Earlier, Rather Than Later
When our daughter was born with Down syndrome, we never questioned whether we would homeschool her. That was just a given: she would be educated at home with her brothers. What we did question almost from the beginning was how, what, and when. As we were moving toward a much more classical approach with our boys, we wondered if we would also classically educate Kate. Would she be able to handle the rigor and work? Could she handle learning Latin like her brothers? We started to question the curriculum choices we were making with the boys, wondering if she would need something entirely different. And we weren’t sure when to start a more formal approach to her learning. Would we wait until she was “school age” to begin formal learning, beyond what she showed an interest in? Or would we take an “early is better” approach?
It wasn’t very hard to realize that Kate, too, would be classically educated. We knew it might, and probably would, look different than her brothers’ education looked. But it would be classical to the best of her ability. I bought Cheryl Swope’s book Simply Classical. Reading her story, and that of her two children made me realize that it wasn’t just possible to educate Kate classically, it was the best way to educate her as a whole person. Sure, she will need to learn life skills. Sure, we will need to help her gain as much independence as possible. But those skills just address one piece of what makes Kate, well, Kate. She is a body and soul and deserves an education that forms her whole being just as much as her brothers do. Recently, our decision was validated and cemented when I read this quote by Martin Cothran of Memoria Press:
If a child cannot accommodate the amount or depth of knowledge of most children, it is not less, but more important that what they learn be of the highest quality.
Now that we knew roughly what her education was going to look like, we needed to decide how it was going to play out. As I read books and on the internet, and as I spoke with others who have walked this path before me, I began to discuss the idea of early academics with my husband. Knowing that all learning for Kate would be uphill both ways, we decided that an early start to building her academic foundation was vital to her potential success later in life. The first place we began was reading instruction. Not only is the ability to read one of the most fundamental abilities necessary to participate in every day life, but learning to read also helps cognitive development as well as speech development, both of which can be delayed in individuals with Down syndrome.
We have put together a reading program using a variety of resources including The Learning Program materials, See and Learn, and the book Teaching Reading to Children with Down Syndrome. Mostly, we use flash cards that have a word on one side with a corresponding picture on the reverse. The flashing through is fast; it takes a couple minutes to go through a stack of ten cards, twice. We have also added books from the Learning Program with simple sentences to help her make the connection between words on a flashcard and words in books. The goal is for Kate to be reading and comprehending at or above grade level when she begins first grade.
In addition to teaching reading in the preschool years, we also are teaching early math literacy – counting everything (steps as we go up and down the stairs, objects on pages of books we read, pieces of food), sorting and categorizing toys, and playing with pattern blocks and attribute blocks, among other more formal activities. Looking back, so many of these early concepts came naturally for her brothers, either through playtime together or through videos from Leap Frog. We didn’t think much of what we were doing, we just included colors, numbers, shapes, and sizes in everyday conversation with our boys. With Kate, though, nothing can be assumed. Yes, we play with her in the same ways, having similar conversations. But we also pull out flash cards, linking cubes, and small math manipulatives. We must be much more deliberate with Kate, much more explicit with the instruction, much more repetitive with her. The idea is that she must have 10,000 times more input than typical children to retain information. She must have her working memory exercised consistently to build connections and synapses. We can never just assume with her that she is learning the ways her brothers learned – just by picking things up in everyday life.
The final, and the most beautiful, piece to the puzzle for Kate’s early preschool education is the new Simply Classical curriculum from Memoria Press. Harkening back to the quote from Martin Cothran, and based on her book, Cheryl Swope is designing classical curriculum for special needs children. We have begun working through the first level with Kate this summer. We start each day with a prayer from the beautiful Little Golden Book Prayers for Children. When we talk about the baby birds and mama bird on the page, Kate practices her speech and her signing. From there, each day includes basic calendar activities (days of the week and weather), counting and alphabet recitation, as well as beginning memory work from Scripture. We then read the book of the week. Cheryl Swope has chosen wonderful books from authors including Beatrix Potter, Richard Scarry, Eric Carle, and Margaret Wise Brown, among others. Because these are board books, they are perfect for little hands and allow Kate to practice her fine motor skills by turning the pages for me.
Fine and gross motor, oral language, and other therapies are wrapped into the weekly readings. We practice making a pointing finger to count objects; we jump, squat down, and push strollers to act out parts of a story; we discuss feelings and learn empathy while learning to read emotions on the faces of the characters. Cheryl Swope has taken those skills that need explicit instruction and woven them beautifully into activities springing out of the books we are reading. She has captured special needs preschool and bottled it inside something true, good, and beautiful.
Early academics is not something I would normally advocate. If I did, it would come in the form of “only if the child shows an interest.” Of my three boys, the younger two did show an interest, but ultimately, it was not the early academics that drove them. It was the desire to emulate their older brother(s) by doing “school” too. We kept it simple – a few Kumon books; a white board and marker to practice “writing;” some paper, scissors, glue, and crayons. If they felt like being at the table with the rest of us, they were welcomed. But it was not planned or forced. We do not have that luxury with Kate. We knew early on that she needed an early start to build a foundation that came easily for her brothers. We knew her development was an uphill climb from the beginning. But we also knew that given the skills, the input, and the time, she would be able to fly. Early academics, beginning much younger for her than her brothers, is the key to helping her fly. For us, that takes the form of early reading instruction, explicit math instruction, and a beautifully written preschool special needs curriculum. And she is thriving.
Brit and her husband are living this beautiful, crazy life with their three sons and one daughter in sunny California. They made the decision to homeschool when their eldest was a baby after realizing how much afterschooling they would do if they sent him to school. Brit describes their homeschooling as eclectic, literature-rich, Catholic, classical-wanna-be.