by Christina L. Moreland
The next few blog entries will be dedicated to the Super Moms with children who may be dealing with the common challenges of elementary school. From a personal standpoint, we’ve been going through some real struggles related to these posts that I’ll share with you, and my discoveries and conclusions as a result may help many of you if you’re dealing with something similar. That’s my hope, anyway!
My hope with this particular post is to help you prevent a misdiagnosis with your child of any kind.
To Move, or Not to Move?
First, a little background: Ashton (7) is currently in first grade. When he was a toddler and preschooler, we lived in a very urban area of Houston, right in the middle of everything, called the Heights. At the time I thought we’d probably be able to get him into a good local elementary school through Houston’s magnet program (we were not zoned to good schools). But after doing some research, I discovered I could have two different kids (Ashton and Luke) going to different schools, because even if one was accepted to a good magnet program, that didn’t necessarily mean the other would be grandfathered into it. And getting into good non-zoned schools is extremely competitive.
Back to the ‘Burbs
So after some thorough soul searching, my husband and I ultimately decided moving to the suburbs would be the best option for our family, and we picked a location where we could enjoy the public school we felt our boys deserved (and in a district rated No. 1 in the State of Texas), and where they would have much, much more than just a good neighborhood – forestry for hiking and exploration, a fishing pond right outside our back door, tons of parks to play in, miles of walking and biking trails and many other amenities. We relocated our family to Cypress two and a half years ago, just in time for Ashton to begin kindergarten.
Ashton had been in a curriculum-based nursery and preschool up until his first year of elementary school, and it was one of the best in the city. Particularly, their kindergarten prep was always highly rated and they had glowing reviews from the legions of parents who’d had their kids go through the program. So when Ashton began kindergarten last year, my expectations were high. While I didn’t expect him to be the top performer in the classroom, I did expect the work to be easy for him and for him to experience a relatively quick progression whenever new material was being taught.
Long story short: that didn’t happen. In fact, I received four phone calls home from his teacher within the first six weeks of school, complaining about his behavior in class. Each time we would discuss this with him and the behavior would improve – temporarily. We also set up extensive positive behavior motivators at home [https://www.secretsofthesupermom.com/positive-motivators-for-children/], but we continued to struggle through kindergarten. I often felt sick to my stomach, worried that he would begin to hate school. When we attempted to tackle reading at home it felt like a chore, and there were many occasions when I’d see a bottle of wine in the fridge and consider drinking the entire thing by myself just so I could get through those rough nights. (I resisted!) Still, I didn’t know how to help my son, and finally realized there was a lot more to the story. Ashton would come home nearly in tears almost every day, and I still didn’t know what was going on.
Fast forward to first grade. Our teacher this year is phenomenal. She adores Ashton and goes above and beyond to work with him. He gives her hugs and one day, after a particularly challenging week, told her he loved her. I was thrilled, but even she has struggled with keeping him “focused” this year. Again, almost every other day I have a note in his binder that he either couldn’t stay focused or complete his work. Once again, I felt like a total parental failure. How in the world could I not only get my son to tolerate school, but to love it? The frustrating thing was we saw two different views of Ashton – at home my son was thriving! He would help me with his brother, Luke, take his dishes to the sink after meals, take on more responsibility at home, including taking our dog out to go potty and other age-appropriate household tasks that helped me. But school was a different story. I was baffled.
Questions, Questions, and More Questions
We started wondering if perhaps there was a learning disability present, such as dyslexia (the inability of the brain’s verbal language or auditory processing centers to accurately decode print or phonetically make the connection between the word’s written symbols and their appropriate sounds). And on more than one occasion, the acronyms ADD / ADHD (Attention Deficit Disorder / Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) slipped into the conversations I was having with school administrators. Legally, in a public environment, the school cannot diagnose ADD, but they can observe him and give parents resources for how to approach their child if it is in fact ADD / ADHD. Essentially, they cannot tell you for sure that’s what the culprit is (you would need a certified and licensed child psychologist for that), but their “helpful” hints truly make you feel like there might be something seriously wrong with your child. While I’m grateful for the entire staff and the resources they can provide, none of what they were saying about this situation ever felt real to me. I knew there was more to it. We’d never had any problems with Ashton’s behavior in the past that wasn’t age-appropriate and normal or that we could not deal with at the moment.
Again, I was heartbroken. I had so many questions and no real answers.
The district won’t test a first grader for dyslexia because the criteria from first to second changes so dramatically that it’s easier for them to make a full determination by second grade, which would have meant waiting a full year to know anything conclusively. It’s even more difficult to convince the district to test a child who is meeting or exceeding district expectations, which Ashton has consistently done all year. So, as I often do, I prayed we’d find our answer.
After the parent/teacher conference from the first nine weeks of the school period, I called my son’s pediatrician (who also wrote the foreward to Secrets of the Super Mom.) She said first she wanted us to test for and rule out dyslexia because oftentimes, even a slight numerical or alphabetical comprehension issue can cause behavioral problems in children during class time. So, I had my first step, but had no idea who could do this for me. Meanwhile, my “Mom Instincts” were starting to kick in – that’s what I call that maternal “gut” feeling that is typically relentless and tells you something is not right related to your child. I’ve had this feeling only a handful of times right before embarking on a major transition with my family because of the related circumstance. So in this case, even though I knew we were on the right track by getting him tested for dyslexia, I had a sickening feeling that wasn’t the whole story.
So, in typical fashion I began asking more questions and eventually came to the conclusion that the large group classroom setting of 25 children was not ideal for Ashton. Even though I had just gone through similar research three years prior when we had decided to move our family to a suburban community, I dove in head first once again, this time researching private Christian-based schools in our community. Through a serendipitous conversation with the director of one of those schools, we were referred to the only pediatric ophthalmologist in our area who can test for very slight visual acuities in children. She took Ashton through a series of fascinating (and fun!) diagnostic tests before looking at me and saying, “Well, he’s not dyslexic. He has a tracking problem.”
A tracking problem? What is that? I wondered. “It looks a lot like and smells a lot like dyslexia, and it’s hard to detect, but it’s not dyslexia,” was her response. Then she took me through the amazing findings of the tests she’d just run on Ashton – I had my results and answers in hand before I left her office!
The results of Ashton’s eye exam showed he does not have dyslexia, but he is slightly far-sighted and more importantly, has a tracking problem with his eyes. This means that his eyes do not travel at the same time, at the same speed, and in the same direction at all times. Instead of reading material from left to right in a consistent manner, they go back and forth, from left to right, back to left, back to right, back to left, etc. You can see an example here: http://www.childrensvision.com/reading.htm (scroll to TRACKING).
It’s extremely frustrating for a child who is trying to learn, especially when he’s learning to read. This is why, in addition to not having been taught phonics in kindergarten, he has difficulty sounding out letters and sounds because his eyes do not immediately recognize the letters in their order. It’s why the sight-reading and memorization reading has gotten him to his current reading level and thanks to also being very intelligent, he could make up for what his eyes could not see properly.
His ophthalmologist believes he will grow out of this tracking problem in time and with the slight correction glasses will provide. We hope it’s a temporary situation, but we’ll know as his brain continues to mature. She said one thing that causes a tracking problem is that the two sides of the brain (left and right) have developed at the same rate and neither one has taken dominance yet. It fascinates me that we can even know this! The eyes essentially “compete” with one another, but will likely correct themselves once one side of his brain takes a dominant role. Who knows which one that will be, since his dad is strongly left brained, and I’m strongly right. It also makes sense that Ashton was ambidextrous when he was a toddler – an interesting tidbit that helped his ophthalmologist to confirm this diagnosis.
Here is more information about eye tracking from http://www.childrensvision.com/reading.htm. You can see an example of what happens when a child with a tracking problem (or other visual impairments) tries to read:
“Tracking skills, or the ability to control the fine eye movements required to follow a line of print are especially important in reading. Children with tracking problems will often lose their place, skip or transpose words, and have difficulty comprehending because of their difficulty moving their eyes accurately. Many are forced to use their fingers to follow the line because their eyes can’t.
“When [children with tracking problems] read, [their] eyes don’t move smoothly across the line. Instead, [their] eyes make a series of jumps and pauses. The small jumps between words or groups of words are called saccades. The brief pause we make while looking at the words is called a fixation. After a fixation, we move our eyes to the next word or group of words—another saccade.
“This very precise coordination of jumps and pauses is controlled by our central and peripheral visual systems. Our central vision processes what we’re seeing in clear detail and defines what we’re looking at. Our peripheral, or side vision, simultaneously locates surrounding objects and let’s us know where to look… If there is not continuous, fluid, simultaneous integration between these two systems, reading will be jerky, loss of place will be common, and comprehension will be poor. Children with tracking problems can’t control their eye movements at close ranges.”
As I mentioned before, Ashton’s eye doctor believes he will outgrow this problem with time, but I’m so thankful I trusted my “Mom Instincts” and didn’t immediately agree with the school that he may be ADD / ADHD. That could have taken us down a road of misdiagnosis and potentially put him on medication he didn’t need! Children need to see clearly to be able to learn and those who lack good basic visual skills often struggle unnecessarily in school. Imagine if we hadn’t discovered this visual problem until second or third grade when the stakes become that much more difficult? Imagine if we’d continued on this path of disciplining him for classroom behavior at home because he couldn’t tell us his eyes weren’t working properly? Hidden visual problems can keep children from performing at grade level, or even progressing, and that could have happened to my son, yet school administrators and parents often fail to make the connection between poor reading and the child’s vision. Ashton’s pediatrician had tested his vision at every yearly checkup and his vision always came out perfect. He has 20/20 vision! And yet, this could have set him back for years.
I’m so grateful for “Mom Instincts” and for that unnerving sick feeling in the pit of my stomach that wouldn’t let me settle for the wrong information for my son. You have these instincts, too. Listen to them, always!
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