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There is much concern about the increase in the rate of children diagnosed with autism (Autism Spectrum Disorder-ASD). The Centers for Disease Control reports that in 2000, one out of every 150 children was diagnosed with ASD, and in 2010, one out of every 68 is diagnosed. This is a huge increase in just a short period of time. There are several possible reasons why there are more now than there were before. Recent changes in the definition of autism (the diagnostic criteria) account for a significant part of the new cases. Children may have been diagnosed differently before the new criteria were published. Studies of where these autistic children live show that they are more concentrated in areas where there are hospitals and clinics. Professionals are available who can accurately diagnose and treat children with ASD, and therefore more children are identified. It is also possible that we as a society are more informed about autism and more likely to seek a diagnosis for our children. Ongoing studies are seeking an explanation for the increase.

To diagnose a child with ASD, a mental health professional uses the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the DSM-5). According to the DSM-5, all of the following must be true before a child is diagnosed as having Autism Spectrum Disorder:

  • The child does not communicate and interact with other children as well as expected for her age. Perhaps she is not able to recognize and interpret facial expressions.
  • At least two different types of “restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior” exist. For example, the child may want to play with one toy in exactly the same way over and over again.
  • The symptoms must be present early in the child’s life. An older child may not have the same severity of symptoms, because he has learned how to manage them, but the symptoms existed earlier.
  • The symptoms affect normal day-to-day functioning.
  • There is not a better explanation for the symptoms. For example, the child may have a cognitive disability that better explains his symptoms.

To learn more about ASD and what to look for in your child, you might want to read Signs and Symptoms available from the CDC. The diagnostic criteria include a range of symptoms so wide that some autistic children function very well with proper training, yet others will never function well. The earlier a child is diagnosed, the quicker he or she can get help. If you have concerns about your child, a visit to the pediatrician is the first step.

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Recently, a friend of mine posted on social media that she has a terrible time reading menus. Several of her friends agreed for a variety of reasons. One reason mentioned is that she is dyslexic and has problems with sequential processing. The organization of menus is often non-sequential with interfering information near the essential information. In addition, the fonts used are difficult to read. A second reason is simply related to the paper and size of font. Small fonts on shiny paper are difficult to read for everyone in dim lighting.

Menus, as well as many other documents, would be easier for struggling readers if they were created using the newest fonts designed especially for people with dyslexia. One such font is called Dyslexie and is available to individuals for free (schools and businesses pay a fee). A second choice is called Opendyslexic and is available to anyone for free. What makes these fonts better for struggling readers?

First of all, each letter in the font has a distinct shape. In most fonts, the letters “p, q, d, and b” are shaped exactly the same, but are in different orientations. In many fonts, lowercase “L” and uppercase “I” look exactly the same. In the specialized fonts, each of these letters has a distinct shape and if reversed or inverted, they would no longer be the same letter. Second, the bottom of each letter is slightly thicker which tends to cause the letter to “stay put” on the line. Dyslexic readers often report that letters seem to move around on the page. In fact, when I asked a dyslexic what she thought of the Dyslexie font, the first thing she mentioned is that she loved how the bottom of each letter is “weighted.” Third, these fonts have longer stems on certain letters, again making it less likely to reverse or flip a letter that is shaped similarly. Finally, the spacing between words is larger than typically found in most fonts, and the beginnings of sentences are automatically bolded. This makes it easier to see the beginning and end of each word; and, the beginning of each sentence is clear.

There is some scientific research and much anecdotal evidence that supports the use of these fonts for dyslexic readers. Many report that they read faster and more accurately. It may be time for restaurants to consider producing menus for those who need a little assistance with reading. My friend reports that when she can’t read, she feels anxiety and shame.

If your child feels anxious about reading, he might find that the font helps him read better. He can convert digital content for school into one of the new fonts. It is as simple as selecting the content and changing the font. If online, he can copy and paste into a word processor before changing the font. Perhaps, he will be able to read more independently and feel more confident. It doesn’t cost anything to download one of these fonts and give it a try!

Children who have executive functioning disorder, attention issues, autism spectrum disorder, or other learning disabilities are often resistant to change. I believe this is likely because when things are orderly and predictable, they are more likely to function well. When things occur randomly, they are required to make decisions quickly and figure out how to respond to a new situation. These children need routine; unfortunately, every classroom is different and teachers frequently change the daily routine in order to keep their classroom interesting and challenging. Children with learning issues need additional support to do well when things are different from what they expect.

Several things may help these kids.

  • Ask your child’s teacher to give him a heads-up that things are going to be different the next day. If he receives an assignment sheet, his teacher could include additional information that tells all students what will be happening in class the next day. If that is not possible, they could tell your son who needs routine to expect a change the next day. This gives him time to consider how to best respond and how to be ready for class.
  • Your child may benefit from sitting near the teacher or near a “buddy” who will assist her when she is confused. She can eventually learn to look to see what other students are doing as a cue for what she needs to do; but, until she can do that for herself, having a friend help her makes sense of the confusion.
  • If you know your child has ADHD or an executive functioning disorder before starting school, consider waiting a year before starting him in school. Children normally gain more control over their educational environment as they grow older. Giving these particular children an extra year to prepare may be a great idea. They may be less affected by changes to their routine if they are a year older.

Providing advanced warning or a buddy to help children who resist changes to their routine can be very helpful. Eventually, these changes may not be so difficult because these children tend to get better at handling them as they grow older. If your child has an Individual Education Plan (IEP) or a 504 Plan, consider asking for help as part of their plan.

You can learn more about ADHD by reading Managing Middle School With ADHD.

For information on executive functioning read Executive Functioning: How It Affects a Student In School.

If your child is autistic, you might want to read Help Your Autistic Child Succeed in School.

Adolescents with ADHD or working memory problems often have trouble getting ready for school in the morning. They often forget to take important things to school like their book bag, homework, and clothes for gym. Mornings are chaotic and create stress for both parents and children. Morning and evening routines at home can help, and the beginning of the school year is a great time to establish those routines.

The goal is to have your child ready to leave for school with everything he needs when he gets there. The first step is to determine what he will need for school. This might be best accomplished the night before as part of his bedtime routine. Until he is able to do this for himself, you will need to help. Ask him about each of his classes to determine if there is homework or a project due. Discuss extracurricular activities such as sports to make sure he has completed everything he needs or has the appropriate supplies or equipment ready. Organize everything and place it beside the door or in the car, if appropriate. He should go to bed at the same time each night knowing he is ready for the next day.

Your child needs to wake up to get ready for school at the same time every day. The morning routine should stay the same to the extent possible, and she should be ready to leave for school with some time to spare. Since the evening routine included getting everything ready to take to school, the morning routine can focus on getting ready and eating a nutritious breakfast. Plans for lunch need to be settled before she leaves, as well.

Routines like this lead to forming habits that can last a lifetime. For children with attention or working memory problems, good habits are extremely important. They need to do these things by themselves without even thinking about it, but it will take a lot of help from you to get to that point. Each child is unique and the time it will take to change these evening and morning routines into habit will vary. You can begin by giving oral instructions (one at a time) each day and then later move to checklists that your child uses on his own. Much later, after a great deal of practice, he may be able to manage without help. Keep in mind that there are plenty of adults who rely on checklists, and there is nothing wrong with it!

Establishing routines that form into habits can lead to success in school. The morning and evening routines help students get to school on time with everything they need. I will write soon about homework completion, which is another important part of every teen’s day during the school year.

Last week’s blog, Returning to School After a Concussion (Part 1), was about concussions and how difficult it is for students to catch up with schoolwork after the necessary extended absence for cognitive rest. Once students return to school, the doctor’s orders typically include limiting screen time, limiting exposure to bright lights and loud sounds, no participating in physical activity, taking frequent rest breaks, and spending shorter days in school. Some of this is easy to do, but there are some accommodations that seem almost impossible. I want to share with you some of the solutions our teachers have come up with to help these students.

If your child suffers from a concussion, he will need one-on-one help with each teacher when he returns to school. It always amazes me how much you can get done with a student when working in a tutorial setting. Our teachers have been willing to exempt their students from doing every assignment once they feel comfortable that they know the concepts covered in these tutorials. Teachers should select the assignments that are essential and only require the student to complete these.

Some students have returned to school after their required absence and stayed the whole day, but others come in for half days until they are completely well. Students should be allowed to rest their head on the table if it begins to hurt. The students I have worked with this year say that they can work for about 20-30 minutes before they need a rest. When they do rest, however, they can work more without hurting.

If the lights from the interactive projector are hurting their head, they should be allowed to look away from the bright light. Other students can provide copies of the notes when needed, and they can still listen to what is being said.

Limiting screen time to no more than 30 minutes per day is the most difficult accommodation to make. Most teachers expect students to use their computer for watching videos, doing research, writing papers, taking notes, and a myriad of other activities which adds up to a lot more than half an hour. To limit screen time requires some creativity on the part of the teacher to find ways to give equally valuable assignments that do not require computer time. Here are some ideas from our teachers.

  • Work in small groups to do projects rather than each student completing everything. This allows the student with a concussion to be coordinator of the group’s work, conduct oral interviews, hand-write ideas that another student can type, create posters, or make voice recordings instead of typing work on the computer.
  • Take assessments orally instead of on the computer or have an aide read the questions and type the answers.
  • Create a flow chart, outline, or timeline by hand instead of writing an essay at the computer.
  • Work with a partner when doing internet research. Both students can think of search terms and evaluate the quality of the search results. The partner can read aloud what they find, and both can decide what needs to be included in the final product.

As I mentioned last week, the most important thing to do for your child who is recuperating from a concussion is to assure her that you will be there to help. It is frightening to feel so completely out of control of what is happening to you. The best students have a difficult time when they know what they need to do to get caught up, but they are not allowed to do it. As a parent, you need to help her understand that if she follows the doctor’s orders, she will get well faster.

Enlist the help of your school’s counselor or special education supervisor so he can inform all your child’s teachers about her needs. Email her teachers when she has a rough night after spending the day at school. Multiple students have reported to me that they go home after a half day of school and sleep all afternoon because they are exhausted. Teachers need to know when this happens. Additionally, encourage your child’s teachers to read An Educator’s Guide to Concussions in the Classroom. This guide will help them understand that concussions are serious and should not be treated lightly.

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Some students have unbelievable abilities in an area such as art, language, or mathematics. Depending on the educational setting, these students might be labeled “gifted and talented.” There is not one definitive definition for giftedness—in fact, every state has its own definition. Most do agree that these children can do something exceptionally well—better than almost everyone else. Some of these same students struggle in another area and are labeled LD (learning disabled). For example, a student who struggles in reading, spelling, and writing might excel in math. Students who are gifted and LD are called “twice exceptional.”

Twice-exceptional students need support in school, and it may be difficult to obtain services. Often, these students are misunderstood. How can one person be so brilliant in math yet fail in English class? Even experts in special education have a hard time figuring out that a student is twice exceptional, and they are often not identified until high school when their workload is such that they become swamped and unable to succeed. Once identified, schools are not always equipped to provide appropriate programming.

If you think your child might be twice exceptional, talk to the school psychologist or director of special education. Together come up with a strategy that will provide remedial help in the areas of weakness and more stimulating programming in areas of giftedness. It’s a great idea, too, to provide extracurricular activities that relate to their areas of strength.

To learn more about these children, read "Giftedness and Learning Disabilities," written by Sheldon H. Horowitz published by the National Center for Learning Disabilities.

A parent of one of my students recently said she was struggling with walking the fine between giving her daughter the support she needs and supporting her too much. This is always a difficult decision parents must make. On the one hand, struggling students have felt abandoned by the people they trust (like their parents and teachers) when they really are trying as hard as they can but still do not do well in school. On the other, they do need to become independent and learn how to succeed in school without extra supports. Let me give you some food for thought.

We have no trouble offering support to students with disabilities that are obvious, like poor eyesight or hearing, an inability to move around on their own, or a broken arm. Everyone sees the need for extra support in these cases. Some of these supports may be needed forever, like for poor eyesight or hearing. Others may be temporary, like for a broken arm that will heal.

It’s more difficult, however, when the need for support is invisible. Children with an auditory processing disorder, dyslexia, or executive functioning disability need support, sometimes permanently. They are often accused of being lazy and dependent on others. If you think about it this way, accusing a dyslexic child of becoming dependent on a spelling checker is no more reasonable than accusing a child with poor eyesight of becoming dependent on eyeglasses!

Children with poor hearing can be brilliant, yet have to wear a hearing aid forever. Similarly, a child with a learning disability may need certain supports forever, yet become a highly successful adult because they are creative and innovative. Most schools focus less on creativity and innovation and more on reading, writing, math, and spelling. Of course, all children need to learn these basic skills. But for those who have learning issues, they may need some additional support in order to succeed while in school. They also need encouragement because their areas of strength (such as creativity and social skills) are not valued as much as their areas of weakness (like spelling and academic writing).

If you know a child who struggles in school, consider whether offering support can lead to success. When possible, give them temporary support only until they can succeed on their own. But if they need support forever, that’s OK. Remember that there is life beyond school  where the things they do well may be more important.

My original question was, how much is too much support? We need to offer them exactly how much they need in order to be successful in school. If your son is working hard and still not succeeding, he needs more support. (For ideas of what kinds of support you may need to offer, read "Options for Helping a Struggling Student.") If your child is getting a lot of support from you, and you are working harder than she is—that is too much support. (For help in deciding whether your child is working hard enough, read "Is My Child Working Hard Enough in School?"). We want children to be as independent as possible as soon as possible. That just might mean they will need some supports for a little while and others forever.

Students who have an auditory processing disorder are often left behind in the classroom even though they are very smart. Like many learning differences, APD is not something you can tell is there. Most of the time, children with APD have no trouble hearing—it’s what happens to the sounds once they enter the brain that causes the problems.

APD can be similar to having an attention deficit disorder. Some kids with attention deficits pay attention to everything around them equally without being able to determine what is important. Likewise, some students with APD cannot determine which sounds are the ones they are supposed to listen to. The background sounds seem just as important to them as the teacher’s voice.

Other students with APD cannot discriminate between similar sounding words or sounds. The sound the letter “b” makes is exactly like the sound of a “d.” APD can also show up as poor auditory memory. These students cannot recall things they hear; they need to see it, too. Others with APD change the sequence of sounds they hear. If they hear the number 25, it becomes 52 once it enters the brain.

Regardless of the type of auditory processing disorder, the strategies that help are similar.

  • Seat the student near the teacher
  • Speak more slowly, and use simple sentences
  • Eliminate unnecessary sounds in the room
  • Provide copies of notes or assistive technology like the Livescribe Pen or AudioNote
  • Provide visual cues and written instructions, pictures, or diagrams to go along with auditory information

If these strategies do not help your child, it is time to enlist the help of an audiologist who specializes in auditory processing disorders. It is important for teachers to understand that students can be very bright but not succeeding in school. When given the needed accommodations, they are able to learn and demonstrate their abilities.

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It is common that learning differences run in families. It is not totally clear whether these differences are inherited. However, I have personally witnessed many, many cases of a child who has the same trouble in school that one of his parents did. This is very difficult for the parent who had the same difficulties in school. Their typical response goes something like this: “I hated school, too, and I turned out just fine! She just needs to try harder and not be so lazy.”

My advice in these situations is to focus on the child. Many parents do not realize the pain these children are in. School is different now than it was in the past. Years ago, many students would end their education at high school to start their career, or they dropped out of school and started their career early. They became successful in a variety of fields that did not require a high school diploma. Many times, this is the case with the parent who responds that they are “just fine.” They really are just fine despite how difficult school was for them. But school is different now and society’s views on education have changed.

Currently, schools are expected to prepare every child for college. All students are expected to travel the same path regardless of their interest and desires. There are few options for a student who does not intend to go to college. Even though many respectable professions do not require a college degree, schools focus on preparing students for college.

These children need to receive help to manage their learning challenges. This is why the response “to try harder and not be so lazy” is not what is best for the child.

Another scenario is that a child is struggling to succeed in school, but is interested in a career that requires a college degree. Many students who struggle in school are very, very bright. (See "Kids With Learning Disabilities Are Actually Quite Smart" to understand this better.) If these students do not receive support in school, they will not learn how to be successful in college. This is also not what is best for the child.

If your child is having a tough time in school, ask your school psychologist or principal for help. The first step might be to have her tested for a learning disability. (You also might want to check out this interesting screening quiz for learning disabilities.)

The bottom line is this—if your child is not doing well in school, she needs to get help. This is not about you, it’s about your child. Do what is best for her.

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What was your favorite toy when you were a child? I love to ask my students this question. The students I teach have a specific language learning disability, and I can usually predict what they will answer to this question. Most often, the answer relates to building things. They will say their favorite was Legos, Lincoln Logs, or another similar toy.

Experts like Eide and Eide believe that these children prefer these toys because they have a strong ability to think in three dimensions. They visualize things differently when they read; they look at a blob of clay and see a beautiful sculpture. Later in life choose professions that rely on this gift. Unfortunately, according to the experts, this strength is related to weaknesses in other areas like reading and writing.

Many students who struggle in school have a gift in three-dimensional thinking. You can see these strengths outside of school by watching what they choose to do for fun. Are they creating origami creatures, building things out of toothpicks and marshmallows, or decorating cookies? Activities like these are three-dimensional in nature, and children can show how truly talented they are. School activities do not always make use of this strength, and therefore, school is not fun.

If your child chooses three-dimensional toys, encourage him to use this strength for school assignments when possible. When given a choice of assignments, encourage him to choose one that will allow him to build or create something. For example, if one project choice is to make a video, make it in claymation! If your assignment is to draw a poster, why not add some three-dimensional aspect to it? These assignments become more fun for him and he will spend more time working on them. This, in turn, helps to remember the concepts when needed later (like on the test).

For some ideas, check out the “Diorama Man” website.


> What Is Your Child's Learning Style?

> Getting Help for Children With Dyslexia

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Some students enjoy playing sports and are talented in that arena. Studies suggest that students who participate in sports tend to do better in school. In some sports, kids learn what it means to commit to a team. In others, they learn to challenge themselves to improve both physically and mentally. They learn discipline, time management, how to accept constructive criticism, how to follow directions, and many other skills that will benefit them later in school and life. Students also learn about healthy competition and sportsmanship through sports. And, they learn that hard work pays off with better performance. Sometimes teammates become lifelong friends.

Unfortunately, students who struggle in school may not be allowed to play on the school’s teams. Their grades may be too low, or they may be scheduled for after-school help sessions when practice is going on. For these kids, it is important to look for opportunities outside the school setting for them to participate. Many areas have neighborhood leagues, recreational clubs, and organizations that sponsor teams. If your child wants to play sports and schoolwork takes up too much time during the school year, perhaps playing on a team in the summer months makes sense. For ideas about kinds of sports and things to think about when selecting a sport, read Children and Sports: Choices for All Ages.

It is important for every person to spend time doing something they love and are good at doing. Sports might be that thing for your child.

> Sports Build Your Child's Self-Esteem

> Sports-Theme Worksheets

Students who struggle in school are complicated. There are similarities between any two of them, but there are many more differences. I used to say this is why we should not label children as having a learning disability, attention deficit disorder, nonverbal learning disability, etc. But my recent fascination with autobiographies of successful adults with learning disabilities has made me realize that it can be a comfort to them to find out that there really is something “wrong” with them. As children, most of these successful adults simply felt stupid and lazy, because that is what they were told by the adults around them. When they found out they had dyslexia or another learning disability (LD), it was a comfort to them. So maybe the labels we use aren’t such bad things, after all. And once they understand there is a cause for their difficulties in school, they can move forward understanding who they are, what their strengths may be, and that there is more to life than just school.

If we label someone, it is important to make sure they understand what the label actually means. The LD label means that the person has some skills below where they should be despite having good intelligence and instruction. I have written multiple times about how smart many learning disabled people are. If a person is labeled LD, it can mean they have a specific difficulty like reading, and everything else in their life is fine. In fact, often they have extraordinary gifts in areas unrelated to the disability. It is easy to find information about what kinds of difficulties LD students have. It isn’t so easy to find a list of gifts they often have.

Did you know that LD people are often gifted when it comes to 3-D images and objects? For example, many can first visualize and then create incredible sculptures from clay, building blocks, or found objects. When they read something, they visualize the set and characters as if they are real. They can “walk through” the buildings described in the story like they are actually in them.

Another gift many LD people have is in relating to other people. I remember a student I once taught who described to me an interview he had before getting his prestigious job. He said to the person doing the interview, “Let me tell you why you need me for this job. And let me tell you why I can do it better than anyone else you are looking at.” He did get the job and proceeded to design and build several fabulous roller coasters for their company.

Other LD people are “out-of-the-box” thinkers. They think of creative solutions to problems that would never come to most regular thinkers. These people frequently seem like they aren’t really doing much. They may be staring out the window looking like they are daydreaming when they are actually solving an extremely complicated problem no one else has been able to solve.

Do you see why I say students who struggle in school are difficult to understand? I have taught so many who were absolutely miserable in school. But later, after high school and college, they are very happy. No one makes them write research papers anymore! They build roller coasters, design landscapes, sell incredible cupcakes, or become other kinds of entrepreneurs. There truly is so much more to life after school is over.

I teach at a school for students who have language learning difficulties. One of our students (I’ll call her Janel) makes excellent use of technology to help her overcome her difficulty with reading and writing for herself. To help her to read her assignments, she often uses digital books that can be read to her with Natural Reader (a free text-to-speech reader for both Mac and PC). Anything that is in digital form can be read with text-to-speech software. When surfing on the web, she can simply copy and paste what she wants to hear into her software. For a fee, the personal version will read directly from a web browser.

Janel also downloads some of her literature books from sites that provide either free audio or digital copies of them. Gutenberg and Manybooks are sites she frequently uses.
Janel also uses the Livescribe Pen to help her take notes in class, complete her homework, make study cards at home, and annotate in her books as she reads. She uses the post-it note paper that can be purchased to use with the pen to annotate in the book. At the end of each chapter, she sticks a post-it size sheet in her book. She then writes one or two words on the page and begins recording with her pen as she orally summarizes the book.

Similarly, anywhere she needs an annotation, she uses a small piece of the specialized paper that comes with the pen, pastes it on the page, and uses the pen to record her voice annotation. To make a study card, she cuts a piece of the paper into a small rectangle and writes the word followed by a question mark. As she writes the question mark, she records the definition of the word. When studying, she reads the word, tries to remember the definition, and then taps the question mark to hear its definition. In this way, she knows whether she said the correct definition.

One of our teachers told me about AudioNote, an app for iPad and Android devices, that works similarly to the Livescribe Pen. It is available at low cost through iTunes and there is a free version for Android. While I have only briefly tried it myself, I can see some powerful possibilities for getting help for students who have trouble either taking notes in class for themselves or trouble getting their thoughts down on paper when doing homework.

I have written on the topic of homework help in the past. For more information about students who struggle with homework, read my earlier blog.

> What Is Your Child's Learning Style?

> Homework 911

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Recently, I watched a 30 minute documentary produced by HBO called I Can’t Do This But I Can Do That: A Film for Families About Learning Differences.

It is an excellent film that shows several children with learning differences who finally get the help they need. It is a hopeful story, and the takeaway is that these children have trouble in school, but they have talents and gifts that serve them well outside of school.

After almost 30 years teaching students with learning differences, I think I finally realize the pain these children feel. This realization is partly because of the film, but also because of several biographies I read recently. Two of the best are Most Unlikely to Succeed by Nelson Lauver and My Dyslexia by Philip Schultz. All of these (the books and documentary) illustrate the intense emotional pain children feel when they are made to feel stupid and lazy. In Lauver’s case, not only did he endure emotional pain, but he also suffered unimaginable physical abuse by the teachers and administrators in his school.

Even though school can be painful, life after school does not have to be. Today, Nelson Lauver is a well-known performer and speaker. He is called “The American Storyteller.” Philip Schultz won a Pulitzer Prize for his poetry. Both of these men are hugely successful as adults, yet their childhood, particularly when in school, was absolutely miserable for them.

What is the lesson from this? If you know a child who is struggling in school, find something he does well and make sure he has plenty of time to spend doing it. Emphasize his talents and allow him to share them with others. Read stories with him about successful adults who also had a hard time in school. And, most of all, figure out what kind of help he needs and get it for him! 

A good place to start finding out what kind of help is available is with the school psychologist or counselor. Many struggling students have incredible gifts. It is those gifts that give them a hopeful future. They need to hear this over and over again. What they hear from the adults in their life is what they believe about themselves.

In an earlier blog post I wrote about a color-coded notebook system that helps disorganized students stay organized. Students who are visual learners benefit from using color to help them keep up with everything. Color can help them when studying and working on homework, too. When shopping for school supplies, consider purchasing some of the following inexpensive “tools” to help your visual student. Other types of learners can borrow the idea as well, because it can be helpful to anyone who has trouble finding what they need.

1. Colored pencils, pens, or markers. Visual learners need to have a way to color code a variety of things as they work. For example, when working math problems some students benefit from circling the positive and negative signs in two different colors, before starting to work the problem. When reading literature, they can circle new character names in one color, underline important events in another, and underline significant quotes in a third color. Later when studying for a quiz, they can quickly find the relevant information.

2. Colorful sticky flags or paper clips. There are many times when it is not appropriate to write in a book. In these cases using stick-on flags of various colors can accomplish the same task as described in the first bullet point. Some of my students use different colored paper clips to mark important pages. Used as a bookmark, the clip can be placed on the page near the important information.

3. Colorful notebook tabs or file folders. If your visual student uses a color-coded notebook system, it might be a good idea to add tabs to their binder that match the different subject colors. For example, a green tabbed divider can mark the section where their science papers are located. Some students benefit from taking papers out of the binder and placing them in color-coded file folders that match the colors in their notebook. This is especially helpful just after finishing a unit and taking the test on it. The work will still be available for later if needed, but not cluttering up their notebook.

4. A zippered plastic pouch for the notebook. Any school supplies that go back and forth to school need a convenient storage compartment in the notebook binder or book bag. One possibility is to purchase a zippered pouch that clips inside the binder.

Just because they have a system doesn’t mean students will be able to immediately color-code important information or keep everything organized. For parents, it takes time and patience to help students learn how to color-code and how to keep their supplies organized. For some students, this help is provided at school; if that’s not the case, help must be provided at home.

A portion of homework time should be devoted to learning these skills. As soon as the student finishes his homework is the time to get everything in order for the next school day. A parent or tutor will need to be involved until the student can take ownership of the processes. The goal is always independence, but it takes work and practice to get to that point.

The DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) is used by doctors who diagnose learning differences like dyslexia, a developmental reading disorder. In the spring of 2013, the 5th edition of the DSM will be published. Those of us who work with dyslexic children are concerned about proposed changes in this new edition. While it is not definite, the proposal is to omit the term “dyslexia” from the list of learning disorders.

Historically, the learning disorders listed in the DSM are used by educators to decide what services a student should receive. If a child is diagnosed as dyslexic by a doctor according to the DSM, then a school system can use that diagnosis to create an IEP (Individualized Education Plan) that addresses the specific needs of the student. Additionally, the DSM can be used to determine what learning disorders warrant further research. Without the research we won’t be able to learn exactly what causes a specific problem and how best to treat it.

Omitting the term dyslexia does not align with current laws. IDEA (the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) and federal special education regulations explicitly name dyslexia as a learning disability that is eligible to receive services. The impact of omitting it from the DSM is that a child with dyslexia may not be diagnosed with it!

For a more thorough discussion of the possible effects of omitting dyslexia from the DSM-5, see Dyslexia and the DSM-5 at LDOnline.org.

Personally, I hope they do not leave out the term dyslexia. It may mean that children who are dyslexic might not be able to receive the appropriate services to remediate their reading difficulties. We should keep our eyes open to find out what the final decision is regarding DSM-5, which is due out in May 2013.





Students who are labeled LD (learning disabled) struggle in school and feel like they are not smart. In fact, a lot of people believe this to be true. But, if you ask many highly successful adults about their school experience, they will tell you they hated school and did not do well. The truth is that what we do in school usually focuses on a small portion of our total intelligence while success in life after school allows us to use our strengths. Many struggling students are actually very, very smart—it’s just the kind of smart that doesn’t show up in school.

Many CEO’s are extremely creative and innovative. School activities rarely focus on creativity and innovation. People who are talented in these areas might have a terrible school experience and then later become highly respected leaders in their selected professions. For a list of executives, athletes, and famous people who overcame their learning issues (in this case, dyslexia), see Famous People With the Gift of Dyslexia from the Davis Dyslexia Association International.

It is important to encourage students who feel dumb to find something they love to do, and make sure they spend time every day engaged doing it. For some ideas, see my post about Summer Plans for Struggling Students.

For example, I once asked a student who signed up for our remedial math class in summer school what she liked to do. She said, “I swim.” When I quizzed her about it she told me she was on the USA Swim Team and would be competing in the Junior Olympics! “I swim” was a bit of an understatement! When I asked her if she still liked swimming she said, “I love it! Once I thought I wanted to learn to dance, but I realized that I love swimming and don’t really have time to pursue something else.” What impressed me the most was that she was confident, poised, and not the least upset that she couldn’t do basic math. I believe this is because she had something in her life that she excelled at and did better than almost everyone else.

Next time you hear that someone is “learning disabled,” remember that they are actually very smart. They may have trouble learning some things, but there are many things they learn easily and do better than most other people. Someday, they may be an investor like Charles Schwab or a writer like Agatha Christie.

Often when schools do standardized testing, they report the scores in percentiles.

Percentiles are not the same thing as percentages (percents), even though they sound like they should be. Percentages are what most teachers use when grading their student’s work.Percentiles are numbers that show how a child compares to others. They are used on standardized tests that have been given to a large group of students before—this is the norm group.

If your child takes a regular test in the classroom, the chances are pretty good the teacher will give her a grade based on how many points she missed out of the total number of possible points. For example, if there are 100 points on the test and your daughter misses 15 points, her score will be 85 percent. This is calculated by dividing the points earned (85) by the number of possible points (100) and then multiplying that answer by 100. Note that this score does not tell you how well she did compared to other students.

Standardized tests, in contrast to regular tests, are given to large groups of students at various age levels. Students who take the same test later have their scores compared to a large norm group made up of students who took the test before. A percentile compares your child’s performance to these students who are the same age. An 85th percentile score means that your son scored better than 85 percent of the students in that large comparison group. Another way to think about it is this: If you had 100 students in the comparison group who are the same age, your child did better than 85 of them. This would be a very high percentile score.

When some parents see that their child’s result is in the 50th percentile, they think their child did poorly on the test. Instead, this means the student is right where you expect she should be! This is average. Above the 50th percentile is above average. Below the 50th percentile is below average.

Another score you are likely to see is the “Grade Equivalent” score. I will write about that in my blog post next week, here at SchoolFamily.com.

Parents, teachers, and students worry a lot about these tests and percentile results, so it is important to understand what the scores mean when you receive them.

For ideas for how to help your child manage the stress of taking standardized tests, read my earlier blog post about high stakes testing.


When children struggle in school, they are often having difficulty with many things. They may have poor ability to focus their attention, low reading and spelling skills, working memory issues, or problems with executive functioning.

They may have problems putting things in order, writing legibly, or have problems with vocabulary.

As parents, we want to see them get help in all these areas at once. We want to “fix” them right away. Unfortunately, these difficulties are complicated and require a lot of time before a child improves.

I have worked with many, many struggling children in my years in the classroom. I have found that it is best to take each issue and work on it individually.

I recommend that you identify the number one issue that is keeping your child from being successful and concentrate on that.

In the meantime, parents and teachers need to make accommodations for the other problems. For example, if you, your child, and your child’s teachers agree that attention is her greatest issue, then focus your efforts on figuring out how to help her with attention. This might include having her evaluated for an attention deficit disorder and even considering medication to help.

It might include teaching your child strategies to deal with her attention problems.

In the meantime, work with your child’s teacher to figure out ways to accommodate for the other problems until attention is under better control. At that point, select another issue upon which to focus.

Trying to fix everything at once can lead to a sense of frustration or, in the worst case, feeling hopeless.

Encourage your child and help him see what he is good at doing. As I have said many times before, these issues are often more of a problem while in school, and school won’t last forever! At that point, he can concentrate on his gifts and strengths.

Editor’s note: SchoolFamily.com blogger Livia McCoy has written in-depth blog posts about many of the issues she mentions in this post. If you’ve missed any and would like to read more on specific topics, here they are, by title:


Creating a Friendly Environment for ADHD Children


When a Child Struggles to Read: What a Parent Needs to Know


Can “Working Memory” Problems Cause Difficulty in School?


Executive Functioning—How it Affects a Student in School


What Does It Mean To Have A "Sequencing" Problem?


Does My Child Have Dysgraphia?


How to Help Your Child Improve His or Her Vocabulary


 SchoolFamily.com Glossary: "accommodation"


ADHD and Medication: Should You Consider It for Your Child?


SchoolFamily.com’s Building Attention Span Article Archive



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Students who struggle in school often have gifts in areas that do not relate to academics. For example, they may be amazing artists, musicians, athletes, actors or dancers. When thinking about summer plans for these students, make sure to include plenty of time for them to spend doing these activities. They already spend most of their life doing what they are not so good at doing! They need to be encouraged to develop their gifts.

I have this conversation often with parents. They say their child needs help with reading, math, writing, or spelling. And, they plan to book most of their summer time working on these skills. Of course, it is okay to work on skills during the summer. However, do not do that exclusively. Plan for them to spend more time doing the things they excel at doing than working on schoolwork.

When parents tell me their child wants to go to summer camp but it will interfere with summer school, I encourage them to allow their child to go to camp. It is important for students’ mental and physical health to spend time doing things they love, socializing with their peers, playing games, and generally having fun. It is also important that they have complete “down time”—nothing planned, nowhere to go, time to think, and time to imagine. It’s the best part about summer!

It is more likely your child will pursue a career in an area where he is gifted than in an area that relates to academics. And, it is more likely she will be successful in a career that matches her strengths instead of trying to do something she may never truly be good at doing. Summer time should be spent pursuing her interests as much as possible.

For more thoughts on this topic, read my earlier blog, School Is Not Life.



Do you allow your children to watch TV or play on the computer before doing their homework?