Teaching Children Who Struggle:

Updated: Feb 17

My SPED Story

By Judith Jolma



I was that child! I used to hide my school books. My poor, exasperated mother! School time was tantrum time — filled with endless homework battles. Sound familiar?


Children with learning challenges suffer from unnecessary stress, frustration, and failing grades. Let me be the voice of your struggling child for the next few minutes.


Let me be the voice of your struggling child for the next few minutes.

I grew up with a learning disability that prevented my ability to read and severely disrupted daily life well into adulthood. I had what is called “convergence insufficiency.” That means my eyes worked independently of each other. Because my brain could not fuse two images into one, it worked overtime trying to choose the clearest image and shutting off the second.


To understand how this appears, close one eye and hold a pencil at arm's length. Without moving, switch the eye you are looking through. The pencil appears to move position, but only your perspective changes.

Imagine trying to read while the brain is switching perspectives every few seconds. Words appear to dance about, flash on and off, and grow in size. Imagine trying to walk through a doorway when the walls suddenly move without warning.


That was life on a good day. If fatigued, my brain failed to shut off either image, creating double vision. Everything appeared bigger… fuzzier, wavy. Children with convergence insufficiency can have 20/20 sight but they cannot understand what they see. Since this is how the world has always appeared to them, they don’t even know anything is wrong. Optometrists, who are trained to correct sight rather than the brain’s processing of images, regularly overlook convergence insufficiency leaving child and teacher to battle it out in seemingly endless conflict.


But there is hope. Six months of vision therapy is all it took to transform my world. Regardless of the learning disability, breakthroughs happen when the parent can see the world from the child’s perspective. The most important thing to know about children who struggle is that they do not know the source of their struggle any better than you know. Even if they did, they would not have the words to tell you. I did not know that the world looked blurred or flat. Headaches were so common that I didn’t even recognize when I had one. I never calmly sat beside my mother and said, “Mommy, I want to please you but I can’t see those words on the page and reading hurts.” Instead, I acted out with all kinds of bad behavior.


Despite how it may feel to the teacher or parent, children with learning disabilities are not lazy, unmotivated, or unintelligent. They are not trying to make your life more difficult. They are actually working ten times harder than others to do everyday tasks. My homeschooling mother could tell something was wrong with my vision. She gave me books with super jumbo text and spent countless hours drilling phonics. By age 8, I knew how to read, but I could not read. Exerting enormous effort and concentration, I’d struggle to hold those words still long enough to read them. I’d tip my head and cover one eye to shut off the double vision. Even if I’d successfully managed to read a paragraph, the enormous effort it took prevented me from retaining or comprehending any of it. So physically exhausted, I’d begin to sigh deeply or pant. I’d become drowsy and fall asleep. Then the eye strain and headache would kick in. My neck and back muscles seized up. In every childhood picture of me, you will see my fists clenched tightly as my body tried to hold the world still. Those fists only increased tension through my neck, increasing the headaches.

I never calmly sat beside my mother and said, “Mommy, I want to please you but I can’t see those words on the page and reading hurts.” Instead, I acted out with all kinds of bad behavior.

My mother dismissed my reading struggles as dyslexia. She was not far off. Dyslexia and convergence insufficiency are very similar and are often confused.

“What is dyslexia,” I’d ask.

“It just means that you have a slow brain,” she explained.

My 10-year-old self interpreted that as: “You are just dumb.”


Reading became associated with shame, anxiety, and frustration. Once the textbooks came out, an involuntary pain response would flood my body with adrenaline. I didn’t simply not want to read. I wanted to take my book and throw it across the room. Homework battles. Tears. Tantrums. Hiding books. Pretending to have completed assignments. It was not my mother’s fault. She simply had no idea where the root of my “bad behavior” lay. My parents tried motivating rewards, punishments, and humiliation. But the homework battles only increased.


They assumed I was not trying hard enough. In reality, I was trying harder than all of my peers put together because I wanted to do well. I wanted to please my parents. I wanted to impress my friends. But I thought I must just be dumb.


The surprising advantage of learning disabilities

Far from being unintelligent, children with learning disabilities are born with, and further develop, unique superpowers. In their book The Dyslexic Advantage: Unlocking the Hidden Potential of the Dyslexic Brain, Brock Eide, and Fernette Eide explore the superpowers connected to just one so-called learning disability. Their research suggests the dyslexic brain sees the material world through a unique perspective giving them an advantage in mathematics and engineering. They also have a unique ability to detect relationships between phenomena, like objects, ideas, and events; and are gifted in narrative, as well as the ability to explain historical facts with present-day knowledge.


Similar research exists showing the power of other so-called disabilities such as autism, auditory processing disorders, and ADD. Because my vision was functionally useless, my auditory learning developed well beyond normal. I can comprehend and remember almost anything I hear -- forever. Because my need for order and predictability was so intense, I developed phenomenal management and organizational skills. If allowed to fully develop their superpowers, children with unique brain functions can quickly reach a genius level. Conflicts arise when teachers try to force traditional teaching methods upon a child who simply cannot comprehend information presented in traditional ways.


How many children are struggling?

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, more than 14 percent of children ages 3 to 21— all 7.3 million of them — received services from federally supported special education programs in 2019. Notice those are just the children who have been treated or received government services. It does not include children, like myself, who are never diagnosed or treated through government services. So the actual number of children struggling with learning disabilities is far greater. Learning disabilities can include autism spectrum disorder, speech and language dysfunction, auditory processing disorders, dyslexia, or dysgraphia.


Discouraged and disheartened, a full 16 percent of these students treated within the system drop out of high school having never earned a diploma. They suffer from anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and unstable employment and family relationships throughout their lives. Do we wonder why?


Each learning disability requires a different kind of support - some may be simple to resolve via a stint of therapy or even proper nutrition, while others may demand a lifetime of professional assistance. What we must know about working with all children, especially those with learning differences, is that the first step to helping them thrive is to see the world through their eyes. Once you can empathize with their struggle - feel their headaches, and see their unique genius - we can do two things: identify the proper therapy, and let their brilliant brains work in their own quirky yet amazing ways.

Never ignore the underlying cause of a struggling student.

By the time my friends began graduating college, I had yet to begin my education. Fortunately, having grown up with a learning disability, I’d developed grit. My stubborn personality took over. I wanted to tell stories. I loved history and wanted to write history’s first draft. I decided to pursue a career in journalism — which would, of course, demand copious amounts of reading and writing.

Just to spite my own weakness, I hired a tutor, learned to write, and took a journalism course. To my surprise, I was quite good in the field. I earned a six-month paid internship at the second-largest national newspaper in Washington D.C.The paper soon hired me and so my career as a professional writer had begun - despite the painful barriers that still caused words to dance on the page.

Fortunately, having grown up with a learning disability, I’d developed grit.

I continued to read at a snail’s pace and chronically misspelled words. Nevertheless, my articles appeared more frequently on the front page, and I earned a prestigious fellowship and even a ghostwriting gig. But I was tired. The harder I worked the worse my headaches became. Several times a year, I’d have to miss work due to neck pain that was so severe, I could not lift my head. I somehow avoided ever reading aloud in front of anyone. Honestly, nothing in all the world inflamed fear like reading aloud.

Life seemed unusually difficult outside the office, too. I experienced frequent minor car accidents and constantly confused dates and times, which is somehow connected to the visual processing functions in the brain (a feature I still don’t fully understand.) To avoid embarrassingly knocking into things and people, I moved slowly and with excessively deliberate motions still clenching my fists to hold the environment still. As a reporter, face blindness was a real handicap — especially when encountering world leaders and celebrities, whom I had to interview.

I loved my career but after getting married, was relieved to lay down my pen and rest my tired eyes. Unfortunately, convergence insufficiency affects more than reading and writing and I was about to learn just how severe it was. I had four children in a five-year span and the commotion of toddlers posed the most extreme challenge to my visual system yet.

Since I could not track objects moving across my plane of vision in a steady stream, a toddler speeding across the room would appear first at one end of the room, then in front of me, and suddenly at the top of the steps in an instant. My sweet babies would run to me in love but when they appeared suddenly in my face the familiar adrenalin response I’d experienced as a student overwhelmed me once again. Illogically irritated at my children, I could not stand being near them. The commotion hurt and I didn’t understand why. I just knew I was miserable. Since I could only see out of one eye at a time, I could not see a child at my feet and the other dashing for the street. I felt like an incompetent mother. Tasks like shopping in a big box store triggered migraines. Aggravated further by hormonal shifts from pregnancies and breastfeeding, the perfect storm culminated into severe depression and even suicidal thoughts. Yet, I remained oblivious that all these challenges had everything to do with a visual disability.

My Breakthrough!

At about this time I attended a talk given by Developmental Optometrist, Dr. Tod Davis. He owns a number of eye clinics called Virginia Vision Therapy Center and was speaking to parents about how to detect learning disabilities in small children. Holding a few handouts he’d distributed, I listened carefully, intrigued by his topic. When he presented a slide that simulated double vision, I literally jumped. Elbowing the mother beside me, I whispered, “Do your handouts look just like the slide?” She shook her head. “Mine does!” I said. Could I really have a learning disability? Could there really be help? I paid Dr. Davis a visit and received an officially diagnosed. “I can offer you so much hope,” he told me and prescribed about six months of vision therapy, which I eagerly began.


Therapy Time

Therapy had two goals: train the eye muscles to cooperate, and retrain the brain to see both images at once. One of the exercises we used to do this involved a set of binoculars. In one lens there was a bullseye, In the other a yellow star. If the brain was shutting off an image I would see either a bullseye or the star. My job was to try to see the star overlaying the bullseye. That would mean I was seeing both images and the brain was properly fusing them together. At first, I could only see the bullseye. With great effort, I could concentrate and tap my right leg to make that side of the brain turn on, suddenly a star would appear for a moment then vanish. After a little longer and several deep breaths, the star began flashing like a traffic light. “There it is! Oh, it's gone again. Oh! It’s back.” I would try to hold it on for longer periods. For the first time, I was able to isolate exactly how words appeared on street signs and in books my whole life. Dr. Davis temporarily prescribed glasses with prism lenses to pull both eyes to center, easing the strain on my eyes and training them to work in tandem.


Seeing a whole new world

The first time I drove with these, I laughed the whole way home. “Look at that!” I can see all the signs! I can see how far away all the cars are!” After just six months of therapy, I could catch a ball for the first time in my life. I never knew that I had not seen the world in 3D. There was depth and texture to the world before unknown. Soon my daughter was born and we concluded therapy. Anna Sophia was itty-bitty when we ventured out to a museum. As we exited the exhibit, I was in tears —weeping. “What is wrong?” My husband asked. “Absolutely nothing! I can see everything! I see the exhibits AND the front of the stroller at the same time! I didn’t hit anyone’s ankles with the front of the stroller. I can see how much fun the kids are having WHILE I navigate the crowd and see the exhibits for myself. I’ve never experienced a museum like this before!”


I had similar reactions the first time I enjoyed going to an action movie in the theater and even won a round of mini-golf. Above all, the sweetest effect of vision therapy was that I now enjoyed my children. Their commotion no longer bothered me. I tolerated messes better, was more willing to go to playgrounds or on crowded field trips. My anxiety vanished as did the headaches and neck pain. Best of all, I retained my auditory superpowers!

I often wonder what my life would have been like had I been given therapy as a child.

Discovering this learning disability late in life, I have not strengthened my reading abilities fully, so I continue to compensate with audiobooks and tire quickly when reading. But I no longer fear reading aloud. Sometimes, when I am tired, my brain and vision revert back to old habits. When that happens, I understand the source of the anxiety and simply practice some virtual exercise.


I often wonder what my life would have been like had I been given therapy as a child. Would I devour books and write even more than I do now? Would I have learned to spell? Would I have loved caring for newborns and toddlers? Would I have had a better relationship with my parents and maybe gone to college? Perhaps, but perhaps those things would have cost more than I’m willing to lose, like my auditory memory or my journalism career. Or my ability to sympathize with struggling students.


There is much hope for children who struggle.
Learning struggles do not have to damage the relationship between parent and child. Homework battles can end.

Children do not have to live with the unnecessary stress and shattered confidence that often accompanies learning disabilities. Many parents take a wait-and-see approach while experts insist that early intervention is key to helping children with learning disabilities thrive. But how can parents determine if their child’s struggle is normal? Does every 6-year-old act like this? Will she grow out of it? It is normal to wonder, “Am I a bad teacher?” Is she just being naughty? OR is there a learning disability that we can fix?

Learning struggles do not have to damage the relationship between parent and child. Homework battles can end. When the parent sets aside expectations and attempts to see the world from the child’s perspective a few beautiful things happen:

  • First, the adult learns new and beautiful things about the child, the world, and herself.

  • Second, the observant parent has a better chance of discovering the natural barriers and providing life-changing therapy.

  • Finally, a beautiful relationship is built between parent and child. The parent becomes the hero, not the antagonist. The child learns to trust the parent and develops life-long gratitude. The child becomes confident in his own natural abilities and the ability to overcome his weakness.

Working with a child who struggles can be one of the greatest joys of parenting, but only when the parent is willing to walk the struggle with the child and together overcome.



 

By Judith Jolma, Founder of Sophia Homeschool.

Sophia Homeschool teaches parents how to homeschool. Learn more about our training at Sophiahomeschool.com


 

For more help with SPED check out our Complete Guide to Homeschooling Children with Learning Disabilities.


 

Learn how to create a homeschool method and environment based on your family's needs so you can thrive. My Foundations of Homeschooling Masterclass teaches parents to work with their budget, schedule, learning style, teaching style, and resources so each member of the family has his or her needs met— including yours! Learn to create a peaceful and joyful learning environment that lasts a lifetime. Identify learning differences and adapt your educational plan accordingly. Unlock the mysteries of teaching multiple grades at once. By knowing what your needs are, you will save thousands of dollars, time, and energy on methods that do not work. We will end homework battles and restore your relationship with your child.




*Photo by Jonathan Trobe, M.D. - University of Michigan Kellogg Eye Center - The Eyes Have It; 15 August 2011


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