Dear Rachel,

Both my husband and I are highly educated with doctorate degrees. Our oldest son, though, is in first grade and isn’t able to read yet, and is falling behind. It is frustrating as he is a bright child, so I am not sure if it is laziness or something more serious. I don’t want to pressure him, but at the same time, we want to teach him the importance of study skills and taking school seriously even at this age, as he already has homework and a lot is expected of him in school. The worst part is that I am embarrassed that our child is not the best in his class. Both of us were always top students, and I guess we just expected that he would be as well. But not only isn’t he the best, he is really at the bottom of his class. Any suggestions for dealing with him and for us?

Anxious Parent

Dear Anxious Parent,

It is always overwhelming when our children do not seem to be succeeding in a particular area, especially one that is important to us. However, the first thing you must do is to figure out whether or not this is a lack of study skills or laziness issue, or the very real possibility, from what you describe, that he suffers from some form of a learning disorder.

In general, it is vital to always remember the Torah teaching, Chanoch lanaar al pi darko (Proverbs 22), "Educate a child according to his way." What this means is that every child is an individual and will react and respond to different approaches. It is our job as parents to figure out what works best with our child and to implement that as much as possible in the different ways we interact and teach him or her. For example, some children are very visual and learn best with pictures. So for this child you want to have lots of charts or draw out responsibilities, rather than verbal instruction alone.

Now, every child will have certain environments where he works better than others, and certain subjects which come easier to him. The problem with a classroom is that with so many other children in the class, it is always difficult to constantly implement different learning styles, so certain children that have difficulties with the main approach that is being used, will have a harder time.

It is very important for you, as his parents, to be willing to acknowledge that there may be a learning issue that will need to be explored, and more importantly, to support him and not judge him. The only thing worse than a child who suffers from being behind educationally, is one who has emotional or psychological issues attached to that as well, and you certainly don’t want to be responsible for making him feel bad about his situation.

Since it can be very hard to know or decipher between what is him not trying hard enough and what is something beyond his control, I highly suggest you start by speaking to his school counselor and teachers to determine how he is doing in the classroom and to get a sense of whether or not there are consistencies in what seem to be difficult for him. Clearly, there is a difference between a child who doesn’t do well on a test because he was too busy playing to study, and a child who studied and tried but has a hard time reading or following directions.

I am not sure if the teachers have already spoken with you, but it is vital that you not just wait for them to contact you. Please remember that as much as the teachers or school administration care about your son, they are busy and he is not their top priority. But he must be yours. Therefore, you need to be his advocate. Call the teachers, schedule a meeting with them and get their professional opinion. Furthermore, find out what resources the school has to offer such as a resource room or individual tutoring. And work with the teachers to ensure that he be given work that he can handle and that perhaps things be adjusted to meet his needs while you look into other options. They may suggest that he have tutoring after school and this could really help him by having the one-on-one and extra review of the material in the classroom. Ensure that if you get him tutoring, the tutor ideally work alongside the teacher so that they are dealing with the same material and skills so that it helps your son and doesn’t add more work or learning for him.

Additionally, the school may recommend that you have your child evaluated, and often, this can be done for free by the public school system. While it may seem daunting for your child to undergo such extensive testing, please bear in mind that this is only for his benefit, for if there is a learning disability, the earlier they detect and identify it, the sooner they can work with him with approaches that will help him to learn and grow. There is also the option of private testing which is something you might want to look into. Depending on the quality of the county evaluations, it might make more sense to go private. However, this can be costly so make sure it is really necessary before spending the money for it.

I also highly suggest that you research groups in your area or even on-line groups of parents in a similar situation as yourself. Not only will it provide other people to speak with who understand your situation, but they can be a wonderful resource for suggestions and contacts and will save you time and energy in dealing with the system.

Most important though, is for both you and your husband to always remember that if your child does have special learning needs, it is not indicative of his intelligence or his capabilities; it simply shows that he may need a different approach to learning. You are fortunate to have discovered that there may be an issue while he is so young because it is the best situation for getting the help he needs now, so that hopefully he will be able to function well in his classroom and alongside his classmates.

And please do not compare him to you or your husband or the success you both had as a child. Your son is his own person and you must love and support him and do whatever you can so that he can do his best. And always remember that we are taught to educate our children according to their way, not our way! Hope to hear good news from both you and your son!