1. Be Real
This is the essence of connection. Inspiring kids and helping instill confidence isn’t about “being positive.” It’s not about 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, we must be brave in this way. It means being open about your own imperfections. Instead of being the ‘sage on the stage’ ( and as it turns out, getting our great point of view across has a pretty limited shelf life with teenagers 🙂 ). Instead, we can model the fact that everyone has a learning and personality profile that includes strengths and weaknesses. Share your own highs and lows (as a student or in general) 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 one is challenging for most 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 getting up after a fall into the proper context.
Whether you’re a teacher, parent, or therapist, appropriate levels of challenge is a key. In order to provide the right amount of “stretch,” we need to know and be compassionate about their current levels of performance. If we keep challenge at the right level, not too high and not too low, we 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. Be a Detective for Hidden Strengths
As a former teacher, educational therapist and educational consultant, I’ve learned 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. And of course that’s crucial but it’s not enough. 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…Once you and your kid start discovering strengths and interests, help them capitalize! Helping them develop their strengths and affinities 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. They learn to transfer the attitudes and mindsets from areas of success to areas of struggle. The ones who are allowed to spend quality time fishing, hunting, pursuing the arts, electronics; whatever the interest areas are, benefit academically and from a mental health standpoint.
-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) for inclusion, to have heterogeneous classrooms. No need to unnecessarily separate kids by their learning differences. That can be isolating and stigmatizing. On the other hand, there’s 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 empowering, exactly what they need. 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 is smart in math but has such a hard time memorizing the times table,” 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 and evaluations, rather than noticing and rewarding the behaviors that serve your kid. 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, director for LD schools, and provide family guidance as an educational consultant. Over the years, I’ve been hired to consult with and advise therapeutic settings, and with schools for students with Learning Differences. Also, I’m a parent of young man with dyslexia and ADD. I’ve made my share of mistakes but on the flip side, I’ve learned from those mistakes. I offer these observations because they have been my experiences.