For families with school-aged children, August and early September can be swallowed up by back-to-school worries. Everybody has supplies to buy, wardrobes to update, bus routes to learn.
But for parents of children with learning difficulties or disabilities – and of course, for those youngsters – concerns about the start of school go deeper. For kids scarred by academic struggles or failure, the return to the classroom can be a stomach-churning, anxiety-ridden experience.
“It’s a very stressful time for people, especially our population,” says Lawrence Kloth, co-founder of Reading Success Plus. “I was tutoring one of our students, and he refused to even mention the word ‘school.’
“This was not a fun week when I was young,” says Lawrence, who struggled in school because of multiple learning disabilities, including ADHD and dyslexia. “I didn’t want to even think about it.”
So, to make sure their children have the best possible school experience, parents need to hit the ground running. Lawrence and his mother, Anne, also a co-founder of Reading Success Plus, see two key ways parents can help: by establishing lines of communication with the school early on, and helping their child with organization and time management.
When parents suspect for the first time that their child is having an unusual amount of difficulty in school, it’s important to communicate with the teacher immediately.
“If you’re worried, don’t wait until conferences or the end of the marking period,” Lawrence advises.
“Having a relationship with those teachers could really help. You can give them insights into your child that they couldn’t otherwise have,” he says. “And a lot of our kids, who have low self-esteem already, are too discouraged to ask for help, especially younger students who don’t know how to advocate for themselves.”
But sometimes parents are reluctant to act. Because the struggle is often noticed in early elementary school, it’s easy – and reassuring – to write it off as a temporary problem that the child will overcome with time.
“Parents tell the teacher, ‘We’re starting to notice our child struggling,’ and the teacher might say, ‘Yes, they just have a little bit of growing up to do,’” Lawrence says. “And then a while later, the child is struggling with the same thing. The student is losing ground that’s very hard to make up.”
At this point, parents often feel helpless. Surely something can be done, they think, but what? They aren’t educators. They might not have any experience with a struggling student. What can they do?
“It’s important for people to start thinking about reaching out for help to centers like Reading Success Plus.” Lawrence said. “We can provide screenings, and then give them help in reading, writing and math. We can also advise parents on the kinds of support they could be getting from the schools, things that parents might not know exist.
“This is a really important time for parents to give their kids that support system and make sure they are comfortable at school. Otherwise, nothing will be fixed. It will take some time. But if you if you can nip this in the bud, it saves the child years of struggle and keeps their emotional well-being intact.”
Don’t wait until conferences
Some parents began dealing with a child’s academic difficulties before school started. Perhaps their child was screened by Reading Success Plus or another center, so weaknesses have been identified. Better yet, tutoring may be underway, and the child is on the path to better performance in reading, writing or math. Some children may have been evaluated by their school’s special education department and have a 504 plan or an IEP (Individualized Education Plan) to guide their instruction and provide necessary accommodations.
Now is the time for these parents to communicate with the school and make sure it is responding to the child’s clearly identified needs.
“I want to be proactive with the teacher,” Anne says. “I would make an appointment as soon as possible to explain what was done over the summer and why, especially if you have a dyslexia diagnosis. And it’s really important to tell the teacher that you think the child needs accommodations and you’d like to start the process.”
Development of a 504 plan or an IEP is done through the special education department. It’s a difficult and often intimidating process for parents who don’t understand their options or the legal and educational jargon. However, it’s the only way to require a school to provide accommodations.
“Even if the parents have been around for a little while,” Anne says, “many don’t understand what their child’s accommodations should be, why they need them, and how the school should provide them.”
In such cases, parents need a professional advocate who understands the needs of the student and the responsibility of the school to meet those needs. At Reading Success Plus, Anne is such an advocate. She explains options to parents, proposes appropriate plans, and participates in meetings with teachers and special education staff, all to support the best interest of the child.
Building a framework for success
Lawrence and Anne speak from experience. Their efforts to overcome Lawrence’s dyslexia, dysgraphia and ADHD taught them the importance of time management and productive routines.
“You don’t want to be fighting the homework wars,” Lawrence says. “But kids don’t want to do homework because it’s really hard, they’re exhausted from trying to keep up in school all day and they’d just rather play.”
The best way to overcome a child’s resistance is with consistent, well-considered routines. Look at what works best for your child. Do they need time to just rest, decompress and recharge with a snack? Do they need to run around and burn off excess energy?
For younger children, structuring the routine will be done by the parents. But high-schoolers and college students can and should take more responsibility.
Developing a routine and sticking to it was vital to Lawrence. He was a two-sport athlete for much of high school, which meant coming home from practice, getting something to eat, then jumping into homework, which sometimes took hours.
“It was tough,” he said. “But if you don’t have that routine down, you’re going to fall behind, you’re going to get very sleep-deprived, and you’re just not going to be a happy individual.
“When you’re older, it’s more incumbent on yourself to do it.”
Ask for lighter homework load
Another way to reduce homework stress is to make sure teachers give students appropriate accommodations. That may include adjusting homework assignments.
“Our students have difficulty processing their work,” Anne says. “They can do the work – they simply need more time.
“Processing for these students may take two to 10 times longer, and it just takes them that much extra time to complete an assignment. When you have a number of classes assigning homework, these children can be up until two o’clock every night.
“And on top of that, they may be bringing home assignments from school that they couldn’t finish in class. “
So talk to the teacher, Anne recommends. For example, instead of giving 50 math problems to a slow processor, ask the teacher to assign 20 problems that touch on all of the skills in the assignment. “We’re not asking for just the easy ones,” she says.
The parent also can serve as a scribe for an essay or a report, doing the writing while the child composes the words. Anne did this for Lawrence.
“It was all his work, his thoughts,” Anne recalls. “But I wrote it down. Many people don’t understand that, and some people think it’s cheating. But that couldn’t be further from the truth.”
If a student has a 504 plan or an IEP, accommodations will be spelled out and legally required. For others, informal conversations with teachers can bring relief. But parents have to be ready to make a case.
“It boils down to the teacher understanding the student’s needs and how the accommodations would help,” Anne says. “If you have a diagnosis of a learning disability such as dyslexia, bring it to the teacher. Tell the teacher why your child needs a particular accommodation and how it helps them.”
The problem with informal steps, Anne points out, is that a teacher is not obligated to take them. Or, a student may have several teachers with different attitudes toward accommodations. That’s why the only way to guarantee help is to get a 504 or an IEP. Reading Success Plus can guide you through this process and be at your side during the meetings.
Help beyond homework
Schoolwork isn’t the only difficulty our students face. Because they might have more than one disability, often including ADHD, they often need help outside of academics.
Older children should be expected to carry more responsibility – getting up on time, bringing home assignments, taking homework back to school, and so on. But Anne urges parents to give their child some grace.
“It’s obviously based on the severity of the disability, but parents have to help the child,” she says. “Yes, he or she can be held accountable to a certain extent, but they’re just not going to remember it all.
“If the child needs accommodations in school, the child needs accommodations at home.”
Anne and Lawrence also emphasize the importance of making time for outside activities and friends. “That was always the positive part of going back to school,” he remembers.
Anne advises cultivating friendships, especially if a child is going into a new school.
“Children who struggle in school can feel alone,” she says. “They really need friendship, even one good friend.” For younger students, she recommends going out of your way to set up playdates and making sure your child is involved in activities with other children.
Reading Success Plus is a resource
These situations aren’t unique to children with severe learning difficulties. But many youngsters getting help at Reading Success Plus face greater obstacles than the average student.
RSP’s tutoring in reading, math or writing might be enough for them to work comfortably in the classroom. But we also can help with screenings, translate the dense language of IEPs and 504 plans, and be your advocate during meetings with school officials.
If the struggle seems like more than you can handle, contact Anne or Lawrence. They understand the tears, fears and frustrations, because they’ve experienced all of it themselves. But they ultimately found a path to success, and they want to help you do the same.
Reading Success Plus has offices in Grand Rapids and Troy and offers one-on-one tutoring online or in person in reading, math and writing. You can get more information at readingsuccessplus.com. To contact us, call 833-229-1112 or go online to https://readingsuccessplus.com/#contact.