“Students with Learning Differences Need Outspoken Champions”

As a child growing up in the ‘80s, I was bombarded with messages about “stranger danger.” Imagine my surprise, then, when a stranger arrived at the door of my second-grade classroom to take me away, and no one seemed to think it strange.

I obediently rose from my small desk to meet said stranger, who had lots of questions for me as we made our way down the hallway: How old was I? 8. Did I have any brothers or sisters? Yes, three. Which hand did I use to write? I raised my left hand when I meant to raise my right – a nervous mistake.

The stranger and I made our way to a small, windowless room I had never seen before, where other children around my age, unfamiliar to me, were sitting at a large, oddly shaped table. That small room eventually became a regular part of my routine. Why was I there? Because of reading challenges — from word recognition to reading comprehension — uncovered from earlier rounds of testing.

I guess I shouldn’t have been too surprised. School had already been a challenge for me even before the second grade. Starting in kindergarten, I struggled with seemingly simple tasks — learning the alphabet, tying my shoes, cutting with scissors, and other primary language and motor skills — that left me behind my classmates. Making friends was a challenge, and I was always just a step behind the conversation or action.

Oddly enough, no one discussed this change in my schedule, not my teachers, parents, or the few friends I had. Months after the stranger first appeared, acknowledgement of this change finally came in the form of a piercing, unforgettable comment from my teacher – my tormentor. When I was allowed to rejoin a reading group in my “regular” classroom, my teacher said, “Let’s see how long you last.”

[Read: Reading Strategies That Grow with Your Child]

My reading did improve, although standardized test scores indicated otherwise. Eventually, I stopped receiving reading remediation, but my school experience continued to be bumpy. I struggled to prepare for tests, and even with significant preparation, I would be met with tearful results and frustration from my parents. For some time in middle school, I got so anxious that I would get sick to my stomach on Monday mornings, which landed me in the emergency room; at age 11, I was diagnosed with a stomach ulcer.

Even in areas where I did excel, I wasn’t free from stumbling. I loved physics and understood its theories but would get stuck on memorizing and applying formulas. I had to repeat math, and a college with no math requirement was a top priority when I began applying. The understanding I had formed of myself as a learner — not as quick as the other kids who seemed to “get” school so much more easily than me — seemed at odds with some of the honors classes into which I had been placed.

Still, I survived school with an anxious sense of uncertainty, not ever understanding why it was so difficult for me.

Hidden Strengths

As researcher and social entrepreneur Dr. Todd Rose notes, “We all have jagged profiles; there is no average.” This is certainly true in my case. Much later in my life, during my first neuropsychological evaluation, I learned that I had combined-type ADHD that had been undiagnosed all this time. I exhibited significant struggles with executive functioning, including working memory. My oral reading accuracy was at the 30th percentile, with a “high rate of errors” along with other reading difficulties. And despite believing that I was not good in math, I actually scored above the 90th percentile in this subject.

[Read: The Dyslexia and ADHD Connection]

My profile is, indeed, jagged. My weaknesses, like difficulty with sustained attention, are offset by areas of great strength, like visual-perceptual skills. Of course, given the lack of a diagnosis, it took 30 years for me to uncover whether I was truly less capable or if there was a reason for my struggles.

The Champions Who Kept Me Going

Indeed, I experienced many struggles. But I did meet some champions along the way — select teachers and individuals who believed in my potential and encouraged me. I also found a group of friends with whom I could feel smart because we were all much more interested in learning things outside of school. I found joy working on automobiles and anything mechanical that I could take apart and put back together.

Even in college, which was a difficult transition for me, to say the least, what kept me going when I was one phone call away from dropping out were the people who cared for me, believed in my potential, and challenged me to work toward it. This same motivational factor reemerged several times throughout my life, which I credit for my successes.

A few months after graduating, I drove my younger sibling to middle school — the same one I had attended a decade earlier. We ran into one of my former teachers, and just as she had years earlier, she became a champion in my life that day when she encouraged me to do the unthinkable: Return to middle school. I enlisted as a substitute teacher that same week, fueling a passion to change the way we think about and educate kids.

Today, I am the president of The Dyslexia Foundation, director of the Global Literacy Hub at the Yale Child Study Center, and executive director of The Southport School and The Southport CoLAB, which serves kids who think and learn differently, many of whom have been marginalized or struggled in mainstream academic environments.

People frequently ask me, “What does it take to help struggling kids thrive in school?” I don’t have a singular answer, but I do know this: How children feel about themselves depends heavily on whether they have champions in their lives. These champions can leverage a child’s strengths, improve their self-perception, and motivate them toward positive change. I know this because my own champions helped me change my internal dialogue, little by little.

At my school in Southport, Connecticut, we bet on our students, just like some key people in my life bet on me. We choose to believe in their potential so that they don’t have to find those one or two teachers who believe in them. We don’t allow strangers to arrive at classroom doors and pull students out, as the relationship we build with our students is based on trust. We champion them unconditionally and appreciate them fully – no one is a stranger here.

Supporting Students with Learning Differences: Next Steps

Dr. Benjamin N. Powers is the executive director of The Southport School, an independent day school for cerebrodiverse children in grades 2-8 with language-based learning differences such as dyslexia and attention issues. He is also the founder and executive director of The Southport CoLAB, Director of the Global Literacy Hub at the Yale Child Study Center, a senior scientist with Haskins Laboratories, and president of The Dyslexia Foundation.

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