Education

Parents. Troublesome or desperate?

Parents. Troublesome or desperate?

Parents have been in the news a lot lately. It seems we are a troublesome bunch. It seems we drive teachers to nervous breakdowns, to leave the teaching profession, and in some cases straight to hospital! There seems to be a concerted effort in the media at the moment to encourage (demand even) that parents back off, turn off their rotors and leave teachers to ‘do their jobs’. We are being told that schools have our children’s ‘best interests at heart’, that they are ‘the experts’, and that we should trust them with our precious darlings. Our darlings who just haven't learned to be resilient and need their mummies to tie their shoe laces, do their homework, and fight their battles. But is it really as black and white as that? Are parents really the enemy, shielding their entitled children from the natural highs and lows of life, or are there actually several sides to this story? Ask any parent of a child with dyslexia (or any specific learning difficulty actually) and they tell a different tale; tale of a broken child, wasted years, endless battles, and a truckload of heartache. So, I see your teacher cowering in the classroom in the shadow of a bully parent and I raise you a mother sobbing in the dining room wondering if their child will make it to their 15th birthday because they still can’t read and just last week said they wished they were dead. For every teacher that leaves the profession I could show you 10 parents who have resorted to homeschooling their children because they just have no other choice and countless more who would do the same if they could. I am one of these parents. 8 years in the system is all I could manage. 8 years of my precious darling’s life and I’ve packed up my bat and ball and gone home.

It feels (I use this word because it is anecdotal and I don't have a running total) like every second parent I speak to who is homeschooling, is doing so due to dyslexia. I have made many local connections with many parents of dyslexic children and my son is not short of the company of those who learn like he does. I have only just joined the homeschooling community and at one social gathering half of the children there were dyslexic! I would say from my conversations there are 3 main reasons for homeschooling: ASD, dyslexia and lifestyle (religious or philosophical) and whereas the latter may have been the driving force in the past, the former two are far more common now.

From my experience, I would say that that number is increasing. Mental health issues associated with dyslexia specifically and low literacy in general mean more and more children are struggling to cope. School refusal is common amongst these children and many parents are left with no option but to home school or Distance Ed (though this is less common as it is very intense and relies on the support of a school). I also think it is becoming less ‘out there’ to homeschool now as more parents realise they can give their child exactly what they need at home with incredible resources and knowledge being so readily accessible via the internet. Facebook groups allow parents to support one another and the decision to homeschool is made easier because of this.

There are a number of reasons why parents of dyslexic children make the decision to leave the formal education system. The most obvious reason is that in spite of overwhelming evidence of best practice in the teaching of reading the vast majority of schools still adhere to a ‘balanced literacy’ or ‘whole language’ approach, which has a significant failure rate and the majority of those failed are dyslexic. There is no standard system of early identification and early intervention within the whole education system and many children are not identified until late in their primary years when it is harder for them to catch up and the damage to their self esteem is irreparable. The lack of training in initial teacher education in spotting the signs of dyslexia leads to parents entering into battles with schools to get their children the support they need. A lot of time and energy is spent negotiating support and intervention and many parents just give up and seek support outside the system in the form of specialist tutors and home schooling. As a result of their low literacy skills dyslexic children have significant difficulty accessing the curriculum and this leads me to the second reason a parent may choose to opt out of the system.

Due to the severity of their dyslexia, many children just cannot access the curriculum adequately, as almost all information is presented to them in print form and the most common way they are expected to communicate their understanding of it or a concept taught is through the medium of writing. Both of which are significant barriers. Children with dyslexia are usually as intelligent and knowledgeable as their peers but they are rarely able to demonstrate this. Despite dyslexia being a learning disability rating a mention in the Disability Discrimination Act and the Disability Standards for Education Act, the majority of children with dyslexia are not adequately accommodated and/or appropriate intervention provided. Many schools actively fight parents who request support and parents rightly fear that they will be labelled as ‘troublesome’ and ‘needy’. Executive functioning difficulties such as low working memory accompany dyslexic difficulties and this can exacerbate their struggles in the classroom. They may be disorganised, forget instructions, lose focus in the classroom, and develop avoidance strategies and behaviours to mask their difficulties. Learned helplessness is a by product of dyslexia and many children are labelled as ‘lazy’, ‘slow’ or ‘away with the pixies’. This leads to disengagement, anxiety and depression and often leads to school refusal. Children with dyslexia may also struggle socially and can be the victims of bullying. All of these reasons can lead a parent to make the difficult decision to remove their child from the school.

My husband and I made the decision to homeschool our son at the end of year 5 when it became apparent that the high school journey was probably going to be much more rocky than the primary school one. Since he was identified in Year 1 with dyslexia I have been in a constant battle with his educators to get him the support and accommodations he has needed. I have been able to provide intervention myself up until this point so I was able to support his literacy acquisition whilst he attended school. He was happy at school socially and had a strong friendship group so whilst I could have homeschooled him sooner it made sense to leave him with his friends and pick up the shortfall at home. I was happy to become ‘that’ parent for a few years but quickly realised being ‘that’ parent in high school was going to be much harder. In primary I really only had to deal with one teacher and a principal but it was often a hard slog. I knew from experience with many of my students that most high schools are a battle ground for children with dyslexia. The fight for accommodations and support has to be fought often with individual teachers and a raft of administrators. Suggestions for modifications to assignments are frequently refused, children are singled out for not completing assignments or not listening to instructions or they are not given the extra time they need and should be provided with to complete assessments or assignments. So many children I knew were experiencing mental health issues that impacted their learning as a direct result of how frustrated they were at school and the crippling effect of this anxiety had resulted in school refusal or resignation that school wasn’t for them and dropping out. I knew that I was not prepared to entrust my child to this ‘choose your own adventure’ lottery and decided that it was better to try homeschooling before any damage was done. He already has lowered self esteem due to how his dyslexia makes him feel and I wanted him to experience a learning environment where he was able to explore his talents and interests whilst getting the support he really needed. At school he always felt he wasn’t ‘clever’ enough and I know that this isn’t true. I felt that if homeschooling didn’t work out that at least I would not do him harm. If I committed to sending him to school then I knew that we would keep trying to solve all of the difficulties that would inevitably arise and homeschooling would become the last resort if all else failed.

We decided to jump in with both feet and give him the education he deserves. One where his knowledge and ideas are valued; not hidden or suppressed. One where he always has enough time to explore his talents and ask for help without the fear that the will be laughed at or judged unfairly. I was already equipped to help my child and aside from a heavier workload there haven’t been a huge number of sacrifices. Financially, we are now paying for classes outside the home and I would estimate that by the time the year is out we would have paid the equivalent of a modest private school fee. I provide his structured literacy intervention but I would have engaged a specialist tutor at a significant cost if I hadn’t been able to do this myself. I have had to spend a good deal of time researching the Stage 4 curriculum in subjects outside of my comfort area and have purchased a couple of online curriculums to support this.

To homeschool my child I have had to reorganise my whole life; our whole family life. I am a dyslexia specialist and work as a Structured Literacy Therapist from my private practice that I run from my home. Now that I also homeschool my child I have had to structure my teaching day around his needs. I also spend much of our day taking him to classes to enrich his education outside of the home such as drumming, pottery, karate and swimming. My free time (between my teaching sessions) is now taken up with his education and I am wearing and juggling multiple hats: teacher, tutor, and mum and that doesn’t even factor in the daily grind! My hats are looking a bit dishevelled but we are still establishing our rhythm. It is already getting easier as we relax into our new life. In just one term we have covered so much ground and he is so much happier; more confident and more relaxed.

I am one of the founding directors of Code Read Dyslexia Network. I am a dyslexia advocate because of my son and I have restructured my whole career to support him and his education. I feel that I am extremely fortunate to be able to do so. So many of the parents I support do not have the luxury to make the choices I have made and could never homeschool even if school has become an unmanageable and harmful situation. The Melbourne Declaration, the Australian Curriculum, and the Disability Standards for Education Act, all emphasise the need for inclusive education yet so many of our children are not given the opportunity to develop their potential and this is a fundamental human right that they are being denied. It’s no surprise then that parents of children with dyslexia have something to say about what is happening in schools and may question teachers about the experiences of their children. Violence and disrespect are always unacceptable but to tar concerned parents asking legitimate questions with the ‘bully’ brush is a little disingenuous. Respect is a two way street but for too long the parents of dyslexic children have only encountered a frustrating one way system, dead ends and road blocks. It’s time for change.

It really is time to Fix The System. Please consider supporting our cause.

Anita Evans Hellevik
Director Code Read Dyslexia Network
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And Anita's heartfelt 'Red Letter' from the 2016 'My Red Letter' Campaign