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SchoolFamily Voices

Join our bloggers as they share their experiences on the challenges and joys of helping children succeed in school.

How do I Know if my Child is Dyslexic?

Boy readingDyslexia is very hard to define! In fact, a recent entry on Facebook said, "My son’s school just told me there is no such thing as dyslexia! I’m dyslexic; how can they say there is no such thing?"

What the school probably means is there are many ways dyslexia can affect a child and it is more beneficial to the child to figure out what the specific problem is and address that problem. (At least, we hope that’s what they meant!)

Some people think you have to see letters backwards before you are called dyslexic. But, that is not necessarily true. That is a common misconception about dyslexia. There are some dyslexics who do, but certainly not all of them!

Formal definitions of dyslexia basically mean that a dyslexic child

  • has difficulty with something related to language (including the language and symbols in math)
  • does not have physical problems such as hearing or vision issues that cause the language problems
  • is plenty smart enough to learn these skills, but has not learned them to the level you would expect
  • has skills (ability to read, spell, or do math) that are below their potential to learn (intelligence).

In many public school systems, if the child has not already been taught these skills using research-based teaching methods, they do not provide an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). The child must show that proper instruction is not enough to help them learn these language skills. (They did not "respond to intervention.")

At the point the school decides the child did have appropriate instruction but failed to learn, they can then qualify for an IEP. Schools may not use the word "dyslexia." They will more likely say "specific language learning disability." Some schools feel that dyslexia is a medical diagnosis and not an educational one.

For a great pamphlet about the signs of dyslexia see, Is My Child Dyslexic?

There are a number of related articles here at SchoolFamily!

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Little Things Can Help a Struggling Student

Teen BoySometimes I don’t totally understand why something I do helps a student! A couple of weeks ago I gave a chemistry test. I had several phone calls from one of my student’s parents and five emails from her son telling me he was not ready for the test and that he didn’t know anything on it. His mother described him as "on the verge of a nervous breakdown." The test was the next morning.

I didn’t know what to do. I knew that when someone is emotional they can’t learn much, and I also knew he had an English test the next day, too. So, I said, "Do not study any more for this test. You are too emotional and studying isn’t going to do you any good. Study for your English test instead."

When he came in to take the test the next morning, I asked him if he would like to have the test one page at a time.

"Could I? That would be great!"

So I sat near him and gave him one page at a time. He knew the test was four pages long. He completed page one, gave it to me, and asked for page two. He completed page two and then asked for page one again. It went on throughout the period, and I was noticing that his answers seemed pretty good! I was afraid that he would go back and change correct answers because he’s done that before. But, he didn’t. In fact -- he made a "C" on the test which we were both very happy about. He claimed that getting only one page at a time helped him to relax.

Why? I don’t know. If he didn’t know how long the test was I might think it kept him from feeling overwhelmed. But, he did know. Since it did help him, I will continue to do it for him. Sometimes, the simplest things can be a really big help.

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

Book on headEvery child needs to learn how to read well. When reading does not come easily, it affects every part of life. Thanks to research conducted by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), we know the best way to teach children to read! The NICHD and the National Reading Panel published an excellent summary of their research which included thousands of children.

Teaching reading is complex. Many teachers were trained before this research came out and they continue to use old methods that do not work for struggling readers. If your child needs extra help with reading, I recommend that you make sure they are participating in a program based on the research of the Panel. You should also read some of the parent and teacher resources available free online.

Find out whether the program your child is in is research-based and whether it is has been successfully tested. It should include instruction in the following key areas from Put Reading First: The Research Building Blocks of Reading Instruction.

  • Phonemic Awareness. Children learn to hear, identify, and play with the sounds in spoken words. What happens if you take /b/out of /bat/? I’m thinking of a word that rhymes with honey and starts with /f/ -- can you figure out what it is? (Make the sounds of the letters inside brackets.)
  • Phonics. Children learn the connection between the letters of written language and the sounds they make. What sound does "ch" make?
  • Fluency. Children work on reading accuracy and speed.
  • Vocabulary. Students work to increase their vocabulary so they can make sense of what they read.
  • Comprehension. Children learn strategies that help them to understand what they are reading.

If you have concerns about the reading program at your child’s school, ask about each of the above components. Ask whether the program is supported by research. For a host of articles on reading and helping your child learn to read, check out this archive of articles.

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Forming a Parent-Teacher Partnership to Help a Struggling Child

When parents and schools work together, children benefit. According to a report from the Southwest Educational Development Laboratory, "When schools, families, and community groups work together to support learning, children tend to do better in school, stay in school longer, and like school more."

Sometimes it is a little scary to meet with your child’s teacher. This is especially true if your child is having difficulty and you feel the teacher does not understand or care. Generally, teachers do care about their students, and parents and teachers can communicate their concerns in ways that make a positive home-school connection that benefits the child.

Most teachers do want their students to experience success in school. LeAnna Webber, a school psychologist, says, "I wish [parents] knew the hearts of our teachers. We are here to help and [parents] should try to trust us." Kindergarten teacher M.J. Coward says a similar thing, "I wish that [parents] understood we want each child to achieve his/her potential. We are not the enemy." Even so, many find it difficult to communicate their concerns to their child’s teacher.

Parent-teacher conferences can be very positive. Here are some ideas that may help.

  • Identify areas of concern before heading to the conference. If your daughter is struggling in math, plan to share your observations about how she approaches her math homework. Ask the teacher if she sees the same things in school.
  • Talk to your child before the conference.  Find out if there is something he hopes you will talk about with his teacher. Often parents and teachers forget to include the most important person -- the one who might know more than anyone else about what he does well or where he needs help.
  • Write down any questions you wish to cover at the conference. It is easy to forget something once the conference begins! With your questions in hand, you will be more likely to get the answers you want. For help thinking of questions, see "Back to School Conference Questions."
  • Both parents should attend the conference when possible. When children are struggling in school, things can get emotional. This makes it difficult to remember all your questions and then later remember what the teacher had to say. With two people there, one can take notes about the conversation and any plans that you make.
  • Plan for the conference to be a two-way conversation focused on your child.  Listen to what your child’s teacher says, and she should listen to what you have to say.  If the focus of the conversation veers away from your child, say something like, "That is interesting, but let’s talk about Lisa.  What are her strengths?"
  • Try not to be defensive.  When the teacher tells you areas where your child needs to improve, listen and try to problem-solve together for the benefit of your child.  If the teacher does not bring up areas for improvement, then you should ask, "What areas can we work on to help my child do better?"
  • Make a plan together.  Figure out if there is something you might do at home to help your child in school.  Find out from the teacher what he plans to do, as well. (Be sure to write this plan down so you can refer to it later.) Try to focus on one concern at a time rather than trying to fix everything at once. You can meet together again to decide on what the next focus should be.
  • Schedule a follow-up meeting to gauge progress if you feel it is necessary.
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Is my Child Working Hard Enough in School?

studying girlMy last blog (about skills versus intelligence) mentioned that some parents and teachers think children are not trying when in reality they are working very hard. It is a concern that I have for struggling students, because judging a person’s internal motivation is difficult to do. And, there are children who will tell you they are not trying just to save face. ("I failed because I didn’t try.")

It is possible that your child is completely goofing off. Maybe he sneaks off and watches television or plays video games when he is supposed to be doing homework. That is a behavior issue that should be addressed. Just be cautious before deciding poor school work is a behavior issue. There may be genuine learning problems that interfere with work output.

How can you tell whether your child is doing her best?

  • Watch your child as she works on her homework. Does she spend a lot of time looking around at things other than her books and papers? How much time is spent doing that versus doing the work? Some children are distracted by anything and everything around them. For these children, the time they spend doing homework is really not accomplishing anything. However, to them they think they are working. In this case, their attention issue is keeping them from producing their work. This child is working hard, but not being productive. Some intervention on your part to create a less distracting environment might help them to be able to get their work finished in a reasonable amount of time.
  • Look at your child’s completed assignments. Are there a lot of erasures on the page? Are there questions that have been skipped? Is there an indication that he thinks he knows how to do the work, but really does not? Did he do the wrong questions or problems? These are signs of a child who is working very hard, but doing the wrong things (or doing them incorrectly). This child would benefit from additional instruction on the concepts in order to know how to do the work. It is also possible that these relate to either reading or organizational issues.
  • Watch your child as she writes. Is her handwriting labored? Does it take her forever to get one sentence written? This may indicate that your child has a motor-skills problem. These children produce work very slowly and may give up out of sheer exhaustion. This child is working very, very hard but because of a neurological problem cannot produce the work in a reasonable amount of time. This child needs to learn how to use a word processor to complete her work so that handwriting does not hold her back.
  • Assuming that your child is working hard but still not doing well in school, ask him why school is hard. See if he has insights into what is going on inside his head, and then follow-up with his teacher to find out if she sees the same things in the classroom. My next post on meeting with your child’s teacher may help you plan that conversation.

Here are several resources that may be helpful if you see your child described in the above scenarios.

Attention Issues

Difficulty with Homework

Reading Difficulties

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The Price for Being Absent from School

“School is more demanding for my kids than it was when I went to school.” How many times have you said this or heard this said?

Kids need to be at their best in order to do well and enjoy school. It seems that never before has it been more important have healthy school kids and to avoid absences from school. I talked to our teacher bloggers, Connie McCarthy and Livia McCoy and asked them how kids missing school affects their class room and the student.

Connie, focusing on early elementary school said, “It's the initial instructional lesson that is SO important. (Not written work that can be made up.) Repeated absences can cause a child to miss an important part of sequential learning. Two things can happen:

  1. Children fall behind because they are missing an important piece of instruction.
  2. Or, chronic absences can sometimes force teachers to slow the pace of instruction, in order to review lessons for children who missed crucial skills. This ultimately affects the entire class.”

Livia talked about how kids being absent from school affects kids in older grades:

“Because learning builds on previous learning, you can never truly make up for an absence. The hands-on activities, discussion, and interaction in class cannot be made up. At best, each teacher can meet with the child to go over what was done in class. You can even have them do the activities they missed. But they do not hear other student’s questions and interact with classmates.

If a child misses one day, they have to make up ALL their work in ALL their classes. Plus, they have to keep up with their current work. It is too difficult for them to do. So you have to hope that whatever they missed won’t leave too large a gap in their knowledge-base for the next learning to occur. If a student misses 1 day of school in a week, they missed 20% of what was taught that week. The net effect may be 30% loss in learning overall because of the scaffolding effect.”

Ugh. That’s a lot to think about. Makes me think twice about how to keep my family healthy this school year. No one likes to see their kids sick or stressed out from make-up work. Bottom line, though, is that schools are germy! That’s why we want to do some brain storming to come up with a list of ways to keep our kids healthy and in school. We are starting brainstorming session over on our Facebook page.

So head over to our Facebook page and tell us what steps you’re taking to keep your kids healthy and in school this year for a chance to win a gift certificate good towards a professional house cleaning and a gift pack chock full of Lysol cleaning products!

If you’re not sure how to begin, just start with an old fashioned fill in the blank: I am keeping my kids healthy this school year by ____________.

The price for your kids missing school is high but the pay off for you coming up with ways to keep them healthy is even higher. Look forward to brainstorming with you!

* The Healthy School Kids blog drawing runs from  October 6th through October 20th, at 11pm EST. At the end of that time period all Facebook fans that wrote a healthy kids idea on our wall will be entered to win a professional house cleaning gift certificate, and a gift pack full of Lysol cleaning products. One entry per person and one name will be drawn randomly from all the comments.

Disclosure: Lysol is a sponsor of the Healthy School Kids program. 

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Low Skills do not Mean Low Intelligence

Many students who struggle in school are called “lazy and dumb” by their peers and at some times even by a teacher or parent! This is extremely hurtful and unnecessary.

First of all, you cannot always tell whether a child is working really hard or not. Even if you ask a child whether they studied they will often tell you they didn’t. It is much easier for them to say, “I didn’t study, so I failed,” than to say, “I studied a long time, but I still failed.” There are children who have given up on themselves and quit trying, but be very careful about accusing any child of being lazy. You have no way of knowing for sure how hard they are working!

Secondly, these children are often smart. I have taught children whose measured intelligence was in the superior range (even at the 99th percentile) who failed in school! These brilliant children might not be able to read, spell or do math, yet their intelligence suggests that these things should be easy for them. Reading, spelling and doing math are acquired skills, not innate like intelligence. For one reason or another, they did not learn the skills they need to succeed.

As you can see, you can have a brilliant child who is failing in school because of poor skills. They might look “dumb,” but they are far from it. Skills and intelligence are not the same thing. I have a rule that I never, ever call a child lazy or unmotivated. I ask myself these questions—“Why is this child having such a hard time in school?” “What is holding this child back?” “What can I do to provide some success for this child to get them back on the right track?”

If you feel your child is misunderstood, it is important to get together with your child’s teacher. My next post will offer some help in deciding whether or not your child is working hard enough. Then after that, I will discuss how to plan ahead for meeting with your child’s teacher to discuss these issues.

Remember, when children struggle in school, they need both their parents and their teachers to work together to figure out why.

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What does it mean to have a "sequencing" problem?

Girl at deskThe first year we had a girl’s softball team at the school where I teach, one of the girls on the team was very athletic. She could throw and hit the ball well, and she could run very fast. In the first game of the season, however, she hit the ball and ran to third base! This is an example of how a sequencing disorder can affect a child.

Sequencing simply means putting things in the correct order like the alphabet or numbers. If spelling a word, the order of the letters is very important. Changing the order in a math problem (writing "21+17 = ___" instead of "12 + 17 = ____") produces the incorrect answer. And, who knows what happens in a softball game when you run the bases backwards!

Socially, these children may tell you about an argument they had with a friend and then later tell you the same story in a different order. This can make them look like they are lying when it is actually a sequencing issue over which they have no control.

Students with a sequencing problem have trouble following step-by-step directions. They fall apart when working on long term projects because they are not sure what needs to be done and in what order. I watch for these problems with my students. I teach them how to check off what they have completed when following a set of directions. When working on a long-term project, I break it down into manageable pieces and monitor whether they are completing each part in time to finish the whole project. I also use graphic organizers such as those shown here to help these children organize their thoughts.

There are many accommodations and compensatory strategies these children can benefit from. For more ideas of possible ways to help, check out this article from the Child Development Institute.

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How Learning Disabilities Affect a Parent’s Emotions

When a child struggles in school, their parents experience a range of emotions -- frustration, anger, hopelessness, and guilt.

In the beginning, we feel the problems in school have to be because the child is not trying. We fuss at them and hope they will be able to succeed if they just settle down and work harder. Our frustration with the child and the situation can lead to anger. We get mad at the school for not providing the best education, the child’s teacher for not knowing how to teach our child, and the child because -- well, they have to be doing something wrong, right?

This frustration and anger can continue for several years before we finally realize, "Maybe my child has a real problem. Maybe this is not her fault." When this realization is confirmed (through testing or meeting with learning specialists), the guilt and hopelessness set in. First of all, typically one parent or the other also struggled in school. This parent tends to deny the problem saying something like, "I made it just fine. She just needs to work harder." The other parent wants to figure out what the problem is and to seek help. This parent feels tremendous guilt because they did not believe their child had a real problem soon enough. The parents must figure out a way to work together to get help for their child. Thank goodness, after a little time this is what usually happens.

Here is my advice. Don’t beat yourself up! We do our best as parents and that’s all we can do. Children are resilient. The child will be very relieved that finally someone recognizes that they need extra help. They will forgive you for not knowing sooner. Move forward from here without feeling guilty for taking so long to get to this point. And, there is help for struggling students. Turn your hopelessness into hope and take action to change failure into success.

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Options for Helping a Struggling Student

Boy with notebookWhen a child is struggling in school, we have three choices for ways to help. We can remediate, accommodate, or teach the child to compensate.

If at all possible, we should fix the problem. The best example of this is a child who does not read well. Maybe she has trouble figuring out the words on the page, or she can read the words but cannot understand what they mean. If we set up a program that teaches them how to read better, we are remediating or fixing the skill deficit. This is ideal. When possible, problems children have in school should be remediated. This can take a long time depending on the severity and type of problem. Sometimes it requires a specialist trained in remediation.

Other things that help can take less time and effort. Often, students can learn to manage their own problem. For example, if one of my students can spell pretty well but still makes errors, I teach them how to type and to word process their work so that the spelling checker can point out which words are misspelled. This is called compensating for the skill deficit. The student handles the problem himself.

Unfortunately, some problems cannot be fixed (or will take a long time to fix), and the child cannot manage them on their own. If a child has extremely poor eyesight, we must make an accommodation for the problem. For a variety of reasons, I might give a student near-point copies of notes and diagrams I put on the board. If needed, as for the child with poor eyesight, these near-points can be enlarged on the copier. With this simple accommodation, the child can succeed in my classroom.

Many compensatory strategies and accommodations require little effort on the part of the teacher. Once a child learns a compensatory strategy, they do it for themselves. Doing something like providing a copy of my notes for the student who needs them, takes very little time. Something very simple can make the difference between failure and success for a struggling student.

For a very long list of possible accommodations check out this article.

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School is not life

Some students do well in school and others do not. Have you ever wondered why?

We are all different! When my husband and I travel in areas where we are not familiar (and when we do not have our GPS to guide us), it is better for me to drive and him to navigate. When I try to read a map, I cannot tell you whether we need to turn right or left at the next intersection. I cannot take a two-dimensional representation of real space (the map) and change it in my mind to represent three-dimensional space (the world).

Fortunately, in school it was a rare occasion when I needed to be able to read a map and tell someone which way to go. Map skills are not that valuable in school.

On the other hand, I can read piano music very well. I can take a sheet of music and turn it into a beautiful experience on the piano for both you (the listener) and me (the player).

Unfortunately, being able to do that was not that helpful in school either. No one really cared that I could do that.

What if the thing I cannot do is read, spell, or do basic math calculations? Then, I become a struggling student. These skills are really important school skills and students who struggle with them struggle generally in school. School becomes uncomfortable, unsuccessful, and no fun.

For these students, it is important to find the thing they can do exceptionally well (like playing the piano or building models) and give them plenty of time doing that. If they spend their entire life struggling, it is hard for them to feel good about themselves.

They need to know that school is not life. Eventually, they will be finished with school and they will get to spend time doing things they do well rather than focusing on their weaknesses.

For an interesting perspective, I recommend reading some of Dr. Mel Levine’s work about focusing on the positive in your child’s life.

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

Yes - 31.6%
Sometimes - 25.4%
No - 37.4%

Total votes: 4919
The voting for this poll has ended on: June 25, 2016