Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Learning - Older Adopted Children - Part 5

To date, I have posted four times about the challenges of Learning and Language for (some) older children of international adoption.  Here are those four links, in case you have an interest in reading them:

Part 5, today, is more of an update, really, than it is about research and specific solutions.  I haven't had a lot of time to edit my writing below and hope that the grammar/structure makes sense.  But there have been some developments with Seth that seem notable to me in this journey of understanding his challenges around language and learning.

I have begun to work through the early units of the online learning program that I purchased from the Gindis Institute in New York, though progress has been slow due to a busier-than-expected summer.  My hope is that I will be able to report on more specifics of that program in the next few weeks.  But for now...

Over the past few weeks, Geoff and I have both noticed that Seth seems to have adapted again a little to life in Canada.  He's just that much more relaxed, a wee bit less intense, and a little more confident and secure.  I can't quite put my finger on the change, but there's been one.

Concurrently (I don't think by coincidence), something else interesting has happened.  Seth still clearly struggles with what I think of as language/memory gaps.  For example, a couple of days ago he pointed to a tow truck that he wanted me to look at but he directed me to look at the "toe jam." :)  Another example is his asking for mustard to put on his pancakes when he is wanting syrup and he knows that both are in the fridge and that both get squeezed onto food that he likes to eat.  If I gently press him for a different word, he can come up with the right one about 60-70% of the time, after thinking about it for a bit - you can almost see the scanner in his brain as he searches for the right word.

But that being said, Seth has also been able to remember and learn a few things that were completely lost on him even four or five weeks ago...maybe even more recently than that.

You may recall that in the past, when trying to learn ABCs, Seth has been completely unable to remember them.  He may (though likely not) remember them from one second to the next, but a moment or two after he's correctly identified a letter, he calls it by a completely different letter as if he's never seen that letter before.  It's so odd and perplexing.

But in the past two weeks, as we've continued with our year-round schooling, he has started to remember the names of some letters and even a few of the sounds attached to them.  "A," "B," "D," "E," "I," "L," "M," "O," "S," "T," "U," "W," and "Z" were the letters that he remembered this morning, and he could attach sounds to seven of those thirteen letters!

Honestly, folks, though this is not a huge accomplishment for most kids of Seth's seven years, it borders on miraculous for Seth!  He simply could not have done this even a few weeks ago.

Just last week Monday, when he was able to correctly identify the names of about a half dozen letters, I was so surprised that I thought it was a fluke.  I even convinced myself that it hadn't really happened and that my mind was playing tricks on me!  It can't be real, I thought.  I didn't even tell Geoff because I was so convinced that it was either a fluke or I'd made a mistake.  But when, a day and then two days later, the same thing happened, I finally phoned Geoff at work and said that I could hardly believe it but that Seth appeared to know a few letters along with their sounds.  He could hardly believe it either and together, in almost hushed tones, we expressed very cautious optimism.  It was a first.

Another huge thing has happened.

So that you can appreciate a bit how big/sudden change this next one is, I'll tell you a short bit of background first.  Just over two weeks ago, when the kids and I were heading to an appointment via an elevator, I asked Seth if he could press the button for floor #2 (the second floor).  This is how I taught Lizzie to recognize the numbers 1-5 and she had a lot of fun learning them this way.  But Seth, regardless of how many dozens (likely hundreds) of times I've shown him numbers on the elevator buttons and asked him to press the number for the floor we're going to, has been unable to learn the name of even one number.  Last winter, his inability to recognize a single number after countless repetitions was another piece of my awareness of his struggle with language/memory/learning/I didn't know what.

We have completed five mornings of school since last week Monday.  For some reason, perhaps because I've been noticing some little changes in Seth again, I decided that I wanted again, in a very low pressure way, to try to teach Seth a number - I started with the number one.

Fast forward just over a week.  Yesterday morning (I still get shivers of disbelief just thinking about it) Seth recognized and wrote the numbers 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5...not just once, but a dozen times...correctly.  He also recognized the letters that I referred to above.  I can hardly believe it.

What a moment.

I don't for a moment think that Seth's issues are miraculously over.  I think academics are going to be very hard for him for the foreseeable future, and I think it's going to take years for him to be academically on par (I agree with the research I've been doing).  It took three hours over the course of three days last week for Seth just to be able to write the number "3."  I wouldn't normally work anywhere near that long with him on any one thing, for fear of frustrating him, but he simply seemed ready for it and he wanted to keep trying.  I should have video-taped him struggling, with tongue between his teeth as he concentrated, trying to make the shape of the number "3" with his pen/marker; I should have captured how hard we worked together for him to finally get to the point where he can now do it relatively comfortably.  It was fascinating to see all of his/my work on fine motor skills and shape recognition and pattern recognition finally paying off as he laboured over that number "3."  It was waaay harder for him to learn to write that one number than it probably is for most kids to learn to recognize and print the numbers 0-10!  But he did it...along with five other numbers!!  The progress of just the past couple of weeks is simply phenomenal.

I theorize that three things in particular have been massively beneficial for Seth thus far, and I hope that we can keep implementing them going forward:

1.  We're h/schooling.  This is truly huge for Seth, because it completely removes the pressure from me/him to have him learn certain things by a certain age/date/time.  Instead, I can focus on some of the things that I see him needing as much as he does the ability to learn to read and do math:  Pattern recognition; sequencing; developing imagination; fine motor skills; etc etc etc. (not to mention social skills, etc)

2.  Time and Lack of Pressure.  Last fall, when I saw my bright little boy inexplicably unable to do things that were academic (ie. letters, numbers, etc etc) something in me made me stop trying with him.  At the time my motivation was threefold:  I was terribly frustrated and confused and felt like I was banging my head on a brick wall;  second, I didn't want Seth to become frustrated or to see my frustration; and third, I thought that it could only help to give the boy time to work through the myriad of emotional things that he needed to work through - there was always something of Gordon Neufeld in my brain as I remember his caution that kids like Seth have an alarm bell (re: trauma) going off in their heads 100% of the time, making it so much harder to learn.  A few months after stopping all of the pressure, I came to understand about Seth more and more that the third reason for stopping the teaching was the most important one - he needed time.  That little guy was going through so much that pressure to learn academics that made no sense to him just could not, would not, help.  This was further reinforced when, in February, I had a chance for a one-on-one with Gordon Neufeld, who told me (essentially) to relax and let the boy's brain have a chance to relax and learn to find rest in his new family.

3.  I'm about a quarter or so of the way through the online program that I purchased from New York, which is the only thing I've found so far in all of my research specifically designed to help kids like Seth (internationally adopted, post-institutionalized, malnourished kids who are subtractive bilinguals - yikes, what a mouthful).  Though the activities are simple, they are specifically geared for Seth to be able to learn things that he was unable due to circumstances to learn when he was two or three or four.  Sometimes I see the dots beginning to connect in his sharp little brain and I can't help but think that some of the impact of the early days of this program is his newfound ability to retain letter and number names.

I would give each of these three points above equal weight.  They're all huge for Seth.  And maybe there are other factors to throw into the mix, such as ongoing impacts from better nutrition, a stable home environment, and other such things.  I don't know all of the factors.  Ultimately, I just know that something has made a bit of a difference.

Whatever the reason, and for however long this burgeoning ability to learn lasts, I'll take it.  I've kept my overt praise of Seth to a bare minimum and he has no idea how excited I've been this last week+.  You may wonder why I'm not overt in my excitement with Seth or overly praising his accomplishments and the reason is that I'm not interested in reinforcing results for Seth nearly as much as I am interested in fostering his ability to relax and attach and learn for all of the right underlying reasons.  But I can see that he's proud of himself and I've been finding that by simply touching his arm or his leg as he works something out has a significant impact on him.

I'm already wanting to get into Part 6 of this series, because I want to talk about this program we've started.  I hope to get to it in the near future.  But for now, I need to get down to our schoolroom and get some work done with the kids!


  1. I'm so excited for Seth and you!

  2. Celebrating over here for you!

  3. So exciting!! We've also been seeing huge progress all of a sudden with our 7 year old. Mainly due to working with a learning specialist, I think. She finally learned her colors, mainly from reading "Brown bear, brown bear" over and over again. She often will look at a color (like red and first say, "bird", then come up with the color). For her, I think she really needed a link in her brain to remember it. AMAZING!! Trying to do the same thing with letters. I find she will often first remember the picture on the back of the letter card (flash cards) and then link back to the letter. So interesting how God has wired the brain... So glad you're seeing success!! :)

  4. Brain linkages...yeah, I agree with that. I'm so glad for your daughter, Erin, and for YOU! This stuff is hard work. It feels like I'm trying to help Seth piece together a puzzle in his brain sometimes. Two steps forward, one step back...but that's still progress.

    I have no idea how long this will last, but wow is it encouraging to see some changes huh?