Jul 22, 2014 by Joanne Gouaux
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Debunking anecdotes about learning disabilities"If you read to them, they will read." That statement sums up what I believed when my first child began babbling and pointing to objects in his favorite board books. Blissfully optimistic, I eagerly began reading to my child as soon as he could keep his eyes open long enough to stare at the pages of a book, long before he began speaking in sentences. That was, of course, prior to kindergarten, when the reality of learning to read gallantly collided with my pie-in-the-sky perspective of what many tout as the “magic of reading.”

Kindergarten and the enchantment of learning to read passed by in a flurry. It was not so much magical, as it was dumbfounding. Yes, we were astonished and amazed, but not in the way we had originally anticipated. It seemed the joke was on us.

The summer between kindergarten and first grade was the beginning of what felt like a carnival tour through unfamiliar side shows - weird rooms with strange lighting, specialists with long professional titles, and a seemingly endless line of shenanigans. It was disorienting. Our son led us through a maze of experiences that felt strikingly similar to the hallway of mirrors, with odd distorted reflections of ourselves and confusing passages that led to people who would look at us and smile without the slightest idea how to help. Embarking on a quest to help our child discover his path to reading was mind-bending.

Our oldest child is a laid-back, happy go-lucky character, who beats to his own drum and finds tremendous humor in ambushing the "seriousness" out of the most mundane routines.  He is curious above all else, imaginative, and enjoys playing the part of family clown, in the best sense of the role.  He is a practical joker with a sensitive awareness of others’ emotions. He lives to laugh, and loves to make people smile.  His younger brother is much more serious and socially reserved at the present stage.

Along with two beautiful children, their father and I also share another unique genetic gem - each of us has a parent who is dyslexic. Born a generation apart on opposite sides of the country, both my mother and his father experienced demeaning treatment as a result of their inability to learn to read fluently in their early school years.

Their father and I are the eldest children of parents who firmly believed in the philosophy of "no pain, no gain" and the necessity of hard work without short cuts. We both excelled at individual sports such as swimming and distance running - that is to say that we knew how to buckle down and push through difficulties and discomfort, viewing struggles and setbacks as acceptable, normal parts of life.

I was a "good student" who "worked hard" while my husband was described by his mother and elementary school teachers as "never working to his full potential."  This particular statement speaks more to a guiding fiction commonly held by teachers, and compounded by parental expectations, than it does about a child's true potential. It also sets the stage for a cleansing of misguided anecdotes that fuel the misunderstanding of learning disabilities.

Behind the heavy curtains of any storied carnival there is a place where the magician's tricks and illusions are unveiled. Tricks distract the audience into believing in the illusion that everything is exactly as it appears. Popular anecdotes are like tricks as they provide the illusion of control for well-meaning adults. In truth, most anecdotes are obstacles to early intervention and parental advocacy:

  • Practice makes perfect. Trying hard and failing despite honest attempts over and over again is painful and can be fruitless without the proper interventions and support system.
  • No pain, no gain. Demanding or telling a bright child who is struggling to read to "try harder" is counter-productive and causes intense anxiety and stress which undermines their self-concept, damages trust, and leads to unnecessary suffering by all.
  • Hard work always pays off. Having to work harder and longer than anyone else in your class is exhausting and humiliating, especially when it is not the most efficient way to learn.
  • He/She just needs more time. Children with learning disabilities only become independent learners when their underlying challenges are adequately addressed. Nothing will change without proper identification and support.

Our own child heard demeaning statements from a teacher who referred to him as smart, but lazy, and took away recess and free time as punishment for not completing writing assignments. Other teachers said he just needed more time to grow and suggested another year in the same grade.  Both our son and his grandparents were identified as dyslexic, but only with the help of an advocate.  Advocates are not limited to parents. Advocates can be teachers, family members or anyone with a meaningful connection to a child, or adult.  

Teachers and parents play a unique role in helping to identify learning disabilities. Identification requires a willingness on the part of both parties to objectively seek root causes of a child's difficulty and to work with the child to find strategies and solutions for their success. An analogy that captures the interdependence of this relationship is that of two people in a row boat: the teacher and the child, or the parent and the child. Each one has an oar and they each must row to move the boat forward. If only one person rows, the boat will go around in circles and go nowhere. Telling the child to row harder is equivalent to "try harder" and it only makes the boat go around in circles faster. We must respect the child's effort, celebrate their small successes, and encourage them to keep going while picking up our own oar and getting in a rhythm with the child's natural pace.

Children who receive help with their learning disabilities learn to successfully work smarter, not harder. In the long run, they can develop the ability to advocate for themselves. These are skills that last a lifetime. As parents, we have a unique opportunity to observe our child's struggle, and validate their experience by acknowledging their efforts, allowing them to trust their own instincts as well as trusting us.

If there is one message I wish to share with fellow parents, it is this -- do not allow well-intentioned anecdotes from our past, other parents, teachers, or administrators to belittle or dismiss your child's experiences, or to plant doubt in your own parental abilities. Every child has the right to a free and appropriate public school education. Children need additional help getting access to the right resources, but help exists, even if it is difficult to find at first. Children deserve a fair start in life, and someone to hold their hand through the carnival of unexpected oddities. With any luck, you may even come out of the "fun house" laughing at the ridiculous experience, all the while realizing that neither of you were ever broken in the first place, but rather a little lost, and in need of some light and map to navigate the road less traveled.

Joanne Gouaux discovered Fast ForWord after her 7-year-old son, Carter, was diagnosed with dyslexia. We will share Carter’s academic story in an upcoming post.

Related reading:

Girl Brains and Boy Brains: What Educators and Parents Need to Know
What Every Parent Should Know About Their Baby’s Developing Brain