1. Be Real

This is the essence of connection. Inspiring kids and helping instill confidence isn’t about only being positive or trying to be inspirational. Being real and authentic is what gets you where you want to go with your kids. In any close and effective relationship, you must be brave in this way. It means being open about your own imperfections. Instead of being the ‘sage on the stage,’ where it’s all about your “wisdom” that you think you’re “teaching” (and that as it turns out, has a pretty limited shelf life with teenagers :) ). Instead, we model the fact that everyone has a learning profile that includes strengths and weaknesses. Share your own highs and lows as a student with your child or student. Growth is a journey that must be accessible and feel attainable.

2. Challenge and Respect

Allow them the Dignity of their Struggles. This is often quite challenging for many parents. Lend a hand when needed, but don’t let your needs to fix their problems overshadow their own need to struggle and grow. Resilience and progress comes from effort and the ability to put struggle and the act of getting up after a fall, into the proper context.

Whether you’re a teacher, parent, or therapist of some kind, appropriate levels of challenge is a key. In order to provide the right amount of “stretch,” we need to know current levels of performance. If we know our child has been learning when to use “tch” versus “ch” in spelling instruction for example, it’s ok to ask them cueing questions instead of providing the answer, if they ask you how to spell “catch.” If we keep challenging at the right level, not too high and not too low, you will encourage persistence and problem-solving. My high school track coach knew how fast I should run consecutive repeat quarter miles, because he knew my range, my pain threshold and base speed (or lack of). Running intervals too fast or too slowly would have led to burn out, injury or boredom and little progress.

The right level of challenge strengthens their core. Not enough of it weakens their system and in the extreme, can cripple their abilities.

3. Get to Know them and Be a Detective for Hidden Strengths

As a teacher and educational therapist, I know how important this is. I spent years perfecting my abilities to use science-based instructional approaches for remediation of reading and spelling and organizational weaknesses. That was effective but limited. If we’re not aware of children’s strengths and affinities (what they are oriented towards) we miss seeing them. Being seen is perhaps the most precious of primary human needs. Imagine if you worked at a job and your supervisor only knew your weaknesses. Or imagine if your spouse/partner was mainly attracted to “fixing” your weaknesses, but didn’t seem in love with or paid attention to your strengths, your passions.

And, this is a big and…Once you and your kid start discovering strengths and interests, capitalize! Helping them develop them will be one of the biggest gifts you give. The students I’ve worked with who have developed outside interests and areas of competencies that may have little to do with academics seem the most well adjusted and are able to transfer some of the attitudes from areas of success to areas of struggle. The ones who are allowed to spend quality time fishing, hunting, pursuing the arts, electronics, and the like, turn out better from what I can tell.

-Part of getting to know students with dyslexia is to ask the right questions about their struggles too. I’ve learned to ask them about their process of reading and writing. “What is it like when you misread the small words?” Or, “Tell me what happens when you read aloud and read over punctuation.” “How long does it take you to do homework?” Sometimes their answers have totally informed a new strategy to use.

Another example of asking questions that aren’t about judging or evaluating, but to get inside, so they are seen and feel heard: “When you’re in class and you know you will likely get called on to read or write in front of the class, have you thought of avoiding the task all together?” What have you done in the past to try and avoid?”

If you’ve developed and demonstrated trust, these questions can be very important. Don’t forget the questions go both ways. Be prepared to volunteer or answer as well as ask. Don’t only see their triumphs and passions; give space to the darker moments.

4. Social Understanding and Connection to Peers

There’s been a great push over many years (and for good reasons), to have what’s called heterogeneous classrooms. Inclusion is based on this. No need to unnecessarily separate kids by their learning differences. That can be isolating and stigmatizing. On the other hand, there is real value for birds of a feather to flock together. Sometimes it’s such a relief to totally let down your hair and not hide and pretend. There are times that being in a class or a school where everyone has dyslexia can be empowerig and exactly what they need. The same is true for social situations. Even for kids with plenty of friends, it can get pretty lonely at times for students who struggle in school. Without overdoing it, consider looking for opportunities to connect with other kids with dyslexia. If done in the right way, this can provide real respite. As one kid once said to me in a group, “It’s a relief to meet other kids who are obviously smart, but might forget how to spell the word ‘where’ or something like that.” )

5. Be Persistent in your Praise and About the Right Things

Never be afraid to offer specific praise and positive regard. It can be with words and/or a touch on the shoulder and sometimes the right look. Most feedback tends towards corrections rather than rewarding the behaviors you want. Just make certain you praise effort, and specific behaviors, and not whether or not they got the first place ribbon or an A. Praise persistence, resilience and right-minded attitudes. Studies show this creates more long term benefits.

As a parent you’re in this for the long haul. As an educator or therapist you have the opportunity to make a life changing difference.

As background to this post and for those that don’t know me, I’ve had a career as a teacher, trainer and director for LD schools. Over the years, I’ve been hired to consult with and advise therapeutic settings and schools for students with Learning Differences. Also, I’m a parent of a now young man with dyslexia and ADD. I’ve made plenty of mistakes of omission and commission. On the flip side, I’ve learned from those mistakes and have been recognized as somewhat of an expert, With all that in mind, I offer these observations. They have been my experiences.

Kids are Kids

Working with kids is about the best thing I could ever do and I’ve been lucky to do just that for my whole work life.

Starting out working with kids in Australia, I began to see that children and teenagers were pretty much the same no matter where. Now that we’re living in Cuenca Ecuador that lesson is relearned. Cultural differences aside, the fun and joy is contagious. Just last weekend I walked over to the church courtyard across the street. After observing and hanging back a bit, eventually taking a reserved photo or two, a bunch of the kids started plugging in and warming up. By the middle they were posing and playing, and as I started showing them the photos of them on my view screen, they were draped over me and we were off to the races with beginner Spanish and limited English conversations. By the end, we were decided to meet up again in two weeks, same spot.

Dyslexia in Nigeria

Awareness of dyslexia, illiteracy and remediation continues to spread throughout the world.
In this article, Nigeria: Easing Dyslexia in Children to Develop Full Potential, Director of Dyslexia Nigeria, Mrs. Adrienne Tikolo discusses illiteracy in Nigeria and efforts to train teachers.

In Nigeria, most people don’t know of dyslexia. Most times when a child is struggling academically or is having any learning difficulty, parents, teachers and caregivers most times assume that the child is just being lazy or plain dumb. They usually suggest extra tutoring as the solution to the problem.

According to studies, 60 per cent of students that have completed grade four and 44 per cent of students that have completed grade six cannot read a complete sentence in English Language or their mother tongue, while 84 per cent of children from the poorest households cannot read at all.

…And a Little to the Left

Sir Ken Robinson has famously spoken about the terrible lack of creativity in educational and intellectual society and institutions. He jokes with some degree of black humor that watching a disco full of Ph.D’s is to watch a group of disembodied heads, lacking a sense of kinesthetic, artistic and social/emotional competencies. He castigates our educational systems as too heavily dedicated to the cortex and weighted mainly to the left (linear and logical).

Einstein’s relevant quote above gets at this imbalance.

As I see it,an aspect of this problem is that schools don’t do enough production; meaning there isn’t much in the way of helping kids apply theoretical knowledge; they hardly ever build or produce anything. If teachers knew how to do this and students made and produced things, actual useful things (and this can include artistic expressions too), you would see an immediate and corresponding rise in self worth and self efficacy, which is the belief in the value of one’s efforts to accomplish.

Watch this favorite video of mine at another TED Talk, with the genius of the Handspring Puppet Company. Imagine the math, physics and design attributes that these brilliant guys and their “puppets” represent application of.

Learn What You’re Good At

Image by Owen Buggy

I’ve been working in the field of literacy and learning differences for a long time. And over the course of these years I became so good at helping students improve their weaknesses that it took a while for me to remember that for most people, success and happiness in life comes from developing strengths.

Here’s a letter, My letter to my younger self, that Richard Branson, entrepreneur who’s also dyslexic, wrote to his younger self that touches upon that idea and others.

It’s ok not to be good at some things; as long as you find good people you can trust and surround yourself with them. Learn what you’re good at and channel that, instead of focusing on what you can’t do.

Self-Compassion for LD Learners

Sometimes the language of self-development can admittedly feel awkward or to some, pretentious. Since the field is relatively new and language evolves, it can be a little uncomfortable to use it at first when at the family dinner table with Uncle Frank and Aunt Edith :) . Nonetheless, “Self-Compassion” describes ways of thinking and behaving that are health promoting, and not for the weak.

Children and adults with learning differences, struggling with school, often grow up with feelings of being “not good enough” and with thoughts of diminished capacity.

This is video describes what self-compassion can mean, and the need for this type of self-care.

This article, which references Dr. Kristen Neff (the speaker in the video), is specific to college freshman, Self-Compassion for Freshman

What does self-compassion mean for people with Dyslexia?


Forman School, CT.

For those interested in the Forman School in CT, here is a letter with introductions to their new admission’s director.


Addiction and Learning Disabilities

In my opinion, coming to grips with the number of teenagers with addictions who also have learning disabilities (estimates towards 60%), requires understanding how isolating it can be. School stress is often the number one stress teenagers face, and when you’re struggling extra hard in the core competencies of academic success, it’s not hard to imagine that, even for those who look like they’re making and keeping friends, they’re also keeping secrets and hidden feelings of not being connected, and of being somewhat isolated.

This video, while not focusing at all on learning differences, captures the connection between isolation and mental health.

Love, Intimate Relationships and Autism

This is a post from a few year back that remains highly relevant, so I thought I’d repost:

Teenagers and young adults with Asperger’s Syndrome or with High Functioning Autism need some targeted and extra help understanding and negotiating romantic and sexual relationships. Moving from Social Skills or Social Thinking/Cognition curriculums to dating, sex, love, and adult relationships is no easy task when your primary difficulties are recognizing and understanding non verbal communication, emotional fluency and regulating sensory experiences.

This is a wonderfully written piece in the NYTimes.com called Navigating Love and Autism. Compelling in it’s depth, this article captures many of the challenges particular to couples struggling with Autism Spectrum Disorder.

The first night they slept entwined on his futon, Jack Robison, 19, who had since childhood thought of himself as not like the other humans, regarded Kirsten Lindsmith with undisguised tenderness.

This is an honest account of their struggles and one that provides glimpses into what it must be like for a young man with ASD, who, despite feeling love and romance for his sweetheart, has to tell her (and I assume because of some sensory overload issues), after she smiled at him one morning, as she leans in for a kiss, seeking his lips, he turned away, I don’t really like kissing, he said.

It’s a touching piece and although having ASD adds a particular burden to relationship, I wanted to reach out and tell the young man that many of their struggles are common to the confusion we all feel at times in relationships. You want to put your arm around his shoulder and smilingly tell him you know just how he feels when he’s not sure what his girlfriend wants from him. Here’s an example:

One might start over Kirsten’s request that Jack hug her when she came home from school, or his perception that she was already angry at him when she came through the door.

The more we argue, the worse it gets, Jack said once, close to despair.

One night as Kirsten cooked dinner, he peered into the pan where she was sautéing vegetables to comment on the way she had cut the cauliflower.

It’s too big, he explained. It won’t cook through.

It’s better when it’s not all mushy, she insisted.

No, he said. You’re just doing it wrong.

Eventually, Kirsten, unable to contain her tears, fled to the living room.

What I want, she told him when they analyzed their clashes in less-fraught moments, is to be held and rocked and comforted.

Book for Children with Anxiety, Worries

Book for Anxious or Worried Children by Sanford Shapiro

“Sanford Shapiro has written a sweet and insightful coming of age children’s tale, beautifully illustrated, chronicling the parallel journeys and triumphs of courage and connection over fear, undertaken by an unlikely but lovable adventurous pair – an endear- ing youthful turtle and an inquisitive young cub bear – who we first meet as they’re trying to come to terms with what seems like an uncertain world. Until comes the fortuitous day when they each stumble upon – separately and then seemingly in unison – that wellspring of inner strength and hope that emboldens and trumps all – the light that shines from within and without, stripping away darkness and self-doubt and illuminating the way forward for us all.”

-S.J. Kane Writer, editor and international development professional, Commission for Legal Empowerment for the Poor. Recently retired at the United Nations and the World Bank

“I loved it and my kids loved it! A Light Within is hopeful, encouraging, and empowering. It helps children find their inner strength and gives them the courage to succeed in life. A book kids and parents will love! With a powerful message that will help your kids overcome their worry and fear. What could be more important than to teach kids resiliency?”

- Andy Sapp, Ph.D, Founder & CEO, Novitas Academy for Boys, and Cherry Gulch School for Boys, Emmet, ID.

-Available in Paperback or Kindle

Dyslexic Advantage

Dyslexic Advantage


Dyslexic Advantage is a 501(c)3 non-profit
charitable organization whose mission is to
promote positive identity, community, and
achievement focusing on dyslexic strengths.

The Sun or The Moon?

Sometimes I feel like a bit of a downer and in contrast to other popular LD-centered websites, because a fair amount of my writings, posts and presentations concerns the risks and vulnerabilities that can go along with having a learning disability or learning difference. It’s a little out of character it would seem, because those who know me, see that I’m a glass half full person and one who tends to look for and find positive aspects and opportunities in problems.

And, I’ll be the first to emphasize there’s a tremendous need for uplifting, inspirational and true information about upsides of struggle, and of promoting success stories related to dyslexia and learning differences. I hope and aspire to provide some of that as well. There are several great organizations that do just that. Dyslexic Advantage and Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity are two that come to mind right away.

While working for many years with children and adults with learning differences such as dyslexia, I’ve found that people with such differences and conditions need role models, they need hope and they need a sense of how to access strengths, gifts and talents that are either dormant and laying in potential wait, or even inherent in brain and learning differences. Thomas G. West writes eloquently and convincingly on this subject in his seminal book, In the Minds Eye and in his most recent one, Seeing What Others Cannot See

We each have to bring to the table what we know best, our selves and our stories. In my case, having worked in and consulted with schools for students with learning disabilities, and also in treatment center for children, teens and adults with primary emotional and behavioral challenges, I’ve seen first-hand the results of the trauma, shame and hidden isolation, which often accompany school struggles and repeated failures. The magnitude of scar tissue left behind can be deep, impactful, and long-lasting.

In fact, as an example, a few years back, the NIMH and Hazeldon, released statistics showing upwards of 60% of adolescents in residential treatment for substance abuse have learning disabilities. I have seen and experienced this overlap between school stress and mental health struggles in my own family. Even the great celebrities and success stories like Philip Schultz, a dyslexic adult and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, have wounds that cut deep. The success stories show us what’s possible. They show us realized potential when opportunities arise. And all too often they show us people who’ve succeeded in spite of their school stories and not because of them.

For these reasons, it’s important to me to continue shedding light, and to help provide access for other voices, for the un-celebrated, and the less successful—those who are too often left in shadows or worse, in situations of despair and desperation.

So, where’s the fun in all this? Well, the pleasure is knowing that when we live in awareness of both sides of this coin, the upsides and the risks, the talents and possibilities and the scars and hidden trauma, we do our children and ourselves better service. Our children’s happiness can be enhanced when we don’t turn away from the shadows, indeed, that shadows dissipate with light.

Sanford Shapiro