Where did my happy child go?

Until the age of 5, my son was a happy child. He delighted in the world and loved exploring it. His favorite activity was imaginative play . . . he concocted elaborate scenarios with himself at the center of the action. And what a vocabulary! He spoke like a little adult! Since a strong vocabulary is the greatest single measure of intelligence, we knew that he would soar academically once he got to school.

But at age 5, the stomach aches began. It became increasingly difficult to get him to school. When I tried to have him practice his letters at home, he became angry and resistant. My little boy, who had always delighted in stories, suddenly lost interest in any activity related to words.

This began to filter into the rest of his world. Always a happy, self-confident child, he became moody and teary. His delightfully sunny disposition had been replaced with one filled with fear and self-doubt. Where did my happy boy go?

Not long afterwards, his kindergarten teacher called me in. She was worried about the way he held his scissors (which I now know is related to motor planning.) She also said that he didn’t seem to be able to make the connection between letters and sounds.

My two older daughters had always excelled in school and I was certain that this was just a “boy thing.” With his exceptional vocabulary skills, I was sure he would come to love reading just as much as the rest of his family but at his own pace. His father holds a Ph.D. and I graduated summa cum laude. The die was cast, right?

Wrong. My son continued to struggle . . . in kindergarten! What in the world was wrong? He had the same kindergarten teacher that his two older sisters had, so that wasn’t the problem. Was he really so different from his peers?

As it turned out, the answer was yes and no. Most of the boys were soaring along, but one of his closest friends was struggling as well. One day I had the chance to talk with his friend’s mom. We had taken the boys to have lunch and play at a local fast food place, giving us a good chance to chat. I mentioned my concerns about my son, and she immediately began asking questions. Is he reluctant to go to school? Does he hate working with his letters? Is he resistant to pre-reading activities? Her questions were spot on!

I couldn’t believe how insightful she was . . . it was as if she had been a fly on the wall in my home as I tried to work with my son. How did she understand so much about what we were going through?

My friend began to talk with me about dyslexia. She told me that dyslexia has nothing to do with intelligence. In fact, many dyslexics are very bright. It doesn’t necessarily involve reversing letters, although reversals are fairly common with dyslexics. Sometimes it is accompanied with weak visual perceptual skills, so it is hard for children to cut or color with the lines. Dyslexics struggle with sound/symbol relationships and are reluctant to learn their letters. (This was starting to sound very familiar!)

Her older son had attended a special school for dyslexics, The Schenck School. She talked about the wonderful progress he had made as a result of the remediation he received at the School. And now she was about to send my son’s friend to the School as well because, as I was about to learn, dyslexia has a strong hereditary component. With one dyslexic in the family, there was an excellent chance that there would be more. She recommended that we schedule a complete psychoeducational evaluation so that we could learn exactly what was going on with my son.

I have to admit that when the results were in and we had a dyslexia diagnosis, we were pretty devastated. We were afraid that our son would never finish school and that he would struggle his entire life. We worried that he would never be successful in a career.

We went straight to The Schenck School where we learned that, with remediation, dyslexics can be very successful in life. We also learned that another benefit of remediation was the return of self-confidence. My son was fortunate enough to have a wonderful tutor for the remainder of his kindergarten year and went on to attend The Schenck School for first through third grades. His confidence returned, he became an excellent self-advocate and is now highly successful in his career in sales.

In my role as admissions director for The Schenck School, I hear this same story day in and day out from parents. Many tearful hours are spent in my little office as I console parents who fear for their dyslexic children’s futures. I share with them my own story about my little boy who had his struggles but became a happy, successful adult. I repeat the phrase I hear over and over again from our outplacing parents: “I have my child back!”

I have heard parents say they don’t want to label their children so they are reluctant to have testing done. They cling to the hope that their child will outgrow dyslexia, and that it is probably developmental. Dyslexia is not developmental. Your child will be dyslexic for life. But with remediation, he or she can lead a rich, productive, successful life.

If you are wondering whether your child is dyslexic, consider this list of “red flags for an emerging reading disorder.”

Preschoolers should be able to:

  • Produce rhyming words
  • Divide words into syllables
  • Divide sentences into words
  • Discriminate rhyming words
  • Delete roots, syllables, and phonemes
  • Substitute phonemes to form new words
  • Identify phonemes by their positions in words (beginning, middle and end)

Six-year olds should be able to:

  • Write words
  • Write sentences
  • Blend sounds together
  • Decode nonsense words
  • Segment words into syllables
  • Identify sounds and letters

Children in second – fifth grades should be able to:

  • Spell well
  • Have appropriate handwriting
  • Enjoy reading and writing
  • Have appropriate or strong written expression
  • Have appropriate or strong reading strategies
  • Recall sight words quickly without much repetition
  • Comprehend reading material on or above grade level
  • Read accurately: Decode words on or above grade level

If your child struggles with these age-appropriate skills, your next step is to call your local psychologist and set up a psychoeducational evaluation. Ask your pediatrician or school psychologist for recommendations.

Finally, if the diagnosis is dyslexia, get busy and obtain good remediation for your child. See my earlier blog post, “Your Child is Dyslexic: Now What?” for suggestions on how to proceed. Don’t despair if there is no special school for dyslexic remediation in your area, there are many other resources to help.

Enjoy your dyslexic child. Explore the world through his or her eyes. Dyslexic children’s brains are remarkable and they experience the world in different ways . . . they can be counted on to express extraordinarily complicated thoughts and arrive at solutions in unique and creative ways, often possessing higher order thinking skills. Have fun with your amazing child!

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