I am now 66 years old and was diagnosed with dyslexia and attention deficit when I was just 6 years old, at Mass General Hospital in Boston. At that time very little was known about treatments for ADHD and dyslexia. In fact my diagnoses then were “minimal brain damage” and “reading retardation.” They had other terms for my problems with attention, organization, memory, reading, spelling, writing, and math. I was incredibly fortunate to have had the parents that I did, because they are the main reason I am successful today. For over three decades I’ve shared my experiences of growing up with my very intelligent, insightful, loving, and supportive parents and I believe these experiences have helped every student we have worked with.
Today the focus on children with learning differences are their difficulties, their strengths, special education, accommodations, neuropsychological and educational testing, and counseling or therapy to increase their adjustment, coping skills and self-confidence. These are all important things, however, one of the biggest voids in this process can be the lack of emphasis on the importance of parental support and strategies for success. Parental knowledge, understanding, acceptance, love and encouragement in the areas that really matter is the foundation and framework on which all of the above come together in the best way.
Through much of high school I could not read, even though I had daily Orton Gillingham tutoring. I also had individual therapy, therapy with my mother, and active parent involvement in my public school and special education classes throughout all of my school years. I was very hyperactive and always in trouble. I believe I was among the very first to receive Ritalin for my problems. I spent more time in trees than at home or in school. I was fortunate that way.
Here are some of things that my parents did for me and what you may want to consider doing for your child with learning differences.
1. Learn everything you can about your child’s learning differences. My father always said, "The more you understand something the less you react to it." They talked with professionals, with teachers, at the Parent Association Meetings, and received extra discussion about any test results that I received, beginning in first grade. Because they understood so much about me with regard to my problems, they were much more comfortable and much less stressed about the behavior problems, the discouragement, the anxiety and my psychosomatic symptoms [please refer to my autobiography at the Weaver Center website]. They always believed that you move toward problems and take as much time as you can to understand them. They were more able to be kind and gentle with me even though I was a terror [more about that later also]. So parents, learn everything you can, from every source you can, and spend the time to dialogue with people that work with and know your child.
2. Believe in your child! My parents always believed in me even though I never did. While experiencing public failure daily, it is hard to convince a child that they will be successful. My parents always said, "You will be fine… It is just that school was difficult… Life will be less so…” I always heard this when I was crying, so hurt I could barely stand it, yelling and screaming about how stupid I was and how I hated everything. "I hope you will believe that you'll be fine someday, like we do." I remember times when my father and I would drive by a gas station and I would say that maybe I could work at the pumps. My father might say “I'm sure you would be good at it but you might be even better running the gas station.” When I worked on a go-cart and told him maybe I could build go-carts for people, he would respond that “maybe I would like teaching people how to build go-carts.” The expectations were never about doing better in school but taking the examples of my comments in increments to support his belief in me.
3. Focus on the efforts not the results. My parents had a unique approach to helping me with school. I so often failed in the classroom, felt so bad about it, hurt and embarrassed for sure, but mostly felt angry at others because of hating myself. They always said, "Grades and success at school are not that important to us. What is important is that you have a good attitude and work as hard as you can…that's what makes us proud." They often reminded me to volunteer for anything that a teacher might need or want. Clean the blackboard, straighten the chairs, and make blue paper copies (the old days of photocopying). Even though I wanted to always sit in the back of the class and hide as best I could, they always encouraged me to sit up front, which I hated but which teachers seem to like. They kept reinforcing that effort is everything. They knew that as long as I was applying the best effort I could, I was going to do the best I could at whatever schoolwork was required of me. They responded to success and failure the same. Success, that is good you can learn from that. Failure, that is good you can learn from that. One of the things I look back on now is that I did not need to hide all of my failures, or any successes that I had, which I thought might increase the expectations of me if I had any. I could always be open because my parents responded positively with both. I could take the risk of being open with them because I rarely felt the disappointment. I am not exactly sure how they did that but looking back, I can see how important that was to my future. So now, the message to parents is focus on efforts not so much the results.
4. Help your child learn to tell the truth, and understand they don’t have to protect themselves with a lie. I was mad, hurt, and most often in trouble. My parents were not punitive in the standard sense. Their response to all of my wrongdoings was to me "why did I do that?" Most often, I had no idea why. After I calmed down a bit, they would ask, “what do you think about it or what’s your best guess?” This was so hard, as I had preferred to just take a punishment and be done with it. They might ask me to think about it more and just say they were interested and to try to do the best I could to think about how what I did had happened. Because I did not know, I often said what came to mind, which was usually a lie because I was trying to protect myself and explain myself. They said the lying was understandable but it was not good because it would be hard for others to trust me. They encouraged me to think about possible reasons and that I did not need to cover up to protect myself. They were most proud of me when I guessed a possible answer that was a probable one. Interestingly enough, because they always supported telling the truth so well, I learned that protecting myself with a lie was not necessary. To this day I have never needed to lie, always accepted the consequences, have a healthy feeling that I am human and make mistakes, and do not need to feel the hurt of embarrassment for my actions, as I did so often when I was younger. So now, the message to you as parents is to understand that lies serve a purpose that may be understandable but is not very healthy. It is always best to be pleased and proud of the truth, providing your child with an encouraging environment where they will grow to feel that they don’t have to protect themselves with a lie.
5. Focus on the process of being supportive, understanding and taking the time to help your child learn a better way. My father was often working away from home. My parents always said that they agreed to talk with me about anything when they were together. I could talk with either of them anytime I wanted, of course, but often did not. When my father returned and my parents spoke with me, I always predicted it would be a lecture, which I hated. But actually it never was. Whatever the issues that I'd caused problems about with my sister, mother, school, neighbors etc., they both liked to talk with me even though my father and I did most of the speaking, because my mother tended to be less patient and more upset with me. For some reason I always remember them sitting back while they talked and listened. There seem to be no intimidation, and that always surprised me. Of course, they emphasized how my behavior might have affected others. It was clear to me that this is one of the more difficult things to understand at that age. My expression those days was "ready, shoot, aim" or "shoot shoot shoot, no ready, no aim". These of course are expressions of impulsivity, as I rarely thought of anything before I did it. Mostly medicine helps me these days to manage my impulsivity and attention. So my message to you as a parent is to try not to focus so much on the content, details, or even reality of the situation, but on the process of being supportive, understanding and taking the time necessary to help kids learn that what they are doing is understandable but there is a better way.
6. Notice what your child does well and be sure to let them know what they do well matters to you. My parents always conveyed to me that the things that I could do well were the most important things to them. I do not ever remember having conversations about school other than the pains that I had academically or socially, which were many. They noticed and appreciated that I like to build things, or at least tear them apart. They seem to love that. I had only one friend, and they thought that was great. I spent a lot of time climbing trees and building tree forts (as there was a tremendous amount of scrap wood in my growing neighborhood). I played sports rather poorly when I was younger but somehow they would find the best thing that I did and comment on my success, often using words like "it's amazing how you keep at it… It's really great that you keep going out there and taking it on" [another expression of resilience and persistence that we use so often today]. They talked about how strengths were the best path to the future, and even though they did not seem that important to me, it did to them. This led to the expression of our Center "No one is successful based on their weaknesses...the best way to success is knowing and using your strengths." We often do a strengths inventory with students, asking them to guess how many strengths they have. Often the answers are anywhere from 0 to 10. We then talk and together can usually list 40 to 60 strengths. It’s always very enlightening for kids to know how many strengths they have. Then we make the connection between these strengths to their success in the future.
7. Set clear, consistent limits. My parents set limits that were very clear. Anytime I was physical at home, it meant time spent in my room, and sometimes a lot of time when there was a second or third occurrence. When in trouble with the police, my father, unbeknownst to me, worked with the juvenile officer to have me spend a little time in juvenile hall. If I told a lie, rather than getting angry and punitive, they always discussed how disappointing that was for them. After all their support, disappointment was among the hardest things to hear. Setting limits and having boundaries is very important, but the most important part is to never be angry when you enforce them, if you can avoid it. Be clear and communicate directly (at the time if you can, or later when your child is calmer) why it's important to have clear and strong limits. What I have learned is that getting punishment through limits helped me develop coping strategies. Consistent limits are a really good and important tool to help your child adjust to life that sometimes seems very unfair to them. Then in turn that helps them learn how to adjust and move positively through their problems throughout their life.