Last summer, I got a letter from our soon-to-be ten-year-old daughter from sleep-away camp. It was six sentences long and about fifty words. A few were misspelled and some punctuation was missing, but it was perfect. At least to me.
Three years ago, I realized that our younger daughter was not reading and writing at her grade level. She was not progressing from reading “sight” words to simple short sentences, and often did not recognize words and sounds that she had seen repeatedly. Imagine if the suffix “ing” seemed new every time you saw it. As things began to “move too fast” at school, as she described it, she would beg to stay home from school and even make herself sick on occasion. Homework, which she felt she could never do right was an unpleasant activity for everyone, often involving tears and tantrums. My husband and I had her tested and much to our surprise, our smart, articulate and very verbal darling was dyslexic. Dyslexia is a learning disability that affects between 15-20% of the population. Someone that has dyslexia has difficulty reading or interpreting words, letters, and other symbols.
After talking extensively with the neuropsychologist who had tested our daughter and her second grade teacher, we realized that we had two decisions to make. The first was pragmatic: how would we approach her education moving forward? Would we look for a new school, use resources available at her current school, or supplement with the sea of experts we soon learned are available to coach and teach? The second decision was more philosophical: would we re-set or change our expectations of our daughter, knowing that the road to academic success would be harder for her?
Answering the second question was easier than the first, or perhaps I should say, the answer to the second question informed our approach to our daughter’s education. Nope, expectations were not changing. Both our children were going to be hard workers, and neither one was going to get a hall pass on putting in the time and effort to be their best. However, telling our daughter to work hard was not going to cut it. We needed a plan to provide her with an education that would teach her very able brain how to decode letters and sounds, and a way to restore some of the confidence she had lost by struggling at school.
I’d like to jump to the end and tell you what I have learned over the last three years: Sometimes, trial and error is the only way you are going to figure out how to be the best parent you can be for child with special needs – or any child for that matter. And the error part will feel awful because you are supposed to be the fixer and you failed. But, I’ve learned that you can get it wrong, fix it, and that child will probably, hopefully, call-me-in-a-few-years-and-I’ll-tell-you-then, love you, and most importantly, be okay.
So, we worked with the school and came up with a plan. Euphemistically, it sucked, and I thought I was the worst mother ever. It wasn’t “call-children’s-services” bad, but it made our daughter even more miserable and frustrated by school. To receive additional services, our daughter had to leave the classroom four times a week. She felt singled out and missed all her favorite periods, such as art. Worst of all, she thought she was stupid. There were tears. Big, heavy, massive tears. Hers and mine. We all dreaded school.
The next year, we talked with her teacher about other options, and we changed it up. We put our daughter in a co-teaching classroom where one teacher is a general education teacher, and the other is trained special educator. Based on the neuropsych evaluation, we requested and received approval for a para-professional. In this case, the para-professional was an education grad student who worked with our daughter, and a few other students, on reading and writing, inside the classroom. Using a recommendation from the neuropsychologist, we found a tutor outside the school who “got” the whole child. She knows the science of teaching dyslexic children to recognize the different sound and letter combinations that make up the English language; and potentially of equal importance, she knows all the ways a struggling child will avoid learning when to change a “y” to an “i” when conjugating a verb. Our tutor has a deep arsenal of tactics to keep these expert diversion-ists focused. Outside of school, we found a small theater program where our daughter could showcase her enthusiasm and personality in a nurturing and creative environment, and be excellent beyond academics.
It was not perfect, but it was better, much better. Last year, after meeting with her teachers, we changed things up again in response to the progress our daughter had made. I recently created her fifth grade “education plan” that has been refined to her current needs and abilities. We still see the dyslexia whisperer, but one day, that may not be needed.
Middle school is barreling towards us, and will require us, once again, to assess different options and make choices about the type of school and classroom. We’ve learned a lot about dyslexia since our first go-round. We are no longer panicked and can make more informed decisions. Or not.
I’ve made other decisions as a mother that I have regretted, such as serving chocolate ice cream too close to bedtime. But after learning my daughter was dyslexic, I made thoughtful choices, ones that were well intended and well-researched, but ultimately flawed. At the time, I was uncertain how I could or would make things better. Hadn’t I tried my best already? Yet, through the fierceness and determination that is the backbone of parenthood, and with the guidance of caring and experienced professionals, it was undone. Fast forward and now my daughter reads above grade level, a reflection of all her hard work and determination, and most importantly, she sent us this wonderful letter last summer with fifty thoughtful, clear words, including the following perfectly written nine: “Mamma, I love you more than you love me.” As if.
Andrea Fuhr Saporito ‘96 graduated Cornell from the School of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Since then, she has worked in advertising and marketing, with a brief pit stop at Columbia Business School ’03 for her MBA. Andrea held various marketing roles at American Express for over a decade, and is now consulting at the NBA. Andrea resides in her hometown of Brooklyn, NY with her husband, Alex Saporito ’97, and her two daughters who were thrilled to have their musical request granted at a bell tower concert last fall.