Category Archives: Unschooling


Stuffed Animal Imaginary Friends

This gallery contains 6 photos.

In my book, The Right Side of Normal, I talk about imaginary friends being a representation of a right-brained child’s highly developed imagination. I also talk about the idea that right-brained children can view stuffed animals and toys as “real” … Continue reading


Dressing Up Medieval-Style

This gallery contains 11 photos.

Admittedly, I’m not a dress-up kind of person. I’m not a decoration kind of person. Hmmm. Left-brained/right-brained stuff again? That kind of creativity just isn’t my thing at all. I’m very, very left-brained. I don’t do Halloween decorations or outdoor … Continue reading

The Television Question

In unschooling circles, the television and video game question will come up consistently.  Many unschoolers, especially radical unschoolers, talk about the idea of giving unlimited access to these types of things in order to prevent the “forbidden fruit” temptation from occurring.  This means that the more you forbid something, the more it is desired.  So, the idea is if you give a child unlimited access, he/she will saturate his/her need or desire for it and achieve balance.

I have a different perspective.  It’s not that I don’t think the above scenario works.  It might.  I just think differently and my perspective has seemed to work as well.  Since this television question is so prevalent in unschooling circles, I thought I might try to create a post about how it has worked in my house.

My older children don’t watch a lot of television now as either teens or adults.  I know each of them had their seasons of watching a lot of television when they were young.  Most of my older children enjoyed movies on VHS or DVD when they were growing up more than live television, though.  I remember a season of guilt for myself when I was horribly sick during a pregnancy and my then almost 2-year-old watched a bunch of television in order that I could survive it.  In fact, I think that happened on several occasions during pregnancies of various children for those in the home.  I released the guilt!  I don’t remember any of my older (birth) children having a problem with television viewing and balance when they were younger.  On the other hand, as a whole, I didn’t have a “free reign” policy, but I didn’t have a “dictator” policy, either.  I observed their choices, I gave them information, and if at any time I felt there was too much going on, or an out-of-balance situation happening, I would let them know I wanted the television turned off for that time.  It tended to be a decision for the day versus a continuous need.

My youngest two children are adopted.  My older adopted son, William, is much like my birth children.  He has a natural balance with television.  In fact, he rarely finishes watching a show before he is out creating his own reenactment of whatever he was viewing.  I have seen television and movie viewing for this son as a great resource as I described in this post.

My seventh child, Joseph, has finally given me the opportunity to make a mindful choice on my position on the television question.  He is my first child that seems to overuse television.  He is also my only child I have had who would be classified as ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) if I believed in diagnosing such a thing.  He definitely has a high energy level.  He is also an extravert (another of my only traits!).  Put those two things together and you often have a child that likes to get up and in people’s faces to meet his needs.  In my experience with many high needs children, the ages up to 11-13 years old is a time of helping my children learn skills and strategies to manage their high needs.  In other words, before that, it doesn’t always look pretty around here as they figure it out:  anger, impulsivity, frustration, picking, meltdowns, explosions, aggression, disrespect . . . it’s all there being figured out.  How do I conduct myself in order to achieve positive relationships?  That’s a huge part of my job during the 2-10 year stages.

For the first time, I noticed that television could be used to give myself a break from a high needs child.  I’m pretty sure ADHD type of children often are quite calm during television viewing.  Joseph was no different.  Again, another opportunity for guilt . . . nah!  When he was younger and his most intense, television was something he chose consistently and I had no problem with that.  There still seemed to be some level of balance all in all.  However, I noticed as Joseph got a bit older, and at the same time, more competent in his behaviors and relationships, his television viewing increased.  All of a sudden, my observation showed that he was using television as a convenient babysitter.  As an extravert, Joseph liked being with people ALL the time.  In fact, I find that playing alone is not something he does very well.  So, the interaction of the television filled that role.  But, I noticed he would turn it on and just go from one show to the next, sitting like that for hours on end, days on end, weeks on end.

Although I noticed in myself a little bit of a desire to take the easy route and let the television viewing continue, I knew it was time for Joseph and I to release the need for television to serve the function it did.  Because the fact of the matter was, evidence through observation showed that the productive function had lived its course.  Joseph was more capable of interacting with people respectfully and  I needed to be in a space to encourage more of it and support his next emotional and behavioral growth.  Plus, for some reason, probably my age and stage as well, I just couldn’t stand the “noise” from the television.  So, I instituted a “no television until 6:00 p.m.” space.  I say space because rule really wasn’t what it was about.  I told Joseph that “I notice that you sit in front of the television and don’t move for hours.  I think you need to find other things in your life.”  So, according to unschooling think, I had just created the “forbidden fruit.”  I never had to do this before.  I was curious myself what was about to unfold!

It’s been 3-4 months since this began.  If I recall, I remember Joseph habitually going to the television.  I would remind him of the new plan.  Really, I think the most difficult thing for him was to figure out how to balance his extravert needs with the idea that not everyone will be available to him.  Yet, William did usually want to be part of some play scenario, and now that they could do so much more effectively with both of their better emotional and behavioral skills in place, they were really starting to enjoy each other.  And trust each other.  At this time, Joseph doesn’t ask to watch a movie from time to time often (I separated that somewhat out from the television viewing aspect).  He’s even having times of playing by himself successfully.  He is engaging more often on his own initiation on focused learning.  He even wanted to learn to play the violin and speak Spanish.

What I don’t see is him “sneaking” television in.  Or feeling denied.  Or going to friends’ houses to get his fix.  I see it opening the space up for him to explore lots of other things that he wasn’t choosing to do because it was easier to sit in front of the television.  I am not against television.  I find it a highly useful resource.  I don’t across the board make sweeping judgments or decisions or declarations about it for every person in the family.  I use my power of observation, my attunement to the needs of each of my children, and assess the function this particular tool is being used for and come up with individualized plans to support each child on their journey of growth and learning.  I think when that happens, good things result.  It did in this instance.

Writing in the Teen Years

I’ve written a couple posts about writing in the years from 5-10 years old found here and here, so I’ve decided to write a post about this subject for the teen years.  I find that IF people decide to give space in the 5-10 year ranges for writing to develop more naturally, they really start to panic by the time their child reaches 13 years old and “college” and “adulthood” seems to loom bigger in the minds of the parents homeschooling their own.

There is a current discussion going on at my Homeschooling Creatively list about writing.  Gina shared a link to a blog post she wrote as she figured out where she’s at on the subject at this time.  I agree wholeheartedly with what she figured out as she found herself going through writing curriculum after writing curriculum.  She finally just sat down with herself and evaluated how writing really happened for her in more of a natural and free-flowing manner; and thus, started questioning why she was feeling a need to be systematic with the approach with her daughter.  So, at this time, she’s choosing to trust the natural process to writing.  It inspired me to write this post about how four of my children have come to writing.

First, let me preface with some deconditioning that needs to be done about writing.  When we think about writing and school, we think book reports and essays and research papers.  Frankly, so much of this type of writing is not required in real life.  More importantly, there are scads of other styles of writing that are neglected as valid.  Further, these styles are often what is most conducive to a right-brained learner’s strengths.  Some of these writing genres are:  lyrical writing, poetry, skits and scripts, fantasy and creative writing, fan fiction, book and movie and music reviews, comic book and graphic novels, journals and diaries, and more.  People believe that to learn how to write a research paper, one must write research papers.  Maybe that is one way.  But, what I have found with myself and all of my adult children so far is that having confidence in, enjoying, and knowing how to express themselves in any way (including verbally, visually or in written form) translates to being able to figure out how to write in various genres that may be requested of them later.

Here are my children’s stories (ha, pun intended!):

Eric is my artist son.  His teen writing started at 11 years old.  He handwrote a 100-page script for a movie he was making with his two best friends.

Inspired by his favorite video game at the time, Zelda, Eric also began writing a novel after reading one based on this game that he felt fell short of what it could be.  He made it to about 35 typewritten, single-spaced pages.  And it was excellent writing, though he had never had a writing lesson or curriculum before this.

Eric was a huge list-maker and has probably literally created thousands of pages of lists throughout his teen years (see an example below).  He continued to draw extensively during his teen years as well.  It wasn’t until about 18 years old that he (again) became inspired from his then favorite video game, Final Fantasy, to write another novel.  This time, he made it to about 300 pages typewritten, single-spaced writing.

During his time in college from around age 20-22, he was required to write various essays and research papers.  He had no problem doing so and receiving high marks, though he had never written one previous to this experience.  Currently at 23 years old, Eric is working on two writing projects:  a graphic novel and an Ancient Japanese samurai warrior atlas.  Below is some of his research regarding his atlas:

Abbey, my second child and only daughter, is my nature girl, animal girl, and eventually, my writer girl.  I start off with this explanation because if I had said she was my writer girl, you may think she was always writing, and she wasn’t necessarily.  She really was big into nature and animals growing up; all the way until she was about 13-14 years old.  In her 5-10 year ranges, she dabbled in poetry, lyrics, and short stories about animals.  Not often for any of these things, and not extensive; her short stories were usually about one paragraph.  Her biggest writing venue was journals, starting at about 8 years old, on her own initiation and desire.  Here is a sample (and a day in the life of a young unschooler!):

Between the ages of 11-13 years of age, Abbey started to seriously look into animal careers.  She volunteered at the zoo in the chimpanzee exhibit, and she applied and was accepted into a competitive veterinary camp at Michigan State University at 13-14 years old.  All of these helped her know she was dissatisfied with those fields, and she was still wondering where her passion would lie.  It was at that time, around 14-15, she started taking pen to paper with a novel idea, but this time, unlike every time before, the ideas kept coming.  Soon, she realized that she was actually on her way to writing a novel.  Further, she discovered she was really enjoying herself.  And so, a complete shift occurred, and she started focusing on writing.

By age 19, Abbey had written two novels that she wanted to edit enough to self publish, but decided to take a sabbatical from writing and attend college out at Brigham Young University in Utah.  As she became required to write research papers, essays, and other forms of critical writing, she was able to figure out how to do so and received high marks.  Thus, again, another child is able to accomplish writing college level papers well without any previous structured writing curriculum to “teach them how”.  It was simply a translation of their overall competency in expressing their ideas in a genre that was their strength area (in her case, fantasy writing).

Next comes Eli, my builder son, who is also diagnosed with high functioning autism.  Interestingly, he struggled with expressing himself verbally in any form in his early years, including up until the 11-13 year timeframe.  And yet, because of our strength-based environment, he did find outlets to express his ideas, particularly through building with Legos, Lego Studio, and comic book making, inspired by his oldest brother and his interest in trains.  As his brain naturally shifted in that 11-13 year timeframe, he became more aware of his place in the world, and wanted to improve in his weak areas, including English related areas.

It was during this time that we started finding ways to improve his spelling and vocabulary, both extreme weaknesses for him.  We also developed grammar more, which became a strength because of the “sameness” of that subject, as well as patterns of knowledge associated with it.  In other words, we started with the parts initially, to build a foundation.  His spelling improved from atrocious to fair, and eventually even to “good”.  Vocabulary was one of those areas tough to improve in but we tried various ideas to slight success.  But, to be clear, these focuses were only about 3-4 times a week for maybe up to 30 minutes.  It didn’t become a spotlight; it just showed up on our radar.

At the 14-16 year timeframe, I had him work through some of the Writing Strands books, starting with the Level 2.  He wanted a way to start from the extreme basic level of constructing a thought or idea or sentence, and this was made to be student-driven.  He worked through these for 1-2 years, I think.  Definitely not more than that, and probably more toward the 1 year mark.  He did feel it gave him a basic understanding and proficiency on how to have a basic foundational understanding of sentence structuring.  His going through the Daily Grams for grammar may have also been a good modeling tool for him.  He did the grammar series from the first level as well until the end, which probably took him 3-4 years, starting at around the 11-13 timeframe.

Since he continued to be serious about his desire to attend college, and because of his total lack of writing in any genre form, I decided it would be advantageous for him to work from a more formal text that required answers in longer written formatting.  Because he is a math/computer science person, I decided to choose a subject in that genre that he had some interest in and would use in college:  science.  So, starting at 14, he began working through the Apologia science series, one text per year.  I had his father sit with him initially to help him know how to navigate creating answers in verbal sentence formatting.  It didn’t take long for him to pick up on how to do that.  However, I still had his father check over his work consistently to keep him on the right track in this skill development.

Since that was going well, and he really was quite self sufficient in the short answer verbal response, I decided to give him the opportunity to upgrade his verbal response level, as well as delving in a less strength-based subject, at the latter end of the 14-16 year range.  I had him read the chapters to Story of the World because it was more simple language and to-the-point writing which I wanted because it was a weak area for him.  Eli then would provide a summary as a way to help him develop interpreting receptive language into expressive language (in other words, understanding what he reads and then turn that into written words of explanation).  That was a hit and miss endeavor because of inconsistency with availability of his father’s mentorship.

At the 16-17 year range, I decided it might be good for him to simply be more exposed to good writing through reading, since he didn’t choose to do that much for himself, except for computer texts and manuals.  So, I invested in some Total Language Plus booklets and encouraged him to read some classics that stretched his understanding level.  For him, that was middle school level reading.  Because this program was more language intensive in the activities, I felt it might be a good way to integrate spelling and vocabulary and such.  It did stretch him and it did seem to give him some overall good exposure and experience with the written word.

So, between the Total Language Plus activities and readings for exposure, and continuing with the science texts year to year with his father mentoring in that area, as well as periodic summaries in history, Eli was building a foundation in the manipulation of the English language in all its facets.  At 17, he chose to start attending community college to earn his Associates in Science degree.  He started off with his strengths first:  math.  The second semester, he chose to try his first writing course.  What we discovered there was it was a better fit for him with English related topics to choose an on-line course versus an in-class course.  In this way, he could always take whatever time he needed to put into the assignment in order to feel comfortable with it.  With an in-class course, they often would do some “free writes” in the classroom, and Eli does not process quickly and his writing would look less developed in those circumstances.  Thus, the teacher questioned the discrepancy of his at-home assignments and his in-class ones.  We were able to transfer to another instructor who was more understanding of why this occurred, and because her class only met once per week, all the assignments were at-home, with class time devoted to teaching new concepts and working on current papers.

For his assignments, he used his father and I as people who could critique his work in a way that would most benefit him.  He wanted any grammar corrections to be edit marked so that he could study his grammar mistake patterns so that he could more effectively correct it.  Many were “autism related” as he wrote as he sometimes “spoke autistically”, so it helped him catch those idiosyncracies without being embarrassed.  Further, we helped him learn “paragraph patterns” by taking what his teacher was sharing and creating a form initially.  Because of these supports individualized in a way that worked best for him, Eli very quickly was able to become independent in his own edits and putting together effective papers.  It was amazing to visually see the number of edits in the beginning of the semester versus the handful or less of grammar edits needed by the end of the semester as well as the quality of writing increase which reinforces the idea of the effectiveness of this type of mentorship.

First semester corrections; more simple writing:

Second semester corrections; more complex writing.

A quick commentary on the mentoring style we used with Eli.  It seems that there is either a “hands-off” approach to writing because anything else is considered “cheating”, or there is outright “cheating” by having a friend or family actually do the writing for the person.  I knew there would be little to no progress if we were to rely on traditional teaching methods by giving an assignment, having him work through it himself, and then correct him after the fact.  In that format, all sorts of bad habits are formed, you have to fail before you succeed, and it feels like a struggle as you invent the wheel yourself.  I created my theory based on an unschooling mother and son I listened to at a Growing Without Schooling conference long ago as she explained that she would sit next to her son and give him word for word, if necessary, in the beginning, until he got the hang of it himself and initiated continuing on his own.  Her words echoed in my mind years later as she said, “How does someone learn to write if not from someone who knows how to write?”

So, those first times with the science texts, Eli’s father would help him word for word, if necessary.  He found that Eli was quick to understand the pattern of short answers in sentence format, so he was only needed to give periodic advice as he looked over his work.  When they mentored with the summaries, there was more suggestions and specific ideas needed as he learned to organize thoughts and put those thoughts into a cohesive sentence.  While reading books that stretched his comprehension, he occasionally would ask his father to help interpret sections with him.  Finally, with his college papers, we helped with idea starters, with thought order, and then editing for grammar and flow.  He might need 3-4 drafts in the beginning, but as mentioned previous, by the end of the semester, he was doing most of the things we initially helped him with independently and quite competently.  In this instance, it showed that getting rid of our conditioned ideas on teaching writing paved the way for effective mentoring in writing.

Which sets the stage for my current 16-year-old, Alex.  Growing up, he always loved to listen to his brother and sister do “cat stories”.  These are stories that revolve around our cats that we have, each having their own unique voice and personality.  In fact, Abbey made him a video story for Christmas one year found here, here, and here.  In fact, every year for at least three years, she made him stories for Christmas gifts.  Subsequently, he constantly begged Abbey to do cat stories for him and consistently bothered Eric for comic stories.

First, Eric worked alongside Alex and taught him to do his own video game playing, which is one venue he liked to have his siblings “make up stories” that correlated with the action involved.  After Alex learned to play video games, Eric then helped him create his own commentary as he played.  This happened when Alex was 10-11 years old.

Around 13 years old, Abbey decided to start mentoring Alex in story telling.   They started out with creating sentences from vocabulary words he was working on.  She then expanded him in creating short stories with the list of vocabulary words.  When Alex was around 14 years old, Abbey decided he was ready to learn to write his own stories.  It started very much like it was for Eli and his father, but definitely more help needed.  Abbey would sit side-by-side with Alex and help him every inch of the way in developing his story, knowing how to proceed and what to write, and how to bring out the personalities of his characters.  Alex really started to get excited about the idea that he was learning how to create his own stories from his own fingers (through typing).

Mentoring had to take a break when Abbey went off to college when Alex was 14.5-15.5 years old, but now at 16 years old, Abbey and Alex are back at mentoring in writing again.  Alex begs every day to work on his book.  He has completed his first story and they are in editing now, and he already has an idea for his next book.  Alex is at the stage where Abbey is encouraging him to write on his own to develop his confidence in his own ability, and it’s going well.  Abbey’s husband, Ben, now helps Alex with his writing as well, so with two different styles of support, it is stretching Alex even more in writing independently.

It’s interesting to realize after writing this that my two oldest children, who had natural knacks with language and/or writing, when given the time and space to come to that place on their own time table for their own purposes, fell in love with writing.  In fact, Abbey has been quoted to say, “Writing is like breathing; if I don’t do it, I’ll die.”  My next two children, who didn’t have a knack for writing or language, under competent mentorship in the style that they desired to learn for their own purposes, grew to love writing themselves.  I remember walking with Eli on the college campus as we were straightening out some of his classes on writing at the time, he turned to me and said, “Now I understand why Abbey loves to write; I’m really enjoying it!”  It supports my idea that if a parent (or educator) focuses on creating a positive relationship for each child in each “subject area”, then when it comes time to develop the skills required for adulthood, that child will embrace the process without a negative connotation from previous failed experiences and can even end up liking it versus tolerating it.  Pretty cool stuff!

When Love is Blessed

I don’t believe in coincidences.  If I notice what others consider coincidence, I recognize it as the hand of a loving Heavenly Father pouring out His blessings.  I  haven’t blogged since mid-April because my daughter, Abbey, returned from her year at college on April 22.  She is my only daughter and I adore her and our relationship, so I was reconnecting with her in person.  However, within a few weeks of her return, a love interest captured her attention, and thus I have been enjoying watching her journey unfold.

Ben and Abbey at his place

So, here are the evidences that Heavenly Father is blessing Ben and Abbey’s love:

The timing is perfect.  Abbey did not have much if any dating experience before going out to college.  She attended two semesters and a term and was able to date frequently, including a couple young men from whom she was able to learn a lot.  In the end, she had figured out what she was looking for in a relationship.

Ben converted to the church 2.5 years ago and has been searching for a love that is meaningful, fulfilling, and with eternal depth.  He switched housing last September which meant that he needed to attend the ward (building) that our family is in.  Initially, he thought about requesting staying where his friends and support were, but his bishop counseled him to go where he was meant to go, so he did.  Though he didn’t really make any friends, he came every week and faithfully served in his calling (assignment) to teach a Sunday School class.  His obedience and patience paid off when he met Abbey.

They both felt a strong initial attraction, physically and spiritually, when they first saw each other that first week.  Smitten at first sight really does exist!

Ben signed up to join the military a year or so ago, but a long story short, paperwork wasn’t completed to sign off on a particular situation, and basically he was not able to continue with it.  In fact, he is still working through completing the process of being discharged without incident because the fault was in the hands of the military administration.  So, if that had occurred, he would be stationed who knows where.

I had become really disenchanted this past winter, realizing now that I may be affected from time to time with seasonal changes.  It was a much colder winter here in North Carolina last winter, and it was wearing on me emotionally.  My hubby and I were very close to requesting a transfer ourselves into another church ward in order to “start over”.  Upon much prayer and consideration, we felt we needed to stay where we were.  Thus, Abbey and Ben were able to meet.

As another timing element, Ben’s commitment to his conversion of the gospel of 2.5 years through action has proven to Abbey his strength, his desire to change and grow, and the depth of his character.

As they contemplate marriage together, Abbey will most likely postpone college to work full-time and continue pursuing the writing and publishing of her books again.  It comes at a time when I am looking for full-time workers in my home that she has done before.  Further, there was a glitch over the past year wherein a family member in the home cannot work with her own siblings under 18.  She was grandfathered in for this year, but one of her brothers will become an adult in September, who will also increase in hours/need, and his worker is having a baby, so she can just roll into working with that brother.  Coincidence?  or blessing?

Ben and Abbey

I talked of the physical evidences of blessings received so that they would come together just at the right time in their lives to recognize a perfect match.  But it doesn’t even include the perspectives that line up such as Ben wanting to work with Abbey’s brothers who have autism (he didn’t even bat an eye at their differences, but was rather intrigued), or that he enjoys our family and likes to hang out with us (our bond is important) and they should be able to live near us since he’s a North Carolina boy and the career he’s pursuing is nursing (lots of opportunities nearby), or that he totally supports the idea of homeschooling because he admires so much how Abbey represents her upbringing (he finds her clever and talented), but that Ben also wants to learn and grow alongside Abbey and carve out a path they can create together in a mindful way (which lifelong learning is so important to Abbey as an unschooler and true follower of Christ).

Though Ben’s and Abbey’s journeys start from almost opposite spectrums, they have come together at the right time on that journey with attributes, experiences, and perspectives that blesses one another.  What a blessed love they have!

Of course, Abbey says that his being tall, dark, and handsome, his smelling wonderful, and his being a great kisser doesn’t hurt!

Kissing at the pool

Natural Math Progression

I wrote a comment at Peter Gray’s “Psychology Today” in response to his blog post entitled, “When Less is More:  The Case for Teaching Less Math in Schools.” I thought it would be useful if I shared the journey my son, Eli, took for learning and loving math.

Eli is pursing both a computer science and mathematics degree at 19 today.  He showed from an early age that he would be gifted in the spatial arena.  He viewed everything spatially, and math was no exception.  In fact, I would have to surmise that those who are builder-types and view things spatially have a natural bent toward learning and loving mathematics.  I believe his spatial skill development truly started through his play choices.

It started with puzzles, like many preschoolers, except Eli noticed his older siblings’s alphabet puzzle at around 18 months old.  I remember my mother being impressed that he could do it (upside down at that time she watched him) when she came to visit when Eli’s new little brother was born (they are 18 months apart).  When putting it in upside-down, I wouldn’t be surprised if he were simply using the shape of the puzzle to find its match, showing early spatial ability.  He continued to love puzzles up to his early teen years.

Eli just before turning 4.

Eli at about 2.5 years old.

And continued into higher levels:

Eli at around 11 years.

Eli at about 9.5 years old with a 3-D puzzle.

At around the same age of 1.5 years old, Eli also took notice of his big brother’s die cast Thomas the Tank Engine train collection.  He would meticulously link them together and drive them around a large space in my kitchen.  He liked to get right down at the same level of the trains, with his face pressed into the floor, as he drove them around.  This showed early skill development of visualization of spatial concepts.

Eli at almost 2 years old.

Eli getting an up close and personal view

When Eli was almost 3 years old, he received his first Brio wooden train tracks for Christmas.  Oh, was he excited!  He began constructing train track configurations ever since, including any other style he found or was given.  I remember well this little corner in our living room was put to good use as Eli’s train corner.  Again, the visualization and spatial skills necessary to accomplish this is evident.

Eli with a motorized Tomy track.

Eli at almost 4.

I don’t know when I bought the Lincoln Logs to have in the house.  I think I may have done so when my two older children were younger, thinking it to be a classic toy, so I would bring that into the home.  I may have also done it on my “all wooden toy” kick.  Needless to say, when Eli discovered them, they were next on his agenda to conquer.  One day, I was to get a big surprise when I walked into his room.  I found that he had taken the Lincoln Log pieces and laid them out to represent all the single digit numbers.  He was about age 4.5 years.  I guess that would have been my first indication that he would naturally be drawn to math!  He would subsequently build with Lincoln Logs traditionally.

Eli created at around his 5th birthday.

Eli created a few months before 5 years old.

All types of building material was fair game for Eli to explore and develop his spatial skills.  I found a screw and nail building set in which Eli was challenged in new ways as well as using to enhance his train track creations.

Eli at a little over 6 years old.

Eli at about 4.5 years old.

Naturally, it was only a matter of time before Legos entered the scene.  He started dabbling in it around 4 years old, and went to around 14 years old before he traded it in for computer programming.  He started making stop-gap action movies with his Legos with Lego Studio around 11 years old.  Technics and Lego Mindstorms followed shortly after that.  He seemed to always want to build with the actual directions the first time, and then he would often build his own creations.

Eli with his own Lego creation around 6.5 years old.

Eli searching through a bucket of Legos around 5.5 years old.

It takes great visualization and spatial ability to create novel Lego designs.  Eli made a pyramid after talking about it in our homeschooling.  Inside this pyramid was just as intricate with mazes as the outside was able to depict its representation.  Further, Eli was making contraptions before they existed (or at least before we knew they did if they were in existence at the time).

Eli's contraption creation at 6.5 years old.

Eli creation at around 9.5 years old.

To conclude the building aspect to his math progression, there was a season when he would intersperse the diverse types of resources and create cities.

Eli and one of his cities around his 6th birthday.

Thus, beginning at 18 months with building his train cars to the age of 14 with his Legos, truly was the foundation of thinking mathematically for Eli, in my opinion, and extensively developing his visualization and spatial skills that would serve him well both for math and for computer programming.  He would spend time during this entire timeframe of at least 6-8 hours a day building.

It was between the ages of 4-5 years old that Eli started dabbling in areas recognized as math by society, though often not valued as much as it should be, especially in the early years for a right-brained builder type.  From 5-7, Eli discovered manipulative-based logic math experiences through pentominoes, tangrams, geoboards, pattern blocks, etc.  He would spend hours challenging himself through books and visual diagrams related to these resources.

Eli with a geometry puzzle book at 4.5 years old.

More resources used during this timeframe:
And still more, although this is actually not exhaustive, but highlights what Eli was attracted to:

Because he showed such a fascination from these types of resources, I could see that math intrigued him, so I started introducing both arithmetic as well as other spatial-oriented activities.  It was between 5-6 years old that I shared dot-to-dots with him, which he enjoyed.  I also went on-line and printed off some mazes that I thought he would like.  Further, at that same timeframe, I shared and gave access to how tracing paper works.  As I looked in his 6-year-old folder, I noticed he would trace the mazes I gave him.  This certainly sparked ideas in his mind!  Here are two samples of his original progression with skill development through mazes:

Eli's maze at 6 years old.

Eli’s hand-drawn original maze at 9 years old.

Also from 5-8, I exposed him to simple addition and subtraction.  Although he is a strong right-brained learner, he also has a few left-brained traits, mainly organization and orderliness, that he gets from living with autism. With that in mind, as well as the idea that the “puzzle challenge” to math was forefront in how he viewed it, he seemed to take to it quite easily.  As for reading, that was more traditionally along the right-brained timeframe of 8-10 years old.

Starting at 8 years old, Eli was ready to do more in-depth and even formal math, so I experimented with offering him the math series I had picked up through the recommendation of an admired unschooling friend.  The series is called “Real Math” that was sponsored by the National Science Foundation.  It highlights patterns in math and thinking skills through story problems and other strategies employed.  It takes you through pre-algebra, but is no longer available it would appear upon trying to locate it through the internet searches.  He continued with this series until 14 years old.  Other math programs that I have tried that I think would be as advantageous would be Singapore and Math U See.

While doing this, I would share “math tricks” like doubling numbers and adding/subtracting one, or using 10, etc.  He would get excited and created his own “Math Trick Book”, drawing out the concepts and creating his own “now you try it section”.  Certainly, there were always opportunities that would arise that would show Eli how his amazing spatial skills are involved in real life.  Here he is at a science museum putting together a cathedral:

At almost 8 years old, the "before".

At 9, I rented a piano to teach myself how to play.  As Eli observed me learning, he sat down and started teaching himself to play using his strong spatial ability.  Although he eventually learned the names of the notes (probably around 12-13 years old), he still plays spatially.  (In other words, he sees that a particular note found on the paper falls on the piano in a particular location.  He can do this with large groups of notes.)  Playing an instrument is simply an extension of a strong spatial awareness.

Eli practicing at 9.5 years old.

At around age 13, Eli wanted to learn to computer program.  We found some great books that kick started him, and from age 14-16, he spent about 6-8 hours a day programming.  At 14, he wanted to do a formal algebra program, tried Saxon math, hated it and asked me to “find me a program that gives it to me straight.”  So, he went to Math U See and loved it.  The reason he wanted it straight was because he naturally knows how to apply it.  In fact, many times, he was already using various aspects in his programming (like graphing).

Here are his first two resources for learning to computer program:

And the third and fourth ones:

At 17, he took trigonometry at the community college, working up and through calculus and differential equations, etc.  He literally gets 100% on his exams.  He has said that “when the instructor explains a concept, it’s as if I already knew it”. Math is “natural” to him.  In fact, I claim that math is his primary language; English his second language.

As outlined by my Collaborative Learning Process, I believe by honoring Eli’s natural progression toward math, through his creative outlets in the young years, and feeding this gift that revealed itself in the middle years, led to the explosion in computer programming that riddled his teen years and his subsequent choice to pursue it as a career.  He also intends to minor in math.

Timeframes, Challenges, and Disabilities

We are on Round Three at my Homeschooling Creatively list about the perspective on “disabilities”, particularly as it pertains to the right-brained learner.  This post is my attempt at clarity on my position in viewing differing abilities among people.

•  Right-brained dominant and left-brained dominant learners process information differently; therefore, each has a different timeframe and focus to acquiring skills that optimally captures the individual strengths and gifts of that learning preference.

Our current institutions of school favor left-brained processes.  They are part to whole (versus global thinkers) as they take a whole subject, such as history, and break it down into segments and spread it across many grade levels before achieving the whole.  They are product-driven (versus process concepts) so that they can sort and classify based on right and wrong answers, completed tasks, and defineable measurements.  They are word and symbol focused (versus image generators) with early reading acquisition, math fact drilling, and handwriting practice.   Thus, schools created a scope and sequence that reflects the strengths and gifts of a left-brained dominant learner.

Because of the many generations toward this focus, our society has come to believe that this scope and sequence in favor of left-brained thinkers created for our schools is in actuality the Norm.  It appears that we as a people now believe that this is the Proper Order of Things in learning.  It is no longer a Preference; it is Truth in Learning.  However, this is False!  There is a preferred scope and sequence that favors the gifts of the left-brained learner, but there is another equally valid scope and sequence that favors the gifts of the right-brained learner.    This involves a difference in resources utilized and timeframes toward the development of the various subjects honored.

Unfortunately, because the majority of mankind has been schooled, our society has adopted left-brained thinking as the measuring stick of intelligence.  The current scope and sequence declares that reading, for example, can be accomplished through phonics by age 6-7 years old.  Parents clamber around this timeframe with baited breath in order to discover if their child is declared “smart”.  If you read before the expected age timeframe of 6-7 years old, you are “smart as a whip” or “gifted”.  If you come to reading at the expected time, you are “average”.  However, look out if you read after that timeframe!  You are either “lazy”, “not living up to your potential”, or “stupid”.   But, no one wants to think any of these things about their child, so schools came up with a great reason to excuse this difference in intellectual ability and performance:  learning disabilities.

Why is it that behind every learning disability label (ADD/HD, dyslexia, learning disabled, dysgraphia, twice exceptional, dyscalculia, etc.) is a right-brained learner?  Where are the left-brained learning disabled children?  Why is it that I have never heard that a school has said that the learning environment is not a good match?  Can the learning environment found in school be 100% successful?  Why is it that the child is always declared “broken”, but not the environment or the expected timeframes?

These are serious questions that need legitimate answers.  The good news is that these children are not learning disabled; they learn differently.  Right-brained children learn on a different timeframe that is healthy and advantageous to their gifts and strengths.  There would be little to no “dyslexia” if the path to reading for the right-brained child was honored.  That does not mean following the current left-brained scope and sequence, and just waiting a little longer.  It means it looks totally different.  The resources the right-brained child would learn to read with will be different from what you see in school.  The skill development focus the right-brained child would learn to read from will be different from what you see in school.  And the timeframe the right-brained child would learn to read by will be different from what you see in school.  If all of that is honored, you will have right-brained children coming to reading, and other various subjects (such as writing, spelling, arithmetic, handwriting, and more), in as joyful and painless a manner as their left-brained counterparts.

Currently, we “fix” right-brained learners.  We medicate their behaviors (i.e., ritalin for ADD), we remediate when they do not meet left-brained expectations (i.e. dyslexia programs), and we even “jump start” natural biological occurrences through exercises (i.e., vision tracking).   I find many things happen as a result of this type of treatment:  some self-medicate through alcohol or drugs to ease the pain of not being good enough, some decide they are “stupid” and take that into adulthood, some decide that they “just don’t care” and “do the minimal” so it can appear that they are choosing to not live up to the left-brained expectation, and some will get a “learning disability label” and use that as their “excuse” for avoiding things while believing this means they are deficient in some way.   Though most will become productive members of society, how many wounded spirits still exist?  How many glass ceilings were created within their own minds that limit what they have to offer the world?  Maria Montessori has said, “Free the child’s potential, and you will transform him into the world.”  One important way to do this is to honor the path that naturally develops the strengths and gifts of the right-brained child.

•  Every person has strengths and weaknesses.  Strengths are meant to flourish in order to bless the world through us; weaknesses are meant to challenge us for our own personal learning and growing.

I just had an extended epiphany of my thinking on strengths and weaknesses by writing the above statement.  As humans, we like to belong and have value.  It is usually through our strengths that we recognize that we have something worthy to contribute to the human race (the belonging part).  As we share our gifts, we receive feelings of value from others as they appreciate what we have to offer.  Our gifts are also usually the source of pleasure.  We enjoy doing what we are good at.  It feeds our spirit as we discover more of what we are capable of as we explore our strengths to a deeper and more committed level.  Joy emanates from within as we unveil the full measure of our creation through our gifts and talents.  It is easier to allow our strengths to shine for the world to see and enjoy and benefit.

On the other hand, weaknesses and challenges are personal.  It touches our inner questions in understanding who we are, what is our purpose, and why we believe what we do.  It is the other half of experience in living life.  One is not bad and the other good; each provides information, learning, growth and understanding.  Strengths tend to emit outward; weakness gravitates inward.  I find when I have a challenge, I quietly seek out others who may have similar experiences.  This is a safe way for me to sort out what will be required of me in order to “get to the other side”.  Plus, by seeking out like-minded experiences, it “normalizes” the challenge and gives hope for living it.

I wrote a blog post here about how I view weaknesses through unschooling with my children.  I believe every person has weaknesses as it pertains to learning in some area.   I talked in my post that each child either had a subject that “they just weren’t that interested in”; therefore, it often didn’t come easily, OR they had a subject that “just didn’t come easily to them.”   These are weaknesses.  Each child needed to challenge themselves in order to improve in these areas, or learn a skill set enough to be able to do better.  My daughter’s lack of proficiency in math didn’t mean she was “disabled by math”.  She could learn enough to move forward with her gift in writing without it interfering.  She would not be choosing a career in math.  The same is true for my son and writing.  Over time, he was able to become proficient enough to not impede his progress with his talents in math and computers.

The strength/weakness paradigm in our unschooling learning environment supported the idea that these weaknesses would be viewed as such.  If my children had been in school, measured against the left-brained timeframe found there, there would have been labels.  At the time between 8-10 years old, my son, Eli, really could not figure out reading; he couldn’t hear vowels, he couldn’t decode phonetically, and he couldn’t even recognize similarities in symbols yet.  Yet, at 10 years old, everything came together and he became a reader painlessly.

Due to autism, what about Eli’s difficulty with language, thus, his inevitable struggle with spelling, writing, vocabulary, and comprehension?  We recognized the source of the challenge:  autism and language, but we did not then call it a disability.  A weakness in language will translate to a weakness in these areas of language subjects.  While continuing to honor the typical right-brained timeframe for the development of these subjects starting at 11-13 years of age, we simply took on the challenge of applying good skills and strategies in order to become proficient enough to not hinder his strengths.  This had nothing to do with the scope and sequence found at school.  It had to do with what he would actually need to know how to do in the strength-based career he had delineated as his goal.  We could adopt and modify a variety of tools and resources that would be most helpful on his learning journey.

Being blind is a challenge.  But developing other senses and skills minimizes the difficulty and may even create other areas of strength that could promote a new gift or talent unknown to the person originally.  If I had not had children with autism, I would never have known that I had a natural ability with structured behavioral interventions.  In fact, upon developing this gift, I was able to take other aspects of my strengths and experience and combine it to create something new.  For instance, I was implementing “errorless teaching” before it was “discovered” as well as relation-based motivation.

Having a memory difference is a challenge.  Maybe a child cannot for the life of him memorize his math facts with flashcards.  His memory will just not accommodate that goal using that strategy.  However, this same child is shown to have a musical inclination, and by creating math fact songs, he is able to reach his goal.  He has a different kind of memory that works for him.  At 10, Eli wanted to memorize some scripture verses at church, but was unable to through standard memorization strategies.  These same scripture verses were available through music and he was able to accomplish this goal.  At 14, Eli had another opportunity to memorize scriptures, and at that stage, he was able to use his strong visualization skills to memorize the verses in a seemingly more typical fashion.  Does he have a disability with his memory?  Apparently not.  But if he had been in school, would there have been labels to justify his lack of ability at the time?

It is only a disability if it is disabling.

When I received the first diagnosis of autism, I was knocked right off my feet.  The world stopped instantly in my mind.  My next reaction was “I’m going to fix this.”  With this resolve, those first couple months were a flurry of frenetic emotion.  I even experienced a week-long paralysis of moving forward due to creating my own debilitation due to guilt I heaped upon myself from everyone and nowhere as only a mother can do.  One day two months in, I received the shocking news that my dear friend and neighbor had tragically died in a car accident.  The world stopped again as I mourned deeply.  A 1-year-old girl was left in the world without a mother!  What was I thinking?  I still had my beautiful children.  The only thing that had changed about them was my perception.  My prayers changed that day from “help me fix this” to “let me help them reach their potential.”

I find it was my own insecurities that had me hanging onto the label “autism”.  I wrote about that time here.  The journey I traveled in releasing my need for that label took me to a deep and mindful place of self-discovery and self-disclosure, and that set me on a new level of confidence, peace, and mindful living.  I could then gift that to my children from the beginning.

Eli lives with autism.  He is not disabled by autism.  He is challenged by autism at times.  However, his view on himself is not through the label “autism”, but instead, he has always viewed his life through the lens of strengths and weaknesses/challenges.  He thrives and flourishes with his strengths.  He has chosen a career path based on these gifts.  He meets challenges head on.  He identifies what he is needing to accomplish and determines how he can best accomplish it.  As challenges arise to the goal, he figures out how to go around it, through it, under it, or simply switch gears.  If there are choices, there is life worth living joyfully.

Adam lives with autism.  He cannot live financially independently.  By all definitions, he is disabled.  However, from his perspective and cognitive understanding, he is not disabled.  He enjoys a full life that maximizes his abilities.  He is independent in determining his quality of life day-to-day.  I have learned enormous amounts of knowledge and growth through him.  His life has value.

Those with bipolar have made great contributions to our society through their strengths.  I see bipolar as a challenge, not a disability.  Those with Asperger’s have made great contributions to our society through their strengths.  I see Asperger’s as a challenge, not a disability.  Those who are deaf have made great contributions to our society through their strengths.  I see deafness as a challenge, not a disability.  Those with muscular dystrophy have made great contributions to our society through their strengths.  I see muscular dystrophy as a challenge, not a disability.  Aimee Mullins would agree with my perspective as she shares her story here.

All of this said, I understand that our society requires the label “disability” in order to obtain services or accommodations.  Adam will need to be declared “disabled” in order for us to get guardianship, or for him to receive some kind of monetary opportunity.  A person who figures out they live with bipolar may need to declare themselves “disabled”  during the worst part as they take the time to figure out a successful treatment plan.  Eli was required to have a “disability plan” in order to have “permission” to take another type of reading placement test at the community college.  I always say that I don’t talk about this topic “in a bubble”.  This means that although I recognize its existence, and accept that some people need “more” in order to function in the world, overall I view differences as just that, through a weakness/strength paradigm, and as people who can contribute to the world just the way they are.  I am careful to remember that in our quest to normalize, we may erase the very distinction that will evolve into greatness.  So, I remain ever mindful of my perspective and perception of different as I live my role of facilitator.

•  I view a child as a whole entity, with a preferred way to process information, with strengths and weaknesses unique to their creation, and a path individually created for their own growth and learning.

In order to support this premise, I:

•  support effective communication in any form (2-4 years);

•  encourage strengths, gifts, and talents as the foundation (5-10 years);

•  build emotional, social, sensorial, and behavioral needs (5-10 years);

•  mentor goal setting strategies (11-16 years);

•  collaborate holistic skill sets to increase weaknesses (11-19 years); and

•  counsel a balanced adult lifestyle (17-19 years).

In conclusion, I feel most school-inspired labels (at least 75%) would not exist at all if not measured against an inappropriate and inaccurate timeframe measuring stick as found in schools.  One cannot be deficient if the expectation is not there.  Because of premature and traumatic birth experiences prevalent in a technologically advanced society, chemically-altered and pollution-based changes in our environment, and traditional sickness-based incidents, there will be some children who have more challenges.   No matter the etiology, I prefer to view these challenges as personal opportunities to grow and learn through weakness.  It’s a personal journey each travels in reaching their own individually unique goals based on one’s strengths and gifts.  Finally, although disability certainly exists, I prefer to believe in the power of our divine natures and individual worth.  As Aimee Mullins stated, “You only need one person to show you the epiphany of your own life.”

UWWG and Sickness

I had heard about the Unschoolers Winter Waterpark Gathering for the past few years and since they were bringing in John Taylor Gatto as the featured speaker, I thought I would give it a try since my hubby can typically come with us these days on vacation time.  Since I was going, I decided to offer to give my right-brained learner workshop that is so popular.  Because of this commitment, it was difficult to decide to back out even though there were snow storms raging all around us.  We were blessed in that when we drove up on Sunday, there were clear roads all the way.  We also stayed an extra day, until Thursday, in order to get the same clear roads on the way home after it snowed all day on Tuesday and Wednesday.

I also decided to ask someone if they wanted to share the room I reserved (a Combo suite with two bedroom areas).  Kalista and her son, Bryan, stayed in the king-sized separate bedroom, while Weston, myself, William and Joseph stayed in the two queen beds in another separate bedroom area.  Alex slept on the sofa sleeper in the kitchen/living room area.  Bryan, William and Joseph got along famously.  Kalista and I had several late night discussions about right-brained learning, and bipolar.  One was beneficial to me; the other to her.  Win-win.  It isn’t something I ever do, but as she and I agreed, it was a God thing that brought us together.  It was also a God thing that made me stay another night as I was able to have a looonng conversation with a lady named Kathy (5:30 a.m.!) who has similar thinking as me and has a lot of contacts that could help encourage me to finish my right-brained book.  Coincidentally, she is also a member of the church, and she had been in the mental health workshop with a son with bipolar as well!  I look forward to seeing how these relationships bless my life.

Weston, Joseph, and William spent a lot of time at the indoor waterpark.  I joined them one time to go down some of the group rides with them.  It was a lot of fun.  For booking the room early, we also received 100 tokens for the arcade which the boys enjoyed using  up.  Good thing it was “free”, because I wouldn’t waste money on that stuff!  We also got free passes for the putt-putt, so they were able to play twice.  Finally, we got a $20 gift card for booking early that the boys each picked a little present.  This conference has only one speaker going at a time for the adults, which is nice not to have to “compete” with anyone else.  I was able to use the overhead screen through my laptop, which worked really nicely for my presentation.  Luckily, Weston was there to help it get plugged in correctly.

The two events that were pretty cool at this gathering was the carnival, which is the only thing they have to earn some money back for the cost of the gathering.  Volunteers agree to man booths of a really cool variety of games.  You buy tickets, and earn tickets at the booths.  You trade in the tickets for prizes that were donated by event goers and other non-profits.  The boys were pretty excited.  William bought four small stuffed toys, and Joseph got a brand-new WWF monkey.  The other cool event was the marketplace, where they invite any young people to peddle their wares of any type.  William got lucky and found someone selling their old knight toys, so he was able to buy five for $10.  It was just a neat energy to the activity.

I guess it should have been an early indicator, but Joseph threw up the last night we were there.  In fact, he ended up throwing up each night of Tuesday night, Wednesday night, and Thursday nights.  My guess was the affects of the chlorine he probably swallowed, because he was fine throughout the day.  However, the flu epidemic began with me on Saturday, and hit William, Joseph, Eric, Alex, and Adam, all in line.  Weston and Eli are still awaiting their fate.  This after having a healthy winter thus far.  It would make sense, however, when faced with 400 families at an indoor waterpark in the middle of winter (with lots of snow) that it would breed sickness.

Hopefully, we will all recover by the end of this week.  It starts with a fever, achy joints, headache, and nausea.  Then it warps into a cough/cold.  The fever lasts about 24 hours, and the cold/cough lasts about a week.  Ugh.

High School – Learning versus Credits

Recently on my Homeschooling Creatively list, there was a discussion about what kind of learning counts for high school credit.  Although I know what is being referred to since I attended high school, this vocabulary doesn’t really show up on my radar based on how we home educate our children.  Frankly, even when I was in high school, I was completely unaware of the whole credit thing, so maybe I’m ahead of the game that way.  It wasn’t for good reasons as apparently my high school counselor didn’t consider me college material enough to mention anything to me, and neither of my parents have a higher education (one only has a tenth grade education) to tap into it through them.

I remember some time when my oldest son was in the 11-13 year timeframe, or maybe it was from Loretta Heuer during a Growing Without Schooling conference, but it was mentioned that I should “keep track of” the things my children do that would be high school transcript noteworthy.  And, when my oldest was 14-15 years old, I did do that for a while.  And then life happened.  And learning.  Besides, I found myself getting tediously involved in defining the nitty gritty trying to get it to line up with what I saw other high school students doing.  But why should I do that?  I am not replicating high school in my home.  We are a strength-based life learning home environment.  When my children decided what they wanted to do, college or something else, we would figure out what to do in order to have them achieve that goal.  And so life continued.

So what did we do for high school if not thinking about credits?  I describe it in my Collaborative Learning Process.  My children continued to strengthen their gifts (60%), and I provided support in helping each person improve any weaknesses from where they were in order to take it to the next level based on how it affects where they want to go (30%).  There were never any conversations about, “okay, so you want to go to college for computer programming, so what are you going to do for high school credit to show that.”  My son loved to computer program, so he did so, because he loved it, and was intrigued by it, and wanted to know as much as he could figure out.  My job was to keep feeding in the resources so that the interest would grow to its fullest capacity.  My daughter spent her last few years writing fantasy novels.  She learned by doing.  A few adult friends shared their favorite writing resources with her that got her looking for additional resources that would help her along her learning curve.  Interestingly, she knew when she was ready for more information and knowledge, and when she just needed time to sweat it out herself.  All of this could be translated into “credits” later; yet, it never entered my mind to think that way either in the moment.

Then there is the category of either “not that interested in it” or “difficulties learning or understanding it” subjects.  Each child had subjects they never gravitated to in some way by the 11-13 year old stage.  It was during this first stage of formality that I would introduce these topics to them in a way that could work for them, just so that they had some kind of positive interaction with it at least once.  For my oldest, it was math, and some formal grammar.  For my daughter, it was history and math.  For my third child, it was science and grammar.  These fell into the category of “just not that interested in it”.  It wasn’t that they couldn’t do it; it just didn’t have much meaning for them to pursue.  Yet, each I thought would benefit from a short-term exposure.  So, I found a resource that would match how they like to learn, and each felt positive about learning it to the level they took it.  Again, I didn’t think, “alright, you need a well-rounded education and in order to get credit for high school, you have to do x, y, and z.”  Now, take my daughter’s math as an example; she decided to learn up to algebra, and then decided it was sufficient.  In her transcript for college, I gave her “high school credit” for pre-algebra, geometry (since what we used incorporated it throughout), and algebra I (since she had to do a serious study of it for her ACT test, which she scored solid on).  She is an English/writing focus, so math was not relevant to her getting accepted into the university for which she applied.  Her ACT score “proved” that she had the “competency” for which I recorded.  But again, the reason we did what we did had nothing to do with high school credit or a transcript to get into college.  It was able to be worked out as we needed it.

I think there are two types as it pertains to the “difficulties learning or understanding it” arena.  There is the difficulty with a subject that is important to the child’s strength goals.  My daughter is a writer, and spelling and vocabulary didn’t come naturally to her.  This would be important to her, so we came up with resources and strategies that would help her improve these areas.  We didn’t create a “course” for her to receive high school credit for if she “passed”.  We took her from where she was, found resources that matched how she learns, and helped her improve step by step over a period of a few years.  We collaborated to identify these areas for each child so that their strengths could continue to flourish.

I have children who have a hard time learning certain subjects because of a biological difference.  This is different from not learning it well because there just isn’t an interest or natural inclination toward it.  The two that I asked to do math later don’t take to it easily.  But I don’t think everyone is meant to be good at everything.  I think a person has strengths and weaknesses.  And the weaknesses don’t have to mean “difficulty learning based on a deficiency”.  I’m not that keen on history and would have to work hard to do well in it in a school setting.  I don’t have a natural inclination toward it.  I’m not talking about “school created labels”, either.  Those typically are all about a different learning timeframe and learning resources, and if those are valued, it can either eventually be learned easily or if not, usually be put in the previous category of “difficulty with subject because of lack of natural inclination”.

My sons with autism are who fall into this category to which I am referring to as “biological differences to learning”.  My third child struggled with learning language as a child.  So, it would make sense that reading comprehension, vocabulary, spelling, and writing not only didn’t come naturally to him, he had to learn it in a way that takes a different way of focusing and learning.  Strategies may need to be employed based on their particular biological difference.  Or, he’s simply just going to have to think about it a lot more, and put a lot more time into it, because of it’s “unnaturalness” to his nature.  So, again, he and I would sit down and I would come up with some resources that I thought might help him, or some strategies that I thought might be useful, and let him know that if he wanted to improve in this area, he would need to put the work into it.  We discussed the ways not having these skills could interfere with his life plans, and to what level he might need to take it to circumvent that.  We used hands-on supports, resource supports, mentor support, and modeling supports in order to help him achieve his goals.  You notice we didn’t “remediate”.  He had a positive view on these areas because he was never labeled negatively as it pertains to them.  And, as has been said throughout this post, high school credit had nothing to do with what we were doing.  We were collaborating on goals and learning.  That was the focus.  It still is the focus as we navigate the high school years with each of our children.

For us, there is no “high school”.  There is simply a continuing learning process, based on stages of growth.

Passions, Obsessions, and Self-Stimulatory Behaviors

I believe there is a lot of confusion about these terms used in home/unschooling, in regard to the right-brained learner, and in the autism community.  I thought I might be able to shed some light on the differences based on my experiences with my various children.

I think Alex, age 14, can serve to illustrate the difference between all three to start us off.  Alex was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) when he was 2 years old.  He has two older brothers diagnosed as well.  One of his “special interests” around that age was ceiling fans.  However, as a 2-3 year old with limited cognition, his interest in them was purely for self-stimulatory satisfaction.  He enjoyed watching the blades spin around and around and gets a kick out of the sensation he gets from watching it from certain angles.  Around 3-4 years old, his interest shifted into obsession, even almost addiction.  Suddenly, it’s almost like the joy of watching it no longer existed, but was replaced with a need to turn them on and off, with a frantic-like quality.  I found that he didn’t want to do anything else, in any way, shape or form.  The most important difference, though, that made it an obsession/addiction was the idea that he was taking no pleasure in it, and he couldn’t seem to stop his need to do it all day long.  (We “broke” all the fans in the house, and that helped him “snap out of it” after a few months, so that we could “fix them”, and he could go back to enjoying the experience of watching them again.)  I don’t know when it went from self-stimulatory behavior to passion.  I think it was around 8 years old when he realized that there were more components to ceiling fans than just the thrill of the viewing of it.  He started to assemble fans, collect fans, create his own fans, understand how all the parts create the whole, and to appreciate vintage fans.  Alex has a full life with several focuses or passions as well as meaningful relationships and interactions, with future plans and hopes and dreams.  One of his passions is ceiling fans, which may lead to his future career path.  He is a part of on-line forums for fan lovers and they have interesting conversations among each other.  He has even found an IRL friend through his passion who shares it in a meaningful way (he restores ceiling fans at s Habitat for Humanity Restore).

So, my definition in practice of these three words are this:

•  Self-stimulatory behaviors create enjoyable sensations, particularly sensory input sensations, that a person does for pleasure.

Some examples of this are when Adam, age 16, diagnosed with autism (moderately-severely affected) flips coins into a bucket over and over again.  He loves how it feels on his fingers, how it sounds as it rhythmically clinks, and how it visually looks as it floats into an arc into the pile created.  Or when Alex enjoys something for whatever reason, he makes a particular noise while tensing up his body and rubbing his fingers together as a way to express sensorially his satisfaction.  When he was younger, around 1 year old, Alex would crawl into a tight space under my night stand and play with a cord.  His enjoyment of this practice was a positive sensory experience.

I think the categorization of “self-stimulatory behavior” is overused in the autism community.  I believe it is most true from those who view autism as a negative attribute (that’s a whole other post, because I feel there are two sides to that thought) and one to be expunged.  For instance, I believe many would consider Alex’s ceiling fan passion a self-stimulatory behavior.  He can do actions that express that side, but it is overall a passion.  A good example of the misconception is playing the piano.   There is certainly a sensorial appreciation to playing with the listening of the music to the touching of the keys to the patterning of the action, but for most people, it is either a pleasant skill to enjoy or a passion.  Another personal example is Eli, age 18, diagnosed with high functioning autism, starting at the age of 1.5 years old, spent hours with trains.  He would lie down as he meticulously linked the metal cast die trains together, close one eye, and pull the train toward him and past as he watched his creation from various angles.  The experts would call that “looking at the parts”, but in actuality, he was enjoying his three-dimensionality aspect of being right-brained.  There is one type of conclusion in the autism community about “enjoying parts”, but there may be another explanation as so many individuals with autism are right-brained learners, with three-dimensionality gifts, that may be exploring what that means by bringing parts up close and personal for a season while younger.

•  Obsession is when an interest has taken over a life devoid of other enjoyable features and there is no longer joy associated with the action.

Some examples of this is when Alex, 1-2 years old at the time, would line up his Duplo blocks into a line over and over.  He would often get agitated as he did it, thus, not taking any enjoyment from it.  However, he would get upset if it didn’t line up as he wanted, or if it got messed up.  He was not receiving sensorial benefit from it, nor was he enjoying the experience.  Sometimes, Adam accidentally lets one of his self-stimulatory behaviors turn into an obsession related to obsessive-compulsive disorder.  For instance, if he has no other cognitive stimulation going on in his life, instead of using his coin flipping as a sensory outlet and calming enjoyment action, he can begin to create patterns within his mind as he does the flipping that begins to cycle.  He noticeably becomes agitated while flipping, his actions become spasmodic, and the sounds he makes become intense.  He is no longer enjoying the experience and often has a difficult time completing whatever cycle he has created that has taken over the process.

What it is not is often confused with the beginning stages of a passion, particularly with people with autism who may seem “out of balance” at this stage.  For instance, when Eli was 1.5-4 years old, he spent hours creating train tracks and playing his trains.  Then, from 4-12, he spent an equal amount of time with Legos.  During this timeframe, Eli had no interest in friends, though he had consistent interactions in formal settings I brought him to, and had many “odd” ways of interacting and difficulty communicating effectively.  However, Eli was gaining much pleasure from his interest, he was competent in diverse ways, he continued to learn and grow from its practice, and he was in balance for the stage of autism he was at during that time.

Alex’s interest in John Denver songs and the Beatles may be misinterpreted by experts/people of a different perspective as either a self-stimulatory behavior or an obsession, but I see it has a developing passion.  Alex will listen to a particular song over and over again, taking great pleasure out of hearing it, so it could be seen as a pleasant sensorial experience as his reasons for doing this.  Or, because of this repetition, it may be seen as an obsession.  However, though I believe he is having a pleasant sensory experience, he is always learning and growing in more information about these two artists.  It has also expanded into other music.  He has also developed other skills through the interest such as creating his own montages.  I see it as a passion.

Because of the nature of autism, particularly in the early stages of development when a young person with autism is still trying to figure out our “culture” of cognitive understanding, the things that interest them may be more sensory in nature because of how attuned their sensory system is to their surroundings.  Further, as they get older, and if they have not been helped in knowing how to interact with the world in which they live, the interest may become obsessive because they don’t know where else to take it. However, I find that as we expand their understanding of their interest to the world, it becomes a healthy passion like anyone else enjoys.  I wrote a post about that idea here.

•  Passion is when an interest engulfs your being and it brings great pleasure and satisfaction, with consistent growth and/or learning associated with it, insomuch as a person wants to spend many hours a day engaged in its pursuit.

A right-brained learner often is engaged in a passion, particularly one of the creative outlets (music/dance, art/drawing, theater’/showmanship, math/numbers, video games/computers, mazes/puzzles, fashion/sewing, cooking/gardening, building/electronics).  They will spend hours and hours, days and days, years and years in its pursuit in their ability to reach excellence (it is said that 10,000 hours of dedicated pursuit is needed to excel in something).  I wonder if because our schooling system is focused on a generalist education, that we think anything that someone spends hours pursuing must be bad, thus, placing the negative word “obsession” on it.

Some examples of passion pursuits in our house is the hours upon hours of Lego building Eli engaged in, or the hours upon hours of drawing Eric, age 22, engaged in.  Interestingly, Eli’s Lego building led him to computer programming.  At 14 years old, he started spending hours and hours dedicated to learning how to program.  He carried around his programming book as his “bible”.  We give value to this as a passion because it is recognizable as a “career path”, but his surrounding himself with his Legos was no different than his programming.  It was the predecessor to his finding his career path passion.  I always tell people to look beyond the exterior act.  What do you see happening as they pursue this interest?  I saw this one time when Eli had learned about pyramids:



This Lego pyramid had as much intricacy inside as it is outside, as depicted in his drawing beforehand.

Everyone has their own balance in life.  In order to develop a passion to excellence, many hours need to be dedicated to it.  This is what a strengths-based, gift-centered learning environment can look like.  Some are introverts and need less interaction time than those who are extraverts.  Some cerebral types of children need less physical activity than those who are active and high energy.  I remember learning an interesting lesson from Eli when he was 9 years old.  I was actively looking for a good match for him in a playmate in order to develop some of his social skills.  I noticed another homeschooled girl who seemed to be “odd” like Eli, so thought it might be interesting to see how they might get along.  In order to facilitate the initiation of diverse activities, I created an idea board of things in the house they could play with, and each could take turns making a choice.  This is what they chose as their first three activities as I observed one day:

First, they chose a puzzle with many pieces, I think it was 100 or something, and they both bent over the activity, deep in concentration as they constructed this puzzle.  Then, they chose a board game that was fun, like Cootie Bug or something that took luck and playful interaction.  Then, last they created their own interest by cutting a long piece of yarn from a skein, attaching it to the back ends of themselves, and finding a circular path in our home and following that path, letting the yarn drag behind, and trying to leap toward the end of their yarn as they circled around, to see if they could grab it . . . a strange, yet delightful to them, escapade.  Suddenly, it occurred to me.  Now I see why Eli had a difficult time finding friends:  he went from a highly cerebral activity, to a traditional (normal) activity, to an odd activity.  Uusually, he would lose someone in the transition, as so many children are either one, the other, or the last, but not all three in one.  His diversity of interest created a division in peer match-ups!

Thus, what it is not is when a child is engaged in a pursuit of potential passion, and they get “out of balance” during a stage that they don’t have the skill set to know how to manage their interest.  Video game playing is a perfect example of this.  My oldest son loved playing video games starting at 5 years old.  Around 8-9 years old, he went through a stage that appeared to be “obsessive/addictive.”  And, in actuality, it had shifted into that realm (just like self-stimulatory can warp to passion, so can passion deteriorate into obsession) because he didn’t have the skills of self-management.  So, suddenly video games were not fun anymore, and he was acting out in frustration, yet refused to stop playing because he had to make it to the next level.  His actions became spastic and his attitude became ugly.  So, just like with my 3-4 year old who needed to take a break from ceiling fans in order to break from the obsessive nature he had found himself, for my 9-year-old, I could pull him aside and give him good information about what he was experiencing, how to manage it effectively, and what had happened to something that was of high interest to him.  Over a year’s time of discussion and collaboration and knowledge sharing, his self-management and “in balance” needs were consistently integrated from himself in order to place his video game interest back into passion mode.  (He used his interest in video games as inspiration for his art and history projects throughout his childhood and into his life’s pursuit.)

In conclusion, spending longs hours in the pursuit of something does not make it an obsession.  We are so focused on being a little good at everything that we forget what it looks like to specialize in something and how much time it takes to excel at it.  Further, being in “balance” looks different for various children based on temperament and learning traits, but also looks different at the various stages of development, including factoring in extenuating circumstances, like being diagnosed with autism.  I have developed my observation skills in order to see beyond what is front of me, but more importantly, I have questioned the generalist attitude of our learning environments for our young children.   We need more passion in our lives; we can give that to our children in our perspective and our learning lives!