How can parents of older students keep supporting?

Late one night this summer we got an email from a mom asking for advice. We wanted to share this parent’s voice; it echoes the sense of desperation so many feel when trying to help their child notice their abilities. We hope our reply might spark a connection or motivate one parent to take action for their child, and the entire dyslexic community. [Shared with permission; lightly edited for privacy and clarity.]

Hi NoticeAbility,

I am reaching out to you from across the world.  I have a dyslexic son who is now in his twenties, highly intelligent and functional.  He successfully completed high school and went on to enlist in the military where he excelled in his leadership training. Then, after finishing an internship he decided to study engineering instead of continuing in business.  He is in college now, and struggling. 

He and I have been working together to get him help with his barriers to learning in school since he was very young.  The issue was always openly discussed: his father is a successful entrepreneur who is also dyslexic and never went past high school.  By all indications our collaboration to get him the right help was successful.

Our son knows he has dyslexia. But he is also convinced that this is no "excuse" and that he's stupid or lazy.  He still believes this after all these years.  He is getting average grades in his college coursework, only by working extremely hard and he’s very frustrated.  He strives for higher grades, desperately needs to achieve them, and feels like a total failure when he doesn't.  We have always dealt with these feelings and the psychological fallout from the dyslexia, finding a way through each stage. 

Now I am at a loss.  The system is so stacked against him.  A tutor has not helped.  He understands the material and also his mistakes in exams.  He has accommodations for extra time.  Nothing seems to be working.

Can you point me to any information, paradigm, institution or person where I might find a way to help him through this next stage?  I thank you in advance for your help and for the wonderful work you are doing in the world.

Regards, A Mom

Reply from NoticeAbility:

Hi Mom,

Thank you for reaching out to us. Your journey sounds remarkable and unfortunately not as rare as it should be. You are rightly proud of all your son has accomplished, thanks in large part to your effort to navigate his challenges.

About the feelings of self-doubt that can arise from experiencing the extra effort it takes for dyslexic students to decode words:  they can't usually be overcome with positive messaging by a parent or teacher. Often, you are not a credible source of feedback in their eyes.

Because of that, the design of our courses reflects this dynamic (craving validation that can't come from parent/teacher) in 3 ways. We:

> create a safe community of dyslexic peers

> identify, build, and exercise different strengths that dyslexics are disproportionately likely to find career success in, in a format designed to minimize barriers to their learning and reduce the anxiety about being judged on areas of weakness

> step-wise, work up to a public display of each student's capabilities and ingenuity, and at each step allow for peers to see and appreciate the contribution of others in an unscripted spontaneous way.

This means it can't happen solo, only in a group. It can't happen without a way to suspend the standard middle school norms of sit still, be quiet, read aloud, write your thoughts, and spell correctly without tech aids. It means the teacher must welcome non-conforming answers.

This pedagogical approach consistently produces student expressions of original creativity and ideas which meet a need that students have identified. That is good, it’s engaging and fun.  But by itself it doesn't create the confidence we are after. We set the stage for the student's original ideas to be recognized as valuable both by themselves and by an independent source of feedback: their peers, other adults, and their community. Under those conditions the independent validation can be offered with credibility and accepted in all of its complexity. Having one’s ability noticed can begin to turn the tide of doubt into some hope for being regarded as capable and valued.

The words we hear from students who can look back on the time before they felt empowered are things like "I wasn't being taught in the ways I learn." I am not sure whether you can successfully adapt and apply the principles behind the design of our coursework to find or create a learning environment more supportive of your son at his stage. I believe it could be possible. I believe you when you say your collaboration was successful. I agree that the system is stacked against him and something needs to change. I do believe your role is shifting, and I believe that first recognizing what used to work won't necessarily work anymore is vital to the process of seeing and creating alternatives.

It seems you should keep asking questions and reaching out to others. We believe it’s important that parents and student not feel alone, that they are seen, heard, and recognized as belonging and included for who they are. A great parent support group for sharing resources is the Decoding Dyslexia network, usually by geography and accessible through Facebook.

To your question about institutions: in "The College Finder" by Steven R. Antonoff there's a section called "Colleges for students with Learning Disabilities written up by Dr. Rachel B. Sobel of Philadelphia, and an expert on colleges that are a good fit. There are a few colleges listed as "Strong Dyslexia Support":

Landmark College (Vermont)
Limestone College (South Carolina)
Nicholls State College (Louisiana)
Southern New Hampshire University (NH)
...and several more offer additional support, which also have a reputation for strong engineering programs:
Northeastern University (Massachusetts)
Adelphi University (New York) has a combined 3 year-2 year engineering program with Columbia University
Drexel University (PA)
University of Arizona (AZ)

I hope that this is at all helpful, and please accept apologies for all the ways it must fall short of what you feel you need right now. Thank you for sharing your story.