No one wants to see their child struggle, but sometimes noticing that a child is struggling is the first step to getting them the help they need.
Looking back, many parents of children with dyslexia — a language-based learning disability that makes reading difficult — can see that the signs were there years before a formal diagnosis was made. Some wish that pediatricians, teachers and other professionals had been upfront about potential issues from the beginning.
Janelle Norton, a national training and legislation coordinator for the Institute for Multi-Sensory Education, told HuffPost that when she reflects back, she sees that her son Bryce was showing signs of a learning difference by the time he was in preschool.
“He struggled to recall things that his older sisters did not struggle with, but I was told by pediatricians and educators that he would catch up, or ‘He is a boy’ or ‘He is the baby of three kids,’” Norton said.
When Bryce was in preschool, Norton sought help for his delayed speech. Like many parents, she assumed that if his teachers saw signs of significant learning issues, they would let her know.
Unfortunately, teachers, too, can be reluctant to call out a problem. They have a class full of learners with different needs among whom they have to divide their attention. In addition, teachers can feel pressured by administrators not to identify additional special needs in their classrooms because of the added funding it takes for support services. Parents are also not always receptive to news of a potential issue. A teacher’s concern might be construed as an accusation, prompting parents to jump to their child’s defense.
In Norton’s case, the first person to name the problem was actually Bryce himself.
“In second grade, Bryce came home and insisted he could not read,” Norton said. Her initial reaction was one of disbelief, and she said she told him, “I think your teachers would have told me if you could not read.”
But as she began looking more closely at his schoolwork, Norton noticed “that he knew the alphabet but had no idea what the sounds of the letters combined meant. For example, I asked him to spell the Walmart sign, and he read W-A-L-M-A-R-T but said that it said ‘exit.’”
Luckily, Norton’s family was able to pay for a private tutor, who used the Orton-Gillingham approach, a phonics-based system designed to help struggling readers. “Within one year he was reading at grade level,” Norton said.
She fully recognizes their privilege in being able to pay for accelerated private help even though he was in a public school. “Not every family can do what we did. It comes down to money — how much can you spend to ensure your child can read, write and spell?”
Micki Boas, a brand strategist and author of “One In Five: How We’re Fighting for Our Dyslexic Kids,” told HuffPost that she can now see signs of her son’s struggles all the way back to his infancy.
“My son walked late, talked late, missed all of the key CDC milestones. But I wanted to just brush it under the rug because I didn’t want to put a label on it,” Boas, referring to information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
As time went on, Boas began to see signs of the emotional toll that school was having on her child. Like many other children with learning differences, her son Matias refused to go to school. Boas eventually learned that his classmates had cruelly nicknamed him “The Statue of Liberty,” because he always had his hand raised to ask for the teacher’s help.
Boas thought she was doing what she was supposed to in order to help her son learn to read. As advised, she dutifully read to him every night, as though he would figure out how to read “through osmosis,” she said.
As with Bryce, after a little probing, Boas found that, although her son recognized letters and had memorized how to spell some words, “he couldn’t figure out the sounds behind the words.”
It was Boas’ mother, a speech pathologist, who sensed that something wasn’t right, and she encouraged them to have Matias evaluated.
Eventually, Matias was given an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), which included specialized reading instruction — but only for 30 minutes per week. Every child with a diagnosed disability is legally entitled to all the services necessary to provide them with a “free appropriate public education.”
In Boas’ view, 30 minutes per week of reading instruction was nowhere near an appropriate amount.
“Imagine if you couldn’t see, and they gave you glasses to read for 30 minutes a week,” Boas said.
After a lengthy legal battle with the schools, which depleted their financial and emotional resources, Boas and her husband chose to send their son to a private school that specializes in language-based learning disabilities. While they did receive a small settlement from their lawsuit, it covered only a fraction of his tuition.
What Is Dyslexia?
“Dyslexia is an umbrella term for having difficulty with learning how to read,” Susie Rolander, a professor at the Bank Street School of Education, told HuffPost. It is relatively common, found in 20% of the population and accounting for 80% to 90% of all learning disabilities.
Andrew Kahn, a psychologist who serves as the associate director of behavior change and expertise at Understood.org, told HuffPost that “dyslexia is a wiring difference in the brain that makes reading … more challenging than it should be.”
“It affects things like reading, their pace of reading, spelling, writing and comprehension.” The degree of difficulty is a key part of the diagnosis, he explained. “It’s harder than it should be. Kids on the surface look like they should be able to do these things. There’s a disconnect for them, and that’s what people start to notice typically.”
Bryce and Matias became aware that reading seemed much easier for the other kids in their classrooms.
Some of the early signs of dyslexia are common to other conditions, and 30% of kids with dyslexia will also have another learning disability or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). This makes it all the more important for kids to get thorough, professional evaluations. If a child also has ADHD and can’t focus, then specialized reading instruction alone won’t be effective.
“Dyslexia looks like a lot of other things in the beginning, which is sort of what’s so confusing about it for so many people,” Kahn said. He added that it’s always easier to see the early signs in the rearview mirror, and parents shouldn’t be too hard on themselves for not realizing earlier that something was wrong.
Parents also can’t assume that the presence of one sign signals an issue. For example, many children reverse their letters and numbers when they are learning to write.
“In and of itself, the reversal of letters and numbers in writing does
not indicate that a child has dyslexia,” Rolander said. “For most children, this usually subsides around the end of first grade or beginning of second grade. We have to look at the overall pattern of the child’s learning, not just the timeline.”
Common Misconceptions About Dyslexia
Some people assume, because of its effect on reading, that dyslexia impacts only a person’s written language. But it is a neurological difference in the brain that can affect their use and understanding of both written and spoken language.
“Oftentimes children who have dyslexia also struggle with both expressive and receptive language, making everyday learning and connecting with peers more difficult,” Rolander said. Treatment, then, can bring additional benefits beyond improved reading fluency.
Another common misconception is that dyslexia, or other learning disabilities, are intellectual disabilities — that kids with these conditions aren’t as intelligent or as capable as their peers. But kids with dyslexia are able to think just as well as other students. Just because they can’t decode a text doesn’t mean they can’t consider its content.
For some kids, having the diagnosis and understanding that the way their brain is wired makes reading a challenge can free them from the fear that they aren’t as smart as the other kids. Understanding that their dyslexia is a learning difference that they share with many other people can be empowering for them.
Possible Early Indicators Of Dyslexia
Because of the stigma associated with the terms “learning disability” and “dyslexia,” parents (and teachers) have to strike a balance when it comes to concerns about a child’s reading. On the one hand, it isn’t necessarily cause for alarm if you notice one of these signs — many children without learning disabilities also exhibit these at some point. On the other hand, it’s useful to be aware of these signs so that you can get your child help sooner rather than later.
Only a trained professional can make a diagnosis of dyslexia or another learning disability after a thorough evaluation, but the following signs are worth talking about with your child’s teacher and their pediatrician. Having as much information as possible will help them understand your child’s unique growth and development, including which supports they may need along the way.
Some early signs that may indicate dyslexia:
- A family history of dyslexia or other learning differences
- Missing developmental milestones (crawling, first word, walking) in infancy and early childhood
- Delayed speech
Mixing up words (“bustduster,” “beddy tear”)
Not being able to recall the name of the city or state they live in
- Trouble remembering the order of the days of the week
- Confusion with directional words (under, over)
Trouble learning to tie their shoes
- Trouble learning numbers or colors
- Trouble remembering the words to songs
Trouble writing their own name
Once literacy instruction has begun, you may start to see other signs:
- Trouble sounding out new words
- Poor phonemic awareness: not knowing the sounds letters make, such as realizing that “cat” becomes “bat” when you change the “c” to a “b.”
- Reluctance to read out loud
- Refusal to go to school
You can also utilize early screeners available online to see if your child is showing signs of dyslexia. If you’re not sure whether you yourself may have dyslexia, there is also a parent screener available to predict a child’s risk. Some companies have begun to develop screeners to use with younger children who have not yet begun to learn to read.
Talk with your child’s teacher or pediatrician about other screening tools that may be available in your area.
Just because your child doesn’t meet the criteria for a dyslexia diagnosis doesn’t mean extra literacy support won’t help them. These services, such as extra instruction or tutoring, are sometimes called “Response to Intervention” (RTI), and you can get them before your child officially qualifies for special education services and gets an IEP or 504 plan (another legal document that outlines which accommodations a child is entitled to.) Talk to your child’s teacher about RTI services, even if you are also making a request for an evaluation.
With the right setup, support for dyslexia and other learning challenges doesn’t have to feel stigmatizing. Accommodations such as extended time to complete tasks and allowing kids a choice in what content they study or how they express their understanding benefits all students. A classroom culture that embraces and accommodates students’ differences can help kids understand that everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses instead of making struggling kids feel as if there is something wrong with them.
“Those kids who have classrooms that accommodate them and are in classrooms with kids who are not disabled will have much more broad acceptance of what those differences mean when they live their daily lives,” Kahn said.