The Way to Sanity with Learning Challenged Kids: C.H.E.E.R. Them On!

Sep 18, 2003

by Wendelyn Martz

Have you been looking for the right key to unlock social and academic progress with your learning challenged child? I have, and in the process, I discovered that the real secret to success with these children is not a new curriculum or even alternative teaching methods, but a change of heart!

And who are these learning challenged kids? These are the children for whom simple, everyday tasks—such as saying hello to your neighbor, verbally responding to a direct question, writing a legible thank-you note, buttoning a shirt, eating a meal sitting down—can be difficult, even overwhelming tasks.

Consequently, it's stressful (at best) living with these kids who defy every rule, disrupt any peace and quiet, demand full attention and drain every ounce of energy and patience.

While trying to maintain sanity and peace in my home, I focused much of my attention on managing my energetic, boisterous, on-the-go seven-and-a-half-year-old son. In the process, I discovered that the real battle wasn't about my son's (mis) behavior, but about my attitude and expectations toward him.

Several weeks ago, while taking the dog for a walk after dinner, I was thinking over the events of the day when I caught myself spontaneously praising my son for something he had done. Although I can't remember the reason for my praise, I can vividly recall how great it felt to offer genuine compliments as a wave of love for him simply flowed over me! I also realized—much to my chagrin—how infrequently I praised him. So many of my words to my son are critical in tone: "Do this!" "Don't do that!" "Stop!" "Quiet!" "Come here!" The list could go on and on.

We know that all children—learning challenged or not—respond best to affirmation and praise. But in our culture, quick to judge and criticize those who do not fit the neat mold of society's norm, parents and teachers of these special needs kids must train ourselves to affirm, love and C.H.E.E.R our learning challenged kids. Now, changing expectations and attitudes toward our challenged child is hard work. Just as selecting the right curriculum or developing daily lesson plans is hard work, so, consciously changing our attitude requires recognizing the old tapes playing in our head and replacing them with new ones—ones that will cheer them and affirm their personalities and God given abilities.

Cheering learning challenged children is not a magic, one-time formula, but a process that will take time and patience. My family and I have used the word C.H.E.E.R. to remind us of our responsibility toward our one important family member who needs our extra affirmation and love.

Let’s look at the word more closely: 

            C stands for developing COMPASSION. Notice that I used to word develop. I could have also used the word learn.

Compassion does not occur automatically. It is a skill that must be nurtured and learned. A mother’s love and compassion is not instinctive!

Compassion is not about simply meeting the children’s daily needs, such as serving nutritious food, cleaning their clothes, and teaching them basic academics. That's providing for them.

Compassion, on the other hand, means having a deep, abiding awareness of their needs and suffering, coupled with the desire to help them.

            Compassion means trying to understand the world as they perceive it. If Batman is lost—and he must be found—a compassionate response includes looking for the missing toy and not condemning it as babyish or silly.

            Compassion also means allowing certain behaviors that these children have difficulty controlling and creating opportunities that will give them success. In other words, we follow periods of sitting (such as in a church service) with periods of vigorous movement. The result is a happier boy and boatloads of patience, understanding and empathy on my part (all of which typically run in short supply in my household).

H stands for hearing them. With compassion in place, we'll desire to hear them. While it takes extra time to stop and listen (especially to those with speech impediments as in our case), the benefits are astounding. Imagine! In a world where most people discount them due to their differences or difficulties, if we momentarily set aside our agenda and really listen to their concerns, we’ll win their hearts and cooperation.

Whenever I have a quiet moment with my son, I stop, listen to him and ask good questions. This is important because his thoughts, needs and ideas are typically lost during family conversations. Recently I learned why he wanted pasta for lunch day after day: Superman ate pasta and Superman helps people and he wanted to help people.

E challenges us to encourage daily. With a compassionate heart, and listening ears, we'll end up encouraging them. Isn't that awesome!

I like to practice saying "I love you" to my son even before I see him in the morning. As a matter of fact, I have a photo of him taped inside my closet, and I say, “I love you” several times before I even leave the bedroom. This way, I find it somewhat easier to say, “Good morning. I love you” even if he hasn't made the bed or gotten dressed and Legos are strewn all over the floor. He needs to start the day with affirming words (it helps all of us).

With encouragement, we’ll build their self-esteem. A strong self-esteem is probably more important to them than the three "Rs." What successful person do you know who has a poor self-image? As parents, we must look for their strengths and praise them. In fact, we encourage our son in areas where he is experiencing even mild success.

Conversely, we steer him away from activities or people or events that will most likely result in failure, misunderstandings or misbehavior. For example, our son played soccer last season—a very low-key recreational league at the church. But while team sports are a good match for his athletic, outgoing older brother, it was not a good fit for an easily distractible boy. What were we thinking? Our son had to deal with ten boys the same age who played fast ball, talked even faster and expected others to respond in like manner. There were two goals, two coaches, cheering crowds on game day to further distract him and really interesting ant hills on the field. Needless to say, he's now playing tennis.

The next E is so important! Educate siblings, family and friends. In that order. Other children in the family need to understand their role in helping their challenged sibling. For example, learning challenged kids typically have a hard time making or maintaining friends outside the family. Siblings could and should rightfully assume the role of best friend.

Inside the home, your children must learn to become more tolerant or overlook behaviors that the learning challenged child has a hard time controlling, such as making certain sounds or needing to constantly move. They must learn to accept their sibling's needs and personality without condemning.

Siblings must also work to protect their learning challenged family member outside the home. They must be taught to stick up for their sibling if he or she is being teased or treated unfairly in the neighborhood, at church or at the park. If neighborhood kids are teasing that child, siblings must step in. Tell your children how to speak up: "My brother cannot tell you how he feels, but I know he doesn't like to be teased."

Don't ever let them say, “If you think you have a hard time playing a game, try living with him." Your work with building self-esteem will go out the door!

Siblings look to each other for support, love, comfort, and companionship. Too often, kids with learning challenges get pegged in certain roles: troublemaker, noisemaker, and the like. Help your children to see their challenged sibling in a different light. Make sure they have compassion, listening ears and the desire to build their self-esteem with encouraging words. It will make a world of difference.

Instead of seeing their sibling as "hyper" call it "extra energetic.” Now, I am getting ahead of myself because:

R reminds us to reject labels and replace with real names.

            "Sticks and stones will break my bones but names will never hurt me" says the nursery rhyme, but it’s untrue. Labels hurt and do far more damage than cuts and bruises.

Isn't it ironic that we spend weeks, maybe months, choosing the right name for our yet to be born babies. We ponder through baby name books, research our family trees, yet we can so flippantly throw barbs without a moments hesitation: uncooperative, complainer, aggressive, noisy, troublemaker. Children live up to the names that they hear from the people they trust and love. Little Johnny who listens as his mother sighs and says to her friend over the phone, "No, he's still not reading yet and he's driving me crazy!" He'll stop trying to read because Mom says he can't and he'll continue to drive Mom crazy because Mom says he does! What a vicious cycle.

Replace the labels with encouraging adjectives—words you'd be proud to say aloud. For example, replace the label "impulsive" with "fearless/risk-taker." In our family, it’s our challenged son who is the first one to say hello to a new neighbor, try new foods in a restaurant or even help with new tasks in the yard. That annoying quality in our son suddenly became an advantage as we praised him in front of the rest of the family.

I am sure you are familiar with the loveable Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle who offers cures to parents desperate for a solution to the problems they are having with their children—children who won't clean their rooms; children who tease; children who won't go to bed; and children who watch too much television.

Are you, like me, looking for a cure for your learning challenged child? Needless to say, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle offers no cure (I looked). I discovered the only way to sanity is to C.H.E.E.R. our challenged children. And I have been encouraged when I am loved in return.

Wendy and her husband, Philip, homeschool their three children in Charlotte.

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