Mother’s Day 2017

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Our children take us places we can’t envision when they are a bundle of cells commingling with our own. When we feel them kick inside of us for the first time, we think only of the wonder of life, so … Continue reading

The Art of Radical Acceptance

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Radical acceptance is the psychological term for learning to live with sorrow we cannot change. It’s not a new concept, and it’s only slightly less trite, perhaps, than the famous 1970s prayer asking for the courage to change that which … Continue reading

The Face of Institutional Racism

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The other day, my high school freshman son had a lacrosse game for school. My white son goes to an independent college preparatory school that prides itself on its diversity. As a result, his team is made up of kids from various racial, socioeconomic, and cultural groups. There are about 65 students per class. It’s not a school known for its athletic titles, but it has a few. They played a large (about 425 students per class) suburban school that is predominantly white. Despite the fact that our opponents had more than twice the number of players on their team, I didn’t see a single kid who didn’t appear to be white. They beat us by a score of, I think, 16 to three. I really wasn’t keeping track of that, I was just watching to make sure my kid didn’t get hit in the head and no one notice it.

After the game when my son got in the car, the first thing he told me about the game was that some of the opposing players had taunted his black teammates with racial slurs. One boy, in particular, they targeted with insults because he is very tall and muscular for a junior. I had heard some of the other team’s parents complaining that this boy played too roughly and that the referees needed to “do something” about him. I didn’t notice him playing all that aggressively, but he has a tremendous reach because of his size and he wasn’t letting anyone intimidate him into not using that size. It’s lacrosse, after all, a fairly rough sport. But when my son told me what had gone on during the game, I understood why the boy was so determined not to let anyone intimidate him.

This kid is really nice kid. He’s also a super smart kid who is going to have his pick of Ivy League level schools. But despite his qualifications of character and athleticism, he was made a target by some jealous kids because of his race. And then parents from that team singled him out for his play even though it wasn’t anything the refs were willing to even call.

I asked my son if the refs had heard these slurs. He said no, he didn’t think so. It’s not the first time I’ve seen something like this. My oldest played hockey with a kid of Pakistani descent who sometimes had racial slurs hurled at him. There are strict league rules about it. In one instance, my son, who was never a fighter, had stepped between his teammate and the kid targeting him. The refs then got involved and, I believe, threw the kid out of the game and suspended him. I trusted the system to take care of it.

I think most of us, in general about everything, trust the system to take care of problems of racial, gender, disability, and other forms of discrimination. But what has come to light in the news in recent years and sparked the Black Lives Matter campaign is the fact that our trust is often misplaced. Too often the system does not address the problem, and, in fact, is part of the problem. I thought about this yesterday and I became increasingly concerned that the boys on that field from my son’s school would see another instance where the adults they trust would trust a system that ultimately might fail to do its job.

I talked to one of my son’s coaches today. They were aware of the issue at the time, this coach had himself heard at least one slur. They had yelled to the refs that it was going on, but the refs said they hadn’t heard it. So, after the game, they lodged formal complaints with the other school’s athletic director and the league. They talked with our boys. I don’t know what the league will do, but I am hoping they will have an investigation and take action. The athletic director of the other school apologized on behalf of his students and has promised to take action. I worry that not much will come of all this, or at least not enough. Because the discrimination against our players was demeaning and wrong. It was demeaning and wrong for our targeted players in particular, and it was demeaning and wrong to every boy on our team. It was offensive to every boy on our team. But it matters that the process is there. It matters that the system is being used by my son’s coaches and that they will do their best to hold the kids who used these racial slurs accountable. It matters that my son and his teammates know that there are adults trying to fulfill a promise of a world in which we judge people by their characters rather than by their race or gender or sexual orientation or any other criteria used to marginalize human beings. It matters that every kid from every race on my son’s team knows that the system is going to be used to protect them and their classmates, teammates, and friends from discrimination, for every type of discrimination suffered, but especially for racial discrimination because it is so prevalent. And, most of all, it matters that we all start paying attention to whether the system is held accountable to work as it’s supposed to do.

Following Your Heart for Your Learning Disabled Child

My son was in kindergarten when my heart first told me something was wrong. I started asking questions. I was told he was completely normal. My heart kept telling me something was wrong. I kept asking questions. And the road I was on suddenly diverged into two distinct paths. Those who cared enough to help me and those who didn’t.
I bounced around between these two paths, trying to find my way, trying to know whom to trust, whom to seek out for help, whom to follow. The harder I tried to do the right thing, and follow the right path, the more I stumbled and fell.
When my son was in seventh grade, he crashed, emotionally and academically. I stumbled along and reached out to another diagnostic agency. I sat in the office of Watson Institute in my son’s evaluation interview and, with tears in my eyes, I told them that if they didn’t help me, I was going to lose my child either to suicide or to his ever-increasing risky behaviors. They listened. And they helped. They diagnosed him with uncommon disability issues that finally made sense for his difficulties. They recommended a cognitive behavioral therapist to treat his depression “from not being properly accommodated” at school.
At the same time that we started therapy with a good therapist who cared, I met the woman who handles disability issues at my local school district’s high school. I had no reason to trust her because I had had my son tested through the school district when he was in first grade and had been lied to about his test results. I had been told he had no disability, despite the fact that he qualified under our county intermediary standards. But she seemed to care about her job and I was desperate for information. I started asking questions. She helped.
Slowly my son’s school began to realize what he needed at the same time I began to understand what I could ask for. I began to have hope. I began to believe.
The problem, though, with believing when you are the parent of an LD kid is that you aren’t the one that has to believe. Your child has to believe, too.
My son has never learned to believe. I have thought, during the last two years, that there were times when believing was within his grasp. He finally has all the tools available for him to have a real chance to level the playing field, but he still can’t find his way onto the path I plowed for him. He is an angry, desperately unhappy, floundering mess and I am helpless at this point to influence him. He may someday get it together, but it will be too late for his best opportunities. He may also never get it together, and that possibility is just a little too much for me to bear.
I’m sharing this because I want other parents of LD kids to know that you have to keep testing your child until the answer you get makes sense. You have to keep asking questions until you understand what your child is entitled to. And then you have to demand what he is entitled to, no matter how many people try to keep your child from getting the help he needs. You have to keep advocating for your child every day, no matter how emotionally exhausting it is. But just as important, you have to win these battles before it’s too late. Before your child is in middle school and is too ashamed of what his peers will think of him if he asks for help. Before your child doesn’t believe you when you say there is always a compensation, we just have to find it. Before your child wanders into adolescence alone and afraid and not believing in himself. The path to finding out what is wrong can be long and challenging. But don’t let anyone tell you it isn’t a race, because it is. It’s a race you have to run every day from the moment your heart tells you that something is wrong. And, most importantly, it’s a race you have to win at any cost.
For help with LD issues, please contact the National Center for Learning Disabilities and your local bar association (they can direct you to legal help regarding your child’s rights at school).

Playing Like a Girl

My daughter plays hockey. She loves it. She especially loves to play goalie, although she also likes to play forward. She’s a pretty good little goalie, too. Good enough that, when a boys’ peewee team from her organization needed a goalie, they recruited her, even though they had a boy goalie willing to play.

To be fair, it isn’t just a boys’ team. There are three other girls on it. There are really two types of teams through high school: coed and girls only. Girls only hockey exists because, ultimately, the girls are forced out of the coed teams because of the brutality of the checking. Most girls are not physically willing or able to play coed hockey at the bantam level (13-14 years old) and above because that’s when checking kicks in. So even though it may technically be a coed team, most parents of hockey playing kids, including myself, refer to these coed teams as boys’ teams.

I was worried about my girl playing on a boys’ team this year. I was worried because I have seen boys’ teams who did not treat their girl players very well. I have seen boys target girls on the opposing team. I have even known of parents encouraging their boys to “go after” girls on the opposing team. Moreover, because my daughter is a goalie, I worry about boys who might shoot high on her trying to hit her in the head to intimidate her. Or just plain hurt her. Some people in hockey call that “buzzing the tower.”

So every time my daughter goes out on the ice, I wonder what I should say to her (besides “protect your head at all costs.”) The first game she played this year against another coed team, I made her tuck her pony tail into her jersey. “Don’t make it obvious,” I told her. Maybe I’ve been around the military too long, but I still remember the signs in a recruiting station in Dorchester, England, that my husband and I saw when we were there in 1995: “Travel inconspicuously” and “Don’t let anyone know you are a Royal Marine.” The Brits were well versed in avoiding terrorism long before we caught on, thanks to the I.R.A. When my husband deployed to Iraq, he drilled force protection into me. Tell no one who doesn’t need to know that you have a weakness.

My daughter is navigating a man’s world. She is worth 77 cents to every dollar her brothers can make. She will go to college in the wake of shocking revelations about the pervasiveness of sexual assault on our university campuses, so much so that the federal government has stepped in. She will walk down the street and get cat-called and no man who watches it will stand up for her. She will know to never walk alone at night, no matter what. She will know to never accept a drink from someone she doesn’t trust, literally, with her life. She will know to always vet the boys who want to be part of her life before she trusts them. She will know that she needs to be able to support herself, and her children, in the event she chooses unwisely. She will know that she will always have to do more, work harder, and be braver than any man in her life.

But she will also know that she is an advocate. For herself and for every other woman who doesn’t have a voice, or who allows her voice to be silenced or subjugated to the policies of people who try to make her a second class citizen. She will know that she should be proud to be a woman, in every sense of the word, because women are mothers and leaders and teachers and givers. She will know that she descends from suffragists and scholars and artists and free thinkers. And she will know that she must conduct herself in a way that lifts up women everywhere and inspires the girls who come after her.
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So when my daughter went out on the ice this weekend with her team at a tournament in Cleveland, with her pony tail hanging down the outside of her jersey, I had only one piece of advice for her. I told her to play like a girl.

 

My Top Six Tips for Motivating a Child with LDs

First,let me preface this list by saying that it is not scientifically based. I am not forming this list from a series of studies, or even one study. Rather it is based on my own experience raising two LD kids and being LD myself. I have in no way reached a guaranteed, 100% success rate with motivating my boys, and this continues to be a learning process for me. But I have found certain things to be indispensable, and here they are:

1. Understand that your child has a built-in shut down defense mechanism for when the going gets tough. I cannot stress the importance of this enough, it is the one piece of information that is simply indispensable to raising a child with LD. When you are frustrated because you see your child giving up too soon, or throwing out answers to your questions without even processing your questions, or dropping his pencil in disgust while telling you it’s not important whether he completes his homework, this is a defense mechanism. Even when your child knows the answer, he may shut down because it simply feels so overwhelming to them to keep moving forward. This is particularly difficult to work through as a parent because your child is shutting down instinctively, not because he’s given his situation considered thought and he believes shutting down is the best solution. He may not even realize he does this.

2. Use this understanding to gently but firmly walk your child through the shut down process to reach the other side, which is successful completion of his or her homework. This may take more fortitude than you ever believed you had, but if you react negatively, it will only fuel your child’s defense mechanism to shut down. Tutors are a great way to alleviate some of the tension between you and your child if you can afford it and can find someone you feel is qualified. If you cannot access a tutor, take a break for a few minutes. Change your child’s focus and help her relax by thinking about something she enjoys. When the break is over, offer positive feedback by reminding her that you understand this is difficult but that anything is possible with a little patience and perseverance. As the Brits say, keep calm and carry on.

3. Be willing to hold your child accountable if they aren’t willing to do the hard work. I know, this sounds contradictory to number 2. But all kids are lazy sometimes, and for kids with LD, there is even more incentive to be lazy because they have to work so much harder than other kids do. Sometimes when your child tells you that other people make fun of him, or when he says he can’t do something, you just have to give some tough love. Use your inner parenting thermometer to judge when to indulge them with nurturing patience and when to say “I know it’s tough, but we’ve entered a no excuses zone….” Arm yourself with anecdotes about successful people who have overcome LD to hold up as role models to your child. You can find these lists on many websites including or by searching for celebrities/politicians/business people/etc. with learning disabilities through a search engine.

4. Don’t forget to praise your child, and that praise includes letting them know that you understand how much harder they had to work for their success than non-LD kids. Your child knows he’s different. He sees it every day in the classroom as he watches his peers. His peers probably know he is different, despite your child’s best efforts to hide his differences. He knows he has to work harder. Acknowledging this difference is part of the process to show your child that being LD is okay. Failing to acknowledge your child’s efforts won’t insulate him from the knowledge that he is different. It will only make him think that being different is bad because you don’t talk about it.

5. Be consistent and honest. Sometimes your child with LD will be really, really angry with you for making her do the hard work. Remember that she needs somewhere to release all the anger and frustration of dealing with her challenges, and you are the safe place for that. You are the person who will still love her no matter how much she acts out those frustrations. It is the most painful part of being the parent of an LD kid, with the exception of seeing them sometimes not reach their potential because of their LD. You may need to give her some space to pout or scream, but when she’s in a calmer place, talk to her rationally. Be honest about her disability. Ask questions about how it makes her feel if she’ll talk about it. But let her know that your expectations are still high and that you believe she can achieve them. And stick to your guns when it comes to requiring them to work with the support you have in place, whether that is extra time with their teachers, meeting with tutors, taking summer classes, etc.

6. Understand that most specific LDs and behavioral disabilities come with developmental delays. For example, my son with a profound global executive functioning disability is developmentally delayed in several areas of maturity. Most boys will begin to understand in ninth grade that their performance in high school is important enough that they will begin to buckle down to maximize achievement and by the end of tenth grade, as one of my son’s teachers told me, “the maturity fairy has come.” But as I have been advised by a special education director, for LD kids, this realization is often delayed and may not kick in until eleventh grade or beyond. As a parent, there is nothing more frustrating than seeing your child, capable of so much more, unable to maximize success because he just doesn’t have the maturity yet to apply himself regularly and thoroughly. You can support your child with the tools of LD support (educational plans, teacher involvement, tutors, assistive technologies, etc.) but you cannot make your child understand a developmental concept that his brain is not physically ready to understand.

These are my top tips for dealing with the motivational aspects of LD. You may find it helpful to tie your child’s efforts to rewards, but not all children are well motivated by reward systems. Give your child options to control their development when you can (you can take this class or you can meet with a tutor one-on-one over the summer; or you can let me help you study your vocabulary or you can meet with your teacher at such and such time, etc.) Experience is a great teacher and you never know who might have the perfect solution for your situation in their toolbox. Don’t be afraid to seek professional help through a cognitive behavioral specialist (licensed psychologists who understand LD issues) or from an organizational “coach.” Every state has an office of support for parents of LD children, funded through the Americans with Disabilities Act, that you can access to get information on these types of services, or you can check with the National Center for Learning Disabilities.

What are your top tips for increasing motivation in an LD child?

Dyslexia Support

It’s difficult to offer concrete help for children with dyslexia in a forum such as this because Dyslexia itself is a broad spectrum term encompassing any reading learning disorder. We commonly think of dyslexia as a problem where the brain reverses the images of letters and numbers, but dyslexia is much more complicated. Dyslexics struggle to read for many different reasons, all involving how the brain processes written language. Many dyslexic people struggle with phonetic comprehension, reading comprehension issues such as inference (what a sentence is implying rather than stating outright), and word identification (especially with sight words such as conjunctions).
One type of assistive technology that is generally recommended for people with dyslexia is audiobooks. When my son was first diagnosed with dyslexia five years ago, his diagnostic provider suggested that I have him listen to books on CDs. I tried this, but it was difficult to get CDs for the books he wanted to read and if I bought them from a bookstore they were very expensive. In addition, the readers of commercially produced audiobooks speak at a steady pace for someone who is listening, but at a pace too fast for a child trying to visually engage with the text at the same time. My son just couldn’t keep up. So even if I managed to find the CD for the book he wanted at the bookstore or the library, he would soon give up on them as he couldn’t “read along” with what was being spoken.
Instead, he struggled through on his own or would ask me to read to him. Sometimes he would read to me, but generally he had to struggle so much that he preferred when I read to him. He would often stop me to ask questions because the amount of inference required was too much for him to process, especially at the very beginning of a book. He also struggled with pronunciation of words, especially if the words were based on another language like Greek (yes, the irony of Percy Jackson). It seemed to me that, in the advent of a technological onslaught, there was no place for my learning disabled son. We tried electronic readers, but with Borders going under and the instability of the market, we weren’t sure where to turn. Barnes and Noble’s Nook device provided auditory read along, but only for picture books. My son needed middle grade titles.
I had been getting solicitations for a charitable organization called Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic. I kept thinking that I should investigate the organization, but was so overwhelmed with the day to day management of my two learning disabled children in addition to regular life that I placed it on a mental to-do list and often forgot about it. The organization changed its name to Learning Ally, and I finally began to look into their mission. They said they had thousands of books on audio. I decided to give it a try.
What I received was well beyond my expectations. I had to provide them with my son’s diagnosis, which I honestly wasn’t very comfortable doing, to become a member. We downloaded our first book, and my son, who was skeptical as well, seemed happy. Not only could he hear his book, he could see the text, which was highlighted where the reader was reading, and he could speed up or slow down the speaker. He can download to any device he wants that is not content controlled by the manufacturer (such as the Nook): his computer, his iphone, an ipad, my computer. At first, he only asked for the books he had to read for school. But over time, he began asking for books just to read. I was overwhelmed.
He still likes to hold a copy of the book in his hands (a wee bit of his mother in him), but the audio/electronic text version enables him to read with confidence, especially when he chooses a challenging book.
I have become a vocal fan of Learning Ally (which also offers webinars for parents on learning issues and strategies related to dyslexia and visual impairment). A similar organization is Bookshare.org, which has a compatible mission to Learning Ally but does not have a membership fee.
One in five people is dyslexic. I believe this type of assistive technology is the most important technological tool that we have as parents and educators to help our dyslexic children become independent readers. A dyslexic child still needs the individualized help of a caring and qualified reading specialist. But this type of technology empowers a child to use the skills learned in reading support in a way that just isn’t available for them otherwise. It gives them a sense of independence, and allows them to work at their own pace without feeling as though they need to meet the expectations of anyone else.
What has been your most valuable support for dyslexia? What other support strategies would you recommend to others?

Ownership Matters

Today I watched a wonderful trailer for a movie about being Dyslexic at The Big Picture Movie. This trailer pierced my heart because it is exactly what my oldest son needs to hear. He’s not dyslexic, but he is learning disabled, and the message is still spot on: owning your disability allows you to take control of it.

I don’t believe there is anything more important for a learning disabled person to hear, except, perhaps, that you are not alone. We are not alone. We walk among each other without even realizing our connections, but they exist. When we take ownership of our disabilities and are not afraid to admit to them, we begin to see each other, learn from each other, and triumph together.

My son has not learned to take ownership of his disability, but it is the mission of his parents and his school that this be the year in which he makes that leap. It is a leap of faith, a leap that requires belief in not only himself but in those of us who have promised to be there for him. There are a lot of reasons why he has not had this faith. The system let him down in so many ways that it would take a full length book to explain them all. Now he is getting the help he needs and slowly learning to trust again. And I know that when he finally is able to make that leap, there will be no one more proud of him than I am.

Living with LD, Moments of Dark Joy Shine through the Struggle

My second son, who happens to be dyslexic and have a partial executive functioning disability in planning and organizing, walked out of his school and got into the car. He dropped a wad of one and five dollar bills on the console between us.
“What’s that for?” I asked.
“I’ll explain in a minute,” he said, “it’s a little complicated.” He set his backpack on the floor and dove into the snack I had brought for the ride to his drum lesson. I braced myself. Listening to one of his explanations is usually a great way to find a migraine.
“There’s this kid in my LA (language arts) class, and he lost his vocabulary book,” he began, crackers around the edges of his lips. “So I told Mr. Michalski that I lost my book and gave him the new one Mr. Michalski gave me. And then he gave me the money for the book in case the school charges you for it.”
I nodded. This was going to be interesting. “Why couldn’t this kid ask Mr. Michalski for a new vocabulary book himself?” I asked.
“Because he already lost one vocabulary book this year.” It’s only the first week of October, I thought.
“So have you,” I pointed out.
“Mom,” my son said with the kind of patience you would use on a two-year-old, while he laughed a little. “This kid is a straight A student. He’s all stressed about this and what Mr. Michalski will think. He’s not used to being in this kind of problem.”
“Not like you, huh?”
“Exactly,” my son said, nodding his approval that I got it.

I suppose I should have been concerned that my son was deceiving his teacher. But I was bitter-sweetly proud of him. Every day is a struggle for him in school. Not because he isn’t smart enough to manage the academics at his academically rigorous school, but because of his LD issues. Just last night we spent an hour to find his phone and his social studies binder. We never did find his planner, another item we were looking for, because looking for things he’s misplaced is a daily ritual for us. I often hear from other people “Well, boys that age always lose things.” This is an undeniable truth, but for my son it is beyond what is normal even for his peer group. He struggles all day long to keep track of materials, schedules, and tasks.

So when he could laugh at himself while sacrificing what his teacher might think about him for a classmate, I had to admire him. He often feels the stigma of being LD, often struggles with his self esteem, often wishes everything didn’t have to be so hard for him. He hates having to be tutored and go to summer school. He hates knowing that when he comes home at the end of the school day, I most likely am going to interrogate him about the email(s) I got that day from his teachers about missing or incomplete homework or lost books.

That day, in that moment, he accepted himself exactly as he is and found humor in it, while helping a kid who doesn’t know what it’s like to be my son. When I see his teacher, I will tell him what happened because I think he will understand. He seems to be someone who gets what being LD is all about. But for now, I’m accepting my son exactly as he is.

And I’m proud of him.