Why “just try harder” is a myth

“He must try harder,” I heard Mrs. K say. I was eavesdropping outside my third-grade classroom, sitting there on the cold linoleum floor.

These words slithered from my teacher’s mouth in a tone that sounded condescending, even to my 9-year-old self. Mrs. K was a plump woman who only looked happy because her face was caked in makeup.

My mother wasn’t the type of lady who wore much makeup. She was tall and thin with jet-black hair — the opposite, I thought, of Mrs. K, whose voice seemed to echo down the hallway where the other kids were listening. I tried to imagine the expression on my mother’s face as Mrs. K was telling her that her son was just unteachable, and the reason I hadn’t become a reader, she said, was that I wasn’t trying hard enough.

I must not have been the first kid to sit in this spot because I looked over at a small patch of dust on the floor. Someone else who’d been sitting outside Mrs. K’s class had drawn a frowning face there, and I traced the frown with my finger, wishing I could be friends with that someone. If he’d drawn a frown, that meant we probably had something in common: We were both failing at the one job we had — to do well in school.

When my mother finally emerged from Mrs. K’s classroom, she strained to say goodbye. Something told me she was trying to stop herself from crying. She clutched her coat and purse, and as she motioned to me that it was time to go, Mrs. K repeated, “Just encourage David to try.”

We drove home in silence.

After the meeting with Mrs. K, my mother and father talked to me about what she had said, and I did whatever I could to “try harder,” even though I didn’t really know what that meant.

One day we decided to visit the nearby Schenck School — which we didn’t know specialized in learning disabilities. The head of admissions told us I’d need to be tested, and when the results told us that I was in fact dyslexic and had , I was accepted for sixth grade. When I arrived, I was overwhelmed by the camaraderie and support I felt from my teachers as well as the other kids. Not only were the teaching methods appropriate for my way of thinking (I no longer felt broken), but there were other kids just like me.

It was the most at home I had ever felt.

The passage above is an excerpt from my book, Thinking Differently: An Inspiring Guide for Parents of Children with Learning Disabilities. My name is David Flink and I have and ADHD. In Thinking Differently, I try to help parents like you understand what kids with learning and thinking differences are going through and how to help.

And there is hope. After my parents helped me find the right support, I graduated from Brown University with honors with a bachelor’s degree in education and psychology and from Columbia University with a master’s degree in education. I also founded Eye to Eye, a mentoring program for students with learning disabilities, which has more than 55 chapters in 22 states.

One thing that people often say — they said it about me — is that “he just needs to try harder.” As I explain in the book, that’s a myth. The answer for many kids with learning and thinking differences is to work smarter and in a way that’s best for them.


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