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Co-ops for Struggling Learners: An Interview with Faith Berens

May 18–22, 2015   |   Vol. 123, Programs 26–30

Looking for new ways to help your struggling learner? Then a homeschool co-op may be just what you need. This week on Home School Heartbeat, special needs consultant Faith Berens shows how to find and fine-tune a homeschooling co-op to meet your child’s needs.

“I would encourage others to not focus on what the student can’t do, but focus on what he or she can do.”—Faith Berens

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If your child is a struggling learner, or has special needs, it may be challenging to find opportunities for her to develop socially. This week on Home School Heartbeat, host Mike Smith and HSLDA Special Needs Coordinator Faith Berens share how joining a homeschool co-op can provide your child with wonderful learning opportunities.

Mike Smith: Our guest this week is Faith Berens, one of our special needs consultants at HSLDA. Faith, welcome to the program!

Faith Berens: Thanks, Mike. It’s great to be a part of the show this week.

Mike: Faith, you’ve given advice to literally thousands of families who are homeschooling children with special needs. Now many families may feel like they’re facing this challenge alone. What advice would you give to them?

Faith: Well, I would encourage families to consider participating in not only a local homeschool support group, but also consider joining a co-op. This can be a great place for families to find assistance and encouragement.

Our children with special needs can benefit greatly from participating in such a group. It gives them an opportunity to practice communication skills and their life skills that parents are training them in at home. And oftentimes our children with special needs find such skills challenging, so they need a lot more time and a lot of practice to apply these skills. Oftentimes they don’t generalize well, so they may demonstrate certain skills in a home setting, but then not carry them over outside of the home. So by placing them in a co-op, this gives them that opportunity to practice those skills.

And also, we need to remember that all children are created in God’s image, and they have areas of gifting. So they can bring much to other participants in the group and be a real source of inspiration and blessing.

Mike: What are some of the ways that a child with special needs can participate in a co-op’s activities?

Faith: Well, children with various exceptionalities can participate in many ways. I have some ideas that that I think will be helpful to parents. I would encourage families to let their child first observe a class. Teachers and class facilitators can also allow for assignments and projects to be modified. And certainly they need to understand that many students will have to use adaptive equipment: maybe a communication board or books on audio for students with communication and reading disabilities.

And simply have children start small. Maybe one class at a time. And the key is just to find something that you’re sure the student will meet with success with. And so I would encourage families to plug their child into an activity that’s an area of strength for them, because this will really allow their student to shine.

Mike: Faith, what are some ways that homeschool co-ops make children with special needs feel welcome and a part of the group?

Faith: Well, I just want to share that people with disabilities mainly just want to be included. They want others to see beyond the challenge and really get to know them as a person. Many students that I talk with tell me they just want to be treated just like all the other kids.

So I would encourage others to not focus on what the student can’t do, but focus on what he or she can do, and allow the child to come in and participate at their own pace and at their level of comfort and ability. Give lots of encouragement and express praise. Bless them with your words and actions.

Also allow for the student to be a helper. Give them tasks and responsibilities that they can do. And they can train other students who are more veterans of the co-op group to be greeters or mentors or peer buddies. There’s a wonderful ministry called keyministry.org, and I would encourage co-op leaders to check that out.

Mike: Now what are some of the best ways that co-ops can support the parents of children with special needs?

Faith: Well I want to say that, first of all, people with disabilities are the largest population group that’s missing from the body of Christ. So first of all, just welcome parents and children and show the love of Jesus. Give empathy and compassion.

Some practical things are just to lend a listening ear, maybe offer prayer support. Many families just really need a safe place to share their story and their journey. So I would encourage co-ops to maybe perhaps provide respite care, or get children together for play and social groups. Also, co-ops could consider creating a resource-lending library for families, and just really be a source of encouragement for families.

Mike: Faith, are there any resources available to help homeschool parents find a co-op that can accommodate their child with special needs?

Faith: Absolutely. I want to share Barbara Newman’s CLC Network. It’s the Christian Learning Center Network. Barbara has available resources and training materials for churches and other organizations and ministries to assist them in building support systems and enable people with varying disabilities to be included in all aspects of life.

Mike: Faith, what are some ways that homeschool co-ops can make children with special needs feel welcome and a part of the group?

Faith: Well, keep in mind that their child obviously has strengths and weaknesses. They need to be their child’s biggest cheerleader—as certainly they are. And again, remember to focus on what your child can do, not what they can’t do. And just be blessed and remember that God has big plans and purposes for their child, and by placing them in a co-op, they can also minister and teach others. God’s going to use them to bless other people.

Mike: Well, Faith, thank you for your encouragement and advice this week. We’re so grateful to have you at HSLDA! And until next time, I’m Mike Smith.

Faith BerensFaith Berens

Faith Berens holds a master’s degree in reading from Shenandoah University. She has 13 years of teaching experience in both public and private Christian schools, serving as a classroom teacher, Reading Recovery® teacher, reading specialist, and educational therapist. Her areas of expertise are early childhood literacy, reading assessment, and the identification and remediation of reading difficulties.

Faith joined the HSLDA team of Special Needs Coordinators in 2008 and homeschools her own children, as well as works as a private educational consultant, evaluator, and tutor. Some of her passions include reading for pleasure, singing, traveling, nature/science, leading Bible studies, and teaching reading to primary age children. Faith lives in Stephens City with her husband, Matthew, her daughter, Hailey, and her son Hayden.

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