Why is this child falling behind?
February 25, 2018 8:29 PM   Subscribe

My partner's 10 year old son is in 4th grade but performing in school at the level of a 2nd grader. He is a very bright kid and all of the tests/assessments have come back negative, but he cannot read or write. Help.

My partner and his ex have been divorced since their son was 4; the relationship between the parents is quite civil and there is extremely regular visitation (partner's ex has primary custody).

Both parents are extremely bright, educated, and professionally accomplished; the child is well loved by both parents and is not suffering from any obvious hardships (health, financial, bullying etc.). He has a sister and pets that he's close to. He's a bit shy and self-conscious but doesn't seem to have any major social issues at school or otherwise. He has no behavioural issues of note - in most ways he's a very normal, sweet 10 year old.

He is significantly behind at school for his age/grade. He has great difficulty with reading, writing, spelling, and math. But he's also extremely bright (can engage in long, cogent conversations about cars, rockets, etc.). He gets down on himself and calls himself stupid when the issue of his school performance comes up.

He was tested for learning disabilities; results were all negative. His teachers and school administrators have been working closely with him for the past two years. He has an IEP and gets remedial help at school. He doesn't seem to be making any progress - only falling further behind.

What could be going on here? Partner does not have the details of the test results and may ask to get his son reassessed; are there any particular tests he should ask for? Any other suggestions welcome.

Note - he is in the Canadian public school system and the parents would prefer to keep him there.
posted by orange and yellow to Education (20 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
They may well have already done this, but has his vision been tested?
posted by praemunire at 8:50 PM on February 25, 2018 [15 favorites]

Partner does not have the details of the test results and may ask to get his son reassessed

Yes, do that. Is there an independent specialist you can take him to, outside the school system? Sorry I don't know how this works in Canada.
posted by Miko at 8:54 PM on February 25, 2018 [2 favorites]

Why don't they have the results of the latest test? This seems odd.
posted by Jubey at 9:07 PM on February 25, 2018 [3 favorites]

Can not read or write at 10 yet seems very typical? I would bring him to doctors at this point. Even second graders read. What does the reading specialist as school say?

How has he even progressed to the 4th grade? This seems unfair to him. How is this affecting him socially?

I think his parents need to really push the school for some resources - where to go when their specialists don't have answers.
posted by beccaj at 9:23 PM on February 25, 2018 [9 favorites]

I'd dig into the learning disabilities testing, here. In general, many people have come to accept that dyslexia exists (where difficulty reading does not affect general intelligence). Not as many people have come around to the notions of dysgraphia (writing instead of dyslexia's reading) or dyscalculia (arithmetic instead of dyslexia's reading). Consequently, I'm not sure people are even testing for either of those things. I absolutely agree with Miko's advice about finding an independent specialist.

I'd also try and have a conversation about him getting down on himself or calling himself stupid. He's struggling with things that are necessary, but ultimately mechanical. He needs to be able to read, write, spell, and do arithmetic in order to more fully understand and experience the more sophisticated concepts that leverage all that stuff (like cars and rockets). That's ok - he might never be a spelling wiz. Past a certain minimal point, he doesn't need to be. One way to think about this: Gregg Popovich never played in the NBA. His mechanics didn't allow him to do that. That didn't stop him from becoming the best coach in the league.

I say all this because my kid's in 4th grade - his handwriting is terrible, and he can't really spell either. As far as his mechanical weaknesses, his school just has him type or voice dictate and he works the hell out of autocorrect. Unfortunately, less progressive educational systems will be far less chill about this stuff and start weighing kids down with baggage.

tl;dr - your partner's son is NOT stupid - he only needs enough facility with elementary school skills so they don't hold him back from doing what he actually wants to do.
posted by NoRelationToLea at 9:43 PM on February 25, 2018 [1 favorite]

You want to get a psych-ed assessment done privately. If the parents have extended medical, they should be able to pool the benefits for them and their child (since they will need to work with parents as part of it). The private psych-ed will be thorough. The school asssessments may not have been psych-eds and you can end up on a wait list FOR YEARS. A real psych-ed will provide documentation of disability or giftedness or even anxiety or other problems (if found) and that will provide legal rights in school, CRA (tutoring tax write off, private school write-off, etc), elsewhere.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 11:20 PM on February 25, 2018 [4 favorites]

Is it possible this kid is just bored by school? Is it possible there's a family dynamic already at play where the sister is a good girl/golden child and the son has been slotted in as being lazy/the black sheep?

I ask because my brother was always the golden child and by the time I was in second grade there was already a large family narrative in place that basically had fuck all to do with me actually being the black sheep (that came to pass later but the die was cast early) and everything to do with me being bored out of my mind with school.

This kid could just be bored. This kid could be frustrated and having anxiety issues due to not performing like other kids. Is the kid actually shy or is he actually just an introvert? My mother thought I was shy and labeled me as "backward" because she did not understand that I was an introvert.

This could be so many things. If the kid is bright he may sail through a psych evaluation and any other testing. If that's the case he'll probably catch up on reading/writing when it becomes interesting to him.
posted by fluffy battle kitten at 11:52 PM on February 25, 2018 [3 favorites]

Both parents are extremely bright, educated, and professionally accomplished; the child is well loved by both parents

I am finding it difficult to phrase this without coming across as judgmental, but...given this ^ , how did he get to the age of 10 without being able to read and write? Do his parents read to him at home, do they work on reading and writing and spelling with him, are there books in the house? Do they take him to the library? Read him bedtime stories? This is what most bright & educated parents do, starting at a very young age, and why their kids don’t get so far behind.

His teachers and school administrators have been working closely with him for the past two years. He has an IEP and gets remedial help at school.

That is great, but his parents also need to be ‘working closely’ with him, by which I mean...just doing it. Working on it at home. Reading and writing and doing quizzes and immersing him in books.

I sort of think there must have been a bit of ball-dropping along the way, because 10 (or even 8) is really late to start getting on top of this stuff. Maybe your partner and his ex want to look at how they’re supporting him at home, as well.
posted by Salamander at 12:09 AM on February 26, 2018 [17 favorites]

I would strongly recommend they pursue a possible problem with vision or visual processing, he might have trouble tracking lines of letters, or translating the shape of letter from his brain to paper, etc. There are specialized eye doctors who do vision therapy with kids. I would also consider dysgraphia or dyscalculia. I have dyscalculia, and sometimes it literally feels like numbers are just incomprehensible to me.
posted by fairlynearlyready at 1:35 AM on February 26, 2018 [3 favorites]

So, as a social worker in the US my thoughts:

1) They need to see the written copies of the assessment reports ASAP. They need to read them , understand them and ask a billion questions. These reports will be helpful for further testing, and help them understand what's already been done. There is so much testing out there. What has been ruled out? What is still a possibility? He has an IEP so that are trying different methods and these should be based in science. Why are they choosing the interventions they are choosing? Some assessments will highlight both strengths and weaknesses, so this is important to understand. Where has he improved with his IEP in place?

2) Rule out physical causes eyes, ears, brain tumors , coordination difficulties ect

3) Cannot read our write at all stands out to me, and you say he's at a second grade level. That's not second grade, so there is some misunderstanding here. Literacy is not black and white in some ways. Does he draw? Can he copy a shape? A more complex drawing? Does he recognize letters by name? Small words by shape? Reading comprehension is different than being able to see the word and pronounce a word. And that's also different than being able to copy down a sentence or write an essay.

4) Sometimes parents don't want to hear the answer. I don't know this family, but I've definitely been involved in cases where there was a clear diagnosed disability and the parents just weren't processing it for whatever reason. My aunts son had a clear speach delay but it took her years to aknowledge it, regardless of how the school system, his other parent, and other family members treated it.

5) These are complex issues and do take time, persistence and research. A second opinion will not hurt, but note that some tests cannot be repeated within certain time frames without impacting the results. So #1 is very important.

Time is if the essence to get appropriate interventions into place. School only accelerates in speed and he's already years behind.
posted by AlexiaSky at 2:15 AM on February 26, 2018 [27 favorites]

I'm a veteran special ed teacher and a bit confused, but you also seem pretty confused. If a 4th grader is illiterate, something is going on and that would be reflected in testing. A 10 year old who literally cannot read or write would very much be on a school's radar.

What do you mean that he was tested and the results were negative? If he has no disability, he wouldn't have qualified for an IEP, but you said he's on one. So at some point, testing DID indicate he has a disability. Further, IEPs are developed WITH the parents, so your partner should have seen the testing as well as helped develop the IEP.

Your question is perplexing. If the kid is getting support because they have a qualifying disability, it means somewhere, the parents have copies of the testing as well as the IEP they approved. The IEP Team meets annually to go over goals and progress, and your partner should be getting quarterly progress reports. If the kid isn't making effective progress, the Team has to meet.

Your partner should know about the testing and the IEP and the qualifying disability. If they don't they need to ask the other parent or the school.

If this kid has been getting support for 2 years, is neurotypical and of average ability level but literally cannot read or write, something is wrong. Your partner needs to convene a meeting immediately for updated educational, psychological and physical testing and to get him some help. What you're describing is just off in a lot of ways.

And now I'm going to scold you. Don't say things like: Both parents are extremely bright, educated, and professionally accomplished; the child is well loved by both parents and is not suffering from any obvious hardships (health, financial, bullying etc.)...in most ways he's a very normal, sweet 10 year old.

Please don't use the word "normal" as an indicator that a child does not need require academic support. Kids who need help are not abnormal. Most disabilities are invisible and happen to kids who have the smartest and most loving parents. Kids don't get disabilities because their parents are of below-average intelligence and work at Walmart. They don't get disabilities because they're poor. To imply he can't have a disability because he appears "normal" and because of his station in life is not okay.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 3:04 AM on February 26, 2018 [40 favorites]

I am finding it difficult to phrase this without coming across as judgmental, but...given this ^ , how did he get to the age of 10 without being able to read and write? Do his parents read to him at home, do they work on reading and writing and spelling with him, are there books in the house? Do they take him to the library? Read him bedtime stories? This is what most bright & educated parents do, starting at a very young age, and why their kids don’t get so far behind.

I'm popping in here to say that my partner and I are bright, educated parents who read to our kids, spend lots of time in libraries and bookstores, have a house full of books, read ourselves, and so on; and our homeschooled kid, now almost 17, didn't read until he was almost 10. It just didn't "click" for him until then. He is a voracious reader now. Our other three kids all read when younger than that.

This doesn't apply to the OP, because there are so many factors that go into why a child reads or doesn't, and why a child might or might not be reading in school. But these kind of universal assumptions and judgments don't help anybody.
posted by Orlop at 3:31 AM on February 26, 2018 [6 favorites]

I think you also may not have a grip on the problem. My child has multiple disabilities, and what specifically he has delays in seems to be in the eye of the beholder. While where he actually is compared to average in development varies a bit, I'll get hugely different reports from different experts in a six week time frame. Like, he's profoundly disabled and severely delayed vs. He is at the same level as 30% of his peers in the same area.

Sometimes talking to educators is like a slap in the face. Someone will tell you something heartbreaking, like, your son is illiterate. And then you share this with your partner because you're heartbroken. Does child recognize letters? Does child know what sounds they make? Recognize basic words? Write letters and numbers? What are his current literacy goals? I am betting he has some if not all of these skills. There is likely a plan and hopefully some therapists involved.

My child actually does have multiple disabilities, yet he's an exceptionally great conversationalist. He is very bright but he needs extra help to reach some goals. Even though his parents are overly educated and spend extra time playing and reading to him. I am involved in setting his goals and try to make sure he has the supports he needs to reach them. And it is a slow, sometimes unsteady process. So maybe you need to view it as helping him and supporting him in some specific ways or supporting the parents to do these things.
posted by Kalmya at 4:37 AM on February 26, 2018 [1 favorite]

I’m in the Toronto area and if your area is anything like mine, your partner needs to be in the school often, like weekly, insisting on seeing progress and right on top of that IEP. Also, yes, he needs outside assessment and I would also look at something like Kumon or Oxford tutoring, if only for another perspective- if you choose a branch near the school you are likely to get tutors who know the teachers and can share information with you/your partner.

I’m also curious why he’s not in the reading centre program although other boards might not have it I suppose. Or is he?

From my experience in the school system both as a parent and an ed assistant, this is pretty much an educational emergency because grade 4 is where a lot of the work becomes reading-dependent and he will fall further and further behind. This happened to a child I know in the Ottawa area to the extent that now as a young man he is barely literate.

In my system unfortunately you absolutely have to be a squeaky wheel and advocate. Also please invest in outside help even if it means some sacrifice - it’s not forever but the time is now.
posted by warriorqueen at 5:34 AM on February 26, 2018 [1 favorite]

Definitely test for dyslexia. Both my kids have it and struggled with reading and math. One took years of piano lessons before we found out that it impacts reading music too. Interestingly though, she got early help and turned into a reader.

The early help was at Syllables, I think around are 5. I think they're local (US, GA) chain but maybe it'll help find something similar local to you.
posted by Awfki at 6:09 AM on February 26, 2018

You are getting much good advice here. As a parent of a special-needs child, I would say this:

* The parents need to read and understand the test results and the IEP. The school or a private neuropsychologist can help them understand the material.

* If the child is on an IEP, the school has identified a primary problem, goals, and steps they are taking to reach the goals. Schools will often minimize problems, goals, and steps because of money pressure. It is the job of the parents to hang on like bull dogs until they get the services they need. In some cases, it is helpful to bring in an outside expert to support your position that the child needs more help. (This is true in the US, at least. It sounds like Canada is similar, but YMMV.)

* I would strongly encourage the parents to get outside (private) testing. Their pediatrician should be able to recommend someone. This could be a neuropsychologist, or a hospital with a special ed department. In the US, this outside testing has two functions: (1) it helps the parents (and child) understand the child's disability more deeply. (2) it provides documentation that the parents can use to insist on increased services from the school. A neuropsychologist will also review the current IEP and suggest ways in which it can be improved.

Good luck! It sounds like your partner's son has been doing great, considering the problems he has. But things will very soon get much harder. You can do third grade and maybe fourth without being able to read and write. But fifth is doubtful and sixth is basically impossible, so this has to be dealt with asap.
posted by Winnie the Proust at 6:20 AM on February 26, 2018 [2 favorites]

If you're in the Vancouver area, feel free to memail me. We're in the process of a private ed psych evaluation.
posted by Valancy Rachel at 7:09 AM on February 26, 2018 [1 favorite]

As a parent with a kid with learning difficulties in Canada, trust me when I say you need to be on the school nearly constantly. But you need to be seen as a team player so you need to get all your medical ducks in a row - get a referral to the pediatrician, you'll have to get his vision tested (particularly look at binocular vision), get his hearing tested (particularly look for a cross processing disorder or see if tubes may help). How did they determine that he didn't have learning disability at the school? Was it simply the school running a couple tests or an actual test by a speech pathologist or a psychosocial assessment? If it was just the school doing a short test I'd look at getting him reassessed by someone trained to do that. If you can't afford the speech pathologist or psychosocial assessment [it can be expensive], delicately present your case that he is a good candidate for the school to pay for this (depending on the school, in our area the schools do 1 to 3 of these per school year). If the school has an Empower reading programme see if it is available for his age range.

But even after all that it can be a struggle. Our son's teacher flatly told us that she never meets with the parents of her students, she's been remarkably incompetent with dealing with the FM system they put in place in the class and despite multiple assessments thinks my son is "faking" his disability. It has taken 2 years for the school to recognise that they need to implement his IEP in not just his English class but all his classes. It can be incredibly frustrating and exhausting so it is important to be as diplomatic as possible, stay organised and follow through with all their requests as a paper trail is really critical for them to take you seriously not some helicopter parent. Even then you'll get brushed off from time to time so you need to find allies in the system - talk to everybody in the chain of command (we've even talked to people in the provincial education minister's office). And of course everything moves at a snail's pace so you have to look at time frames of years rather than weeks.

You have my profound sympathies and good luck.
posted by Ashwagandha at 7:26 AM on February 26, 2018 [1 favorite]

Why is this child falling behind?

Well because pretty clearly the child has an undiagnosed learning disability. Mine wasn't diagnosed until college. Despite having a very healthy IQ, I couldn't read an analogue clock until I was about 15. I didn't become fluent in basic arithmetic until around the same time, and I still can't really divide or multiply or do any advanced mathematics except geometry. Having a total inability to deal with numbers was enough of a struggle; I can't imagine being unable to read, or how isolating that would be.

While I agree that he needs learning support at home too, it's also important that this not be who he is, and that his deficit not become his overwhelming identity. The people at home need to find the things he's good at and celebrate his successes and help him build his self-confidence. No teachers can provide that consistent cheerleading; only you guys can, and you need to be unified in this.
posted by DarlingBri at 4:10 PM on February 26, 2018 [2 favorites]

Elementary school oceano: part way though an important standardized test, I start making pictures filling out the bubbles on my my scantron sheet.

Adults: flip out

High school oceano: oh mom, remember the time when I started making pictures on my scantron sheet in second grade?

Mom: you what?

High school oceano: well you never asked.

In other words, have the adults in his life tried directly asking for his feedback? For instance how hard did he try in school today? (E,g. Praising efforts). How does he feel about tomorrow’s quiz? What’s one thing his teacher can do to help him?
posted by oceano at 7:23 PM on February 26, 2018 [3 favorites]

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