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Thursday, August 25, 2011

I Need Eleven!

Have you ever been baffled or surprised by something your child says? You may be certain that you heard the words correctly, but they don't make sense. Having children with learning struggles, I often found that I needed to clarify both what I said to my children and what they were communicating to me. With a combination of ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) and auditory processing difficulties, communication was often a challenge. First, I had to obtain and keep my child's attention long enough to convey a message. Then I had to determine if the message had been accurately received. If distractibility and impulsivity didn't interfere, we could have a good conversation.

Children with learning disabilities often have unusual ways of expressing themselves. My son Josh had some word finding difficulties, so he would refer to the ankle as "that wrist part of your leg". Likewise, the elbow might be "the knee of your arm." Once when Josh wasn't feeling well I asked him to describe his symptoms. He often used vague and nebulous words to tell me what he felt. I felt like a detective who needed to ask just the right questions to get my suspect to tell me what I needed to know.

One time, though, Josh told me his throat was sore and described what he was feeling in this way, "I feel as if my uvula has been acided off". (I like the "uvula" part - true son of a speech therapist!) This description, although no doubt atypical for most children, painted a clear picture of the location and degree of Josh's discomfort and indeed it turned out that Josh had strep throat. "Acided" may not be a real word, but it sure got the point across. Josh usually sailed through illnesses with little response to pain, so when he complained I knew it was serious.

When children are infants, we fret because they are not able to tell us what is wrong or where they hurt. We think how nice it will be when they are able to talk and tell us more exactly what they feel. If a child is a late talker, nonverbal, or has difficulty with expressive language we have to continue interpreting possible meanings to whatever communication attempts our child is able to produce.

My daughter Beckie was a big talker, and it was easy to tell that when she wanted "lunch fries" she meant "french fries" and that her "Valentime" was a "Valentine". Since she had auditory processing issues, she said things the way she heard them and I continued in my role as communication detective to determine what Beckie was trying to convey. This was somewhat complicated by the fact that Beckie chattered a lot and was not always looking for a response but rather was processing her experiences by speaking out loud.

When she was a preschooler I noticed a frequently occurring phrase, "I need eleven!" Eleven what? I tried to figure out if she was trying to practice her counting skills, trying to collect something, or was just repeating something she had heard. But where had she heard it? Beckie was always a cuddle bunny, and was frequently snuggled up in my lap while we read books or talked. I tried to become aware of the context when she "needed eleven", but couldn't narrow it down. She said it contentedly when she was climbing onto my lap or getting a hug. She said it when she was physically hurt and when her feelings were hurt. When I asked her if she wanted to count to eleven together, she happily replied in the negative and wrapped her arms around me for a tight squeeze.

One day Beckie had been visiting one of her best friends for a play date, and I went to pick her up. She and her friend were sad to have to part ways, and the other child's mother offered comfort by asking her son if he needed a lovin. I realized that "Do you need a lovin?" was a common phrase in that household, and in Beckie's young mind had been translated into "Do you need eleven?" It had nothing to do with numbers, but had a strong connotation to comfort and the expression of affection. Since I had responded in ways she needed despite my lack of understanding about what she was saying, Beckie was inadvertently effective in her communication with me.

This is just one more reminder that love can make up for so many things. We all make mistakes with our children. We realize after the fact that we erred in our approach to teaching some students. We feel the pressures to convey the right amount of information at the right times while helping our struggling students develop skills to help them be successful. Our curriculum isn't always a match for what we need. Our children may not be progressing at the rate we desire. We lose it. We yell, we apologize, and then catch ourselves being impatient again. We feel inadequate to meet all the needs we face on a daily basis. The stakes are so high.

You've heard it before but it bears repeating. What our children will remember the most is the relationship we have with them, not the specific things we deliberately taught or the strategies we used to help them learn. I blew it with my kids sometimes, and I knew it. I truly believe that my relationship with them is more important than any school subject and thus needed remediation before we could proceed with our official homeschooling. I find it very humbling, yet restorative, to apologize to my children when I have wronged them. They have always been very forgiving and amazingly resilient, a picture of God's grace to me.

Showing grace and respect runs both ways in a relationship. It builds character and will outlast the school years as a child grows into an adult. Have you been focusing so much on getting the school work done that you've lost sight of the importance of relationship? Don't let standards and benchmarks keep you from seeing the individual child who is right in front of you. Teaching a child is a great aspiration, and teaching in the context of a relationship is powerful. Children may not remember everything you've taught them, but they will remember you. Do you have the kind of relationship you want to become part of their lifelong memories? Let's give our children lots of "elevens" and protect our relationships as they grow.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Calling All Homeschoolers! Buy Yourselves Some Flowers! (Encore post)

It's time for an exhortation, my friends! This is a call for all homeschoolers. If you are starting a new school year, on your first day back to school go buy yourself some flowers. I started this tradition for myself years ago, and since then I have been urging my fellow homeschoolers to join me in starting out right each new school year by buying some lovely fresh flowers to commemorate the onset of another year of homeschooling. Please join me in this tradition even if it is your first year of homeschooling or you are an “empty desker” with grown-up homeschooled children. All are welcome!

I began this tradition to help myself get excited and enthused for another school year. Having a son and daughter who struggled with numerous learning challenges, school was never an easy time for us. I have friends whose children basically taught themselves to read. That sure never happened in our home school. As the "Back to School" specials and commercials increased in frequency during August and school supply sales had started as early as July, I found I had to take deep breaths and tell myself, "It's going to be all right, Melinda. You've made it this far. You know this is the right thing to do, and you can do it. One day at a time. One lesson at a time."

While other moms in my neighborhood were counting down the days until school started again and were making plans to meet for coffee the first morning school was back in session, I knew that my work would just be picking up again at that point and I would not be included in the neighborhood back to school social gatherings. In my community, very few people choose to homeschool. In fact, in all the years I have been homeschooling there have only been a handful of other homeschooling families in our area. I made up for this by talking to myself while drinking my coffee as we started our homeschool day. You can call it a parent-teacher conference if it makes you feel better!

I actually homeschool year round, but we have a much lighter schedule during the summer months. The onset of a new school year meant getting back up to a full schedule, and I admit if I thought about it too much it was more overwhelming than exciting to think what the next year would bring. It didn’t seem right to begin the homeschool year feeling a bit sorry for myself, so I made myself coffee and decided to celebrate the new school year with my own homeschool style kickoff.

I started buying myself flowers on our first official day of school for the year. I would select a nice bouquet and a card for my children to sign for me. At this point I have to confess that one year I was especially dreading the onset of school because the previous year had been so rough. If you have a struggling learner or family challenges and you homeschool long enough, you come to realize that not only will you have “on” days and “off” days, you sometimes have “off” years. During one particularly hard year, my son hit a growth spurt and grew two inches in about six months. Unfortunately, it seemed like that was all he did, because the physical changes affected him so greatly that as far as we could tell all we had to show for our time was his big feet and dangly arms but not much had happened in the academic realm.

The coming year held no guarantees that things would be any less challenging, so when I picked out my flowers I selected a "With Deepest Sympathy" card for my children to sign. With their impulsivity issues, it wasn't until after they had scrawled their names on the card that they noticed the "With Deepest Sympathy" part at the top of the card. Then I heard cries of "Mo-om!" and we all had a good laugh together. I think it's o.k. for our kids to know that sometimes homeschooling is hard for us, too. It’s absolutely worth it, but we do make sacrifices and face challenges at times.

One year my daughter who graduated from our homeschool in 2006 bought me the flowers and picked out a card. Perhaps this will lead to an even better tradition where the children mature and decide to buy you flowers! In the meantime, please join me in buying yourself fresh flowers and having your children sign the card for you. Be sure to share this idea with your homeschooling friends as we embark on another school year. I’d love to hear about your “Back to School” flowers.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Dear Slapshot

Slapshot has been a certified therapy dog since February 2011. He loves sharing his doggy love with people of all ages, and enjoys his fan mail and the pictures children draw for him. Recently an organization invited Slapshot to have his own column in their newsletter. Slapshot is happy to answer any questions he can (I type for him since he has a little difficulty with the act of writing!) and here is the first installment for the column, "Dear Slapshot" as dictated to Slapshot's handler, Melinda.

Dear Slapshot,

What is a therapy dog? Can any dog become a certified therapy dog?


Curious in Columbus

Dear Curious,

A therapy dog has to love people of all ages and want to visit with them. I kept showing my owners that I was a dog meant to be shared by greeting everyone we met on walks. When I showed them how much people liked visiting with me, they took me to an evaluator for Therapy Dogs International and I passed my test. Any breed of dog can be evaluated to see if therapy dog work is for them. A dog has to be at least one year old, but training can start earlier than that and I was 2 years old when I became a certified therapy dog. I am almost three years old now and I love my work. Therapy dogs have to have a great temperament and tolerate other animals. I actually like most animals, too! Not to brag, but I think I’m a natural at this therapy dog stuff. I’d like to meet you, too, and your family and your friends, and your neighbors, and your pets – well, you get the idea!



Dear Slapshot,

What kind of dog are you?

Wondering in Westerville

Dear Wondering,

Well, I am a very good dog, for one thing. And people tell me I am handsome. But I guess you are wondering what breed I am. I am a goldendoodle. My Dad was a 55 lb. standard white poodle and my Mom was a 75 lb. golden retriever. Guess how much I weigh? 95 pounds! I was no runt of my litter! Goldendoodles are considered “designer dogs” because they are intelligent, have good temperaments, and don’t shed as much as most dogs. Honestly, I still shed some but my goldendoodle sister doesn’t shed much at all. She also only weighs 53 pounds and we look very different even though she also had a white standard poodle Dad and a golden retriever Mom, but not the same parents as me. I’m pretty big for my breed, so some people are a little intimidated until they get to know me. One patient I visited told me I was as big as a calf, whatever that is. I guess she likes me, though, because she still pets me and even told me she loved me. I love her, too.