Why Public Schools Struggle to Help Kids with Dyslexia
Many parents expect public schools to provide their dyslexic children with timely evaluation and therapy, and these parents often delay getting their kids the help they need until the school acts. Unfortunately, this “wait and hope” approach is rarely effective and has a costly impact on children.
Challenges Parents Encounter to Diagnose their Children at Public Schools
- Navigating the public school bureaucracy to secure special attention often takes months or years. Meanwhile, children are falling further behind during the critical early-education period.
- Most schools are understaffed and ill-equipped to administer a complete language processing evaluation.
- Even if you are able to get your child designated for special education, he or she will typically be taught in a group of children with widely ranging learning challenges, making targeted and specific treatment for dyslexia unlikely.
Every week scores of confused parents call us to discuss how to help their children who are struggling readers and writers. Many of them wonder, “It seems like my child’s school should help him overcome his reading and writing problems. Can’t I just ask them to test him?”
While this seems like an entirely reasonable approach, it just does not work very well in the real world of today’s public schools. In short, your child’s public school is very unlikely to provide the testing or treatment that your bright, dyslexic child needs—no matter how long you wait.
Why Schools Act Slowly—Or Not At All
- Public school teachers, principals, and staff are well-intentioned, but the system is broken. Most schools don’t have the resources to diagnose and treat dyslexics. Waiting for the school to test and treat your dyslexic child is a “race to the bottom” and an enormous disservice to your language-challenged child.
- If a teacher notices that your child is having difficulty, the teacher might just say that kids develop at different rates and yours will “catch up.”
- The school might tell you that your child will be tested in the 3rd grade, so you should just wait until then.
The Risk of Delaying Evaluation and Treatment for your Child
- By the time your child is far enough behind to qualify for a public school evaluation, you have a bigger problem on your hands. What was a manageable academic challenge for your 1st grader can turn into a significant emotional and social problem by the 3rd grade. You are likely to hear your child say things like, “I’m never going to get this,” “All my friends read better than I do,” “I hate this,” “School is not for me,” “I’m stupid.”
- Children with dyslexia do not “catch up” without specialized and explicit instruction. Such children don’t “just need a little extra practice” or a tutor; they need a specific type of teaching designed for the unique learning patterns of the dyslexic brain. (This is known as the Orton-Gillingham method.)
- Smart dyslexic students often treat every word as a sight word and memorize it, instead of using the word’s structure to decode and understand it. School reading assessments are unlikely to pick this up. Later, when these bright dyslexics are in middle and high school with dramatically increased reading and note-taking demands, this memorization strategy will fail them.
- While you are hoping for dyslexia help from the school, your child is losing ground—falling behind with reading and writing skills that are fundamental to all learning. As the American Federation of Teachers explains in “Waiting Rarely Works: Late Bloomers Usually Just Wilt,” among children who do not get help outside of school “there is nearly a 90 percent chance that a poor reader in first grade will remain a poor reader.”
Common Limitations of School Evaluations
- The instruments schools and school psychologists most often use to determine eligibility for special education seldom if ever give a diagnosis. Yet, only with a clear diagnosis can you create a roadmap to academic success for your dyslexic student.
- The psychoeducational evaluation that schools provide looks at IQ and academic achievement to determine if there is a gap between the two. That gap is defined as a “learning disability.” This evaluation will not tell you what’s wrong nor will it suggest what treatment will work best for your child’s individual problem.
- Intelligent students with dyslexia often test like typically developing readers in the early grades. They can get to third or fourth grade, still testing in the broad average range on psychoeducational measures, yet struggling mightily with basic language processing skills necessary for upper-level literacy. They may never qualify for public school services because their psychoeducational testing scores don’t show the arbitrary “gap.”
Common Limitations of School Intervention and Therapy
- Your child may be offered special education. Special education typically takes place in a group that is made up of children with conditions as different as dyslexia and brain injury, all taught with the same methods, regardless of the cause of their difficulty.
- Group teaching (including special education) is less effective than individual therapy since both explanation and practice must be adapted to each child’s level.
The Proactive Alternative to the “Wait & Hope” Approach
- Your dyslexic child needs the attention of a professional to pinpoint and treat the root causes of his/her reading, writing, and spelling difficulties. Professionals who are qualified to identify dyslexia include specially trained psychologists, speech-language pathologists, and clinical educators. Unfortunately, the goal of public school psychoeducational testing procedures is eligibility for tax-funded services, not diagnosis or treatment planning.
- It is rewarding to see how dyslexic children thrive and excel once they are properly identified and offered effective individualized treatment. The child who “hated” reading is now reading beyond her grade level; the child who refused to do homework is now eager to write reports. Have a look at what parents say about their child’s experience.
Sandie Barrie Blackley, MA/CCC
MA/CCC - Cofounder and CKO
Sandie is a speech-language pathologist with more than 30 years of experience in the private practice sector. She is Visiting Assistant Professor of Communication Sciences & Disorders at University of North Carolina Greensboro, and founder/owner of the Language & Learning Clinic, PLLC, a private practice in Elkin, NC, and Greensboro, NC, specializing in communication disorders, including disorders of reading and written language.