Posted by Nate Dunlevy

The following is the third in our three-part series on educating and parenting children with different ability levels. Part one looked at average students. Part two dealt with gifted students. Part three relates to students facing unusual difficulty in school.

“I used to hate reading, but now I read everything and read whenever I can.”

Makenzie never had it easy when it came to school. From kindergarten, her mom recognized she had trouble with reading. She has a learning disability that made learning phonics a challenge and turned reading into a painful struggle.

Makenzie is a bright girl. She’s an articulate and thoughtful high school student who likesThe Hunger Games, giraffes, and reality TV. You’d never know that just a few years ago she was reading three full grade levels behind her class. Of course, you wouldn’t know. On the outside, kids with learning disabilities are exactly like every kid.

On the inside, however, she was suffering.

“I never really liked school, “ she said, “because I never felt like anybody ever understood what I was going through or how hard it was for me to understand what was going on. I wasn’t very open about my learning disability until 7th grade. Kids would ask me, ‘Why are you going out of the classroom?’ and I would either lie or tell them and be really embarrassed.”

By the end of sixth grade, she had progressed to a seventh-grade reading level. Now she devours books. “I like mysteries, figuring things out,” she said. “That’s what brought me to where I love to read. If I want to figure out what’s going to happen in that book, I want to read until the end.”

She’s a cool kid, but she didn’t go from struggling to thriving on her own. She had had help. A lot of help.

If you ask Makenzie who her favorite teacher is, she rattles off a list of names of men and women who understood her. She gushes as she talks about her resource teacher in elementary school. “She was amazing! I got to know her from second to fifth grade, and I still talk to her now. She understood what I was going through. She got me into middle school.”

Of a middle school English teacher, she said, “She would play a lot of games, because we were all hands-on learners. We would always play games. I loved her. She helped me so much.”

She talked about another teacher who also struggled with learning challenges himself, saying, “He would make me laugh every day. He would always make me laugh, if I was having a bad day, and he cared about my feelings.”

She got help at home, too. She has a mom who stays on top of her. “I get a lot of, ‘Makenzie have you done your homework? Makenzie are you done?’ If I don’t understand something in any subject, she’ll sit down with me and it will take 30 minutes or two hours, but she pays attention and makes sure I get done with my homework that night.”

From friends who helped her keep up when she got confused, to classmates who showed her respect for working so hard, to other kids with special needs, her classmates pushed her and helped her along the way as well. “I’d have like 10 other kids with me. We all would learn somewhat the same and bounce off of one another. We’d always have fun together.”

Now that she’s moved into high school, teachers aren’t as attentive to her special requirements. She knows she increasingly has to take responsibility for her own learning growth. “I was always ashamed of it in elementary school, but, as you get older, you realize it will be a part of you for the rest of your life and you’ll have to overcome challenges,” she said.

She’s passionate about helping other kids overcome and find success. She implores younger kids who are struggling with reading,

“Don’t let your learning disability take over! Do your best. In fifth grade, I was out of the class for two hours at a time. I’d be back for a half hour and then go right back out. They’re helping you. Teachers want to help and help you succeed in life. I’ve never had a teacher like this, but, if you get a teacher that just doesn’t care, go to your counselor, go to your resource teacher, and they will help you. There’s someone in your school who wants to help you. Don’t be afraid to ask.”

Her message to teachers is simple, but powerful:

“Don’t sigh. Some teachers sigh, and that makes me feel like they are giving up on me. If you are getting frustrated with a student, because she doesn’t ‘get it,’ don’t sigh. That makes the student feel bad.”

Makenzie has a learning disability. She was a struggling student. She needs special considerations to help her get above-average grades. She’s also a gifted young woman capable of deep empathy and passion and enthusiasm.

Like all children of all ability levels, she is capable of greatness and at risk of being left behind by a system that isn’t built to care for her needs.

Makenzie is lucky. She has a mom and dad who care. She has teachers who care. She has friends who care. No one is leaving her behind.

If only every kid was so blessed.

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