Dream Big

Michael Cammarata discusses ignoring negative messages of failure and instead despite his dyslexia-related school struggles, became a highly successful serial entrepreneur.

Support the dreams of your child with Learning Differences

My family motivated me to do things differently: they encouraged me to reject the traditional way of learning and to be innovative. My Mom never stopped looking for different schools and the right teachers that would help me learn in the way that I needed to excel. Having that unwavering support set the foundation for my confidence to ultimately overcome dyslexia and thrive in the business world.

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Southport School Receives Half Million Dollar Gift

Southport School

“This gift will give to generations upon generations of creative, young learners and thinkers, and our community is deeply moved by the generosity of The Daniel E. Offutt III Charitable Trust”

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Diana King RIP

Diana Hanbury King in about 1972. “The time to diagnose dyslexia is before the child has a chance to fail at reading,” she said.

Photo Credit: Laura Gilpin

Diana King, a giant in the field of dyslexia passed away last week at her home in CT.
Here is the article from the NY Times

By all accounts including those of friends of mine, she was an extraordinary woman and a trailblazer, including her founding of the world-renowned Kildonan School a school for students with dyslexia, in Amenia, NY.

RIP Ms. King. You will be remembered and honored by many.

She was instrumental in transforming the popular perception of people with dyslexia from being backward or unteachable to being often highly intelligent despite their learning difficulties. Often they were endowed with keen powers of observation and original thinking, innate charm, a sense of balance and high energy.

“We continue to see the tragedy of a bright child coming home from school in the second or third grade in tears — ‘I’m the dumbest kid in all of the second grade’ — and getting stomach aches before they go to school, and all of this totally unnecessary and totally preventable, ” Ms. King said in a videotaped interview with the International Dyslexia Association in 2013. “It drives me crazy.”

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Roses and Rocks: Debriefing Dyslexia Evaluations

For me, one of the best parts of doing an evaluation for learning and learning disabilities has been going over the results, including the test score numbers with the student and his/her family. I’ve learned how to discuss the data and what it all means, in clear language so it makes sense to the student and family. If it doesn’t make sense, real good sense to them, what’s the benefit of testing? No matter what, when done correctly, there can always be a positive and empowering quality to this process. Regardless of the profile of weaknesses, there are always strengths. And when you can put struggles into context, especially one of definable and usable attributes, kids and adults feel good. This most always results in relief, an increase in self confidence and much less resistance to hearing the specifics of the struggles, and accepting help in strategies and education. That acceptance and owning of their own learning profile is huge, and maybe the best part.

One helpful model I learned was from Dr. Tony Atwood, an Autism specialist from Australia. He wrote about a practice that I emulated with great success. He described a scene with a family and their child in his office. The “kid” was a struggling teen with Asperger’s Syndrome. Dr. Atwood, instead of making the teen the initial focus, went around the room and asked each family member (mom, dad, sibling) to describe their own learning/ profile of strengths and weaknesses. As they spoke, Tony would write their comments down on big post-it paper on the walls. Doing this takes the heat off the kiddo in question and demonstrates the idea that everyone has a strengths and weaknesses profile. The student that was evaluated is done last and this works infinitely better.

At the end, as I’ve done many times, one can say something like, “You know, educational scientists have a term for this profile of strengths and weaknesses. They call it Dyslexia (or whatever the dx is). That word dyslexia is a name given to your profile. And, there are ways that you and your teachers can use this so you can be successful more easily.”

The other day I was going over an evaluation I did for a teenage girl for post-secondary planning. She’s a teen with complex and significant learning disabilities. Her language processing is a struggle, and dealing with language-laden concepts can be a challenge. Added to that, we had to do this debrief of the testing over the phone. For this particular call I wanted to include asking her some self-assessment questions. I wanted to ask her how she sees her current levels of strengths and weaknesses. Her mom was with us on the phone for this meeting.

In individualizing for this girl’s lower concept formation and language skills, I decided to call what we were doing a game, called “Roses and Rocks”. “Roses are for your strengths,” I explained. “They are the things that make the journey more beautiful, and Rocks are more like obstacles that make the journey a little bumpy.”

It was a master stroke of luck or planning, as it tuned out. It seemed to strike just the right chord for her. We started with her mom. Daughter was able to support mom and even add to her answers. After mom, I did a mini version for myself. By the time we got to the girl, her comfort zone had “way widened” and her ability to see and express her profile was at a high level. A few days later I decided that for a particular kid, age, etc, one could rename the exercise “Rockets and Rocks.”

This process helps the targeted one to feel like “We’re in this together.”

And, oftentimes people with learning differences, leaning disabilities or mental health challenges feel and/or are made to feel like they are “broken.” This process presents a whole different paradigm.

Feel free to try this out if it seems right and/or contact me for further explanations or questions.


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Myths of Dyslexia

The myth that having dyslexia automatically means you’re either a) artistic, b) have visual-spatial talents, c) have other gifts that are part of and caused by your dyslexia, can minimize or distract us from struggling with the proven risks of shame and school-based trauma. Results of these can be devastating. Some people with dyslexia are those things. Some are not. And while we make ourselves feel good with myths they can be distracting. They hurt our credibility when we call BS on other myths, such as those that allow schools to teach reading based on them, like Whole Language. Feels good but not based on science.

As someone pointed out recently, the myths of the Gifts of Dyslexia are really somewhat insulting.  If you are artistic or a talented engineer or a gifted athlete, or a hard-working and resilient out of the box thinker, then that is YOU, not your dyslexia.

Some talents and positive traits can be developed as healthy hard fought responses to your struggle.  You’ve earned them and possibly you’ve developed some inherent strengths or predisposition.  You developed them as part of who you are.  Just like your dyslexia is a part of who you are.  They may all be connected because they are part of you.

We want people to recognize dyslexia as a learning difference or learning disability that can be ameliorated to some extent by science-based education.  If we want teacher preparation and school administrators to finally look at and use the science of reading and do away with their own myths, then we must be prepared to do away with our own myths.

“FACT: Individuals in substance abuse treatment have a higher incidence of learning disabilities than the general population. One study revealed that 40 percent of people in substance abuse treatment have a learning disability, while another indicated that in residential substance abuse treatment programs, the percentage of learning disabled people has been found to be as high as 60 percent.”
-Learning Differently Can Mean Learning Well.
However so many children with learning disabilities are not taught in ways that align with science. The results can be devastating over time.

As a side note I don’t even like using the term myth. It does a disservice to Joseph Campbell.

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Finding Joy With the Struggle of Learning Disabilities


I’ve been tracking and have been a part of the changing attitudes about learning disabilities for decades. Historically there’s been two major paradigms, two lenses through which people think of LD and in particular kids and struggling teens. On the one hand there’s been a growing perception that in spite of all the school struggles, having a learning disability somehow meant you are brilliant or gifted in some way. It’s been suggested, implied or stated as fact that being dyslexic for example automatically means you have inherent talents that are caused by your learning disability.” That perspective grew out of a well-meaning response to its opposite; that having a learning disability meant you are unintelligent. Disentangling LD from IQ means just that: There’s as much incidence of dyslexia in people who score high on IQ tests and those who test low/lower. Of course, dyslexia and related learning differences have nothing to do with intelligence per se. There are inherent possibilities for unusual strengths and talents that may be connected to learning and brain based differences. However, since there is so much variety in the human experience, it’s hard to say with any assurance that having dyslexia confers automatic and specific strengths. I know people with dyslexia that are incredibly talented in the arts and other visual or spatial activities, engineering, surgery and sports for example. But I know an equal number of dyslexics who aren’t.

So what is it to be? Where and how do we advise and empower children who have real struggle because of LD issues? Do we focus on the rose and adjust their sights on the powerfully successful and wonderfully well-known celebrities of the LD spectrum? You know, Charles Schwab, Walt Disney, Agatha Christie, Pulitzer Prize winning poet Philip Schultz. You know that list.

However as we know, roses have thorns.

So, do we focus on the risk and the turmoil of failure, by looking to the prevalence of illiteracy in the prison population or the stark reality that upwards of 40-60 percent of teens in treatment centers for substance abuse have learning disabilities?

In my opinion, you have to land squarely in the middle of it all. This is not the middle in order to be safe or because of a lack of conviction. It means we must be very mindful of both, and that takes courage to feel the joy and the pain— And that somehow our children learn to step into an awareness of both. I believe we teach them the idea that nothing is beyond their reach but that it takes hard work, focus and opportunity.

When we teach our children and teens, in developmentally appropriate ways, to know themselves, to stand in a strong and mindful way, seeing their learning profile, with strengths and weaknesses, with risks and opportunities, we help them progress further. True self-advocacy is based in fierce self-knowledge. Learning when and why to challenge ineffective teaching methods is important, and can result from such advocacy.

Over the years, I’ve gotten a lot of mileage in service to children and adults from going over and demystifying a good pyscho-educational evaluation with students. It can be illuminating and liberating to know the specifics of how one’s brain currently works. It’s helpful to understand what struggles in “rapid naming” or “phonological awareness” means. When someone understands that their working memory is weak in the “phonological loop,” creating an action plan to use a voice memo, or a dictation app, gains traction. That may sound odd or nerdy but it’s true. Shining the light on the data and illustrating it all with simple explanations and examples lessens the resistance to change and growth.

By the same token a student that is now able to put their learning challenges into a better, fuller context can then begin understanding and owning their cognitive and/or personality strengths. I remember a student who saw that her visual memory for icons and pictures was in the superior range (96th percentile). She was delighted to hear how unique her ability to hold onto imagery was. She was used to hearing vague platitudes from her parents that she only half believed. Hearing the details of that 96% helped her feel her strength. It also helped her to accept and understand her conversely low scores in auditory working memory. See, it all worked together. Real self-knowledge is power.

What happens when people are offered truth about themselves? It slows down and minimizes the self-limiting and self-critical voice in their head. And believe me, it’s there. We are and they are freer to work hard, take risks, try different approaches, and to be more compassionate with one’s own self. Aren’t those the qualities we want for ourselves and our kids?

For most people, having a learning disability means enduring all sorts of crappy experiences in school. That’s six hours per day for many kids. Putting up with ‘shaming’ moments day after day, is what Buddhists describe as effectively dealing with “dukkha”, the appearance of suffering in daily life.

When you deal more directly with that reality, you’re more able to experience and be open to the good stuff, the joy of learning and living.

A wonderful example of that was Vedran Smailovic, the cellist from Bosnia who played in bombed out places of Sarajevo (former Yugoslavia) during their siege. While acknowledging the cruelty of the bombs and war (the images of the bombed out buildings), yet not giving up his capacity for hearing and playing beautiful music, he became a worldwide inspiration. Images of him playing his cello surrounded by bombed out buildings are striking.

Giving your attention only to the dukkha, the struggle, is giving it too much power. To live in denial of it, does the same.

From the poem “A Brief for the Defense” Jack Gilbert writes:

Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving
somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.
But we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants.

And, he continues:

There is laughter
every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta…

We must admit there will be music despite everything.

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Five Important Ways to Inspire Your Child or Teen with Dyslexia


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.

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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.

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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.

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…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.

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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.

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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?


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