Mother Worry: Academic Support Away from Home

By Kyle Redford - Education Editor

I think it is safe to say that parents of dyslexics worry about their children more than most.  There is good reason for this:  dyslexic children spend most of their early school dealing with a lot of failure and struggle.

My own worry hit full stride when my son was in first grade.  That was the year school tasks became less forgiving of his inability to read.  His impressive oral vocabulary and earnest personality were no longer enough to distract from growing academic concerns.

He started to implode.  His insecurity grew and his interest in school plummeted.  His impressions of school became increasingly miserable, as did his ability to relate to other students.  As his mom, I could not even decide where to focus my worry.  Should social, emotional, or academic worry take center stage?  Since I could not choose, they all combined into one big worry blur.

Our son’s first grade teacher had the unenviable responsibility of taking our worry to the next level.  Less than two months into first grade, she had to deliver some sleep-depriving news:  not only was our son having trouble in reading, writing, and math, he was acting out.  Acting out?  Devastated, I added behavioral worry to my list.

Initially she was hesitant to hit us with the specifics, but we insisted.  Apparently, our son had been caught stealing a book from the school book fair (I know.  A book?  It was a Lego activity book with very little text and lots of pictures), and lied about it to a tattletale classmate.  Ashamed, he hid out in the boys’ bathroom until an adult came to drag him out.  His teacher tried to reassure us that young children often experiment with stealing and it didn’t necessarily mean anything.  She warned us not to overreact, but mentioned that it was probably somehow related to his lack of success in the classroom.

I fell into a deep funk.  With all the work we had done to foster his moral development, how could he be failing on this level as well?  I had already made an internal bargain with myself, that if our son wasn’t going to be an academic superstar, at least we would make sure that he was elected citizen of the month.  Now I had to add another worry to my list:  moral worry.

My worry list became long and grandiose. I clearly remember worrying that my son would never make it through high school let alone college.  He was six years old.

In retrospect, my son was just a little guy going through a predictably disharmonious phase related to his learning struggles.  Of course I know that now—now that I can fast-forward eleven years and know that he did get into college.

But did the worry end there?

By external accounts, it should have.  In spite of his challenges with dyslexia, my son eventually blossomed into an engaged and passionate student.  Yet after the thrill of his college acceptance began to wane, I started to worry about what kind of support and accommodations he would need to sustain the academic success that had secured his entrance.  It was one thing to get into college.  It was quite another to succeed there.  My new worry:  could my son survive at a rigorous, faraway college (Middlebury College, in Vermont . . . we live in California) without his familiar system of support?   Without me?

While my son now admits that he was privately harboring his own worries over the summer before college, it didn’t motivate him to reach out.  However, one thing was clear: we needed more information about learning support at his college.

I felt uneasy about contacting the school.  Ideally, my son would make the call himself.  I knew that I would not be able to play a significant role in supporting him in college.  In fact, I had not intervened in his education much since his high school freshman year when we had put school support and accommodations into place.  However, at this critical juncture, the need for information overrode my commitment to his continued academic autonomy.

I called my son’s college to inquire whether his paperwork was sufficient and qualified him for support.  According to Jodi Litchfield, the director of his college ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) office, it did not.  (Note:  A learning evaluation typically qualifies students for accommodations for 3–4 years before needing to be renewed.)  I was frustrated to learn that my son would have to renew his evaluation AGAIN for college, but I was also really happy that I called.

Not only did my conversation alert me to the need to get his qualifications in order, but I gained important information about the landscape of learning support at the collegiate level.

I learned that under the ADA ( ), colleges are required to provide fair and reasonable accommodations (reasonable is defined as anything that doesn’t alter the nature of the program) for any student who qualifies.  Schools can and do interpret the law differently and they provide varied responses to meet the requirements.  Most colleges provide accommodations through an ADA office or an ADA representative.  Some college ADA coordinators work full-time, while others do the work as a small portion of their job description.  Obviously, one can glean important information about a college by looking at what level of resources is being dedicated to supporting students through the ADA office.

Jodi explained that dyslexic students at Middlebury engage her office on a highly individual basis.  As with most colleges, Middlebury does not apply a “one-size-fits-all” approach to serving dyslexic students.  Also, there is a clear distinction between academic supports that are provided through Middlebury’s Center for Teaching, Learning, and Research (CTLR) and the ADA office:  The CTLR provides peer tutoring, time-management, organization, and writing classes to all incoming students.  Specific accommodations such as extended time or recordings, however, are provided to qualifying students through the ADA.  Jodi reassured me that, “It’s hard to fall through the cracks when these comprehensive supports are in place; . . . the help is there if you know how to ask for it.”  One thing I knew about my son:  he was becoming expert at asking for help.  Even more importantly, he would be thrilled not to receive any of it from me.

Jodi also advised that dyslexic students:

  • Know their learning style profile:  What works? What doesn’t?
  • Regularly ask what technology is available.  Technology is changing all the time.
  • If students hit a snag, they should find out what resources are available to address the challenge.
  • If students are having trouble in a class, they should ask, “What could I do to understand this better?”  Talk to their teachers.
  • If the right resources are not available, students should make their own, form a study group, or reach out to other students.

I also learned that dyslexic and ADD students often benefit from using Kurzweil software.  Kurzweil is a “text-to-speech” optical character recognition (OCR) system that converts scanned text and displays it on the computer screen while it reads highlighted words aloud.  It provides a means to create audio versions for content that would otherwise be unavailable in audio form (i.e., academic texts or less commercial nonfiction titles).  Depending on the school’s available support, sometimes an ADA office will provide access to Kurzweil software and in ideal cases, the school will provide assistance with scanning the texts.  Jodi had witnessed students significantly increase their reading speed and improve their ability to effectively attend to the text when they used Kurzweil’s multisensory delivery system.  Some students even opt to use Kurzweil audio files created from scanned text.  This allows them to listen to an MP3 file of a textbook while they exercise or move around campus.

Jodi explained that students engage the ADA office to help obtain audio versions of books through Learning Ally (formerly known as Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic).  Most literature taught in college has an audio equivalent available to the student through Learning Ally.

When note-taking is a challenge, sometimes dyslexic students record lectures on their phones, computers, or other recording devices (with professor approval). That allows them to review lectures at their own pace later.

Most importantly, Jodi was quick to assure me that dyslexic students tend to do very well at Middlebury.  She attributes their success to the same qualities and work habits that got them admitted into a competitive college to begin with:  a disciplined work ethic, evolved self-knowledge / self-advocacy skills, and clear academic priorities—distinguishing factors of any successful college student.

I got off the phone feeling a lot less worried.  Who knew there was so much support for dyslexics in college?  One phone call was all it took to diminish my worry and confidently launch my son into college.

Postscript: After contacting Middlebury, my son took over his relationship with the ADA office; he also took over everything related to his academic life. He even scheduled his updated learning evaluation! Once he settled in to the demands of college, he made effective use of many, but not all, of the resources offered by his school. The CTLR provided important help editing his papers (although he did have to plan ahead to leverage this critical support, scheduling editing appointments three to four days in advance). He recorded his history lectures on his laptop and replayed them later, pausing frequently to add to and strengthen his notes (he reported that a 45-minute lecture usually took him two plus hours at home to review). He also received extra time on tests. Although he reports that he never really made effective use of dictation apps in college for writing composition, he currently he uses them on his phone and laptop for everything from texting, emailing, and writing formal papers and grants (his current research job requires a heavy amount of formal writing). The most reassuring news is that Dylan not only survived college, he thrived there. He graduated Middlebury College with high honors in 2015.

As his mom, I ultimately had to find something else to worry about.

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