The question my parents asked that helped me become a self-advocate

When I was identified with dyslexia in second grade, the neuropsychologist described my experience perfectly. She told me my mind was using Macintosh software and trying its best to communicate with a world made of PCs.

In 1997, this was a serious problem. It wasn’t that there was something wrong with the software I had. It was just that the world wasn’t ready for it yet.

Fortunately, as Mac and PC communication improved in the 2000s, so did my academic performance. During that time, I went from being kicked out of my first elementary school to graduating from high school as valedictorian.

From there, it was off to college. I got a bachelor’s degree from Whitman College and a master’s from the University of Cambridge, England. Since graduation, I’ve pursued a career as an education advocate in nonprofit organizations.

My parents played a big role in my success. They helped me learn to bridge the communication gap I had with the world.

When I think about how they did this, one thing stands out. When I was struggling, my parents would always ask me, “What would make things better?”

For me, this simple question made all the difference.

The first time one of my parents asked me this question was in early grade school, when I was at home trying to read a book with my mom. I kept trying and just couldn’t do it. I broke down into tears.

Finally, my mom said to me out of desperation, “I know this is hard, but what would make it better?”

I answered, “If we build a fort first and read in there… that might be better.”

So we did it. It may sound silly, but we built a fort out of blankets, pillows, and chairs. Then we sat down inside with a book and the dog, and it did indeed make it better.

Building the fort gave me time to mentally prepare for the activity I dreaded most. It made it feel like the task of reading could be fun. And it offered me at least some sense of control when I felt I had none.

Of course building a fort didn’t miraculously make me read. But it started me on the path to discovering what I need to succeed.

It also opened a door to help me understand myself. I started to learn how to articulate what was hard for me, why it was hard, and what changes would make it easier for me.

Once I could say why something was hard, I started to understand what I needed to create a successful learning environment. And most importantly, I learned how to ask for it.

Parents often look to experts for answers on motivating a child or helping them with homework — and that’s great and very helpful. But sometimes, it can be more helpful to consult the best expert of all: the child in front of them. Asking kids what they need gives them the starter kit to learning self-advocacy, a skill that got me where I am today.

So next time your child is struggling, consider asking “What would make it better?”

You may not always get an answer right away or the most straightforward or simple one. But it’s a way to put kids on the path to learning about themselves, finding their voice, and becoming their own self-advocates.

Want to know more about how to help people with learning and thinking differences thrive? Read how Natalie redefined success as a person with dyslexia.


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