In December, I wrote a post about parents working collaboratively with children to address academic problems. The message in that post could also be applied to other challenges young people face such as being cut from a team, repeatedly not getting a speaking part in a school play, or having trouble finding a summer job. If you haven’t read that post, called Holding Them Down vs. Helping Them Up, I encourage you to do so now.
The December post touched one of my readers who asked me to follow up on the 7th grader it featured. Jules is just finishing up 7th grade, so this seems like a good time to do that.
A lot has happened for this family since the original post. Most notably, even though Jules was brought to see me because of social anxiety and excessive worry about academics, we began spending a lot of time talking about academic struggles. Prior to 7th grade, Jules had been a good student who worried unnecessarily about tests and grades; the vast majority of the time, he earned A and B grades. He had to work to earn these grades, and he was conscientious about doing so. Jules’ academic performance changed dramatically in 7th grade, which was his first year in middle school. His effort appeared to increase to meet the elevated demands of middle school, but his grades steadily declined in both English and Social Studies. According to Jules, he is a “slow reader,” and when he has to read textbooks and original sources, he often finds the material difficult to comprehend.
Jules’ description of his struggles with reading speed and comprehension, coupled with the fact that he was maintaining high grades in Pre-Algebra and Science, made me wonder about the possibility of an undiagnosed learning disability. When I raised this possibility with Jules and his parents, Mom and Dad were highly skeptical. Still, the more I educated the family about the struggles of bright kids with learning differences, the more convinced that Jules became that he has a reading disorder. It took some work, but together Jules and I convinced his parents that he should undergo a full psychoeducational evaluation. To keep cost down, I referred the family to a training clinic at a local university. The results took us all a bit by surprise. Jules has an exceedingly high IQ (intelligence quotient) – in the “Very Superior” range. In all academic areas except for those involving decoding (the ability to read unfamiliar words) and fluency (the ability to read quickly with high accuracy), Jules’ achievement, if not his grades, is keeping pace with his ability. In decoding, Jules is achieving at the 4th grade level. His reading fluency falls at the 20th percentile. These are significantly low scores for an individual whose intellectual ability falls at the 99th percentile (higher than 99% of all individuals!). Not only had his school district missed his learning disability, but his giftedness had been overlooked as well!
When Jules and his parents were sharing with me what they had learned at the feedback session with the graduate student who had done the evaluation, Jules exclaimed
I always thought I was smart but I could never understand why my grades were so bad. Now a lot of things make sense. I don’t feel so stupid anymore! – Jules, age 13
Just as positive a change has taken place for Mom and Dad. Now that they understand that Jules isn’t “lazy” or “not trying hard enough” or “apathetic,” they are much more ready to embrace the idea of helping Jules up. At the moment, the family is waiting to hear whether Jules has been accepted to a couple of independent schools with specialized programs for students with learning differences. They are also waiting to see what the public school will offer Jules as a student with two exceptionalities: giftedness and a reading disorder.
Jules is hoping to change schools. He has made a lot of progress in therapy in the area of social anxiety and believes that a fresh start with a new group of peers will provide an excellent opportunity for him to make new friends and develop a more active social life. He is also looking forward to the chance to strengthen his reading skills, to improve his academic performance, and to be in a learning environment with teaching methods that match his needs. I suspect that Jules’ tendency to worry excessively about grades will resolve once he is in the right academic placement.
Mom and Dad are still processing the new reality. Dad is still thinking a lot about Jules’ future and what the learning difference means for college and beyond. Mom has been helping Jules review for tests, and this has helped both their relationship and Jules’ test performance. Now that Mom understands that Jules learns better by hearing material rather than by reading it, their study sessions have become more productive. She really understands how to help her son up. Even though nothing has changed as of yet in terms of Jules’ placement or support services, there has already been a small improvement in his grades.
In the December post, I made some predictions. Given the new awareness that Jules is dealing with both anxiety and a reading disorder, my predictions have naturally changed. I still predict that improvement in Jules’ ability to manage his anxiety will lead to greater social and academic success. I still predict that when the time comes, Jules will end up in the right high school and the right college for him. I predict that once he is in the right placement for middle school, his academic performance will improve. Now that Mom and Dad really understand what has been getting in the way of their son’s achievement, they will do a better job of helping Jules up when he needs it, and the parent-child relationships will grow closer.
As I draw this story to a close, I am reminded of the tremendous challenge of parenting well. I am reminded that what Jules’ parents are being called to do is to morph into the mother and father bunnies that their little bunny needs them to be in this particular moment. If this doesn’t make sense to you, click here.
[Names and potentially identifying information have been changed to protect privacy.]