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Accommodating Differences

By: Donna DeSoto

"But Mom, math is not my thing," 8-year-old Aimee insisted, when she was unable to master simple concepts of third-grade addition and subtraction. "Math is just not her thing," her fourth-grade teacher offered the following year. Those years, Aimee was unable to work on multiplication and division without dissolving into tears and often tantrums, for fear of the learning block she would be up against.

One night I heard her talking in her sleep. I went closer to listen and felt my heart drop as she tossed and turned, repeating, "But I AM trying my hardest. I CAN'T think! I HATE school. I have a small brain."

Hands-on helpers did their best

I spent many hours and dollars at the teacher supply stores in my area as I tried to figure out how I could best help. I grilled my friends who were teachers about what wasn't working, or about what might work, to the point where they finally grew visibly tired at the mention of Aimee's name. Thinking maybe she'd respond better to some one-on-one with someone other than Mom, we sought out the help of tutors.

Some were only so-so and didn't seem to make much more progress than I had. But others had better success, using out-of-the-box methods that I'd never heard of. I was eager to see some of these methods in action and to watch what "clicked" with my daughter.

I looked for patterns and noticed that great success came with all of the more tangible applications. To see the numeral "46" or "64" didn't have the impact that seeing 46 pennies or 64 toothpicks did. She could only add and subtract by using her fingers, which other kids soon teased her about. A tutor taught her a method of addition and subtraction using imaginary dots on the numbers which Aimee could discreetly use and count with herpencil point, in place of her fingers. Still, she struggled more than I liked. One tutor suggested that we might need to take a closer look at how her brain processed information.

Testing our options

I'm afraid we probably waited too long to have Aimee tested. The tantrums and frustration escalated to the point where her stress showed itself through nervous habits like excessive eyeblinking and throat-clearing—more things for other children to make fun of. I made an appointment with a specialist recommended by a friend. I explained to Aimee that she was going to an office to do some worksheets and games, because we were still trying to figure out how her brain worked.

Aimee was evaluated for learning problems, not at the school's suggestion, but because a little voice in my head told me something clearly was not right. I'll never forget the rush of emotions I felt the day her learning difficulty was confirmed. In a way I was relieved to hear that there was a glitch in the way her brain processes particular kinds of information, especially when numbers are involved. But I also worried about the nine-plus more years of school she was to endure. How many other teachers would be so laid-back when they discover that math "is just not her thing"? Certainly not the math teachers she'll have in middle school and high school!

Making school work for Aimee

Once we had documented proof of our daughter's learning disability, we were very pleased to discover that our school has a program to accommodate differences. We need to work closely with Aimee's teachers every year, making sure the teacher knows about my daughter's limitations early in every school year. She is allowed to take tests in a quiet part of the school, is given more time to take tests and is required to do fewer homework problems. There is a notation on her report card that indicates she has an "accommodated program" in math.

Thankfully, the tears, tantrums and sleepless nights are over. She works just as hard as ever, but her effort results in improved grades and better self-esteem. A teacher once said that our daughter just didn't have the ability to achieve honors in school. With this accommodated program, though, she has earned honors both quarters this year. Her self-esteem hassoared, surpassing the embarrassment that came with admitting that she has a learning problem.

Focusing on strengths

We don't make a big deal of her processing problem. (We have also come to realize that this processing problem doesn't only affect math; it can also hinder other areas in school, such as memorization. Again, we are always searching for different methods of learning, when necessary.) Instead, we focus on her many strengths and gifts. She talks easily with people and expresses herself extremely well. Aimee is a wonderful artist and writer, and she is a warm, kind child.

Sure, she wishes that she was good at math, also. But she is learning that we all have things we need to work on, and she is happy, confident, and realistic about her abilities, both strengths and weaknesses. I've taken a closer look at my own strengths and weaknesses, and I point these things out to Aimee. We discuss how we continue to try hard, and we also learn to make up for skills we lack. But we feed our souls with those things we love or that come easily to us. We have given her as many tools for self-expression as possible, to prevent her frustration from building to the level it once had.

Learning our lessons

My daughter's struggles at school provided a learning opportunity for me. I know that the amount of effort children expend is not always shown in their grades. As parents, we show poor judgment when we ignore our intuition, fail to investigate what our children are saying, and expect there to be a common "norm."

Sometimes it is a good idea to look at your child's poor or failing grade not as a failure, but as a learning opportunity for your child. Sometimes as parents we do need to demand that our kids put forth more effort in school, and we do need to help our kids learn the consequences of poor decisions. But sometimes as parents we must put our own judgment to the test. I'm glad I finally followed my instincts and worked with the school to help my daughter succeed. I sure wish you could have seen Aimee fly out of school last week, report card in one hand, bright blue second-honors award in the other.

About the author

Donna DeSoto is a mom and freelance writer in Fairfax, Virginia.

Under copyright by Partnership For Learning, a national award-winning nonprofit at www.PartnershipForLearning.org Reprinted with permission.