Better or Bitter?

I’m not going to sugarcoat this., the last thirteen years have been a challenging journey on the whole. All too often I find myself saying … “If I had known then what I know now…. I wish I could turn back the clock…… Oh how different things would be.. Whilst I can’t change my personal nor my professional journey, I am very very grateful for the experiences I’ve had; well most of them. I do hope that if you are starting out with a child in his or her early schooling years that you can learn from my experience and the current research and evidenced based findings.

Like many of you, I can vividly remember my son’s first day of school. Super cute, excited as if there were no tomorrow. As for me? Well, of course, I was excited. At that stage, I was living in a bubble as a Mum and it was one that was about to be popped.

Why do I tell this story time and time again? Why do I find myself welling up with tears even though I have spoken these words so many times?

The difficulty is real. It is raw and it does not go away. In fact, my purpose for speaking up is because if I did have my time again knowing what I know now, things would be different, VERY different and I WANT that difference for YOU and your child. I want that difference for you as a classroom teacher or school leader.

Let me share with you now the journey that (if I could) I would wish for

At School entry:  I dream of a preschool visit where the teacher and principal speak to me about the fact that they don’t leave reading and writing to chance at their school. I would like assurance that they implement practices at their school that adhere to the Science of Reading and that they are well resourced with a range of resources and decodable as well as levelled texts to support the learning of my child and every child under their watch. I would hope that they would share with me that they will screen my son in phonological awareness and early sound to symbol and symbol to sound associations, as these are crucial foundation literacy skills. I would hope that they would share with me how they will teach him the areas in which he shows weakness and that I won’t receive a book home until he has the sounds needed to read the text. They go on to share that the books that come home will be decodable texts and that they won’t send this home until he is fluent at reading it. Actually reading it, not using picture cues or guessing. They speak of building a reading network in the brain. In the meantime, whilst his reading network is being explicitly developed, I will receive phonological awareness activities, letter cards to practice sounds, then some word cards or words lists, then short sentences or fluency passages and then books. Gosh, they seem very structured in their approach and I feel grateful.

That all sounds different to my experience as a child, as a parent and also as a teacher. I want as a parent to trust, due to the evidence they have shown me in their school entry and then 6 months at school and 1 year at school data, that progress is being carefully monitored.

Fast forward 6 months and I am back in the office of the junior team leader chatting with her and the classroom teacher. They share with me that they are concerned about my son’s rate of progress and they suspect that due to the fact that he is not responding (as fast as they would expect) to their systematic, explicit teaching approach he may need a more of this intensive approach. They have requested to meet with me to discuss the fact that he requires intensive intervention. They share with me that they believe in early intervention to preserve his self-esteem and to give him the best chance to develop crucial foundation skills in literacy as early as possible.

They go on to outline what this intervention will entail. It will be a steroid version of what he is currently receiving in the classroom. He will receive this in addition to the classroom instruction. They will send specific activities home for me to repeat to help build correct pathways in his brain. They want me to help him develop automaticity with sound to symbol (letter) association, and symbol (letter) to sound association, and they show me how to do this. It is straightforward, and I feel confident that I can do this and also communicate with them in regards to what I am noticing. I will be their ‘eyes at home’ and report back with regard to how he is responding. We have a notebook system in place. I feel grateful that they are leading the charge as they have the knowledge and expertise. I am a key crew member in this process.

Eighteen months down the track and there has been progress but it is slow. The junior team leader, classroom teacher and school SENCO (Special Education Needs Coordinator) have now shared with me that I may wish to seek a diagnosis as they suspect my son could be dyslexic. I am so grateful for their guidance, and also their ability to communicate with me so transparently, positively and with empathy.

At seven years old, a diagnosis of dyslexia is confirmed. We now have a deeper level of understanding; the key to helping us with why this is taking a bit longer. I partner with the school and together we bring in a consultant who hosts a collaborative meeting to build all of our understanding (further) as to what dyslexia is, and what it isn’t. We agree that my son needs more help than the school can provide and an external specialist is brought on board with everyone’s blessing. We discuss the importance of transparent communication, and the need to ensure we have an alignment between the various teaching sessions, so as to not undo the good work we are all doing. Our VILLAGE is FORMED. This gives me peace of mind that we are on the right track, and in fact that we have been since day one. My son needed more and this is ok. It will be a long and challenging road ahead. I accept that there is no quick fix, no one programme that we can purchase will be a silver bullet. I learn that everyday is crucial, and that working alongside the school and supporting them as they have supported me from day one, is going to ensure my child leaves school after thirteen years as literate, and as well (from a mental health perspective) as possible. Again, I am grateful.

Through the years I am grateful for the way teachers have passed on information regarding my child. They have in all cases asked to meet with me at the end of the school year, and introduced me to the following year’s teacher to ensure a smooth transition for my son. They have completed a handover verbally (thirty minutes) with me present, and given me the opportunity to add any detail, or to offer my support where I am able. This has seen us as a family enter our summer holidays with excitement about the next chapter of education, and the relationship we will have with the next teacher. As my child got older we made the decision to include him in these meetings in a bid to grow and develop his own advocacy skills. I began by advocating for him, then he learnt to advocate for himself with me present. Heading into secondary school the goal is for him to develop self advocacy skills and confidence.

Time flies by and before we know it it is time to transition to secondary school. What a great experience. Meeting the head of the Learning Enhancement Unit to discuss strengths, challenges, how we will work together, availability of assistive technology, and accessibility of special assessment conditions. To sit at the table with knowledgeable people who not only want to help, have a depth of knowledge, but also have the skills, resources, and wherewithal to do so, is something for which I am very grateful. Teachers across the curriculum seek to learn more about dyslexia and how they can best help, not only my child but others who present like this in schools. Whole school PLD in this area is offered.

Strong relationships are forged, quality communication occurs, and we continue together to build a literate and capable young man.

The village and all the people within it are so proud when NCEA Level 1 and Level 2 are achieved.

A happy, confident, grateful, resilient, determined young man is ready to leave school and to take on the world. What more could we have asked for. There remain challenges with language and literacy, and there likely always will be. BUT…. My son has the foundation skills he needs to afford him choice and opportunity, and for that I am (and I know he is) forever grateful.

It is important for me to note and celebrate that there are many aspects of the above that ring true and there are many that don’t. I hope that my story and my ‘wished for’ version will help pave the way for either your students, and or, your child.

Raising awareness of the journey of a parent (of) and or dyslexic child or struggling student is something we must commit to. I wish you all the best as you work hard to raise awareness, build a shared understanding, and to ensure that you are doing all you can to make a (evidence based) difference to every child, student and family with whom you have the privilege of working alongside.

Find your village, forge good relationships and build your knowledge. Education is all about learning and as adults we must model that. If you have the privilege of parenting a dyslexic child you have the choice to either get bitter or better. I chose to get better. There is one thing I can guarantee…If you too choose BETTER, this will develop your resilience, perseverance and an appreciation of people and education you never thought possible. X


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