Recently I was watching a dad struggling to read with his daughter. It was clear to me that she had dyslexia and watching her and her father both get frustrated, to the point of tears on her part and disconnect on his, was painful. It brought back memories of doing 2nd grade homework with my daughter. She was reading a take-home, photocopied booklet that relied on repetition to teach phonics and word recognition. Every page featured the word “the.” Every time she saw the word, was like the first time. No matter how many times we read through the 10-page booklet, she drew a blank. By the hundredth time she could not read the word “the” I wanted to fling myself from a bridge. She probably wanted to push me.
I wanted to hug that child and reassure that dad. I’ve been there, and here are the 10 things I’d tell my former self.
1. Trust your gut
I knew my daughter was dyslexic when she was three years old. It wasn’t just the reversals, the failure to distinguish between her right and left shoe and her penchant for looking at picture books upside down. It was a hundred other more subtle cues that a mother caught and one child development “expert” after another dismissed as normal, transitory, developmental “stuff.” Dyslexia, they argued, could only be diagnosed after second or third grade, if my daughter still had trouble reading.
At that point, when the ship had already sailed, we could safely say she was still ashore. Not awesome.
2. Why not try this test: “Draw what I draw”
When my daughter was about four, she loved to draw hearts and flowers. She was quite good at it. If you said “draw a heart” she could do it no problem. If you said “draw what I am drawing” however… you got a scribble that didn’t even resemble a heart. The problem was either input or output. Something was short-circuiting on the way from her eyes to her brain or her brain to her hand. But it didn’t mean she could not recognize a heart, or understand the concept of a heart. I know this sounds stupid but this simple test confirmed what I already suspected. She had a short in her “system.” This didn’t make her stupid, it just meant she had to rely on other circuits more. I knew she could draw a heart. She knew she could draw a heart. But she couldn’t draw what I was drawing, not even to save herself.
3. Fight for services
Waiting till third grade to diagnose dyslexia seemed backward to me then and still does now. So I fought it. But to be honest, I wasn’t always sure what I was fighting for. Over the years the services and advice we received have been hit or miss. Our local district does not even recognize dyslexia as a diagnosis (though they do accept “visual processing disorder”) as a diagnosis. My daughter’s first grade teacher looked me in the eye and told me she had never heard of dyslexia before. This was unfathomable to me. A teacher who’s primary job is to teach kids to read, who hadn’t heard of dyslexia? Finding the right services is hard work, but early intervention is better than none.
4. Don’t wait till next year to see if it’s working
Our daughter had yearly IEP meetings where we would evaluate her progress. That’s ok for the school system perhaps, but for us, a year was too long to wait to see results. It was immediately evident to us what wasn’t working… much like that booklet that aimed to teach the word “the” by repetition. If the worksheet didn’t work the first time, it rarely worked any better in a pull out session or when it was sent home for us to do over with her. Again – trust your gut.
5. Dyslexia is not a sign of below average intelligence.
You can be an amputee and be very athletic. You can be blind and be a great reader. You can be dyslexic and be a genius. But you’re not going to learn the exact same way as everyone else. Maybe that sounds harsh, but it’s how I have often explained to people why my daughter needs a different instructional style and tools. She literally cannot process visual information the same way that her classmates do. If she were blind, you wouldn’t say this made her stupid. And if you did, you would be stupid.
6. Dyslexic people have other gifts.
Oh to see the world the way she does! You know those “Where’s Waldo?” books? Well my daughter may have struggled with the word “the” but she could find Waldo in five seconds flat. How does her brain sort visual information this way? She spots every continuity error in movies. She can tell you where everything is in the supermarket… which shelf and aisle. She finds the hidden monkey at Trader Joes, through the window, while we’re still in the parking lot. But there’s more… her ability to tune in to subtle visual cues has given her the ability to read people. She has emotional intelligence and wisdom far beyond her age. There are lists of all the many geniuses with Dyslexia, if you google. If you have a dyslexic child, you should do this and share it with them.
7. Not everything works for everyone.
Dyslexia is not a one-size-fits-all disorder. There are similarities between individuals but it manifests differently in everyone. And there’s no one cure or system that works for all. At least not that I know of. We tried a lot of them. We spent a fortune. We played with clay. We tried private tutors and we eventually pulled our child out of mainstream schools, opting for private/charter schools instead. Did we do it right? I don’t know. We did our best.
My daughter did not read fluently till fourth grade. But she did and does read fluently now. She enjoys reading. It did click eventually. Don’t give up hope, or quit trying new things.
8. Accentuate the positive, and don’t forget to let them be a kid.
It would be easy to fill up every spare waking hour with efforts to address the challenges and delays of dyslexia, but it’s important to resist the urge and make sure to send them to camp and sign them up for sports. Giving them a chance to shine with peers in a non-pressured, non-academic environment builds self confidence. It gives you a chance to see them succeed and the opportunity to develop their passions. These passions may also give them the drive & motivation to overcome some of their difficulties with academics. It can be the key to unlocking their potential. An actor will want to read a script. A sports enthusiast will want to read about their favorite athletes. If reading is a reward instead of a difficult chore, then success is more likely.
9. Self confidence and a love of learning are all you really need.
It doesn’t matter if you learn Algebra at 12 or 20 in the end. If you have confidence in your ability to learn and a love of learning, you can master almost any topic, eventually. We’re so set on the “right” age to do this or that. But it’s not a race. It doesn’t actually really matter if you learn most of these things a year earlier or later. It just matters that you learn and reach your own potential. What a shame, that this belief learning must occur on a rigid schedule results in so many dyslexic kids simply quitting. Don’t buy that bunk and don’t sell it to your kid. Be glad she or he loves to learn and do everything you can to keep that flame lit, even if it means they won’t finish school till they are 25. We should all keep learning our whole lives anyways.
10. Having a dyslexic kid doesn’t mean you are a bad parent.
This should be obvious but it’s not. When your kid is struggling, you feel bad. It’s only natural. You question if you are doing enough, too little, too much. Did you do the right thing? When they fail…bad parent! It’s not just you who feels that way. Others will also judge you. The other moms who volunteer at the school may gossip about how tragically your child struggles. If it were their kid they’d…. (insert knowing judgey method of properly educating kids).
Cut yourself and your kid some slack. You’re probably all doing the best that you can do.
My third child was an exceptionally early reader. He started spontaneously reading at 3 and was finishing Harry Potter books by first grade. When I attended meetings with teachers, I was praised for my superior parenting and other moms asked my secret. Flashcards? Workbooks?
None of the above. I did nothing different. I did less, in fact. Turns out I’m an awesome parent AND a sucky one. Just like everyone else.
We’re all dealt a hand of cards and we all struggle in some way. I point this out to my children, ALL of them, on a daily basis. It doesn’t have to define your kid, or you as a parent.
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