For the past five years, my son has attended a private school that specializes in teaching students with dyslexia. They’ve done an amazing job with him. And now he’s ready to transition to a mainstream high school.
We want to send him to a public charter or a private high school. (We’re lucky—not everyone has this many options.) But these schools have what is to me a big drawback: They require filling out applications...and the applications are due soon.
The reason I don’t like filling out these applications is that they all have a common question that’s hard for me to answer: Describe your child’s strengths and weaknesses.
My son has many strengths, and those are easy to summarize. He’s brilliant, kind and eager to learn. His teachers tell me he’s ahead of his peers when it comes to critical thinking and knowledge about current events. He gets good grades and excels in sports. He also has a rare combination of compassion and swagger that makes him a born leader.
As for his weaknesses, that’s more complicated to explain in an application.
Henry has dyslexia, dysgraphia and , and they certainly create challenges for him—challenges that could qualify as “weaknesses.”
But I’m concerned that using labels like dyslexia and dysgraphia on his application might lead the admissions team to think that my son is less intelligent than he is. In my experience, even the most well-meaning people sometimes just don’t get it.
And unfortunately, we’ve experienced that. People have misunderstood and called him “lazy” and “disengaged.” Others have tried to compliment him, but it came out as an insult: “Wow, you would never know your son is dyslexic.” Or, “Your son has such good manners for a kid with ADHD.”
I’ve heard it all. There are some scars that just haven’t healed. That’s why when it comes to his school applications, I worry that revealing too much about my son’s learning and thinking differences could lead people to once again misunderstand. Would that hurt his chance of admission at a private school?
I suppose I could say that Henry has trouble with spelling and leave it at that. I doubt any admissions counselor would think twice about that. But if I went for full disclosure, I’d have to point out that dyslexia makes Henry’s spelling so bad that sometimes not even spellcheck knows what he’s trying to say.
Likewise, saying that grammar isn’t Henry’s strong suit wouldn’t set off any alarm bells. But I what if I went on to explain that Henry rarely remembers to use punctuation at all?
The truth is that Henry’s weaknesses have led to great strengths. His challenges have given him grit and perspective. They’ve helped him develop the kind of out-of-the-box thinking that sets him apart from other students.
It’s true that he can’t write anything out longhand. Give him a keyboard, though, and he’ll pound out an essay full of depth. Yes, it will be light on punctuation and weak on spelling. But that doesn’t mean it won’t be great. Will the schools see that?
As for his reading: Some people assume dyslexics can’t read. Reading, however, is one of Henry’s greatest strengths. Dyslexia causes him to have poor phonemic awareness, and he can’t sound out words at all. But his ability to read using language and context clues is nothing short of remarkable.
We’ve narrowed our application list down to just a few high schools. Each says in their brochures that they recognize and honor that all children learn differently. If that’s the case, my son’s weaknesses shouldn’t rattle anyone.
But what if they do?
I guess there’s only one way to find out. I’m not going to gloss over my son’s learning differences. They’re a big part of who he is. If for some reason this scares off a school, then it’s their loss. He’ll be an asset for whatever school he attends.
Explore ways to identify your child’s strengths. And get tips on how to talk to your child about strengths and challenges.
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About the author
Dawn Margolis Denberg is a San Francisco–based freelance writer and a co-developer of ModMath, a free app for kids with dysgraphia.