(told by his mom, Lisa Harp)
Whenever I hear parents talk about their children’s learning issues, I go back in time to the early 1990’s in Chandler, Arizona.
I can still feel that penetrating wall of heat as I walked my six-year-old son across the street to school. You see, there were two children from his class who qualified for extra help that summer break…and you got it…my kid...my little cowboy...was one of those.
The math was there for all to see. He was at the bottom of his class. It wasn’t news to me. He struggled to read, write, focus…and…school was just so hard for him.
I was heartbroken, devastated. As I held his tiny hand in mine, the summer heat felt like it might just melt us both before we got to the school. Even worse, my little boy who’d always been so happy, was losing his sunshine.
Here I was…a teacher…and my child was struggling to learn. The embarrassment ran deep but the worry crowded that out. The sheer desperation…the fear for his future. Why couldn’t I help him learn? After all, I was highly trained in the field of education.
But I’d tried everything, and on that particular day, I knew something else was going on with my perfect little boy. I also knew I was wasting my time taking him to this program, as they were just going to do the same things they did all day that didn’t seem to be working for him. There were no different or unique activities that could help him perform better.
Back then…and now…the only support most parents get is to give the struggling learner just a little more practice. That it might click the tenth, twentieth, fiftieth…thousandth time it is done.
Yes, that works at times, but repetition is a rough road to travel on. It doesn't correct any processing issues and the child taught wit repetition can never keep up with those who learn naturally. The idea for Nathan was to give him a little more support, and I was desperate enough to say yes.
The beautiful, happy baby I’d had only a short time ago was apparently now…a bottom feeder, the one who needed help. He was falling behind rapidly, and I felt powerless to help him. Even worse, he felt all the stress of school and grades and performance.
But I was insane in a way. I wanted help for him so badly that I didn’t even care if they tortured my first-grade boy all day. “Just help him read,” I’d think. “Help him learn,” I pleaded in my mind. “Maybe this would be the breakthrough,” I thought as I ushered him into the icy cold classroom, fighting every gut feeling I had to just grab him, take him home, and quit all this nonsense. But there was that little seed of hope that this was the one thing that would turn him around.
Years passed without any real change. Nathan had a couple of great teachers and a couple that sliced huge scars into his soul. That can’t be redone. But like I said, Nathan was happy, hard-working, extremely social, and if there was ever a kid who wanted to learn, it was him.
While little boys lined up outside our front door waiting for him to come out and play, (yes, times were easier back then), I made Nathan practice multiplication facts. I made him sit at the kitchen table to read and write. I forced every academic I could down his throat and he spewed out the best sludge that he could.
But it only helped so much.
I knew this kid was smart, though. When he was three years old, he used big words like articulated and demonstrated…perfectly in context every time. His vocabulary and personality astounded everyone. I was sure my boy was gifted and his future would be bright.
But he’d mess up some words, too. He had a hard time saying magazine (mazagine) and specifically (pacifically). He could tell you the words of a movie verbatim after one viewing, though, and he could build huge Lego sets on his own, following the directions step-by-step.
Some of his teachers pushed for medication. I stood my ground and refused. This was the heyday of Ritalin where kids lined up in the nurse’s office at school to get their pills. I knew one thing in all of this: that wasn’t going to be my child.
I can’t say that I didn’t have some weak moments where I thought medication might help. But I’d read too much about the down sides of Ritalin and didn't want that for my little boy. I'm glad I held my ground on that issue!
When Nathan was in the fifth grade, we moved to Colorado and the real struggle began. He fell further and further behind. His asthma was so bad that he had to have breathing treatments almost every day at school. He was stressed out and knew he wasn’t performing as well as his peers.
Awareness…it’s a thing with kids. They know who’s getting A’s and who’s getting F’s. They know who’s the fastest runner and the kid who can barely make it to the finish line. They know the Kangaroos are the low reading group and the Dolphins are the high reading group.
My son was a Kangaroo, and I vowed he’d one day become a Dolphin.
I pressed harder and he got more and more stressed out. One day, something snapped. I knew Nathan couldn’t go back to school. I knew he needed something different. I knew he was what I now call a unique learner, and I knew one thing. I would fix it.
Some how, some way.
I went on a mother mission. Keep in mind that in the early 1990’s, the internet wasn’t even around yet. As it gained steam, we plugged in our phone lines and waited until night to use some of the internet love we could get, giddy with this new toy, as that’s what it was to start with – one we paid for by the minute. It seems funny now, but that’s how the internet was in its infancy.
But there wasn’t the glut of information there that you get today. I couldn’t just google learning disabilities and start reading for hours on end. There wasn’t much at all about how to treat learning disabilities, especially for the unique learner. But my chin was set in a hard line. This was my boy, and I wasn’t letting him fail any more.
We pulled him out of school and destressed him. For a while, we unschooled him and let him get by with the bare minimum of academics. You see, Nathan had dyslexia, auditory processing problems, and most likely, ADD. But we didn’t know then that home schooling him was the best thing we could have done. I didn’t know then that you can’t learn when you’re in fight-or-flight, and my son had been in six years of fight-or-flight.
Days passed and we started getting our sweet boy back. It was like a breath of fresh air.
But the problem still wasn’t fixed.
"There has to be a way to help him," I thought. "And other kids, too."
After all, as a teacher, I’d worked and worked with so many Kangaroos and sometimes even made some progress into getting them into the next group…just by hard work and determination. But there had to be something more…a way. A system. A plan that worked.
So…I took classes. Spent hours at the library at night studying the brain, learning, learning issues, learning disabilities, dyslexia…and anything I could think of.
I was lucky enough to live in Colorado Springs at the time and took classes from one of Diane Craft’s protégé’s…Rebecca Kinnard. The information was based on researchers Doman and Delacatto. Their research was done in the 1950’s and 1960’s for “brain injured” children. It’s focus on motor, visual, and spatial skills intrigued me.
This is where I learned about the brain and how it affects learning. It’s where I discovered the power of cross-lateral movements and neuroplasticity. This was the first place I’d been that gave me the first steps to a solution to Nathan’s learning problems.
I studied the material like a fiend and tried out many of the activities on Nathan. Some worked and some didn’t. I adjusted, researched, altered, and changed activities to help him. I added auditory skills to the mix.
Every day, I had Nathan work on cross-lateral and brain integration exercises. We noticed one thing right away. He calmed down. He quit having as many asthma attacks. He was more primed to learn.
But…sadly…it wasn’t enough. We saw improvement, but I still didn’t have that Dolphin I wanted. Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t care if he was in the high group or not.
And I wanted to help him get there. He’d been through enough.
I took him to the eye doctor to get his eyes checked and that’s where I discovered vision therapy. I enrolled him in the classes and became fascinated with it. I learned that we have muscles in our eyes and that they can become weak and keep a student from lining math columns up correctly or writing on lines on a paper.
Nathan always had a difficult time with margins. He would start writing almost in the middle of the paper. That’s because he wasn’t seeing the line where it actually was. His writing was messy, sloped downhill, and irregular.
Soon, he was writing in those margins. I had been teaching him cursive, and that helped immensely. Switching from print to cursive is difficult for students, but it’s so important for a unique learner who is struggling to get print on paper to use cursive. Cursive flows, and the options for reversals are so much less.
I was so interested in the vision therapy component of learning that I received training for it. I applied what I learned to learning, as vision therapy is a comprehensive and deep field that eye doctors should be regulating. But some of the easier exercises affected learning and my mind was spinning with new ways to apply eye exercises to academics.
I broke down the skills we use when reading and tabulated fourteen. It made me wonder how any of us manage to read. I broke those skills down into smaller units – micro-skills and had Nathan work on one small micro-skill at a time…with the neuroplasticity exercises as well.
After all, I had the perfect guinea pig at home – my sweet boy who wanted to succeed more than any kid I’d ever known. At one point, if someone would have told me to stand him on his head in a corner for 45 minutes a day, I would have done it!
But…he still wasn’t that Dolphin. His reading was sketchy, and he wasn’t confident. He misread words and his fluency was poor although his comprehension was high. I knew we had to get this fixed before he went to middle school and high school.
Something was still missing.
As I continued to study and refine, I realized it was the auditory component that he needed. I’d added it into the brain integration component, but he needed something more intensive. Unfortunately, this piece was harder. But I found enough information to piece together exercises that would expand his auditory memory and processing.
He started hearing sounds correctly and learned to manipulate auditory information in his head so he could sound out words correctly and read more fluently. Math word problems became easier for him because he could read and process the information more easily.
He could also follow multi-step directions after his auditory skills were strengthened. I smiled, remembering when he was a seven-year-old and became overwhelmed when we gave him more than one thing to do…he’d get so upset and say, “You’re giving me too many demandments!”
We learned to not give this kid too many “demandments,” but of course, that only helped him be more sane, more comfortable. It did nothing to help his issue with processing auditory information and strengthening auditory memory.
But with all these new and exciting exercises, Nathan started organizing his thoughts and ideas better. His smile came back…his sunshine was bright and yellow…and I reveled in it!
Adding to the mix, I designed exercises and games he could play and enjoy. By then, I knew he was a tactile learner and he needed to do something to learn it. I tried to put as much movement as I could into his learning, and it helped.
Those days passed like a whirlwind and then the news came that we were moving yet again…this time to California. I worried about Nathan…of course. You see, he was Mr. Social and desperately wanted to go back to school.
By then he’d completed the sixth grade and I didn’t think he was ready for middle school. I entertained the thought of private schools, but I knew the area we were moving to was remote. It was what we wanted for the kids – the life of living in the country. But I knew schooling options were limited.
By the time autumn rolled around, Nathan was stir crazy and had his own chin set in a hard line. “I’m going back to school,” he announced. There was no arguing with him about that.
So…I enrolled him in Toyon Middle School, scared out of my wits. I didn’t know what I’d do if we had a repeat performance of his other school days, but I wanted him to be happy.
The first few months flew by. He struggled a bit in algebra, but beyond that he seemed to be doing fine. We received a letter in the mail toward the end of the first quarter inviting us to an awards ceremony, so of course we went. I didn’t pay too much attention to the details as like most families, we were busy and had a lot going on with sports, horses, and just normal life.
We sat on the hard benches in the crowded auditorium listening as student after student was called up to receive an honor roll certificate. I sat back, wondering what we were doing there. Maybe Nathan had a sports award or something.
And then something happened that I’ll never forget. They called Nathan's name…for his honor roll certificate.
Nathan made the honor roll! He’d done it…we’d done it!
I breathed. I cried…swiping my tears away so I wouldn’t embarrass anyone. But I was a proud mom, let me tell you!
Back then, schools often gave out bumper stickers that announced your child was an honor student. The principal told us to take one of the bumper stickers off the table.
I took two…I guess I figured we’d earned it. It’s funny how something as silly as a bumper sticker can make you feel like you’ve made it in the world, that you’ll be okay, when really it’s nothing more than plastic, glue, and letters.
Oddly, I never put those bumper stickers on my car…it was enough knowing that Nathan had made the honor roll. But I remembered what if felt like to have a child who wasn’t an honor student, who struggled and worked and never could quite make it. I'll never forget that feeling.
Oh, and we got more good news. By then, Nathan was reading at a tenth-grade level and his confidence grew in every aspect.
He continued as an honor student, graduated high school and went to college with scholarships. He bought his first house at 23 and a business at 27.
His future is bright…because he’s that bright boy I always knew lived inside a disconnected body and brain…a boy who had learning blocks but still had a lot of intelligence and potential.
My message to you is this…never give up on your child. It doesn’t matter what anyone tells you.
Every child can learn!