I’m Learning, Too!

Vinnie sitting at a table, working on his homework

In case you haven’t noticed by now, let me point out that I am fiercely independent! I am an advocate for family-centered services. I don’t like (very mild word) bureaucracies that exist for the good of the agency rather than the client. I’m rather outspoken. And I have to sit with my hands over my mouth when in any kind of meeting where I’m going to say something I shouldn’t or that is in anger. I have that conversation in my head, so it won’t slip out. Anger, while it might make you feel better, is destructive to what you want to gain. I work really hard to remain positive. It is that Yankee independent streak!

My pet peeve is “Learned Helplessness! It is when someone waits for help or prompts before doing whatever. They have learned that if they can’t do it or don’t like to do it that someone will do it for them if they wait long enough. I remember a teacher telling me what a great student my son was. “He sits in the back of the room and doesn’t bother anybody.” Forget the fact that he didn’t learn anything. This was years ago, but still holds true today. Classes are larger and student’s needs are even greater.

What is learned helplessness?

“…Any extended period of negative emotions can lead to you giving in to despair and accepting your fate. If you remain alone for a long time, you will decide loneliness is a fact of life and pass up opportunities to hang out with people. The loss of control in any situation will lead to this state. A study in 1976 by Langer and Rodin showed in nursing homes where conformity and passivity is encouraged and every whim is attended to, the health and well-being of the patients’ declines rapidly. If, instead, the people in these homes are given responsibilities and choices, they remain healthy and active. This research was repeated in prisons. Sure enough, just letting prisoners move furniture and control the television kept them from developing health problems and staging revolts. In shelters where people can’t pick out their own beds or choose what to eat, the residents are less likely to try and get a job or find an apartment…”

“…Choices, even small ones, can hold back the crushing weight of helplessness, but you can’t stop there…”

“…When you are able to succeed at easy tasks, hard tasks feel possible to accomplish. When you are unable to succeed at small tasks, everything seems harder…”

(All quotations above are from articles on learned helplessness by David McRaney, November 11, 2009.)

It is important that our children have responsibilities and choices. It is okay to let your child fail, stumble, try, etc. but be there to help, kiss boo boos, encourage, instruct, but don’t do everything for them that they can do for themselves! Well-meaning people will rush in to help. I find myself as well wanting to do this. It is a natural response to want to help, especially your child. By all means step in and help if safety is an issue. I’ve learned it is okay to let Vinnie stumble if he isn’t using his cane and I know he won’t get hurt, but he will learn he should use that cane. It is his responsibility and he has a choice.

Don’t do for your child what he/she can for him/herself. Give choices, chores, responsibility, etc. within the child’s ability level. Encourage and reward the behaviors and learning, even if the gains are small. Sometimes, it means waiting and listening rather than jumping in to correct or rescue. It sometimes means making sure others are not helping with the things your child can do. This is a delicate balance, in order to teach rather than alienate a resource. One church we attended did not think my son could do things because of his blindness. The other church asked, “What can I/we do to make Sunday School/Church more meaningful?” Which church do you suppose we attend?

Failure is an opportunity to learn. We stress to our home school children that pencils have erasers to help correct our mistakes. Obviously, people must make a lot of mistakes, because every pencil comes with an eraser and computers come with auto-correction. As long as failure is not personalized, but is seen as an opportunity to learn, you can avoid “Learned Helplessness”.

Home school parents must find ways to adapt and change so our children will succeed. My father always told us growing up, “You can do anything, if you can read.” He only had an 8th grade educational level. He was a talented and successful carpenter, who built the local high school shop building. The irony was that he couldn’t substitute or guest teach the shop class because he only had an 8th grade education. He made sure we went to school. Reading is important to literacy, no matter your level of education.

There are a lot of great people who have contributed to braille learning and education, most notably, Louis Braille and Helen Keller. These folks did not give up and I can only guess the number of mistakes they made, but they succeeded in spite of their failures. They had the desire and encouragement to keep trying. That is the spark as a parent you want to ignite for both you and your child!

Each child deserves an education regardless of their different needs. That education should be preparing a child to live as independently as possible in the world, whatever that independence looks like. The first two sentences I taught Vinnie to write are: “I can do it!” and “My name is Vincent Harper!” We have written these two affirmative sentences every day on his brailler since we started school, even before he could read what he wrote.

You have a choice and a responsibility to educate your child/ren. I didn’t think I could home school a blind child, but I’ve learned that I can teach my son. I am to learning right along with him. I was afraid of braille, overwhelmed with the task at hand. But I made a decision. If my son can do it, I can too! I am blessed with an excellent Teacher of the Visually Impaired (TVI) and I live in a state that has liberal laws regarding home schooling. Maine has a large population of home schooled children.

Have I made mistakes? You bet I have. I’ve had to rethink, redo, start again, learn a new way of reading and writing, but it is worth it. I learned the way my son learns, so I/we can teach to his strengths. He amazes me every day.

I also want to direct you to a great article on home school and an excellent website with resources on home schooling. You can access it by going to: http://lauragraceweldon.com/2012/01/02/school-add-isnt-homeschool-add/. Laura Weldon writes about her decision to homeschool her son:

“…school systems that were, by necessity, not designed to handle individual differences…”

“…children don’t fare well as passive recipients of education. They want to take part in meaningful activities relevant to their own lives. They develop greater skills by building on their gifts, not focusing on abilities they lack…”

There are options and choices regarding homeschooling. If you think that because you do not have an advanced degree or a degree in teaching that you can’t teach your child, THINK AGAIN! You aren’t going to be perfect in your home schooling, so cut yourself some slack. Give it a year. It is a lot of work and is not for everyone. Those of you who stick with it will wonder why you didn’t start sooner and what were you afraid of? You will learn braille and a lot of other tools that are helpful. Be adventuresome. Ask for help, seek out resources, be creative, and learn with your child.

Enjoy the journey!