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A Q&A with Mitchell Beres, President of LDA Virginia and a parent to two children with learning disabilities.

How did you explain your child's learning disability to them?

Anthony would start asking the question, ‘Why me? What’s wrong with me? Why do I have to be taken out of class and go to this other classroom to have somebody read to me?’ And we learned that telling him ‘Anthony you just learn differently. You really just learn differently, you don’t do it the same way.’ 

And over time that started to work, he started feeling more comfortable in his own skin, who he was, who he is, and that carried through in such a way that he’s become self confident, self assured, a self-advocate.

And my daughter, as she started understanding herself, she fit the mold of ‘I am who I am.’ She even jokes around, she has working memory issues. And if we tell her don’t forget, she goes, ‘You know me, send me a text. Because I will not remember this by the time I drive from Virginia to New York.’

And so they’ve gotten very comfortable. And I think where we help that it’s: You just learn different. They’re not different, you learn different. And we kept pushing that and pushing that all the time.

Why should parents use specific terms like 'dyslexia' or 'learning disabilities?'

I think when you start work using vague words, you start to hide what is reality. And I believe for the child to really become comfortable with who they are, they need to know who they are. And when you start playing with, ‘Oh, you have some differences.’ What does that mean? We all have differences, you know.

Saying I have dyslexia, I struggle with reading, it’s important that they understand that too, because one of the things I found over the years is the lack of knowledge of what dyslexia is, people throw that word around like there’s no tomorrow. They go, ‘Oh, he jumbles letters.’ No, it may look that way. But you can’t describe dyslexia as ‘he jumbles his letters.’ 

And it’s the same with the anxiety kinds of issues, if they don’t understand what it is, that makes them different. If you cover it up, it’s like, well, ‘she’s just a little shy.’ No, it’s more than just a little shy. And so you can’t hide behind that. You have to be upfront. 

What homework strategies did you use to help your children succeed?

So especially with Anthony, because with dyslexia and dysgraphia, and tackling from two sides of the coin. And so first, what I had to really, really learn is that dyslexia is the difficulty in translating the written word into something cognitive. 

And then dysgraphia, just reversing, they’re taking the cognitive picture in your head, and translating into written word. So with him, my style of working had to be to sit with him when he was reading and read with him, and make him read and have him understand it. And when he started typing words, he was like  ‘How do you spell this?’ I’d say ‘Okay, look it up. You do it.’ 

So I worked with him a lot on papers. And tying the two together with dyslexia and dysgraphia is ‘Ok, do understand what this was about? This assignment. When you read it, you understand?’ And we’d talk about it for a while.

And then when it came to writing it would be ‘Okay, Anthony, tell me what you want to say.’ Because he can create a story and tell you all day long, put that pen in his hand or the typewriter in front, I would say start typing. It’s very, very slow. 

So just tell me, and let’s start writing down what you said. And by doing that, it became easy later to reformat and edit. What was down, even if it wasn’t all logical in the way you wanted it, the storyline was there. And so it was being there with him, and helping him by making him do the things, and not doing it for him. You know, ‘just go do it’ didn’t work. I had to be around help.

So you have to change your style. And you have to understand not only what the child is wrestling with, but then how you help them through it. And just doing it for them doesn’t help anything because you’ve done all the work. They get good grades because you wrote a paper for them, but that doesn’t help. But things that we might have grown up with ourselves or believe ‘this is the way you do it’ might not work. You just have to sit there and say ‘What’s working?’

So you have to change your style. And you have to understand not only what the child is wrestling with, but then how you help them through it.

And you’ve got to be willing to try different types of things. Again, helping them with homework. Do you do it in the bedroom? Do you do the kitchen? Where do you get their attention? Especially children like this, because both kids have ADHD, so you have to look for that period of time I have their attention. And it’s going to have to last long enough to do something.

Going through this is a multifaceted education process for the parent. You need to understand what their issue is, why are they struggling? Is it dyslexia? Or dysgraphia? Is it ADHD? Is it something physical that creates a problem with learning abilities? You have to understand what you’re dealing with so that you know how to react, then you have to educate yourself on how you should help, and then be willing to adjust many times during that process. Because as your child grows, what you did in third grade might not work in sixth grade, or won’t work in high school. 

We have to educate ourselves on the whole picture, and then you can help. But if we go in thinking, ‘Oh, I know what to do,’ then you’re gonna run into a brick wall and say, ‘Why isn’t this working?’

How did you teach your children to become self-advocates?

It wasn’t just me. You know, clearly, my wife had a lot to do with it. It was the Winston School in San Antonio, they went there in high school. If there was one thing they taught, and pushed, is be your own self advocate. If you want it done, you have to be able to stand up for yourself. And you’ve got to stand up proud of who you are. And understand yes, you learn differently, but you’re not different. 

And then you also educate them. 

Branson, the Chairman of Virgin Atlantic is dyslexic. Einstein was dyslexic. I don’t know if it’s true, but the story goes that in seventh grade, a teacher sent a note home with Einstein, telling his mother that he was too stupid to learn. And when they start finding out if there’s these famous people that are just like them, in regards to how they learn and how they do things, it’s ‘Oh, okay. I’m not out here on an island. I’m not different, I learn different.’ 

And as they get comfortable in their own skin, then it’s easy to become a self advocate, because now they know who they are. And they’re comfortable with who they are. So it’s easier to stand up in front of somebody and say, ‘Wait a minute, I have a right to have more time on my test, I have a right to go someplace else so I’m not distracted or nervous.’ And do that. 

My daughter had to do that with the professor at Hofstra, he was adamant that she didn’t need more time, or some going into a private thing. She went into SAS and the head of SAS said, ‘He’s wrong, you will have a special place to take the test, and then you’ll have extra time.’ And it was a done deal. She was totally comfortable saying ‘Wait a minute, I have this right,’ and went in and got the support that she needs. So it’s something that you know, we push as parents, if you have the right educational system around them, not only do they push it also, they succeed in it, and then they can see. 

What rights or laws should parents be aware of?

Parents need to be aware of everything that’s out there. What kind of programs are there? What can you have? Can you have extended time? Do you have rooms to go take tests in? 

And then research. I mean, you have to do a little research because every state is different in terms of what’s available and what’s not. As you go from grammar schools, to high school, to college, everything changes and it takes a lot of research. You have to dig into it and say ‘What are we allowed to do, what are we expected to do?’  

I’m not an expert in IEPs but IEPs are not the teacher telling you ‘Here’s what we’re going to do, take it or leave it.’ You as a parent can go in there and say ‘No, wait a minute. No, I took my child to a neurologist. And if we do it that way, it’s not going to work. I took my child to the second neurologist that’s not going to work,’ these kinds of things. 

There’s no one part answer that says, here’s what you need to know. What you need to know is to go research and find out what you’re entitled to. I think I mentioned earlier, when I was on the board of this high school where the kids went to school, the parents that would come in from public schools and say, ‘I want my child to go here,’ a lot of the stories, behind the tears of the parents, because the child was struggling so much, they didn’t know what to do. 

There’s no one part answer that says, here’s what you need to know. What you need to know is to go research and find out what you’re entitled to.

They went in and the teacher said, ‘Here’s your IEP.’ And they said, ‘Okay,’ and it wasn’t working. And they didn’t know why it wasn’t working. And they didn’t know what they could do to go back and appeal what was in the IEP, or where to go to get support to go in and fight what was in the IEP. 

I wish I could just say  here’s what you need to know. You need to know everything. You need to be able to go out and research it. And the more you research and you find out your rights, the better advocate you can be for your child, because you’ll go in there and not accept something that’s half hearted, or maybe technically follows the requirements, but isn’t really doing what your child needs. And if you don’t have any information as the parent, you really can’t help your child, because then you’re a victim of the system. And you know, the system is bureaucratic.

The parents really have to be in there. And they have to be smart about what they’re asking for.

Learn more about some of the most common national laws affecting individuals with learning disabilities here. LDA members have access to weekly public policy updates, which include national, state, and local news that affects individuals with learning disabilities.

Do you have advice for reaching out to your child's school?

To really reach out to the school, find out who is the counselor, who is the person in charge of ensuring that your child gets the accommodations they need, and get in front of them, talk to them. ‘What do you think my child should do? What are you the school proposing to do?’ And you need to get your hands around that topic and understand what it is they’re proposing. And then as I said previously, then you need to go out and do some research and say, ‘Is this going to do it? Is there more that I can ask for or should ask for? And is there a specialist?’

And then people say, a specialist costs money. And unfortunately, it does. But one of the things you can do is research your insurance, because certain insurance policies and certain companies will pay for some of these tests. And so get as much information as you can for yourself, and then find who’s the person that’s going to sign off on that IEP or 504 and that information from the school. Who’s the person driving the program that my child will go through, because that’s where you have to sit down.

And some people say it’s negotiation, maybe it’s a little bit of a negotiation, but you as a parent, have a right to ensure, and in fact it’s an obligation, to make sure your child is getting everything that they can and should get, and not get the minimum because the school says that’s what we need.

What other advice do you have for parents?

Follow what’s going on in your state, whenever you see anything, and there’s a lot of things that go on from the state and the government perspective. 

See if you can log into the education department. What rules are they passing? What are they allowing people to do? We need to understand that. 

It really is just doing a lot of research. Get involved in the school, not necessarily joining the school board or becoming a volunteer, but get involved. Talk to them. What’s going on? What are your plans? How are you going to do this? What is your formal program? And even if you know your child has this learning disability, and it’s one thing, what’s their plans for children with learning disabilities in its entirety?

So the more you understand everything that’s going on, it gives you more strength and knowledge. Plus, it takes you a long time to think you know everything. 

Now, we started out with my son, he had problems reading. And it took a while to find out he had dyslexia. ADHD came in during that. Dysgraphia wasn’t found until the very end and he really had to start writing papers. My daughter, we found the anxiety issue kind of early on. But the ADHD piece, which was written off as, ‘oh she’s just anxious,’ wait, no, it’s more than she’s just anxious. So you don’t always know the whole thing. 

You think sometimes, ‘oh, I know, my child has this. And this is what I need to do.’ Not necessarily. Keep looking, keep researching. And stay involved. If you sit back and just let the school do it, well then the school will do what they ‘have to do,’ but it may not be everything that your child needs. 

“Keep looking, keep researching. And stay involved. If you sit back and just let the school do it, then the school will do what they ‘have to do,’ but it may not be everything your child needs.”

Get involved in every way you can. Clearly, LDA is a great resource of information, everything that’s online, and everything that comes out on a regular basis with what’s going on is phenomenal. When they have webinars, listen to one of those webinars, listen to what people are saying, here’s what’s going on, especially when they’re coming up with the webinars on here’s how we work with dyslexia, which could be different than here’s how we did it 10 years ago.

If you don’t stay involved and understand everything you can, then you’re going to do your best for your child, but there’s more you could do if you had more knowledge.

Being a parent is work no matter what. That’s just what it is. One day you sit back and say, I hope they take care of me like I took care of them. But it’s work, and when you have a child with learning differences, yes, there’s more work. But you can make tremendous progress and help your child make tremendous progress by doing the work and helping.

When we took my son to Winston School and spoke to the administrator, the administrator said ‘So what did you want?’ And my wife was almost in tears. I just wanted him to be able to get out of high school. And now both will graduate from Hofstra University. It’s work. But the success is there. And you’ll sit back and just be so happy at how well your children are doing.

Here more from Mitchell Beres by listening to the full podcast episode: “What to Expect When Your Child Has a Learning Disability, Part 1.”