, not punish him for being more interested in one subject than another.

  3. Values: Homeschooling offers you a chance to not only teach your children your values, it enables you to display them for your children day in and day out. You can also teach them without worrying about someone else constantly contradicting you. Yes, children should learn there are more ways of thinking, but parents should decide when they feel their child is ready for learning about such things, not the government.

  4. Freedom: Our country was founded on the basis that men should be free to live and do as they choose. I believe that parents have every right to bring their children up the way that they feel is best. I feel that a system that tells you where your children must be, how long they have to be there, how often they have to be there, and what they must learn is not constitutional and I will fight to protect my right to direct my child's education myself (along with my husband of course).

  5. Success Rate: Homeschooling has been proven successful. Every year homeschoolers are accomplishing one feat or another. Its not that homeschooling parents are better teachers, its really all about the numbers. Think about it, you simply can't beat the student to teacher ratio or the ability to repeat a subject as many times as necessary until your child actually learns the concept, which is supposed to be the real goal of education. In the end, no one cares more about how well your child does than you do. There are some awesome teachers out there, but none of them will love my daughter to the degree that I do and therefore I am going to be her strongest advocate.

With all that said, those were some of the reasons we initially decided to homeschool. But something threw a kink into our little game plan. When my daughter was born we found out that she had Down Syndrome. Wow, that wasn't expected or even considered! Now what were we to do? (For those who do not know much about Down Syndrome, be patient, I plan on blogging about that soon.) Now we had to contemplate again what was best for our daughter. I mean, after all, I didn't know much about Down Syndrome let alone how to teach a child that has it. In my next blog I will share about some of the concerns we had that made us question this decision and why we ultimately decided to go ahead and do it. Right now though its after 1:00 A.M. and I think I should get some sleep!

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Adventures in Homeschooling

I am really excited for the new school year to start. This will be my second "official" year to homeschool Gess. Last year we did Kindergarten and she did really well. However, since she has DS I have been doing pre-school since she was three. See, when you have a child with special needs you enroll them in the system at birth. From Birth to Three they get in home services such as Physical Therapy, Occupational Therapy, Speech Therapy and other necessary programs to help with the child's development. I found this help invaluable with Gess. She was walking by 14 months when I was told children with DS do not walk until after age 2. Birth to Three is a great tool to help new parents learn some of the ways to assist their child with special needs. However, when they turn three they are enrolled in a preschool program so that they can continue these services and prepare your child for school. Of course we opted out of sending Gess anywhere other than home. We could have continued to receive Speech and other services as needed at home, but we opted not to do that either. So for the next few years I became her speech therapist and preschool teacher.

I found some great resources and Gess was doing really well. She was even reading before Kindergarten began, although it was mostly by sight. However, after Kindergarten she recognizes all her letter sounds and can isolate the beginning and ending sound of words and does a good job at attempting some words she does not know. Much of her reading is still done by sight though but she knows her abcs. She can also count to 100 by using a chart or with a few helps without one, can count backwards from 10, can add objects if you help her stay focused and slow down, can use a number line to find which numbers have more, less and come before and after another and she can do some basic pattern work and things like that as well. We are definately ready for the first grade. Her handwriting skills are delayed as well but she can make every letter when asked, she just does not stay consistent with it. For Kindergarten work we used lots of stickers and let her pick the answers and put the appropriate sticker up instead of having her write them. She can tell you where she lives, her phone number, she can find her town on a map of Kansas and knows the five senses and what they do, etc.

While her mind is on hyper drive most the time and she is extremely independent it has been difficult to find materials for homeschooling that can channel her brilliance while addressing her delays. Most of the math curriculum I have looked at starts at a place she is at but it moves so quickly I know we would be left in the dust, not to mention it requires a lot of writing. The same with the reading program. She can read and has a good start but for First Grade most of them take off so quick I know it would not work for her. After attending the homeschool convention and taking some time to explore all the booths I think I have found some great resources to work with.

Before I go on I would like to make a comment for those who have a different style of homeschooling. I know many do not use curriculum, make your own unit studies or are more into unschooling and things like that. I have actually considered some those techniques and do believe there is a lot to be gained from doing an unstructured form of study and we do pretty much a little of both. In other circumstances I may have been willing to stick with more informal methods, but my daughter needs structured guidance. My daughter needed someone to show her how to roll over, crawl, walk, eat and all of that. While most children just do that on their own, my daughter needed us to show her how. Once we showed her she picked it right up but she needed the guidance. Its the same way with school. She is very much a hands on learner so our seat work is limited, but she loves doing "school" and that time of structured learning helps her tremendously. It is my hope that no matter what method we all use, we can still benefit and learn from each other and maybe find some resources that we might have missed.

I have the books "Teaching Reading to Children With Down Syndrome" and "Teaching Math to Children with Down Syndrome and other Hands On Learners" which are published by Woodbine House Publishers. Woodbine has awesome resources for many special needs learners, not just Down Syndrome. These materials have lots of great learning games to integrate into a program but in and of themselves are not really a curriculum. I need something to guide me so that I don't forget an important step along the way.

So for math I am trying the Math U See Primer set. They use manipulative's and have a cool way of explaining place value. I am hoping it will be a guide. Our additional activities from my Woodbine book will include games that teach the concept of more, value, matching and we will work on visual spotting to start with. I also purchased a clock for her to use to learn telling time and we made a calendar we will keep track of the days although she already knows the days of the week and how to find a date on a calendar.

For reading I have found what I think will be a really good curriculum. For seat work in Kindergarten I just used some workbooks from Rod and Staff and considered their reading program for grade 1 but it too goes really fast. At their booth at the convention they had another reading program that one of the ladies recommended. It isn't published by Rod and Staff but it is somewhat similar yet moves at a slower pace. We are starting with "Beginning Steps to Reading" even though much of the first part will be review. It is published by "Eastern Mennonite Publications." We will see how we do with it.

For writing we are continuing with Handwriting Without Tears. It was great for her last year. It was nice to know even though she couldn't always make the letter on paper she knew HOW to do with it blocks. The inability is in getting her hand to form the letter not teaching her mind how it is formed. She knows that part! We will continue with the Preschool book because the Kindergarten book expects the letters to be made smaller and she is not ready for that yet.

For Science, Social Studies, and Bible I got some really inexpensive workbooks from Christian Light Publishers. These will enforce some of the basic concepts from a Christian viewpoint and I will supplement with things I think that are relevant to her world. That is basically what I did last year, I saw some concepts she did not grasp and taught them to her.

For Speech we found a therapist that gave us lots of activities to try to encourage and teach conversational speech. I have been busy making some of the games and we have already played a few. I am confident that her speech ability will be greatly improved by them.

This is where we will be starting. I can't wait to see how well these materials do. Like last year I am sure I will improvise a lot as I find areas that need improvement. That's what education is about, making sure your child learns what they need to know to make it through life. Its not about the letter grade, its about how they apply what they learn to the world they live in. So First Grade, ready or not, here we come!


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