My son, Joshua, winner of the 2012 Allegra Ford Scholarship, is the definition of a “hands-on learner.” His dyslexia, dysgraphia, and Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder caused him great frustration since his early school years, and despite his underlying ability and creativity, he struggled with traditional modes of learning. Throughout high school, Joshua excelled in hands-on learning and he now works part-time at an auto-body shop. I’m tremendously proud of – and close to – my wonderful son.
Now that Josh is on a successful path, I try to “pay it forward” by helping other parents of children with LD and AD/HD, because I know the pain parents suffer when they’re at the end of their ropes. I see the sadness in their eyes, the anguish and frustration in their expressions, wanting to help their children improve academically and to feel better about themselves.
Most of the parents I’ve coached are friends, neighbors, and others who have reached out to me. I initially became involved by simply listening to others who were struggling with same issues I experienced in raising and advocating for my son. I also followed up on questions and concerns parents expressed to me. By sharing my experience, strength, and hope, I discovered I was able to encourage and bond with others who shared the same concerns.
I’ve also led parents to the larger LD community that’s available to help us. Websites like LD.org and other resources provide the education and support we need to advocate for our children. Many parents need advice on how to advocate for their children and the importance of speaking up at IEP meetings. I caution them not be intimidated by the professionals who surround them at the table. I remind parents, “You know your child better than they do. Professionals come and go, but parents stay!”
Case in point: I first met Maria when her son Michael and my Josh were on the middle school football team. We often sat next to each other at games and carpooled the boys to practice. As we shared stories she eventually opened up to me about attending an IEP for her son for the first time. I was able to give Maria direction and we engaged in role-playing to rehearse the experience of participating in an IEP meeting. As a result, she was empowered to stand up to a group of professionals and be firm and assertive in her requests for accommodations that she thought Michael needed to get through his first year of high school.
Each child’s learning struggles are a little different, but there are some basic tips I like to share with all parents advocating for their kids:
Understand that your child's learning difficulties are not your fault. You are not a bad parent. Do what you must do to help your child regardless of what the critics have to say. Only you know what works to keep peace in your life and what ultimately helps your child. You will intuitively know which changes have the most impact.
Team up with the teacher. Contact your child's teachers weekly to check on upcoming assignments. Make sure you know what the teachers expect from your child. Remember that learning progress is based on a team effort between you and your child's teachers.
Be an informed parent advocate. Educate yourself about learning disabilities and executive function deficits and the strategies to help improve such deficits.
Praise or reward your child's good behavior and impose reasonable consequences for inappropriate behavior without obliterating his or her self-esteem.
Teach your child that skills like time management and tools like assistive technology are acceptable strategies to compensate for their deficits. Using these tools doesn't mean the child is "taking the easy way out."
Involve your child in the problem-solving process. Empower your child by giving him or her some choices. Treat your child with respect, listen to and address his or her concerns. If we pick our battles and let our children have power over certain things, they begin to realize their decisions matter and can lead to positive outcomes.
Address any coexisting problems your child has. Anxiety, depression, and sleep problems are not uncommon in children with learning and attention problems. Leaving these conditions untreated can compound a child's struggles.
Help your child find some joy in life each day. Maintain a sense of humor. Laugh, love, and share happy moments as much as possible. Create family traditions and satisfying social-emotional connections. Get involved in your child's life. Volunteer for school activities or committees. Give your child opportunities in which to shine!
What motivates me to continue coaching other parents is watching their children become more alive, less depressed, and more courageous about learning and life. Equally rewarding is seeing the pride parents display when they see their children achieving and developing self-esteem. The experience of embracing our kids with love and compassion, accepting them for who they are, and learning how help them in ways we never dreamed possible creates a special bond between me and the parents I help.