3 Signs of Learning Challenges

If you’ve visited a homeschooling website or flipped through a curriculum catalog, you’ve seen it. Bucolic setting. Engaged children. Peaceful mother. There’s an unspoken promise that homeschool days are packed with joyful learning and family camaraderie.

So why, you wonder, is your fourth grader crying over his multiplication tables while your sixth grader sulks and your kindergartner sneaks the marshmallows you need for tomorrow’s science experiment?

There are some straightforward possibilities. For example, everyone has days where the world feels topsy-turvy, where nothing feels right. It’s also true that kids’ behavior often deteriorates when they are fighting an illness, growing, or just going through a phase. (That’s code for you’ll never know why it happened, but everything turns out alright in the end.)

Researchers at the Child Mind Institute discuss the difference in behavior kids display at home and at school. Some do better at school where the days are structured. Other kids are more stressed at school and, therefore, are more likely to misbehave.

When your home is your school, there’s a good chance you’ll experience kid meltdowns with greater frequency. How can you tell what is regular childhood angst and what behavior suggests your child has learning challenges? Here are a few signs.

It’s Always About School

Stress about school can certainly spill over into daily life, but if your child saves his worst behavior for school hours, it’s time to do a little sleuthing.

The first question is whether the behavior surrounds a particular subject. By letting your daughter choose the order of her subjects, you can get a sense of what she looks forward to and what she dreads. If she always begins with math, it might be because that’s her favorite subject. (Or at least one she doesn’t mind tackling and completing.) If she pushes handwriting until the end, it could be that she can’t bear the thought of gripping that pencil.

Pay attention to when your child’s eyes light up and when he asks for a break, a snack, or an alternate assignment. This can help you narrow down the issue. Is the behavior associated with reading? Writing? Lengthy assignments? Working independently? Multi-step projects? That information can clue you in to the real problem.

Child crying due to learning challenges

Outbursts & Tears

Little kids throw tantrums. Big kids have attitude. This is part of parenting.

Again, though, it’s helpful to look for patterns. If your child wakes up happy and chatters through breakfast but grows sullen and withdrawn as school time nears, it’s time for a heart-to-heart discussion. People generally put off what they dread (See this article and this one for more on procrastination.) And when the tears persist for weeks and months, you know something needs to be done.

If your child generally dislikes school, changing up your approach can help. Maybe she’s a kinesthetic learner but the curriculum has her sitting in a chair all day. Maybe he’s a big picture thinker who would do better with unit studies.

But it could be that your child struggles with some of the tools that are necessary for learning. There could be issues with auditory processing, reading, understanding quantities, vision, or attention. If there is an underlying problem, you must repair the foundation before you can build better homeschool days.

Won’t Work Alone

Homeschooling the K-3 crowd is generally a hands-on, intensive experience, but as kids move toward upper elementary grades, they can do some work independently. A spelling worksheet, practice math problems, or reading a history passage are all good places to begin independent work.

But what if your child won’t work alone?

Kids naturally want to master tasks. You saw this when your son started walking or your daughter began feeding herself. It’s an innate desire. If your child will not do any work without you right there, it could be a sign that something is preventing growth in this area.

For kids who struggle with handwriting, an assigned paragraph on butterflies will feel like torture. For kids who struggle with reading comprehension, that fun story about mummies will feel overwhelming. For kids who struggle with vision issues, that crossword puzzle of science terms is a nightmare.

Some parents assume a child who won’t work alone is lazy, but that starting point rarely leads to improved outcomes. The philosophy that children do well if they can, espoused by Dr. Ross Greene in his book The Explosive Child, encourages you find the stumbling blocks to your child’s success and deal with those first. This is an approach that applies in all areas from sibling bickering to chores to homeschooling.

testing for learning challenges

Getting Help: Public or Private

Homeschooling is not for the faint of heart. It requires dedication and diligence, but it shouldn’t be drudgery. If your child has no joy, no progress, no good days, then looking for learning challenges is wise.  

Most public schools are required to evaluate students in their local attendance area even if they attend a private school or are homeschooled. Heidi Borst’s article “What Parents Need to Know About Learning Disability Tests” provides a good overview of the process.

Private testing is also an option. An evaluation with a neuropsychologist is generally more nuanced and extensive. It can also be expensive and may not be covered by insurance.

No matter which path you choose, looking for answers is always better than living in homeschool misery. And, as discussed in this post, homeschooling means you’ve tasked yourself with finding a solution.

You might discover all is well, and you’ll know to address the problem from a different angle. Or you might learn your child has a silent struggle that needs attention. Either way, once you know, you’re more likely to find that homeschool happiness you’ve been seeking.

Want Independent Readers? Use Habits and the 5-Finger Rule

The modern world is increasingly visual. (IKEA assembly directions, I’m looking at you.) Nevertheless, reading remains a fundamental part of education, work, and culture, and it’s essential for our students to become independent readers.

If you have little ones, you probably know that reading is one of the best ways to build vocabulary. In fact, research suggests a daily read-aloud habit gives some kindergartners a million word advantage over kids who were never read to at home. And reading as an adult continues to provide benefits, from tension relief and improved focus to better sleep and brighter days.

So how students do reach that lofty goal? Here are two easy steps to put into practice.

Make Daily Reading a Habit

When I taught in public school, every teacher my department participated in what we called Outside Reading. Students read books of their own choosing and discussed them in one-on-one conversations with their teacher.

We let students gorge on one author or genre if they wished. They could stop reading a book if it was too boring. And to help students reach the goal of 100 pages per week to earn an “A” in Outside Reading, we spent dedicated time to silent reading in each period.

Pages turned. Plots thickened. Peace reigned. It was pure bliss.

That bliss is available to homeschool parents, too. When silent reading is part of the schedule, benefits abound, and “fifteen minutes a day will bring better results than half an hour once a week or so,” according to the Johnson O’Connor Research Foundation.

So tell everyone to grab a book, find a comfy spot, and travel to “lands away.” Not only will there be some lovely quiet time, there will also be fodder for great lunchtime conversations.

5-finger rule for independent readers
Photo by Min An on Pexels.com

Follow the 5-Finger Rule

Parents probably wonder if the cascade of benefits will fall out of just any old book?

The answer is, “Pretty much.”

The goal for independent readers is fluency, which leads to increased comprehension. And, fortunately, when students enjoy what they’re reading, it puts them on the fast track to fluency. (More ways to reach fluency here.)

Of course, positive results will increase with carefully chosen books. If students only read books below their proficiency level, they’re less likely to get all the vocabulary and horizon broadening benefits that come from reading. If students only read books above their proficiency level, they’re more likely to be confused, frustrated, and unhappy.

The sweet spot seems to be a book where each page has 3-5 unfamiliar words whose meaning can be determined through context. A well-written sentence (and an understanding of the book’s plot) can help students figure out what new words mean without having to search the dictionary.

In fact, I prefer that my students learn new words in context rather than from isolated lists. Without context, students miss the nuances inherent in English usage. Context prevents students from misusing prepositions and choosing improper adjectives in their writing.

So pull an interesting book off the shelf and have your student start reading. For each unfamiliar word, lift one finger. If you’ve lifted five fingers by the end of the page, it’s likely that the book will provide an appropriate challenge while still being an enjoyable read. If you’ve lifted more than five fingers, save it for another day because it will likely be too confusing. And if you’ve only lifted one or two fingers, it’s fine to read but less likely to improve vocabulary.

You Can’t Go Wrong

You can start a daily habit at any time. Morning. Evening. Fall. Winter. Spring. Summer. (For great reasons to read this summer, start here.)

The beauty of reading is that you can’t go wrong. Pick a book. Set a time. Reap the rewards.