This post on Overcoming Dysteachia was first published as a series of weekly newsletters. Since it struck a nerve with so many of you, I am republishing it here.
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Table of contents
“Dyslexia is not a learning disability; it is a teaching disability.”
I don’t remember where I first heard this definition of dyslexia, but I do remember the impact that it had on me as I was learning to teach my outside the box thinkers in the best way possible. Edited to add: it has since come to my attention that it is dyslexic author and entrepreneur, Ben Foss who first used this term.
I remember thinking at that time, “If my kids who struggle academically have average or above average intelligence, how can they truly be disabled?“
Maybe they are smart but learn differently.
Maybe their difficulties with learning have more to do with how they are being taught?
Maybe instead of saying my kids have dyslexia, I should say that I have dysteachia.
For example, if my child needs to complete a certain number of math facts within a certain set period of time, he will not perform well. Does he understand addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division? You bet!
Can he produce what he knows quickly? No way!
He’s smart but slower.
Another example is writing. My profoundly dyslexic son has an amazing vocabulary (thank you audiobooks and read alouds) and can dictate an amazing paper. If he were asked to produce this story by writing, or even typing at this point, the output would be vastly different.
He’s smart but can’t show it by writing.
Author Dr. Daniel Franklin in his book, Helping Your Child with Language-Based Learning Disabilities: Strategies to Succeed in School and Life with Dyslexia, Dysgraphia, Dyscalculia, ADHD, and Processing Disorders, talks about this in a way that makes way more sense. He says that when approaching an assignment, it is important look at the purpose of the assignment.
Is the purpose of knowing math facts to be able to do them quickly? Or might it be more important to do them accurately?
Is the purpose of the writing assignment to simply write neatly and spell well? Or is the purpose to convey an idea or thought or story?
Is learning science about memorizing a bunch of definitions (and spelling them correctly) or is it about learning how the world works?
Traditional methods of teaching tend to focus on output – show us what you know. For kids with learning differences, this can be a big problem. Output usually means writing or taking a test, neither of which our kids excel at.
So we focus on the writing. We focus on the spelling. We focus on fixing their weaknesses so they can produce the expected output.
What if we changed this?
What if we began to look at the purpose of each assignment or lesson and help our kids to produce that instead of primarily focusing on helping them to show their knowledge like everyone else?
As I have taught my kids with learning differences over the past 22 years I have made a dramatic shift in the way that I teach. Many of these changes are based on research on learning that have proven themselves to me with experience.
In this post, I’m going to be sharing some of these ideas with you to help you make that shift from looking at your kids as needing to be fixed, to looking at your kids as learning differently and needing to be taught differently. There is much freedom to be found in this!
How can we truly begin to appreciate our kids’ learning differences so that we are confident to teach them differently?
Overcoming Dysteachia Means Redefining Intelligence
A few years ago I stumbled upon an article online about the theory of multiple intelligences.
As a mom of a houseful of bright, but struggling learners, I have been intrigued by methods of education, learning styles, intelligence and other theories that help me understand my outside the box kids.
The theory of multiple intelligences blew my mind
Essentially multiple intelligence theory states that there are eight ways to be intelligent that are all equally valuable.
In our world, especially in our schools, the most valued intelligences or ‘smarts’ are the word and logic smarts.
Word smart is a school smart because much of school involves reading writing speaking and listening.
And yes people with dyslexia can be word smart but they’ll need accommodations to express themselves.
Logic smart is another school smart.
People who are word and logic smart are the students to whom learning via language and numbers comes easy. Reading, writing, spelling, and math. Easy peasy.
There are many ways to be ‘smart’.
But Howard Gardner, the mind behind the theory of multiple intelligences, in somewhat of a backlash against IQ tests and standardization in schools, theorized that there are other valuable ways to be intelligent.
In fact, he proposed six other kinds of intelligence besides word and logic smarts:
Nature smart: People who are nature smart have a profound affinity for animals. Nature smart people think with patterns. They are good at classifying things in nature like birds and trees etc. Their interest can be animals or plants or even weather. They tend to be very tuned into their surroundings.
People smart: People smart people are interested in …. people. They tend to make friends easily because they understand people. They are good at reading body language. They think and process their thoughts by bouncing ideas off of others.
Self smart: Self smart people think deeply inside of themselves. They can appear to be slow thinkers. They like to think a lot before speaking and are very reflective. When they are excited, they may like to go off on their own and think. Many self smart kids enjoy reflecting on the past, analyzing the present, and predicting their future. They tend to be very effective goal setters.
Picture smart: Picture smart children think in pictures. When they are excited they add to their pictures. They need freedom to doodle and draw. They get great joy from creating. Visualizing and observing are their strengths. Picture smart people have more artistic ability than a visual learner who learns best by seeing.
Body smart: Body smart kids think by moving and touching. When they are excited, they move more. Motion is very important to them. They learn and think with their entire body. Their hands are busy building, writing, touching, twisting hair, playing etc. their feet are busy tapping, shifting in place or walking.
Music smart: Music smart kids think with rhythms and melodies. When they are excited, they make music. They need to be able to express themselves musically. Sounds and music are their main strengths. Music smart kids may make sounds like tapping and drumming to the sounds around them.
An example of the impact of valuing other forms of intelligence
To illustrate the impact that an understanding of the theory of multiple intelligences can have on how we educate our kids, I’d like to share the story of a young British girl named Jillian Lynn.
Jillian Lynn grew up in England in the 1930s.
She was having trouble in school because of her constant lack of focus and inability to sit still.
Her behavior was a distraction to the other students and one day her teacher took her mother aside and suggested she take Jillian to the doctor for an evaluation.
After explaining the teachers concerns to the doctor, the doctor told Jillian that he needed to talk to her mother privately for a moment. He turned on the radio and walked out. He then encouraged her mother to look in at Jillian, who is dancing to the music.
The doctor noted that Jillian was a dancer, and encouraged her mother to enroll her in a dance school. Jillian’s mother did just that and Jillian is reported to have said to her mother about her new school, “everybody here is just like me!“
Jillian went on to become a ballerina with the Royal Ballet, a choreographer, including such hits as Cats and Phantom of the Opera, and an actress, eventually founding her own dance school.
She has given millions of people great pleasure, not to mention becoming a multimillionaire!
Imagine for a minute what would’ve happened to you and Jillian Lynn in a public school today. She probably would’ve been tested for ADHD and been medicated.
A few reasons why understanding multiple intelligences helps kids
It increases confidence. Everybody wants to be smart. After understanding multiple intelligences, instead of asking am I smart? Kids can ask how am I smart?
It gives purpose. We teach our kids that they were created with a purpose. As we begin to focus on what they love and what they are good at, that purpose becomes more and more clear.
It helps with career choice. When a child’s purpose is openly explored, choosing a career or job becomes an organic out shoot of that knowledge leading to more fulfilling work.
How can understanding multiple intelligences change the way we teach?
- We can begin to observe our kids and which areas they have strengths besides word and logic smarts.
- We can begin to offer support and opportunities for them to excel in these areas.
- We can stop focusing primarily on our kids’ areas of weakness with the understanding that there is value in learning differently.
- We can make an effort to value their unique strengths even though they may be different from our own.
People with dyslexia can have strengths in any of the multiple intelligences. So this theory isn’t specific to kids with learning difficulties, however it does help us as individuals to have a broader understanding of what makes up intelligence and the value of those different kinds of intelligence.
Want to learn more about Multiple Intelligences?
If you would like to learn more about the theory of multiple intelligences, how to determine which ‘smarts’ your kids have, and how it can impact how you teach your kids, read this series of post on my blog:
Overcoming Dysteachia Means Turning off the Stopwatch
Have you noticed that when our kids enter the world we start this hypothetical stopwatch. When do they smile, roll over, sit up, crawl, walk?
Then when they hit school age another stopwatch starts ticking. When did they learn their colors, letters, sounds, learn to read, learn their math facts? And later on, what year did they take Algebra, Biology?
Looking at milestones can be helpful, don’t get me wrong. But there can be a BIG difference between when one child walks or uses complete sentences and when another child achieves those milestones. And that is normal. Neurodiversity is normal!
Grade levels and standardized education were developed to organize large classrooms of children. There is a need for measuring and classifying kids for organizational purposes, BUT…
What if we stopped measuring our kids’ achievements by what ‘normal development’ is and allowed our bright but different learners to learn at their own pace? We have that freedom as homeschoolers.
And yes, this may look different for a 6 year old and a 16 year old (hello high school requirements).
Does this idea make you uncomfortable?
It did me too until I learned the following 4 things about kids with learning differences:
Number one. Most kids with dyslexia have a learning curve that starts out much more slowly than their peers and takes off once a certain level of mastery is gained. Having this understanding, this realistic expectation, helps me to focus on my processes rather than on how far behind my kids are. I know that they will catch on eventually if I stay consistent with my teaching With effective methods – whether they learn to read at 7, or 10, or at 13!
Number two. Most kids with dyslexia are reading and writing and growing in independence by middle school and can be made ready for the demands of high school in a year or two. Much of learning in the elementary years can be done in a more casual, relaxed way. Most older kids (and adults) with dyslexia will continue to rely on and benefit from the use of assistive technology in the ‘real world’ outside of school.
Number three. If given the opportunity to learn at their pace, most kids will learn without losing complete confidence in themselves. This is not to say that we don’t teach them. They are not late bloomers in the true sense of the term. They do bloom late, but they won’t bloom if not taught. Because our kids need so many more exposures to information to map it to long-term memory, it is important to not delay teaching. However, when we can expect them to master the information can be delayed.
My 12-year-old was working behind grade level in math. He struggled so much when he was younger that we slowed way down. Now he is better able to master the concepts, and so he is working well, but technically behind grade level. He doesn’t know he’s behind grade level. And he loves math! I would rather have him be behind, happy, and progressing than to be pushed to catch up and pushed to master concepts that he’s not ready for and be miserable.
Number four. Kids can continue to learn basic language arts types of skills like decoding and encoding while at the same time working at their intellectual level in other subjects using accommodations like listening to audio books or speaking their papers into tablets or computers with assistive technologies like speech to text.
Most middle schoolers aren’t working on mastering spelling. But most of our middle school aged kids with dyslexia are. And that is OK. Allowing our kids to have a good balance of remediation and accommodation is simply what our teaching looks like.
A note about being behind and late bloomers…
The thing about goals based on grade-level is that just having a goal isn’t enough. Every person listening to me today wants their kids to be reading, writing, and spelling at grade level.
We can’t control WHEN we will reach a goal, but we can control HOW we will get there.
You can’t anticipate how quickly your child with a language processing weakness will learn to handle language competently. You can, however, control the systems you put in place to get them to that stage. Here’s what I mean.
I am a firm believer in early intervention with kids who are struggling to learn. Our kids simply do not learn language based learning topics without being taught.
This is different from the late bloomer theory which says that they will get it eventually and not to stress. While I don’t recommend stress, it doesn’t help anyone, I do recommend consistent, systematic, explicit, sequential, and multi-sensory teaching.
When we faithfully teach our kids with these methods day after day, progress will be made at whatever pace they are able.
Here’s the thing.
If we teach our kids faithfully, at their level while allowing them to pursue interests and have plenty of time away from the desk, they will learn and grow not only in reading, writing, and math but in curiosity, in creativity, in learning and mastering the skills to help them achieve what they were designed to do.
Overcoming Dysteachia Means Putting Down the Checklist
Or at least writing it in pencil. 🙂
As a checklist kind of girl, the thought of not having any list makes me kind of hyperventilate, however….an important step in overcoming dysteachia is to stop worrying about how much you’re NOT getting done and focus on what you ARE getting done.
Just as we benefit from making a shift from hyper focusing on our kids deficits or weaknesses to look longer at their strengths, we also benefit from allowing ourselves (and our kids) to learn without the pressure of ‘getting everything done’.
Many parents who are homeschooling their non-traditional learners struggle with the worry of not doing enough. Maybe we are not finishing a math lesson per day or we are not mastering spelling words or we’re not making the progress we want, or we are not doing other “grade level” work.
We are so entrenched in the idea of keeping up or catching up to grade level and doing every subject every day like the schools do that we lose sight of what it really means to do enough.
Enough will look different for every homeschool and for every student within that homeschool.
Some kids struggle to complete an entire lesson of math each day. And that is okay. I know what you’re thinking because I think it too. “But I may not finish our math curriculum this year!”
Next time your child is halfway through their math lesson and spacing out or getting frustrated, stop for a minute.
How can you help? Can you write the problems for them? Offer a multiplication chart or other math cheat sheet? Take a break and finish later? Take a break and finish tomorrow?
A lot of our kids have good days and bad days. Some days we get a lot done and everyone is smiling. Somedays, not so much.
A big part of teaching our kids (more than we realize) is keeping our relationships strong. You know your child. If it’s one of ‘those’ days,
take a break,
play a game,
and smile, because it is going to be okay.
I love to share stories of my own adult kids with learning differences. I have been where you are now and had many of the same fears that you have.
The thing is that most of my fears were unfounded.
For example, one of my adult kids barely passed algebra while in high school. But when she graduated and chose a career that required math, she had the internal motivation to apply herself to study math.
She had the confidence that she could figure it out.
She had the support at home and knew that we would come in and help her get the help she needed if necessary.
And she rocked her math classes in college. Was it easy? Not exactly but she did it!
So do the math. Or reading, or spelling. Take the breaks. And pick up where you left off next time. You will get to the end of the curriculum and your child will find their way.
Obstacles to Overcoming Dysteachia
Very early on in my homeschool journey, a wise, veteran homeschool mom told me something I didn’t want to believe. She told me that every year there would be something to throw us off our best laid homeschool plans.
Of course I felt that these words could not possibly apply to me. Surely this year was going to be the year! Surely this curriculum would be the curriculum! Surely this schedule, this routine, this co-op, would be the thing that would revolutionize my homeschool.
Well, I’m here to tell you that she was right. I haven’t had a perfect homeschool year yet. Not even close.
Over the years I have changed my mindset about homeschooling. I no longer look for something to magically make homeschooling easy breezy. (Although I do love a creative, well-thought-out curriculum.)
Homeschooling is a journey
I frequently describe homeschooling as a journey. The reason I say this is because when you set out on some sort of adventure or journey, you never really know exactly what you are going to experience. You cannot possibly plan for every detour, good or bad, that comes along the path.
Here’s how I have learned to successfully navigate through the ups and downs of homeschooling, especially homeschooling kids who don’t learn well with traditional methods; a method, by the way, that I myself prefer as a left-brain, linear thinker.
Get educated. If you’ve been around this site long,you will hear me referring to a book, a website, or research that I am learning from. It is vitally important to tap into the knowledge of others on the same journey. The more I learn about learning and learning differences, the better able I am to be compassionate towards my own children and give them the kinds of supports that they need without feeling guilty or lacking confidence.
Find support. This can be in the form of a homeschool group, an online group, or even a friend or family member who supports you on your journey. Ideally, this is somebody who doesn’t judge you or your children and who believes in the path that you’re taking.
Know that every year, every child is different. While I wholeheartedly believe that homeschooling is currently one of the best ways to educate outside the box learners, I understand that it isn’t always the best thing for every child or every family. For example, our 11th grader is in school this year. It simply was the best thing all of us for this year. Will she stay in that school until she graduates? Maybe. Maybe not. For now, a school environment is meeting our needs. Is it perfect? Nope! Remember there is no perfect education. We’re all doing the best we can on our own unique journeys.
A special opportunity for you!
My own journey of homeschooling my 7 kids with learning differences (and surviving! lol!) has led me to where I am now.
I love helping to guide others on this journey!
A few months ago I created a resource for the parents and teachers who read my emails and blog posts called Beyond the Box Learning. It is a monthly resource for parents and teachers who want to be inspired, equipped, and encouraged to better teach their ‘beyond the box’ kids.
It contains all of the elements that I believe are important for teaching:
- Expert Speakers. Continue your learning in small bite-sized chunks every month. Each month we have an interview or talk given by an expert in the field of learning differences. So far we have had : Dr. Daniel Franklin (strategies for day-to-day teaching), Shawna Wingert (strengths-based learning), and Dr Fernetter Eide, co-author of The Dyslexic Advantage.
- Success Stories. I find the success journeys of people with dyslexia and other learning differences fascinating. There is SO much to learn from others on the journey! Each month we have one success story. So far we have a dyslexic author, the fabulous and inspiring Jonathan Mooney, and a dyslexic mom sharing how she has found success in life and homeschooling her 5 kids with learning differences.
- Live Chats. Once a month our group gathers in a video conference to talk about what we’re learning. This is a chance to hang out with others on the journey and get all your questions answered!
If you desire the support, education, and encouragement to overcome dysteachia, visit the Beyond the Box Page to learn more and sign up!
Hope to see you inside!!