The problem student – Schools and parents still struggle to educate students with learning disabilities

0014“I think the problem is her attitude.”
   “She needs to be held accountable.”
   “If she’d just try harder.”

    She is my daughter, Elizabeth. She has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and dyslexia. These statements have been made by me, my husband and school personnel, all (or at least mostly all) with the best of intentions.

    It’s complicated. Ensuring your child receives a free, fair and appropriate education is a challenge every parent faces. If your child falls outside of the mainstream in learning ability, it’s tough.

    Each school district’s response to struggling learners is different. When Special Education expert Rick LaVoie visits school districts across the country, he encounters “pockets of competence and pockets of incompetence.” Part of the problem, he says, is that “those in the medical field have medical journals to look to. We don’t have that in education. There’s no vehicle for getting the information out.”

    Lavoie is famous in his field for his film, “How Difficult Can This Be? The F.A.T. City Workshop.”
Having a problem rather than being a problem Systematic, multi-sensory learning systems such as the Orton-Gillingham Method developed more than 50 years ago can help the struggling reader. Changing the way the child is taught rather than the level of effort can make a huge impact. The struggling learner is often mislabeled as lazy.

    “It would be like telling a child with a severe hearing impairment that if he’d just listen harder he’d hear it,” says Jean Osman, a nationally recognized leader in the field of dyslexia and a co-founder of The Reading Center in Rochester.

     What is dyslexia? “Unexpected difficulties learning to read and spell,” says Osman. “It doesn’t have to do with intelligence, but it makes people feel unintelligent.”    

    According to, a website for Children and Adults with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD),
ADHD is a neurobiological disorder. It is characterized by developmentally inappropriate impulsivity, inattention and in
some cases, hyperactivity.

    Jennifer Beyst of  Learning Rx says that there are different types
of attention: selected, sustained and divided. “Selected means
being able to focus, sustained means being able to continue doing a task to completion and divided means being able to shift gears quickly or multitask.” Learning Rx offers brain training to those struggling with variety of learning disabilities using a systematic multisensory approach.

    “It is a physical problem that these kids have,” Lavoie says.
“It is not that the kid is a problem; rather, the kid has a problem.”

Elizabeth’s struggle

Elizabeth is charming and clever with a quick wit, bright eyes and an engaging personality. We thought she was being willful, stubborn and that she was simply not interested in reading, writing or responsibility.

    As much as we love her, we saw her as being a problem when it came to schoolwork. We drilled and demanded from dinnertime to bedtime five days a week during first and second grade. “Your writing has to be clearer. You can’t turn in sloppy work. If I were your teacher I’d mark it wrong because I wouldn’t know what you meant.”

    My daughter’s third grade teacher shared with me: “She turned red when I called on her to read out loud in class. She really struggled and she was fighting tears.” I felt sick. At that moment, it became clear that Elizabeth needed help I didn’t know how to provide.

    We requested her school do an assessment to determine what Elizabeth’s learning issues were. The school psychologist diagnosed her with ADHD. I asked about dyslexia. She said it was too early to tell. At that time, Elizabeth spelled the words “who” and “how” h-w-o and sometimes interchanged them when writing.

    Her spelling and reading problems persisted. When she was in fifth grade, after a conversation with her pediatrician, we had Elizabeth tested at the Mayo Clinic. “Elizabeth is significantly delayed in spelling and writing performance relative to her age, ability level and educational experience,” their report states. The findings pointed to dyslexia.

Falling through the cracks

When I read the book “Overcoming Dyslexia” by Sally Shaywitz, M.D., I learned that dyslexia can be diagnosed as early as preschool. “With any LD [learning disability] the earlier you can catch it the better,” said child psychologist Jennifer Fisher while being interviewed for a film on The Reading Center. When a learning disability such as dyslexia is left undiagnosed and untreated, Fisher said, “they [students] start to think they’re stupid.”

    Despite the diagnosis of dyslexia and ADHD, Elizabeth did not qualify for special education or an individualized education plan (IEP). She still struggled to spell words like “who” and “want.” To her father and me, it didn’t make sense.

    Public schools use the requirements mandated by the IDEA Act, not the DSM IV that psychologists use. In school, she wasn’t struggling enough, partly because in fifth grade her father and I helped with homework a lot.

    “We see the kids falling through the cracks,” said Jennifer Beyst of those who come to Learning Rx for help. “We’re strengthening short-term and long-term memory and processing speed … the brain is changeable. Why settle for helping people to just get by?”

Melissa McNallan is a freelance writer in Southeastern Minnesota.