The long, winding road to identifying my son’s learning issues

When my oldest son Lorenzo was in Pre-K, we did all the things we were supposed to do to help him get ready to read. We read him an entire library’s worth of children’s books, poems, and magazines. We read aloud street signs and even TV captions. We sang dozens upon dozens of nursery rhymes and played plenty of rhyming games.

We even used an extra bedroom as our afterschool classroom. But still he struggled to make progress in reading.

I have a master’s degree in teaching. My husband has a master’s in education as well as a PhD in education administration. But I’m embarrassed to say that, when Lorenzo was in Pre-K, neither one of us understood the complexity of his reading delays.

As part of my teacher training, I was told that reading is like talking, that all children can learn how to read if they are taught the right strategies. Teachers just needed to use the right strategy. I figured with Lorenzo we’d hit on the right strategy...eventually.

As my son moved into kindergarten, I noticed his lowercase letter recognition was inconsistent. He was also having trouble with number sequencing. And his name at the top of the page never seemed to have all the letters written correctly.

Mid-year, I approached the teacher about his progress, but she wasn’t too concerned: “Lorenzo is a smart boy. That light bulb will eventually click!” The idea of a learning disability had never entered our minds.

First grade was similar to kindergarten regarding his progress. Lorenzo wasn’t catching up to his classmates, even as we intensified our efforts at home. I tried repetition, highlighting words with different colors, flash cards — you name it. However, none of the strategies I was taught in graduate school were working with my own child.

I tried so many different games and songs, even the teacher thought I was becoming a madwoman. I remember she said, “Don’t worry, Rachel. Lorenzo is well behaved. He wants to learn.”

That summer he qualified for summer school based on the district’s reading tests. At the time, I thought more school would help improve his reading. But as I watched him come home from summer school more and more defeated, I began to think that something else was going on with his learning. Something was keeping that light bulb from turning on.

At the end of the summer we moved into a new school district. Lorenzo began second grade with a seasoned, well-informed teacher, Ms. Lindsey. A month or so into school she called me one evening and said, “Rachel, what’s going on here? I know you’re an engaged parent and working with him at home. I know you’re reading to him. I know you were a teacher. Something’s going on here. His data should look better than it is.”

I thanked her for recognizing that I wasn’t overreacting about his lack of progress. But her comments also confirmed my fear that, yes, something may be “wrong” with him. Like many other parents, I now feared that my son would wear the stigmatized label of having a learning disability.

I was especially worried that my son — who is biracial — would be labeled as another child of color needing special education.

Ms. Lindsey diligently documented her interventions and charted Lorenzo’s progress. She followed the district’s plan. She then made a strong argument for him to be evaluated by the school psychologist.

My husband and I were reluctant to have our son evaluated. We were well aware of the statistics about children of color in “special ed.” But we forged ahead because we knew we needed more information to help Lorenzo become successful in school.

His scores from the school psychologist were inconsistent. He had some extremely low scores. For example, he scored in the third percentile for word recognition. But he had scored very high for vocabulary development and critical thinking. Overall, though, the school said his scores weren’t low enough to qualify for special education.

I reached out to a friend of a friend, who’s a psychologist. She agreed to review Lorenzo’s profile and data reports. She looked at the numbers and said, “I’ve never seen such a wide discrepancy. Rachel, he is probably .”

That phrase was new to my husband and me. Twice-exceptional. How could two education-focused parents not know what that was?!?

Those words — and that reading of the data — sparked my transition to what I call a “warrior-research mother.” I was determined to find the strategies and environment that would allow my child to thrive in school.

I soon found out that my son was like many other children with “hidden” learning and thinking differences. His critical-thinking and problem-solving skills were so strong that they masked his weaknesses in other areas. And his weaknesses in reading, math and writing masked his intelligence.

He was eventually diagnosed with . And then with and .

The early years of our journey were long and winding — and emotionally draining. Once we were able to prove Lorenzo needed an , based on his rate of progress and other data, he began receiving multisensory structured literacy instruction and started to make meaningful progress.

As an educator and mother, I have come to appreciate and respect my son’s twice-exceptional strengths and needs. Our journey has led us to not only advocate for our own son, but for others within public school who may have similar learning differences. We leveraged our experience and resources to create GRASP Academy, a public school that focuses on children with dyslexia, in Jacksonville, Florida. Lorenzo is currently an eighth-grade student there.

He still works hard every day in class and on nightly homework. Reading isn’t always his favorite thing to do. However, my child has regained that sparkle in his eye and natural curiosity for learning. And as his warrior-research mother, I am incredibly proud of what he has accomplished, and I look forward to witnessing his bright future.

Looking for more information on twice-exceptional (2e) students? See myths about 2e students. And learn about the challenges of gifted students with learning and thinking differences.


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