Parents Education Network presented its 4th Annual EdRev (Education Revolution) Event on Saturday, April 21st, 2012 at the San Francisco Giants Ballpark. It is amazing to me that no matter how much rain or fog we get during April, in San Francisco, somehow the sun comes out on EdRev day. A huge crowd, around 1,500 hundred (we await the final count) showed up to learn more about dyslexia and ADD. This blog focuses on the Keynote activities.
Up first was Safe Voices, a student community within PEN that strives to educate, mentor and support students, parents and teachers about the challenges and strengths of Learning Difficulties (LD) and Attention Deficit Disorder(ADHD) Through this program LD students discover that what they perceive as their greatest weakness, in fact, can become their greatest strength. A first step is learning how to speak up for what one needs and who one is.
At the Keynote, Safe Voices students were dotted amongst the crowd in the ballpark adjacent to first base. Each had a soap box and a microphone. Each spoke up for themselves sharing short phrases which have been instrumental in helping them change their attitudes about themselves. Phrases like:
- If you teach me 1,000 times and I don’t get it, who is the slow learner?
- Learning different students think outside the box. If they didn’t, what would the world would be like?
- We own our differences, we accept them.
- I am much more than my learning difference. The only thing that matters is: I am who I am.
- I get up on a box and am heard and am sparking a revolution in education.
- And, so it went.
Jonathan Mooney, a much respected dyslexic who has no trouble in speaking up for himself, took over as moderator. He posed questions to guest speakers, all successful dyslexics, who have found careers that take advantage of their ability to think outside the box. Joining Jonathan were:
Eric McGehearty CEO of Globe Runner SEO, a top-performing, Dallas-based SEO (Search Engine Optimization) and digital marketing firm. In an addition he’s an award-winning artist. Filmmaker Leah H. Bell, produced the documentary Access Denied about the intersection of Eric’s life, art and dyslexia. His told us: Nothing in school worked for me. In Grade One I had a teacher who didn’t get me. She shook me very hard. I was very shy, very scared to interact. In middle school I began being an advocate for myself and my life began to turn around. I had suicidal thoughts until being
connected to people who supported me.
Tracy Johnson, was not diagnosed with dyslexia until college age. Her story is notable a) for the many hurdles she had to overcome, b) for persevering and c) being willing to work harder than most college students do. She was recently featured in the HBO documentary, Journey into Dyslexia, Great Minds Think Differently. In grade school, Johnson was diagnosed as “learning disabled,” a label that stuck through high school and a failed try at community college. The education system broke down for her as the label didn’t identify her LD. Then, her self-esteem plummeted. Tracy realized she was dyslexic when she was cleaning classrooms for a living. Now, she is an enrollment advisor at Eastern University.
Steve Walker is a self-taught dyslexic, engineer and entrepreneur who founded and is now President & CEO of New England Wood Pellet LLC. A true visionary, Steve has been a leader in promotion of renewable energy policy for biomass thermal technologies at the state, national and international level. He, too, is featured in Journey into Dyslexia. Steve told us that if an ally had been around to help him when he went to school he would have been a doctor. Instead, he stared at the clock. When he had to write the letters on the yellow paper with lines he was stumped. In high school he couldn’t read the math questions. Instead he developed low self-esteem. To make matters worse his mother told him if he didn’t go to college he would work in the factory. Well, now, he owns factories and has ended up hiring people who gave him a rough time. Yes, he said, I had a lot of anger.
Each of these speakers and moderator have different backgrounds, but there are common threads in themes and solutions they see and some are outlined below.
- The education system needs to be re-engineered. The system is not serving more than 20% of its population. Dyslexics need to take the lead. We have to look at where does the education system break down? Teachers don’t know how much these 20% really know because their processes can’t give their LD students away to explain. Vocational training and all activities involving creativity needs to re-instated. The Special Ed’s focus of fixing a dyslexic’s shortcomings needs to flip to support what LD students can do best, refocusing on the positives. School must be the time to find out what you are good at. Innovation and creativity go hand in hand. LD students need to learn how to be a leader feeling capable of listening to different points of view. Remember there is no normal.
- Communication. Dyslexics have many different dimensions. Vision is how we see it, not what we see. Learning how to communicate ideas is what a dyslexic’s life wants to be about: communicating the vision, getting my team to go with me. This means dyslexics need to understand concepts to be successful. Communicating a vision is central to success. Dyslexics always want to grow as a person,
- Parents must assume an advocate role to support and care for their LD student. Listen and explore what the child really needs. Go from strength of your LD child. Don’t let the education process drive your decisions. Find a school where your child fits, where they can excel. Leave your ego at the door , which means let go thinking your child has to go to a fancy school. Your concern ought to be: how do I make my kid’s lifetime experience a positive one.
- Dyslexics are often artists, starters, builders, teachers. Finding a way to leverage these talents is the challenge not only for parents and teachers but also dyslexics. A successful artist who has dyslexia and who has a dream to help others may not always be successful as an administrator, which requires a lot of busy work. Dyslexics need to sell their team on what he or she needs. One goal is to get to the point where you have no fear of shouting out from the door: How do I spell this word? Dyslexics need to learn how to back off if someone is trying to make them be someone they aren’t.
- Leveraging growth after school. Taking what seems to be a menial job can open doors. a) Steve was working in a factory. The engineers were all struggling with how to solve a program. One night he had a great idea and stayed up all night solving their problem. That’s when he turned around. He started his own company at 18 – a lawn mower company. Tracy was cleaning school rooms to make a living. She kept thinking, there is something wrong here. I am as smart as some of these students. One night watching the Cosby Show, Tracy learned about dyslexia. The light went on, and she kept going. She re-iterates we need the right, light soil.
In early March, Dr. Michael Pastor PhD, MFT was a guest speaker at PEN. The title of his talk was Family Dynamics in Families with Children with Learning Differences. Dr. Pastor has worked with children, adolescents and families in his psychotherapy practice in San Francisco for over twenty years. In addition, he is currently Upper School Counselor at San Francisco Day School.
At the outset Dr. Pastor said that the goal for a parent with a child who has a learning difference is to ensure that through the child’s young and adolescent years he/she feels loved, accepted, safe and understood. (I, Ann, the blog writer) think probably the latter, being understood, is the biggest challenge. For the child and most often the parents don’t know why the child is struggling. I know this was my parents biggest dilemma when I was a child.)
When a child is struggling Dr. Pastor re-enforced the importance that parents find ways to have fun with their child even though it may not be easy. Why? You want him or her to remember holidays and trips – maybe simply going to the beach. You don’t want your child to simply remember the struggle. He quoted Jane M. Healy, PhD whose book Different Learners as a good source on this topic. Remember: the family we grow up in is the most important environment for a child.
He moved on to some basic considerations for parents:
- If your child is having problems, don’t be one of those parents who just thinks that things will get better on their own. In most cases this is not the truth.
- Parents get shocked at the complexity and expense of the solutions and often decide to let go the step of an evaluation. This is not helping your child. You may find yourself, like other parents have, that you feel relief when learning the results of the tests. Finally there is a way to improve the situation.
- Some parents find it hard to hear the results – that their child has problems. And, now they have more to handle which might include the recommendation of medications, or a tutor, or possibly a psychologist. All of this costs money.
- Some parents feel guilty feeling they should have addressed this issue earlier. They might also sense it’s genetic and feel guilt for having passed it on. Dr. Pastor pointed out that if these feelings are buried and not expressed they will leak out in other ways – anger, fear, even rage.
- Some parents feel a deep sense of disappointment. Their vision of their child being successful in the way they had outlined doesn’t now seem possible. It’s important to admit this feeling so it doesn’t become toxic.
- Parents need to develop a new level of dialogue with each other. If this skill is not in place the service of a therapist may be wise.
- One of the first decisions parents will need to make is who will take the leadership in obtaining for the child what is required. Most often it’s the wife. And, down the road, anger can build up within the wife for carrying this load. And, it’s not uncommon that the dad’s point of view becomes: “If the child only tried harder.”Remember while parents may be disappointed, it is the child who has to deal with the learning challenge. The parents need to find a way to convince the child that they “aren’t lesser than”, especially in context of their peers. One of the new phraseologies “learning differences” can take the heat off the topic and an explanation that some people have different kinds of brains can give the child something to express to both themselves and others. Remember. the conditions of anxiety, depression and low self esteem are more prevalent with children with learning disabilities. Learning challenged kids come to expect that they will fail (That certainly was my expectation with French which being Canadian I had to take through school and university). So, there are both the neurological and psychological issues to handle with the child.
- Parents need to find a way to help the child not decide that life consists only of being forced to do what you don’t want to do.
- If there are siblings, they often find the learning challenged sibling a pain. The sibling deals with it by being a good child but harbors secret resentments.
- And, the learning challenged child will be jealous of the sibling because they seem to have a much easier life. Remember, children are like sponges, they absorb everything. They pick up what parents are believing and how they are behaving. One caution: Dr. Pastor recommends that you don’t tell the sibling not to tell others. That will backfire in ways unexpected.
- When things don’t make sense, parents look for help and discover that the process of identifying professionals is not easy. The person(s) chosen need to fit both the parent’s and the child’s requirements.
- Parents begin to see that they have to choose when to be firm and when to let an issue go. Sometimes letting it go makes sense because, above all else, you want to preserve your relationship with your child. While you are making the decision the parent needs to assess: is this behavior something unusual? If yes, letting go might make sense. The result could be the child might feel: finally my parent gets me. The fall out with siblings in that situation is resentment. The child with the learning difference gets more attention. The core solution in a family is good communication within the family. Each person listens to each other. Then, when a reaction happens it is more easy to talk to the child.
- Remember, Dr. Pastor cautioned, you can only talk to a child at their developmental level. If the child is three and misbehaving, you might say:
“I am going to try to help you stay out of being sent to your room” and then give them an explanation waiting to see what they have to say. Often the child feels better simply because “mummy” listens to me. Another suggestion Dr. Pastor gave was to say to the child: ” I need time to think over what you are asking.” However, the parent needs to respond not too much later or resentment will build up. Whatever decision you take the sibling will think it’s unfair. If this happens, be sure to talk to the sibling about it. And the reason is: the sibling might think your avoidance means there is something really wrong. They will hear “this is so bad it can’t be talked about.” And, it may have some truth for the parents because they are so ashamed which then means that the parents have a challenge of working out this shame between themselves.
In summary, Dr. Pastor feels the behaviors of the learning challenged child and siblings all starts with the parents behaviors. He stated that there are nearly twice as many divorces in families who have children with learning differences. He cautions: The parents are adults and have to adjust to their children. There is no question that raising healthy children is difficult. Some come out of the womb energetic and hyperactive, while others are quiet. It’s a matter of the parents adjusting to whatever is.