By Eileen Miller: Advocate, Tutor, Mom
As an advocate who specializes in the field of dyslexia, I'm constantly trying to learn how I can help parents, children, teachers and administrators in the best possible way. Being someone who has never been officially diagnosed, but who clearly is dyslexic myself, I dread the part of the IEP (Individual Education Plan) process when we focus on the child's weaknesses. The IEP team starts to discuss how they are going to take deficit skills and make them mediocre at best, in some cases.
This has always been hard for me because I know these children are so much more than their weaknesses.
The more advocating I do, the more I question this process.
Does this seem like the right direction to build an IEP, especially if a child is in middle or high school? Why focus just on the weaknesses? I can't tell you how many times I have said in an IEP meeting, that we need to look at the child as a whole person. Building an IEP for a child requires much more than just knowing how to write measurable IEP goals or negotiate more services.
I have now come to realize that we all, myself included, need to do a better job of looking at the child's strengths in these meetings. It's much harder to build success for a child based solely on their weaknesses. This practice is not how we learn. We learn by building on one's strengths while working on our area of deficits.
Looking at both strengths and weaknesses, side by side, is what will stop the shattering of a child's self esteem.
What do you think would happen in a child's life if you took an emerging skill and made it exceptional? I'm not talking about asking for the moon - I fully understand what it means to get a free and appropriate
education that emphasizes special education and related services designed to meet their unique needs and prepare them for further education, employment, and independent living. However, NOWHERE in "the purpose" of the IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) does it say that the IEP team can't focus on strengths.
I'm not asking for the best education. I've heard the "Ford vs Cadillac" analogy more times than I can count. What I am asking for is an appropriate
education. I'm asking for the IEP team to consider skills that can be scaled up to help the child for further education, employment and independent living. In my view, it’s a shame that most IEP teams put the majority of their energy and focus into improving the worst skills versus building solid skills into greatness.
So, how does this work?
Let's look at a child who has severe to profound dyslexia and struggles with writing. In this example, this child's strength is an imagination similar to Steven King. This child can imagine stories in his/her head and can tell you with great detail what happens, when it took place, what the characters looked like, their names, what their clothes looked like, and all sorts of plot twists you couldn't even imagine yourself! S/he also might know how to use technology to help in the process to get their creative thoughts down. These strengths make the child want to do the assignment, and allows there to be an intrinsic motivation to achieve and to do their best.
Now, if you ask this same child to write the same story on paper, you might only get about 20% of the details s/he said with very limited vocabulary and filled with typos. This is because writing it down, is focusing just on the weakness
to get to the outcome. In the school setting, this usually means the child’s IEP goals would be written only to focus on improving the weak skills such as spelling or written expression.
An additional IEP goal, focusing on strengths, might be built around advancing vocabulary via Learning Ally audiobooks, or a goal working on more advanced technology skills.
What do you think would be most beneficial for the child? Being engaged in building on their strengths while working on their weaknesses simultaneously OR only focusing on their weaknesses?
School can be tough for our kids.
As someone who is dyslexic myself, I personally don't believe that dyslexia is a gift. I think it is extremely insensitive to tell a child that dyslexia is a gift when they are struggling in school. All of us who have experienced that first hand knows that the last thing it feels like is a gift.
I do, however, feel that it comes with strengths and weaknesses side by side. We need to start addressing both the strengths and weaknesses in the school setting, together.
If you ask any successful person who has dyslexia this question, “What helped you overcome dyslexia?” The majority of the answers would be because someone helped nurture their strengths.
So, let's start thinking about building on the child's strengths along side of their weaknesses when writing IEPs! Let's face it, we all make life decisions based on how our strengths
will help us excel. The majority of us don't set out to go into a field that focuses on our weaknesses.
With the way technology works today, a child with severe or profound dyslexia can still succeed in life without ever having to master writing down a story with a pencil and paper. Dictation apps are improving day by day! Besides, I have never met an author who didn't have an editor to help improve their writing. Henry Winkler
is an outstanding example of someone who has dyslexia, but still manages to write excellent stories for children. He uses his strength of story telling and hired someone to help when it came to his weaknesses.
Let's Change the Story.
One of my strengths is the ability to draw and create. I earned my degree in graphic design and worked as an art director for over 15 years. I transferred into this business of advocating and working with dyslexic children because of my personal connection with dyslexia within my family and my desire to help others. I use both of these abilities daily when I work with students, parents, and administrators. This is what allows me to shine in what I do, not my weaknesses that come with dyslexia. Remember, the purpose of IDEA is to address a child's unique needs, it doesn't say just their weaknesses.
We ALL have weaknesses and we ALL have strengths. Let's not forget this when we are advocating for children who have dyslexia.
Let’s see if we can start a reform in writing IEP goals!
After all, look at the impact that Decoding Dyslexia
has had in the past 5 years to bring about change in legislation for children with dyslexia. Who knows, we might begin to see these bright, creative children be the stars of the classroom - where they should be - instead of being labeled as lazy or not trying. I, for one, am glad that I followed my strengths and not my weaknesses. I'm sure my life would be drastically different if I let myself be defined by my weaknesses.
So give it some thought the next time you are in those IEP meetings. I know it will be on the top of my list when I'm advocating for families - writing IEP goals is about the entire child, strengths and weaknesses side by side.
is a mom making a difference by sharing the knowledge she has acquired over the past nine years while supporting children with dyslexia. Actively involved in the International Dyslexia Association
and one of the Co-Founders of Decoding Dyslexia – TN,
Eileen has a strong belief that families need support and guidance to best assist their children who are either diagnosed with dyslexia or have characteristic of dyslexia. As a way to give this guidance and support, Eileen started Ignite Dyslexia Awareness
in 2010 in Williamson County, TN. Ignite specializes in dyslexia advocacy work creating a bridge between home and school.
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