I Believe in You: A Mother’s Message to Her Son with Learning Differences by Kristen DeBeer is one of those children’s books that make me wish, a little, that I was still teaching. I Believe in You would have been one of my favorite go-to children’s book to read to the class to open up discussions on various topics that upset some students. I would have made sure there were copies of I Believe in You in our school library and on my classroom book shelf. Why? In each grade level we have students facing challenges because of their learning differences that need to hear Kristen Debeer’s encouraging message.Their peers also have to hear how some children have learning differences and different strengths. They have to hear these lines taken from I Believe in You so they can understand. Understanding fosters acceptance and compassion.
Nobody does it alone! What better way to say this to a child than these words taken from one page of I Believe in You:
You try hard at school and do your best,
But sometimes you still can’t pass their tests.
Your brain thinks differently than the rest.
I’ll be your champion, I won’t let you fall.
We’ll work together to get through it all.
You just learn differently, that’s all.
I am looking forward to know more about the mom-author who wrote this book on learning differences, to learn how her son is doing, and to hear strategies that work well for children struggling in school. I highly recommend this book. Read our review here.
Lorna: Welcome to our Author Interview Series! Congratulations on a wonderful book! Tell us a little about yourself. What prepared you to write a book and advocate for your son?
<<Kristen DeBeer: Thanks, Lorna! It is a real privilege to have this chance to share our journey with you. I am married with three children, and I live with my family in Highlands Ranch, Colorado. Jack, my oldest, and the inspiration for my book, is a sixth grader with a passion for technology. My daughter, Ellie is in 5th grade and is a drama queen (literally, she wants to be an actress when she grows up!). And Owen, my youngest son, is in 1st grade and loves science. My preparation for writing this book is experiencing firsthand the social and emotional impact of my son’s learning differences, from the moment he started preschool and ongoing to this day. As a mother to a son with ADHD and dyslexia, I know what it is like to watch a child with learning differences struggle at school, so I became his advocate and went on to write the book as a resource for other families like ours.>>
Lorna: What were the first signs that your son had ADHD and dyslexia? Was it difficult to have your child evaluated by professionals and get these diagnoses? What advice to you have for parents who feel something in not just right with their child? What should they do? Where should they start?
<<Kristen DeBeer: I knew Jack had learning differences from the very start of preschool. A typical day looked like this: all of the other kids were sitting in their seats (for the most part) and following the directions to cut and paste, while Jack was busy trying to figure out the locks on the classroom cabinets. His teacher told us “something is wrong with his brain” and said “you need to get him tested.” What she lacked in tact, she made up for with her many years of experience working with preschoolers, so we took her advice and got his first diagnosis, which was Sensory Processing Disorder. The diagnosis made sense of some of his other difficulties at preschool, like the time he got in trouble for “shoving” kids on the playground. It turns out that the kids were playing tag, and Jack was shoving them in an effort to tag them, because his tactile sensors were weak and a normal-strength tag didn’t register with his brain. It continues to make sense today when Jack’s sensory seeking behaviours sometimes make him squirm or stir during prolonged periods of sitting in a classroom. We took Jack to Occupational Therapy on a weekly basis for about a year, but in first grade, things took a turn for the worse.
His first grade teacher used a red/yellow/green behavioural system where children who were misbehaving moved to yellow after one warning, and then to red after a second warning, which warranted a consequence from the teacher. Unfortunately for Jack, the teacher often moved him to yellow for not completing his work or staying on task, which proved to be very difficult for him. We offered both rewards and punishments for Jack to stay on green, which he could sustain for a few days or even a week (for the right reward). But eventually he learned that it was easier to just move to yellow, and it became a self-fulfilling prophecy because he simply couldn’t meet the teacher’s expectations on a regular basis – it was beyond his control. So we decided to get another evaluation by a Child Psychiatrist whom our paediatrician recommended, and he diagnosed Jack with ADHD.
Fast forward a few years, during which Jack took meds for ADHD and had more OT for SPD, to 4th grade, when he was still struggling to remember any of his multiplication facts, and refusing to write more than 3 sentences at a time. Jack has always had trouble with writing – he has fine motor difficulties, so his handwriting is a mess and a laborious process. We had taken him to a typing program in our area, which was run by an OT, so he was now keyboarding on a laptop at school. But the process of writing was still like pulling teeth! Meanwhile, I was reading every book about learning differences I could get my hands on, and came across one called The Mislabelled Child by Brock and Fernette Eide. They wrote a chapter about dyslexia that included a description of Jack’s writing and math difficulties, almost to a tee. Their term for Jack’s type of dyslexia, which is unique in its marked absence of early reading challenges, is “stealth dyslexia” – which made sense, since he had gone this long without being identified. We decided to visit the Drs. Eide, who run a “neurolearning” clinic in their Seattle home, where Jack was officially diagnosed with dyslexia.
The diagnosis came as a relief, since Jack’s intelligence scores in verbal comprehension and perceptual reasoning were very high, making him very articulate with his speech and communications. However, his academic abilities were not equivalent due to his much lower scores on processing speed and working memory – both of which were contributing to his writing and math challenges. These discrepancies continue to make school challenging for Jack today, but knowing the reason why helps us understand and identify accommodations that help him in school.
Advice for Parents of Children with Learning Differences
- In terms of advice for parents starting out on this journey, I have three important recommendations. First and foremost, it’s easy to fall into the trap of trying to “fix” your child – don’t. Accept them for who they are and remember not to threaten and or punish them to get them to fit “in the box”, as much as you may wish they did. Don’t use language like “something is wrong” or “broken” or “doesn’t work” about your child’s learning differences. Most LDs are not like an illness that can be cured. They are learning patterns (how the brain is wired) that kids don’t outgrow; they can learn to compensate with intervention and accommodations, but they’ll most likely carry their differences with them into adulthood.
- Secondly, address the social and emotional effects of the diagnosis, not just medical or academic effects. Tell him/her it’s OK to be mad, sad, or frustrated that he/she has to work harder to write or read or do math calculations – or all of the above. All the more, kids need to know their strengths – most LD kids are extremely talented in non-school skills that get overlooked or underplayed. Find things that your child enjoys and does WELL, and make them your focus outside of school. Then, find ways for children to be recognized for achievement within their area of strength. Build them up for what they CAN do
- My final piece of advice is to help him/her navigate within the constraints of his/her school curriculum – OR – find a better fit. Give him/her learning “tools” (accommodations) for the classroom to help facilitate learning. Be an advocate for your child at school to get the teacher’s buy-in and help the teacher understand your child’s strengths and weaknesses. And if all else fails, search for alternative educational options – we found the ELOB curriculum (expeditionary learning), which works well for Jack. There are multitudes of different curricula and classroom environments out there. Finding them takes a bit of legwork, but if you find the right fit, it will be worth the extra effort in terms of your child’s success in school.>>
Lorna: How old is your son and how is he doing? What support does he receive at school? Does he receive any accommodations/help because of his ADHD or dyslexia?
<<Kristen DeBeer: Today Jack is in the 6th grade, and he is thriving in his current learning environment. He started at his current school in 4th grade. We found this school after a prolonged search for a curriculum that could support his learning needs while employing his strengths. While Jack’s working memory is poor in comparison to his intelligence and below average compared to his peers, his experiential memory is acute and almost uncanny. He still remembers our hotel room during a visit to Disney Land when he was 6 in vivid detail, including the color of the carpet and the number of rungs on the ladder up to the bunk bed in the room! So we found the ELOB curriculum, which uses experiential learning (EL) as its foundation – learning by doing. Instead of telling the class what they are learning about today, then telling them about the topic, and then testing them on what they learned, ELOB challenges the kids to identify things by doing them, and then discussing what they notice with their peers. Besides EL, the second half of the acronym stands for Outward Bound, which plays to Jack’s strengths and interests in the outdoors – hiking, camping, snowshoeing and cross country skiing, to name a few.
Within this curriculum, Jack still requires a tremendous amount of support. He has a 504 plan which includes numerous classroom accommodations (movement breaks, seating close to the teacher, noise-cancelling headphones for independent work, etc.) as well as accommodations for extra time on tests/assignments, quality vs. quantity for both writing and math, and oral evaluations or the use of a scribe when possible. The Building Resource Teacher in our school pulls Jack out for standardized testing so that he can work in a distraction-free environment, and use his computer to keyboard any written answers. Our school works for him, not just because of the curriculum, but because it is small in size and willing and able to make these types of accommodations with regularity.
During the past 3 years, Jack’s writing has progressed from his standard 3 sentences to a 9 page short story! He recently moved to the advanced 6th grade math group, with the accommodation of using his calculator for any problems that aren’t gauging his ability to calculate. He continues to be a voracious reader, as well. He is looking forward to attending a STEM middle school next year (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math), which will harness his strengths in math and visual-spatial problem solving, while capturing his attention with his favourite subject – technology.>>
Lorna: What motivated you to write I Believe in You: A Mother’s Message to Her Son with Learning Differences? What comments have you received that has made all the work involved in getting a book published worthwhile?
<<Kristen DeBeer: Jack’s educational journey was obviously my inspiration for the book, but my motivation was the effect that his learning differences were having on his self-esteem. I was reading every book I could get my hands on about learning differences – all written for adults (parents, educators, medical practitioners, etc.). Every book had a strong message that no matter what you do to help your child with LDs, you should first and foremost be an unfailing advocate for your child, and believe in them. I was getting emotional validation (these people “get it”) from reading these books, but there were no books for kids with the same message. The only message Jack was receiving was “try harder”, but no matter how hard he tried, which was more than most kids, he still couldn’t meet teachers’ expectations. Outside of home, nobody “got it.”
I wanted a positive message for Jack, and for all the different learners, that they are going to be OK, and that we know how hard they are trying. I think it is important to embrace these kids for their strengths, and let them know that they have the love and support of those who know them best. I hope that this book will be a way for parents to discuss learning differences with their children, and offer a positive message for different learners to carry with them to school, and beyond.
Since publishing the book last August, I have had several opportunities to read it to audiences of parents and kids with learning differences. After one reading, I had a mom approach me and tell me that she thought I was reading about HER son, which really let me know that my book was reaching others who were going through the same experiences we were going through. At another event, a parent approached me and told me how much the book meant to her family, and that it was her son’s favourite bedtime story. These interactions warm my heart, because they tell me that the purpose for which I wrote the book is being fulfilled. And different learners everywhere are learning to believe in themselves.>>
Lorna: Often kids who are different because of academic, social, or emotional challenges are the victims of bullies or are those who have a difficult time finding friends or a work partner in classroom projects. What are your suggestions to parents who have a child who is being bullied?
<<Kristen DeBeer: That’s a really tough one. We have been very lucky because our experiences with bullying have been few and far between, but Jack did have a hard time with one particular student when he was new to his school. That student and Jack actually have a lot in common in terms of learning – he is challenged by attention deficits as well. But I think this child’s own insecurities prompted him to lash out at Jack and tease him for his differences from the other kids. Luckily, their teacher was very cognizant of these behaviours and, after an appropriate consequence, that child received more positive attention for his good behaviours, and his bullying ceased.
My suggestions to parents who have a child who is being bullied would be to make an effort to understand why the bully is behaving badly. In most cases, social and emotional issues, like self-esteem or self-consciousness, on the part of the bully, motivate these behaviours. Then the parents of the bullied child need to work the teacher to help him/her understand the suspected motivations and help to rectify those in the classroom.
Meanwhile, parents need to continue to reaffirm their bullied child of his/her self worth. A confident child is rarely the victim of a bully, so the more that parents can build up their LD children through successes outside of school, the more self-confident he/she will be, and the less likely he/she is to be picked on at school.>>
Lorna: Your bio says “I hope that this book will be a way for parents to discuss learning differences with their children, and offer a positive message for different learners to carry with them to school, and beyond.” In your heart-to-heart discussions with your son how do you boost his self-esteem?
<<Kristen DeBeer: I remind Jack frequently that he is in charge of his brain! I know this sounds funny, but I think it’s important for him to know that his challenges don’t define him, and that he has the power to overcome them.
I have also taken my own advice to heart, and I’ve fostered a spirit of self-confidence in him by letting him achieve in areas of strength for him. So he is the self-declared “techie” of our household, and operates/repairs all electronic equipment and machinery therein. That has also translated to school, where his peers go to him when they have questions about technology.
One of my favourite moments was in his classroom last year, when a peer couldn’t get her computer screen to adjust from a zoomed-in position during a presentation with parents in attendance. “DeBeer!” she called, “come help me fix this!” And he beamed with pride as he fixed her screen so she could give her presentation. That’s when I knew that he believed in himself as much as I believe in him.>>
Lorna: “If a child cannot learn the way we teach we must teach him the way he learns.” Please explain what that quote means to you. Has this been done for your son? Are our schools doing enough of this?
<<Kristen DeBeer: This quote is a mantra that every school should embrace! It obviously means that we need to re-think the way we teach rather than penalizing students for not learning. I don’t think enough schools are doing this, and I foresee a real problem in the near future if we don’t re-think our teaching methods. It is no secret that our world has changed from the industrial society in which our educational system began. Instead of teaching our students how to get the “right” answer by learning the same way as everyone else, we need to be encouraging them to learn the way their brains learn best, and then questioning the answers. We need more teachers who can think outside of the box and learn to teach using new and innovative methods that speak to different learners.
We have had some phenomenal teachers who have been able to accommodate Jack’s learning needs and help him overcome his challenges. As I mentioned, our curriculum also plays to Jack’s strengths, so he has had a best-case learning scenario, at least for the past 3 years. He moves into a new school with a new curriculum for middle school next year, so we’ll see how he fares there. Fingers crossed!>>
Lorna: Thank you so much for taking part in our interview series! Will there be another book penned by Kristen DeBeer anytime soon? How can we follow you?
<<Kristen DeBeer: Thanks again, Lorna, for the opportunity to participate! It has been fun to share our story with you. I am not a born author by any means – authoring a book was never a career aspiration of mine. But I saw a void in the marketplace for a book that addressed the social and emotional needs of my own child, and others like him, so I decided to go for it. It has been both a challenging and rewarding experience, so to quote the book, “Who knows what (the) future brings.” Your readers can contact me at Kristen.firstname.lastname@example.org.>>
- Horatio Humble Beats the Big “D” – Dyslexia by Margot Finke