Sam was obviously a very bright second-grader, passionate about airplanes and lots of other things. “He soaked up information and discussed what he loved very articulately,” says his mom, Ruth Maupin, a Kingston mother of three. Still, Maupin says, she sensed something was wrong. “He didn’t retain words. By the second grade, he still struggled to read simple words and often didn’t recognize words from one page to the next.”
It was another three years before Sam, now 19, was diagnosed with a learning disability through the Special Education Technology Center in Ellensburg. Because of that diagnosis, Sam was able to get effective support, and Maupin says she has learned some key lessons. “Listen to your child, and don’t assume the school has all the answers,” she says. “I made a point of putting communications in writing, not a phone call. I would also copy the IEP [Individualized Education Program] team — the teachers involved with the special education program. It’s harder for the teacher or therapist to put you at the bottom of the pile if they know that everyone else is aware of your concerns.”
Spotting a learning disability
In fact, it’s often a parent who spots the first signs of a learning disability, says James McKeever, Ph.D., clinical assistant professor at Seattle Children’s Hospital. “Ideally, parents are actually working with preschool and kindergarten teachers to look for signs of a learning disability.” According to McKeever, by first and second grade, a child should be able to “identify letters, follow along in books, have good verbal ability and an awareness of sounds in words, and he or she should be able to play with sounds, retrieve words quickly and use language well.” McKeever says that risk factors for learning disability include hearing impairment, or having a parent with a learning disability.
Classic “red flags” of a potential learning disability may include a child who “never picks up a book and reads on his or her own or for pleasure, stumbles over words when trying to read orally, or avoids writing or reading,” says Virginia Berninger, Ph.D., a professor of educational psychology and the director of the Multidisciplinary Learning Disability Center at the University of Washington. “What may appear to be lack of motivation may really be inability to read or write,” she says.
What should you do?
If you suspect that your child needs help, what should you do? Start by asking the school for an evaluation, McKeever says. “When making the request, make it in writing and include the date,” he says. “I always encourage parents to get the school to do the normal evaluation, then seek private diagnosis if the parent does not feel that the support suggested will be intense enough to help the child move forward.” McKeever advises all parents to work as collaboratively as possible with the school, but if they don’t feel the evaluation is accurate or goes far enough, they can appeal.
Berninger says getting a proper diagnosis, followed up with effective support, is critical to a child overcoming a learning disability. Unfortunately, says Berninger, “most school psychologists are trained to just qualify kids for special education support, not to do a diagnosis relevant to an effective treatment plan.” Berninger recommends three potential resources for assessment when a parent is not satisfied with a school’s assessment: licensed psychologists, speech and language specialists certified by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) and Seattle’s Scottish Rite Masonic Center. Through RiteCare of Washington, the center provides free diagnosis and therapeutic services to many children ages 2–7.
Maupin’s struggles to support her son have been rewarded; this year, she watched him successfully make the transition to college. “College was a real eye opener for Sam,” she says. “He fits in much better and is more respected for what he can do and less judged and limited by his learning differences. Sam also is now able to take over being his own advocate, while I have stepped out of the educational picture.”
While success stories like Sam’s are encouraging, both McKeever and Berninger say that the overall system for catching and supporting children with learning disabilities in our state’s public schools is far from perfect; children often fall through the cracks. “Politically, parents need to keep pushing to make public schools more responsive to the needs of kids with learning disabilities,” says McKeever. “It is a political and financial issue. Our society needs educated, literate citizens.”
Kathleen F. Miller will always be grateful to her third-grade teacher at Bainbridge Island’s Blakely Elementary, Mrs. Thatcher, who spotted her dyslexia and recommended the support she needed to learn to read.
The University of Washington’s DO-IT program helps support the participation of individuals with disabilities in challenging academic programs and careers.
For information on special-education law, visit Washington PAVE (Parents Active for Vision Education), a nonprofit that offers free or low-cost workshops on the topic.