Sending your child off to school is an exciting experience for the whole family. Your child has the opportunity to spread his wings, learn new skills and develop independence. As fabulous as this new opportunity is, there are a few things that every parent should know about before embarking on the journey. Becoming knowledgeable and aware is the best way to ensure that your child will get the best instruction for his or her learning style. Below are three things that every parent should be aware of before their child begins school.
Kindergarten is the New First Grade
The kindergarten class you may remember as a child was probably filled with blocks and baby dolls. Playtime was a not only experienced, but expected. Today, however, the focus of kindergarten has shifted away from play and rather, towards academic achievement. What kids are missing is the physical, social, emotional and cognitive development that occurs as a result of playtime. When children play, they learn how to interact, regulate emotions, practice verbal and non-verbal communication and build self-confidence. This is especially important for children with special needs as many struggle to understand social cues. Therefore, practice at a young age is an important tool for success.
That said, I do feel that there is some benefit to introducing academics at the kindergarten level and that is simply because it allows teachers the opportunity to "flag" children who may experience language-based learning difficulties down the line. Since kindergarten and first grade are the ideal ages at which to introduce the appropriate interventions for struggling readers, the earlier a child is identified, the better. That said, there are, in fact, some simple and inexpensive screening tools available today that offer teachers an effective way to identify children, as early as kindergarten, who may later develop a learning disability. While screening tools are not widely-used at this time, if utilized, children with learning differences could be identified and given appropriate interventions early on. Since we know that more of the same does not help children with dyslexia learn to read, continued practice without the proper interventions will likely lead to low self-esteem and delays in academic progress. If allowed to use these important screening tools, however, children who may later struggle academically could benefit from early intervention while also gaining the social, emotional and communication skills that come from play.
According to the U.S. Department of Education, “The Nation’s Report Card,” as of 2013, only 35% of fourth graders were reading at or above grade level. As well, 64% of eighth graders were reading below grade level and only 36% were reading at or above grade level. What does that tell us with regard to the effectiveness of an academic kindergarten experience? Are we seeing the value from sacrificing vital social practice? Perhaps there is another solution. Well, interestingly enough, Finland, which arguably has the most effective schools in the world, does the opposite of what we are doing in the United States. In Finland, children don’t receive formal instruction until the age of 7. Their school experience through age six includes learning through song, play, games and interaction. Outdoor breaks are not only encouraged in Finland, they are mandatory! They don’t have standardized testing. Instead, they have engaged teachers who challenge the children to learn through experience. If we take a step back and analyze our reading proficiency rates by third grade, we may want to take a page from Finland's playbook and revisit the kindergarten classroom of yesteryear.
More of the Same Is Not Always the Best Approach
As I mentioned above, more of the same does not help children with dyslexia. So, if you are sensing that your child may be a struggling reader, you may be wondering if he or she will make improvements if provided with more opportunities to practice. When it comes to dyslexic children, more of the same can actually do more harm than good. Dyslexic children need explicit, direct and systematic instruction in both oral and written language in order to be successful. This type of instruction is only offered through special education. What often happens, however, is that a teacher will provide the child with reading difficulties more opportunities to practice reading one-on-one with a general education teacher. However, since this reading practice is not specialized and is rather, more of the same, the child naturally becomes frustrated and experiences even more self-doubt. His typical reading peers are able to read without the additional help he is receiving, while he continues to struggle.
It is imperative to identify a child with dyslexia as early as possible so self-esteem issues do not set in. Since more of the same will not allow a dyslexic child to make progress, time spent in general ed reading practice will only delay the implementation of the right instruction. As the parent, you have the right to request that your child be evaluated [in writing] at any time. Time is of the essence. If you are concerned about a struggling or reluctant reader, do not wait.
When It Comes to Identifying Learning Disabilities, General Education Teachers Don't Always Know What to Look For
Since Federal law states that children with special needs must be placed in the least restrictive environment, children with learning disabilities are often integrated in classrooms with typical learners. While the idea behind integration is a good one, most general education teachers do not receive any training regarding the needs of children with special needs. In fact, a 2009 study demonstrated that teachers receive little to no instruction as to how to address the needs of different learners. They are instead expected to “pick it up on the job”. That means that children with dyslexia are often identified after academic and emotional issues have set in. Since research tells us that 1 in 5 students is dyslexic, that means that the average classroom includes between 4 and 5 students with a potential learning disability. Many teacher-education programs offer general education teachers a single class to learn about special education. That means that most general education teachers are simply ill-equipped to address the needs of special needs students.
Fortunately, we know from scientific research that if children receive the right instruction and early intervention, they will be able to master the content and stay on target 85% of the time. The problem is, however, that years often go by before a child is identified, which can result in progress gaps and emotional distress.
The key is not to segregate kids with learning differences from the rest of the student population. The key is to make sure that if the teachers are not properly trained to recognize learning challenges, that you know what to do so you can get the proper interventions in place for your child.
If you have a family history of learning disabilities or suspect that your child has dyslexia, I encourage you to take advantage of my free training so you can become your child's best advocate. The goal is to get your child the support he or she needs before your child experiences academic and emotional challenges in school. The more you know, the better equipped you will be to advocate for your child's needs