Note: October is Learning Disabilities/Dyslexia/Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) Awareness Month
“High achievement always takes place in the framework of high expectation.”
—Charles Kettering, American inventor, engineer and businessman.
As parents, we all want to see our children reach their full potential. Our visions of their successes and accomplishments may vary, but we all yearn to guide our children to greatness. How do we set them up to fulfill their potential? What foundations are we building for them? What roadmaps can we provide to help them navigate on their journey?
I am the proud mother of three terrific children (Biased? Yes!). While each of them is unique and inspiring in their own abilities and qualities, my sons have some very distinct similarities.
In the early school years, both began showing similar behaviors: high impulsivity, defiance, acting out, disruption, the inability to follow direction and under-developed social skills.
Both were bright and strong willed and insisted on doing things their own way in their own time.
Both were identified by educators as “challenging and difficult” and by peers as a “bad kid.”
They were both evaluated at five years old, 10 years apart. That’s where the similarities ended.
An OSERS Guest Blog post by Kristina Hartsell, a military spouse who has a son with a diagnosis of ADHD.
The Hartsell Family at Disneyland
I am married to an amazing Army man and together, we have an 8-year-old son named Lucas. He is our miracle child who happens to have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Autism, Asthma, and sensory processing disorder. Every day is an adventure with him.
Having a child with ADHD, I learned a few things about myself and the world around me. First, I’ve learned that I have cat-like reflexes. I discovered this talent at one of my son’s doctor appointments. For some children, being cooped up in a room for a few minutes is fine, but for my son, it is an opportunity! An opportunity to touch everything he can, while also building his gymnastic skills. I use my cat-like reflexes to support his exploration and movement while also assuring his safety.
I’ve also learned how to multitask and make it seem effortless. I can carry on a conversation on three different topics in the mystifying world of video games, flipping back and forth multiple times within five minutes, while simultaneously cooking dinner and cleaning up toys. I must say that I am very proud of this talent—I know that I share it with many parents, but it is often more finely developed in parents of kids with ADHD! You will often hear me tell my son it’s my “superpower.”
Last, I have learned to be what he and I call a “defender of all things good and evil.” By that, we mean that sometimes we have to play the role of the “bad” guy for the greater good. I often have to decide what kind of defender I will be when meeting those who don’t understand my son’s behavior. While their words and attitudes can sometimes sting, I can make a decision about how to respond or even to respond at all. I have come to realize over time that I understand my son and will always be his advocate. Advocating for his needs often means letting him be who he is, the energizer bunny our family loves.
Many parents of children with disabilities share my superpowers and have superpowers that are uniquely their own. We are part of a club that treats everyday as a new day to help our children grow and flourish in their unique way. Having a close network of family and friends who understand our family has been very helpful to us. I’ve also learned to communicate my challenges and joys with my husband. As a military spouse, this is often hard to do because of frequent deployments and travel, and the need to develop my own communication skills. Lastly, I have found other parents and other families just like me and my family, and being able to share with them our journey has provided us with a lot of support.
If you’re the parent of a child with disabilities, as you set forth on your own adventure with your energizer bunny, you might be surprised how many other families share your path, and how much you can grow together.
A guest Blog post by Karen Laughlin, a parent educator at the Exceptional Children’s Assistance Center, the Parenting Training and Information (PTI) Center in North Carolina.
Karen Laughlin and Daughter Carly
In hindsight, I may have been a bit over confident when my third child came along. After all, her older brother and sister were happy kids and great students. Yes, Carly was a quirky little girl and she seemed to need more “handling” than I was used to, but we always thought that was because she was our youngest. She was clearly smart, funny, and likeable…except when she wasn’t, but didn’t all kids have ups and downs? This changed abruptly when her third grade class was learning multiplication. While other kids were earning the cherry on top of the banana split on the bulletin board by mastering 9’s and 10’s, Carly couldn’t get past the 2’s and had only a scoop of vanilla ice cream in her bowl. No amount of drilling at home helped, and she came home crying about her almost empty bowl every night. I was at a loss—if working harder didn’t help, what else could we do?
Fast forwarding to the present, Carly is 19 and we’ve known since she was about nine that her brain works differently—she has been diagnosed with both a learning disability in math and ADHD. Over the last ten years, I’ve learned a lot about both of those conditions, about brains, executive functions, and the ups and downs of special education. This all helped me to understand how a learning disability affects much more than learning academic skills, and I’ve used this knowledge to help Carly understand herself and to explain her LD/ADHD to others.
My most important lessons have been lessons of the heart, maybe even of the soul. I’ve learned to dig deeper as a parent and find the patience and understanding that Carly needed so that home could be a safe space after a long, hard, and often discouraging day at school. I’ve learned that there is no “one size fits all” parenting style for kids like Carly, and that I needed to be flexible in my approach to her. I’ve learned that however confusing it is to raise a child who is uneven in her abilities, it is much more challenging and confusing to BE that child every day.
As Carly struggled with so many aspects of high school, I had to confront my own expectations for her future, and to accept that each child finds her own path, and her own sense of timing. There are many good paths, and I am a better person for learning this lesson.
When I asked Carly what I should include in this post, she didn’t hesitate to answer, “Tell them that their kids are trying, even when they wish the results were better.” Did I forget to mention that besides having trouble relating to numbers, my daughter is a compassionate, insightful, loyal, and articulate 19 year old? These qualities, more than any academic strength, will bring her joy in life, and isn’t that what all parents want for their children?
David Flink is founder and Chief Empowerment Officer of Eye to Eye and author of Thinking Differently: An Inspiring Guide for Parents of Children with Learning Disabilities
October is Learning Disabilities (LD) Awareness Month, a time when the nation turns its attention to the one in five students who learn differently because they have dyslexia, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) or other learning and/or attention issues. Eye to Eye honors the LD/ADHD community this month and throughout the year.
As Education Secretary Arne Duncan said recently, “This is a time to understand how these disabilities impact students and their families, to reflect on the significant achievements that these students have made, and to renew our commitment to creating a stronger future for them.”
What does awareness actually mean? What would real awareness look like in our schools, homes, and workplaces? How can we unlock the potential of different learners and create a world where all learners can thrive?
Eye to Eye is the only national mentoring movement that pairs kids who have learning disabilities and ADHD with college and high school mentors who have been similarly labeled. We are an organization for people with LD/ADHD by people with LD/ADHD. And we believe that one of the most powerful things you can do is share your own LD/ADHD story or the story of someone you love.
Owning your LD, then speaking it loud and proud, is the first step in breaking the stigma. When you share your truth, you help a kid feel seen. You tell them they’re not alone. They start to see their future and their potential in a whole new way.
That’s why Eye to Eye mentors work with kids in middle school, telling them, “I’ve been where you are. I made it, you will, too.” It’s why our Eye to Eye Diplomats, who range from successful students to established professionals, speak around the country, saying, “I am what LD/ADHD looks and sounds like and here is how I found success.
I started Eye to Eye in 1998 because that didn’t happen when I was kid. I was a 5th grader who couldn’t read. No matter how much my parents supported me, I had no role models with LD/ADHD. If national statistics hold true, one in five educators has a learning difference or a family member who does. But that would have never occurred to me, I thought I was alone.
It was only after I graduated from Brown University and finished my graduate work in Dis/Ability Studies at Columbia that one of my teachers called to say, “I am dyslexic.” That was revolutionary to me, that one act of sharing.
Imagine that happening in homes and classrooms across the country. What it would mean to kids to hear that the adults in their lives face the same challenges they do.
It would break the stigma. It would create a safe space where a kid can say, “I really think I could learn better if I just had this.” Allowing kids to listen instead of read, learning with their ears instead of their eyes. Or letting kids with attention issues have breaks. Kids can get these accommodations now, but often the stigma of having an LD/ADHD can prevent them from seeking help or access the accommodations that are their legal rights. We should make sure no kid feels ashamed to ask for what they need—and what better way to not feel ashamed than to know you’re talking to someone who really gets it?
When we don’t share, when we keep silent, we lose kids. Kids with dyslexia and other learning disabilities drop out of high school at more than double the rate of students in the general population. Individuals with learning disabilities appear in the U.S. prison population at four times the rate they are found in the general public.
It’s not a small number of kids. Learning disabilities affect as many as 20% of our students. According to the Department of Education, 2.5 million kids have been identified with specific learning disabilities; as many as 6 million with ADHD. Still more have not been identified—and so many don’t get the attention they need. Unless we help them, the national cost in human potential and hard dollars will be tremendous.
That’s one of the reasons I’m so passionate about the work we do at Eye to Eye. We encourage everyone to share his or her story. We know that in some environments, revealing takes real courage. But sharing creates a connection. Connection creates community. And a community sparks culture change and a movement.
So, this LD Awareness Month, share your story or the story of someone you love. I started by talking with Secretary Duncan. One month before he made his statement about learning disabilities, two Eye to Eye mentors from the University of Illinois, represented the LD/ADHD community met with Secretary Duncan on his Back-to-School Bus Tour. They told him about the challenges they and the LD/ADHD community faced and what they hoped to do in their lives. They shared. He listened—and committed to change.
It might seem surprising for two moms from two different states, thousands of miles apart to have a deep connection, especially when we’ve hardly even spent time in the same room together. But in a powerful way we’ve bonded, like so many other engaged parents across the country, due to our children’s dyslexia and other learning disabilities.
Our connection is based on a shared truth—the need to feel like we’re part of a community and the desire to make a difference for many children just like ours.
We’ve also learned that we can give hope to others when we tell our stories:
My 8th-grade daughter was not identified with dyslexia until the end of 3rd grade, after struggling in school for years. As I sought help for her at school, I was often told that I needed to accept her status as a flailing student. But my instincts told me not to. I somehow knew my child could do more.
It was not until we finally received an identification of dyslexia, dysgraphia and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and got appropriate accommodations and private dyslexia tutoring in place that the fog literally lifted. One accommodation we made for my daughter who has difficulty spelling, was an adjustment to her assigned spelling list to include the words she was working on in her reading intervention. Suddenly she became a different child. She didn’t dread going to school anymore. Her headaches stopped, her anxiety lessoned. She was actually smiling and laughing again. Today she is in the honors reading class and on the road to her dream career—a doctor. She knows she has a bright future.
I was educated as a teacher and spent many years working in the classroom. I thought that I knew how to help a struggling child learn to read. But I quickly discovered as my daughter spiraled downward that I was not equipped to help her. My daughter needed a teacher who could teach her to read the way she learns. Now, I work with many parents as part of Decoding Dyslexia, a parent-led grassroots movement. We collaborate with partners in Maryland and D.C. to advance teacher training and raise learning disability (LD) awareness. Our goal is to ensure that children like my daughter don’t fall into the gap and that educators can have all the tools they need to help students like my daughter.
I didn’t know just how many children were affected by dyslexia, dysgraphia, ADHD and other disabilities until my own kids were identified. It was when my two children first began facing challenges and obstacles at their Texas public school that I became a champion for my children and the many others with learning and attention issues. By educating myself through online resources and connecting with parents of children who have learning disabilities, like Lisa and many others, I learned how to become an effective and collaborative advocate.
I also learned the value of telling our story. I began to write, tweet and speak about not only my family’s negative experiences, but—more importantly—the triumphs and victories as we saw our local school district engage with parents, listen to our concerns and begin to change.
Positive change is contagious. And talking about it is the catalyst. Every day in my role with the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD) I get to engage with parents who are change-makers alongside educators, researchers and policy makers in their community. I get to help parents tell their stories and highlight the collaborative work they are doing to improve teacher training, implementation of federal and state laws and to keep the bar high for students with LD.
Best of all, I get to connect parents to national-level work and policy efforts that are helping to educate and inform everyone about what children like ours need to succeed.
Engaged parents are a key catalyst within our public schools to help educate, create awareness and raise expectations for kids with learning disabilities. As two moms who have connected through our children’s shared experiences, we encourage you to get involved, too.
We encourage you to get involved! Here are some resources to help you get started on collaborative change work in your child’s classroom and beyond.
15 nonprofit organizations that have joined forces to support parents of the one in five children with learning and attention issues throughout their journey.
A network of parent-led grassroots movements across the country concerned with the limited access to educational interventions for dyslexia within the public education system.
Parent Camp USA
A hybrid “un-conference” opportunity for parents and teachers to come together and level the playing field, putting all stakeholders in a circle for actual, face-to-face discussion about what is best for kids. At the U.S. Department of Education in Washington, D.C. on 10|26|2015.
Center for Parent Information and Resources (CPIR) A central resource of information and products to the community of Parent Training Information (PTI) Centers and the Community Parent Resource Centers (CPRCs), so that they can focus their efforts on serving families of children with disabilities.