After a summer of freedom and fun, school can be a dreaded switch for kids with learning disabilities. Whether you’re a parent or teacher, here’s a start toward spotting weaknesses and tapping into kids’ strengths.
“I’m dyslexic,” says a math teacher in Brunswick County, N.C. “I don’t mix up numbers because there are only 10. Letters I do mix up, because there are 26.”
She says she frequently reverses letters, even in her own name, and doesn’t like to read. She follows what she hears rather than what she sees written.
“My maiden name is Carla Barefoot Shipman, and I can’t write a straight F to save my soul. My F’s are backwards, always,” she says. “When I write Barefoot, it’s B-a-r-e, backwards F, o-o-t – to this day, and I’m 48.”
As a math teacher, she catches the attention of her students with one of her strengths: crocheting. She walks through her classroom, needles flying, creating a dishrag – and turns the number of rows and stitches into algebra problems.
Dyslexia, a difficulty with breaking words apart into distinct sounds, is not an obvious disability. Bright kids can hide under the radar, for example, by being good at problem-solving and reasoning. But experts find that certain back-to-school behaviors, such as anxiety in the morning and trouble eating and sleeping, can be clues that your child needs extra help.
Having a clear picture of your child’s abilities will help him use his strongest assets, suggests Ben Foss in his new book, “The Dyslexia Empowerment Plan” (Ballantine Books, 2013). He writes from his lifelong experiences with dyslexia, and has this message for those with the condition: “You are not broken.”
Foss founded Headstrong Nation, a not-for-profit organization serving people with dyslexia. He also invented the Intel Reader, a mobile device that takes photos of text and recites it aloud.
“Think of your child’s brain as a geographical location,” writes Foss. “You’re trying to get information in, and you quickly learn that some paths are easier than others.”
Testing to get on that right path for your child will focus on his difficulty with spelling, reading and connecting sounds with letters. The term “learning disability” may sound negative, but it’s necessary to get accommodations in school, says Foss.
The basic difficulty in dyslexia is getting to the individual sounds of spoken words, explains Dr. Sally Shaywitz, a neuroscientist, co-director of the newly formed Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity, and the author of “Overcoming Dyslexia” (Vintage, 2005). To read, a child must first develop the awareness that spoken words are made of separate sounds. Typical readers develop this awareness early, by first grade, while dyslexic readers struggle with developing such awareness, she says.
The National Center for Learning Disabilities, at ncld.org, offers a detailed checklist to give you insight into your child. Be alert for patterns of difficulty and don’t ignore a lag in a mastery of skills, even as young as age 4 or 5, the center says. Here are a few categories of concern and things to watch for:
• Gross motor skills: Difficulty playing games requiring hand-to-eye coordination.
• Language: Difficulty telling what has just been said; difficulty staying on topic.
• Reading: Confusing similar-looking letters and numbers; reading slowly.
• Written language: Messy handwriting; aversion to copying.
• Attention: Unable to maintain focus.
• Math: Difficulty with simple counting or one-to-one correspondence.
• Social/emotional skills: Cannot pick up on the moods of others; difficulty joining a group.
Shaywitz’s tips for parents include:
• Speak directly to your child, slowly and clearly, pronouncing each sound very carefully.
• Exaggerate sounds, such as “mmmman,” and have him do the same back to you.
• Read to your child daily.
• Play rhyming games: For example, have your child pick up objects that rhyme with a common word. If the word is “two,” she might go find a shoe, for instance.
• Make up your own jingles, rhymes or silly stories to highlight a particular sound, or even sing a song together. To highlight the “ssss” sound, for example, sing with him, “Sally sells seashells at the seashore.”
Go to disability.gov/education to find out about resources in your state.