Mom and co-op teacher talk

by Kathy Kuhl

Suppose your child with learning challenges is in a homeschool group or co-op, a scout troop, or other class. The leader or teacher has asked for suggestions how to help your child. What do you say?

First, to review my post on communicating with co-op teachers regarding your child’s challenges:

  1. Remember to keep it short and simple. Give a one or two sentence description of the student’s difficulties that communicates what hard for her.
    Use vivid, clear images. I like to quote the 7-year-old girl who said studying with ADHD was like trying to work with 7 televisions playing loudly around her. For some people, having auditory processing disorder is like trying to follow a radio talk show with another station cutting in and lots of static. For a child with sensory issues, a fragrant carpet cleaner smells like a stink bomb. For another, it may trigger her asthma. Short, vivid descriptions  help explain what’s hard in the classroom.
  2. Propose solutions that are not much work for the teacher. Bear in mind that many homeschool group teachers, including paid ones, work many hours per week for each class. The years I taught composition, I realized I would have made much more per hour at McDonalds. So when you ask, be sensitive to how much of their time your ideas will take.
  3. Ask, don’t tell the teachers or leaders what accommodations you request. Often these folks are volunteers. Remember, private schools, tutors, and homeschool groups are not required by law to provide accommodations.

Our kids need very different kinds of help so I’m going to give you a smattering of examples for different issues, then some more detailed resources.

First, some general suggestions

that help with many different challenges. Teachers/leaders should:

  • Regularly review the goals of the course, the big picture, and how today’s work fits into it. This helps everyone organize the information in their heads. Kids with memory issues can do better when they see the connections. My best college professor was a master at this: showing the flow of the course in two minutes.
  • Shorten or modify assignments.
  • Divide assignments into smaller steps (think of how you teach a child to finish a science fair project on time).
  • Give extra time, especially for tests.
  • Teach with mnemonic tricks, such as acronyms and teaching roots of words.
  • Use visual aids, flow charts, use different colors for different functions, and
  • Incorporate hands-on activities.

For the child who struggles with sensory issues, distractibility, hearing impairment, auditory processing problems, or other challenges, consider seating:

  • Look over the classroom or meeting space before class begins. Determine the better places for your child to sit. With the child, look at the room—it’s good training for them to consider what helps them, especially if you don’t plan to go to college with them.
    Try different seats. Notice the view of where the teacher normally stands, sits or writes. (Ask the teacher where the student will need to look.) Then talk with the teacher about whether your child can be assigned a better seat.
  • Don’t just consider what they can see, consider what they shouldn’t see. Will your child be facing a lovely but distracting view out the window, a cluttered bulletin board, or some other visual distraction? One year when I was teaching geometry to homeschooled teens, our room had tables in a horseshoe arrangement. Soon I realized when I turned to write on the board, friends on opposite sides of the room, facing each other, were clowning around.
  • If noise is unusually distracting for your child, consider where the noisiest parts of the room will be when the class is in session. (An open window or door, radiator, or even a thin partition can let noise in.)

Struggles with keeping track of assignments:

  • When I taught public school, my students copied homework down that I wrote on the board. But then my student George dropped from A’s to F’s after a family crisis distracted him and stopped writing down and completing his homework. Our guidance counselor had a clever strategy to help him remember his homework. She suggested that after each class, George had to come to each teacher with his homework written in an assignment book. He was to ask us to check and initial the assignment, even if it was “no homework.” When he got home, if George didn’t have notes initialed from all his teachers, he got no screen time that day. He started doing homework again, and his grades pulled up promptly.
    Why couldn’t I have just remembered to ask George every day if he’d written down his assignment? I had over 150 students each day, only a few minutes between classes, and plenty to do. More importantly, the goal was for the student to be responsible to write down the homework. This  motivated him to be responsible.
  • Another teacher in our homeschool group had a different way to encourage his students to be responsible. He required every student to write down the assignments and email the homework list to the teacher by 9 PM that same day. Then all that teacher had to do was read the emails.
    If one child didn’t list the homework correctly, another student would. So the teacher could just copy and paste the other student’s correct version to email back to the mistaken student. This forced the kids to be responsible and let the teacher monitor their accuracy easily.
  • Ask the teacher to consider handing out a printed list of assignments or posting them on the web. This is easier for textbook-based courses, and it may not be your teacher’s style, and it is more work for the teacher. It won’t be feasible if he or she is adapting assignments each week based on the students’ progress. But you can ask. The teacher may prefer to send an email rather than update a printed list or website.

Struggles with writing—handwriting, word retrieval, working memory, or organizing thoughts and sentences:

  • Keyboard assignments and exams.
  • Use large graph paper for math.
  • Allow a classmate to volunteer as a note-taker for the student with dysgraphia. (You can provide carbonized paper, make photocopies if there is a copier on site, or photograph notes with your smart phone after class.)
  • Use a smart pen to record audio in sync with written notes, such as this smart pen made by LiveScribe. This makes it easier to review and to fill in gaps later.
  • Record class with a small digital voice recorder. (Ask permission.)
  • Ask the teacher to allow oral presentations rather than written.
  • Ask teacher to recognize that lab sheets and other worksheets may not provide enough workspace for these students. Allow parent to enlarge them (by hand or with a copier).

Dyscalculia: a learning disability in mathematics:

  • Use manipulatives to teach new concepts until fully mastered. (Look for a blog on multisensory math soon.)
  • Allow students to use a formula card for exams.
  • “Code,” that is, use color or other special marks to highlight particular terms.
  • Let students use a calculator for basic computation. (That is, not when drilling math facts, but the rest of class. Elsewhere on this blog I describe a method for using a calculator to help in the steps of long division.)
  • Even kids without learning challenges tend to try to cram high school math into small spaces. (College ruled paper is too small.)
    Here’s a strategy I used in a homeschool class with a teen who’d been unable to speak in class at private school:Encourage students to try graph paper or regular lined paper turned sideways to keep numbers in line for addition. For younger students, I have made custom large graph paper by drawing a grid in Microsoft Word.

Sensory issues, ADHD, and some autism spectrum disorders, allow students to:

Tangle Jr., one of many fidgets.

Fiddling with a silent toy like this Tangle Jr, can help some kids focus. See my Amazon store for more “fidgets.”

  • Fiddle with a small object (hackysack, piece of silly putty, or other fidget toy—see below)
  • Sit on an air-filled cushion, or an exercise or yoga ball instead of in a chair. Having to work at keeping balance can help get some of the wiggles out.
  • Hold a weighted blanket or cushion in their laps.
  • Chew gum, if the building owners permit it and it doesn’t drive the teacher nuts. Gum can also calm students and help them focus.

For social anxiety disorder…

here’s a strategy I used in a homeschool class with a teen who’d been unable to speak in class at private school:

Parents can confer with the teacher before class begins to see if a limited amount of participation is okay. If so, ask the teacher not to call on the student the first few weeks of class.

After that, ask the teacher to tell the student privately before class that he will be called on that day, but only when he raises his hand, and that a one-word answer will do. Encourage the teacher to say, “Correct,” “good,” or “good try!” after these correct answers, but not to make a big deal of it. Repeat this for several weeks, and then encourage the student to try slightly longer answers.

More Help and Tools

I’ve kept these short tips to provide a range of examples. For more detailed help, see below. Remember not to give a whole book to a teacher on how to teach your child unless they really want it. Read one yourself and provide one or two tips as suggestions:

Terri James Bellis, When the Brain Can’t Hear. (Auditory processing disorders). Click here for my review. 

Melinda Boring, Heads Up Helping: Tips and Tricks for Working With ADD,ADHD, and Other Children with Challenges—written mainly for homeschooling these children, but some tips adaptable for small classrooms. My review is here.

Chris Dendy, Teaching Teens with ADD, ADHD, and Executive Function Deficits: A Quick Reference Guide for Teachers and Parents. Available on Amazon.

Chris Dendy has also created a great little poster, The ADD/ADHD Iceberg, which illustrates the obvious and hidden behaviors associated with ADD. (For example, sleep disturbance and impaired sense of time.) You can get it and other helpful resources on her website here. 

To help students with dyslexia, dysgraphia, or dyscalculia, Dyslexic Advantage publishes very good inforgraphic cards.

  • “What is Dyscalculia for Parents, Tutors, and Teachers”
  • “What is Dysgraphia for Parents, Tutors, and Teachers”
  • “What is Dyslexia for Parents, Tutors, and Teachers”

At 4 x 9 inches, these cards convey a good summary without overwhelming your coop teacher, scout leader, and other adult who works with your child. The cards are $5 for a pack of 10 cards. Your purchase will support Dyslexic Advantage, a great organization promoting awareness of dyslexia and the success of dyslexics in many fields. It’s founded and run by two doctors who homeschooled their children.

Understood.org has some helpful articles and simulations.

Richard Lavoie’s videos F.A.T. City and Beyond F.A.T. City have been out for years, but are still worth your time. He is a genius at teaching and at helping adults see what a classroom feels like to struggling learners. (F.A.T. stands for Frustration, Anxiety, Tension–what our kids feel!)

What are your favorite tips to give to teachers and others who help your exceptional children? Please post in the comments below.

Next time, I’ll consider what to say to the classmates of the child with learning challenges or special needs.

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