Charlotte Mason Math with Special Needs

It is 9:30 A.M. and my daughter is sitting in a brown chair in my office. She is ready for our school time. Though she is 19 now, we still home school, for she enjoys it—as witnessed by the fact that she is sitting in that chair waiting for me. And part of our work every day is Charlotte Mason elementary arithmetic.

Ever since I read Richele Baburina’s comprehensive work on how Charlotte taught math, and especially since I saw her demonstrate the methods, I’ve been using that approach with my daughter. Yes, she is 19 years old, but with her special needs, we are working on single digit addition and subtraction.

And she’s finally understanding it! After years of doing other math programs with no results, she is now beginning to think mathematically. I wasn’t sure if that would ever happen.

The other day I paused to try to put my finger on just what made the difference. What is it about Charlotte’s approach to math that makes it such a good fit for special needs children (and adults)? Here are six reasons that came to mind. These reasons are specific to my experience with autism and developmental delays, but many of them will apply to other special needs too.

  1. Using objects that she can hold and move helps her visualize the concepts.

    My daughter is very visual, so seeing a math concept in concrete form is valuable. But it’s not just seeing the concept. With Charlotte Mason’s method of guided discovery, my daughter is proving the arithmetic for herself as she moves the objects, and lightbulbs are coming on in her comprehension.

  2. Everyday objects help her generalize the concepts.

    Children with autism often have trouble generalizing ideas. If one map shows Georgia in pink, then it must be pink on all maps, she tends to think. So working with everyday objects—buttons, beads, coins, craft sticks, beans, paper clips—and switching to a different object every day or two, helps her grasp the concept without locking it onto one particular object.

    Plus, as we discussed last week, we gradually move from calling the objects by name to pretending that they are something else entirely—kittens, dogs, books, jelly beans. That step reinforces the generalization and also helps her work on the language skill of forming a mental picture of words as she hears them.

  3. She doesn’t get overwhelmed because the arithmetic concepts are presented in incremental steps.

    Charlotte Mason was a genius at foreshadowing. She knew how to gently prepare the child for the next step very gradually. You can see this approach unfold clearly in her math methods and plan. If I follow Charlotte’s guidance, inevitably my daughter easily moves to the next step and keeps progressing smoothly.

    The only times that we have experienced puzzlement or struggling are when I have thought a step wasn’t that important and skipped it or skimmed over it or rushed through it. Silly Mom! When that happens we simply back up a step or two. Each step is there for a reason, and when I remember that, we continue to make steady progress.

  4. It’s easy to advance at her pace.

    Because the steps are incremental, I can easily adjust the pace according to her comfort and confidence level. Many math curricula move too quickly for my daughter. But with a Charlotte Mason approach, I can linger on any step as long as we need to. Here’s how.

    A large part of each Charlotte Mason-style math lesson is the Simple Sums that we give orally and have the student solve with the object of choice. If she needs to have more practice and experience with one particular number, all I have to do is insert different names and objects in those same Simple Sums. For example, if we are working on addition and subtraction with the number 8, and one of the Simple Sums is “You have 5 buttons and I give you 3 more buttons. How many buttons have you now?,” we can stay on that same concept but keep it interesting by changing it to some of her favorite things: “Ceylon the dog has 5 treats and you give her 3 more treats. How many treats does Ceylon get to eat?” The abundance of Simple Sums we can use and the length we can stay on that concept is dependent only on my imagination.

  5. She can focus on the math concepts because the lessons do not require a lot of handwriting.

    My daughter has very low muscle tone, especially in her small, fine muscles. So handwriting is a major undertaking for her and requires a lot of concentration. Since Charlotte’s brilliant method of teaching math is not worksheet driven, my daughter can use those powers of concentration to focus on the arithmetic concepts rather than on the act of writing row after row of numbers. She is actually excited when she gets to write one equation in her math notebook!

  6. The lessons do not overtax her, because they are designed to be short, interactive, and interesting.

    No lesson goes longer than 20 minutes, usually that includes 15 minutes on the newest concept and 5 minutes of review. And of course, if my daughter is having a rough day, I can easily stop early. The next day we simply pick up where we left off. No muss, no fuss.

I’m not worried about my daughter’s getting to a certain point by a certain date. Charlotte Mason’s approach to math is all about taking each step on firm ground. We might not be walking in step with other children, but that’s not the goal. We are making progress and making it on solid footing. She is understanding the concepts, and she is enjoying the guided journey.

That’s why I find her sitting in that chair every morning. Eager to learn.

Charlotte Mason and Special Needs

Charlotte’s methods can be wonderful for special needs children, but you may need to tweak them a little bit for your specific situation. In this video from our SCM Answers Your Questions series, Sonya talks about five areas to be aware of when using the Charlotte Mason approach with a special needs child.

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