Magazine Feature

Measures of Success

The mother of a "slow learner" champions respect for learning differences.

The back door flew open and banged the wall as my oldest son, a 4th grader, stormed into the kitchen. He hurled his book bag across the floor and slammed the door behind him.

"Hey, take it easy!" I yelled, turning to see what was wrong.

Tears spilled from Anthony's big brown eyes. "It isn't fair!" he shouted. "We got report cards today. I got all C's and D's except for phys ed. The rest of the kids get A's and B's, and they don't even bring any books home. They get to play outside after school, and I'm stuck inside doing homework all the time. I'm sick of it. Why am I so stupid?"

His response was more intense this time, but the same frustration has plagued my son since he started school. The first sign of a problem appeared when he began learning to read. He could sound out words like the other children, but it was hard for him to answer simple questions about something he'd just read. He also had trouble mastering basic arithmetic.

Extensive testing in the 2nd grade revealed no identifiable learning disability -- no dyslexia or Attention Deficit Disorder or developmental delay. Anthony's IQ is simply lower than the norm. In practical terms, he has poor short-term memory. He's what used to be called a "slow learner" -- one of the children that school forgot.

In the early grades, Anthony's teachers usually concluded that he wasn't working hard enough. Each report card brought comments like "Should spend more time studying" or "Needs to prepare better for tests." Little did they know the amount of time we devoted as a family to checking homework, practicing reading and doing math drills.

Most of his classmates -- together since kindergarten -- are kind and supportive. But he still suffers the occasional snicker when asked to read aloud in class, and now and then someone calls him "stupid." For all our talk of tolerance for racial, cultural and physical differences, we need to remember that learning differences also deserve respect.

Fortunately, our son's athletic ability has offered an outlet for classroom pressures. As his love for sports -- especially baseball -- has grown, so has his self-confidence. His dad and I were thrilled to see something come easily to him for a change. I often remind Anthony that Babe Ruth had trouble in school, too.

As he finished 4th grade, however, we could see that the problem was getting worse. His outburst in the kitchen expressed the frustrations we all felt. My husband and I, both high school teachers, began to share our worries with educator friends.

A special ed teacher described the situation this way: "Kids like Anthony are the ones we often lose through the cracks. They don't fit into existing special programs. Sometimes they get so frustrated at the amount of effort they have to put in to keep up that they give up."

We arranged a meeting with Anthony's classroom teacher and the principal, who invited a reading intervention teacher and the special education teacher to sit in. To our surprise, it seemed that no one at school had been aware of the extent of our son's challenges. The principal was receptive and understanding and immediately offered concrete proposals. One of these regarded homework. When she heard that Anthony usually worked until bedtime every night, taking only a short break for dinner, she recommended that he do no more than two hours of homework a night. If he hadn't completed his assignments in that time, he could finish later or be graded on the work he had done.

At first, his teacher was concerned that this arrangement would make the other students expect less homework, or that Anthony would use it as an excuse to perform below his capacity. But she eventually conceded, at the principal's insistence and our assurance that we would not let our son slack off. The two support teachers agreed to work with him on reading and other skills.

The conference was a learning experience for all of us. My husband and I learned that there are people in the school who want to encourage and support Anthony -- they just needed our help to get started. The teachers became more aware of the problems that face slower students and how to recognize them. And they began to work on ways to help.

For example, by introducing and explaining new topics more than once -- and providing regular reinforcement -- a teacher can increase chances for success. Also, many kids like Anthony reveal a better grasp of complicated concepts through oral evaluations than through written tests. And Anthony himself later told us, "Something that really helps me is when teachers relate what we're learning to sports and music and other things I like to do."

The assumption -- by teachers and parents -- that every student could perform "above average" if they just tried hard enough is obviously erroneous but surprisingly widespread. A contrasting but equally harmful view holds that slower learners don't have the ability to learn well and therefore aren't worth the teacher's time and effort.

Our son has taught us that not only can slower students successfully complete their course requirements, but they often learn other important lessons along the way -- such as the importance of putting work before play, of prioritizing their tasks and developing good study habits. And they learn to recognize and balance their own strengths and weaknesses.

Sometimes the tutoring and other special measures make Anthony feel conspicuous, but knowing that these adults care about him has boosted his self-esteem and performance level remarkably.

"Most of my friends," he says, "are straight-A students. I get jealous of them sometimes. I've learned that spending more time on my schoolwork is just something I have to do. I'm pretty outgoing, so I'm not scared to ask questions or talk to people -- kids or adults. Sometimes teachers get annoyed with me because I keep asking questions, but I have to. If I don't, I won't understand."

Not every student with Anthony's challenges, however, has discovered a special skill that boosts his or her confidence, or feels comfortable asking for help in class. Self-consciousness about academic performance can hinder a child socially, as well. Teachers who create a welcoming environment for all children find that patient communication goes a long way toward helping slower learners keep from being isolated and falling behind.

Anthony's in the 8th grade now. He made the tournament baseball team last season. He also hunts and fishes, babysits regularly and has recently taken up rafting. He runs his own lawn care service during the summer and helps his dad remodel homes. We feel that his love for physical labor and his never-quit attitude could earn our son a landscaping or remodeling business of his own one day.

Now and then, prejudice still surprises us. Recently, a teacher told Anthony's class that if they didn't go to college, they might as well plan on working for minimum wage at McDonald's for the rest of their lives. Anthony has taken this misconception to heart. He talks of becoming a physical education teacher, but we all know that will be a difficult goal to reach. Overemphasis on college is one of the obstacles my husband and I confront in our ongoing relationship with the school staff.

We know that teachers and administrators face intense pressure from funding sources and parent groups to raise test scores, but there are other ways to measure educational success. More important to us as parents is our son's development as a confident, competent and caring person. By those standards, he's definitely making the grade.

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