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Struggling Learners vs. Special Education

Many parents ask questions about the difference between struggling learners and special education.  A struggling learner is working at or just below grade level. It might take them longer to catch on, they might need a few more examples.

Struggling Learner

When our children struggle with reading, writing, and math, it is sometimes hard to know what exactly is going on.  Is it just this concept they are struggling with? Does math (or reading) come easy, whereas other things are harder?  Especially if it is your first child and if you have never taught children before, it is hard to know how much help you may need or if you should just “wait it out.”

When our struggling learners are younger, it can be difficult to decide whether to seek help or not.  

Dianne Craft, MA, CNHP, suggests considering the following things:

  • At least 7 ½ to 8 years of age?
  • Is the child a boy or girl?  Boys sometimes take longer to mature and be ready to learn.
  • Can your child say (not sing) the ABCs in order, differentiating L, M, N, O, and P?
  • Can your child hold a pencil?
  • When your child writes, does he reverse letters?
  • Does your child have a desire, an eagerness to learn?
  • Is a younger sibling catching on to concepts faster or catching up?
  • Does your child like to be read to?

By around 10, children should be moving from learning to read to reading to learning.  This means they should be able to read the words without much difficulty on age-appropriate levels and begin to build an understanding of what they are reading and learn from it.  

So what about older kids who need some help?  At what point should you be concerned?

Can your child:

  • Look at a set of objects (or fingers) and tell you how many are there (without counting, up to 10)?
  • Know math addition and subtraction facts or a quick strategy to solve them (not counting fingers).
  • Know multiplication and division facts or a quick strategy to solve them (not skip counting from the 1x place).
  • Understanding multiples and factors
  • Understand decimals and fractions
  • Tell time on an analog clock (not digital)

All children learn differently, and it is true that some children simply need time and repetition to be ready to learn certain concepts.  

So when is it important to seek testing and/or services for struggling learners?

  • When it will benefit your child to get them needed therapies
  • When your child is preparing for a trade school or college/university that requires a current “diagnosis” for support
  • When you choose to utilize services available from the local school district (this varies by state and district)
  • When there are state services that are available to you with a diagnosis (such as audiobook programs available to those who have vision impairments or dyslexia diagnosis)
  • To seek recommendations to better understand how to help your child learn (at these times, seeking out someone who understands homeschooling would be beneficial).
  • Your child becomes overly frustrated by their limitations and struggles.

Special Education

A  Special Education student, however,  generally has a specific diagnosis (Autism, Down’s, Intellectual Disability, severe ADHD or Dyslexia, and many others).  These students generally are 2-3 grade levels or developmentally 2-3 years behind their peers in specific areas or across all areas.  

When do I need to seek out a diagnosis?

When a parent asks me if they should seek out a diagnosis, I ask them to consider the following:

  • Why do you need a diagnosis?
  • What questions are you hoping to answer with a diagnosis?
  • How would a diagnosis benefit you and your child?

A diagnosis might be beneficial if:

  • You utilize public school services (some states allow this even for homeschoolers)
  • You will be eligible for services or resources not currently available without a diagnosis
  • You need a diagnosis for your state due to testing regulations
  • You are preparing for college, and a diagnosis is required for needed accommodations for classes or testing (the testing usually has to be less than 3 years old going into college)
  • You don’t know what to do or how to help your child, and you are looking for help in how to approach teaching them
  • You know something is “off” or “not right” or a “problem,” but you can’t quite put your finger on what’s going on. The hope of naming your unrest will bring you some peace and hope to help your kiddo.

What do I do after I receive a diagnosis?

No matter how prepared you think you are going into an evaluation process, receiving a diagnosis comes with a mix of emotions.  You are relieved because you discover something is going on (and you weren’t just THAT crazy mom after all). However, parents need to be prepared.  

There is always a grieving process that comes with receiving a diagnosis.  There will be anger, sadness, and doubt, and eventually, you will feel stronger and better equipped to help your child.  

Here are some tips to help you through this process:

  • Don’t make any immediate changes that aren’t necessary.  Give yourself time to adjust before changing the educational setting (especially to homeschool from public school or vice versa), curriculum, or how you approach things.
  • Educate yourself.  Find some articles, a video, or a book to read on the specific diagnosis. Even if you know a lot about it already, it helps to see the information through the new eyes of KNOWING what is going on.
  • Find some support.  Facebook groups and friends are great places to start.
  • Say some prayers.  The road will be long and hard, even armed with a diagnosis.  Prayers for understanding and peace go a long way.

How to find support…

One of the most important things to do as a parent of a child who struggles or has special needs is to find a support group.  Friends who will pray with and for you, families going through similar struggles, and a good sitter are all important. Here are some great ideas for finding support:

  • Church – a lot of times you can find support through a church.  From support groups to an hour to be an “adult” on Sundays while your kids are in Bible Class can do a lot for how you feel the rest of your week.  Talk with them about your needs and advocate for yourself and your child.
  • Facebook groups – Not all Facebook groups are the same, but there are some wonderful ones out there.  Some I recommend to parents:
  • Friends – Find your “Tribe.”  Friends who can understand and be the shoulder you lean on when things get tough.  Parents going through similar situations are great because they are in the trenches with you.  Being able to offer support at times can be beneficial too.

Struggling Learners and Special Needs students will take more faith, perseverance, and resources but be encouraged! There are more resources, books, conferences, and groups now than ever, including small group classes offered live online through True North Homeschool Academy. We also offer Special Needs and Struggling Learners Academic Advising. We would love to link arms with you as you seek out what’s best for your Struggling Learner or Special Needs student!

Original article written by: Amy Vickrey, MSE.

 Amy holds a Master of Science in Education, Specializing in Curriculum and Instruction, from the University of Central Missouri and a Bachelor of Science in Interdisciplinary Studies from Texas State University-San Marcos.  Also, she spent 2 years of college studying Interpretation for the Deaf and Deaf Studies and knows American Sign Language. Her teaching certifications include Special Education, English as a Second Language, and Generalist (early childhood through fourth). She is now part of the Struggling Learners Department of True North Homeschool Academy and loves the discovery approach to learning. Teaching children how to learn will help them reach their goals and dreams.

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