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Dyslexia and Homework Wars
Q: My nine-year-old granddaughter has been diagnosed with a mild dyslexic condition and is really causing a major uproar when it's time for homework. We know it's difficult for her to read, but she becomes very upset if she has to be helped to repeat a word. It's become such a problem over the last three years that my daughter is ready to just stop trying to push her to keep up with her classmates and just let her fail. Is it better to push on a daily basis and ignore the outbursts, or let her bear the consequences of her own failure to finish homework?
A: Successful adults with learning disabilities (of which dyslexia is a type) will tell you that they are successful either because they had an incredible amount of drive, or that they had somebody in their lives who "pushed" them. They might use the word encourage instead of push, or they may say that they had someone who served as a coach or a mentor, but they often identify someone who took on the responsibility of helping them keep on track even when the going got rough. Successful teenagers with LD often talk about some adult (sometimes a teacher or a tutor or a parent or grandparent) who was able to weather their tantrums or outbursts and get them back into books.
They will tell you that these outbursts were a way for them express their frustration or sometimes, a way to just to get out of reading for a while. Sometimes the outbursts and arguments came out of their sense of shame or embarrassment for not being able to read as well as they wanted to, or as well as they thought others (especially their parents) expected them to. Not many kids want to show their parents how poorly they can do night after night, even if the parents are the most understanding people in the world! I often encourage parents who are having chronic battles with their children to find somebody else to play the role of "pusher." This allows parents and kids to do things together that focus on the child's positive traits, while someone else keeps the pressure on when it comes to reading. The other person can be a grandparent (looks like you might be a candidate for this job!) or it may be a teacher who works with a child after school. It can also be a paid tutor or a volunteer high school student or a college student who is preparing to become a teacher.
Your daughter needs to let your granddaughter know that she believes in her and knows that she will do better in time with the right kind of help. Mom just might not be the right person right now. Someone also has to help this nine-year-old understand that she is having difficulty reading because of the dyslexia, and not because she isn't smart. Her teachers, who work with her every day, are in a good position to send this message. It will also help if your granddaughter's teachers hold her accountable for getting her homework done. If she knows she is going to have to miss a part of recess or have to stay after school to get it done, this might help keep her on task. Teachers also have to give her a reasonable amount and type of homework.
At any rate, giving up or giving in is not the answer if you want this little girl to be among the ranks of successful adults with dyslexia. You might want to have your granddaughter take a look at a videotape prepared by the Learning Disabilities Association of Massachusetts called "Einstein and Me: Talking to Kids about Learning Disabilities." It shows students of various ages talking about what it's like to have a learning disability. It might help her understand that she's not alone in this, and that there is hope for kids who have difficulty learning to read.
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Jerome (Jerry) Schultz is the founding clinical director of the Learning Lab @ Lesley University, a program that provides assessment, tutoring, and case management services for children with learning challenges. Schultz holds a Ph.D. from Boston College, and has completed postdoctoral fellowships in both clinical psychology and pediatric neuropsychology.