By Isaac Itman
Is it a learning disability or a language problem? If your child can't keep up with school, do you know where to turn to determine how to help him?
"You need to know what your rights are," said Maria Avina, Bilingual Education Resource Specialist of Parents Helping Parents (PHP). The non-profit public benefit agency based in Santa Clara, CA, is focused on meeting the needs of children with special needs and their families.
Avina's personal experience made her realize how hard it is to ask the right questions and be informed about all aspects of the process regarding special education.Her son was born prematurely and when he was two she noticed he had trouble learning to speak. Later on, when he was almost three, they were connected to the school district and he received speech and language therapy. Nevertheless, Avina said it was hard to believe when they said her son had more issues than just speech and language.
Denial, blame-shifting, fear, helplessness and much later, if at all, a cry for help. That's the regular cycle of emotions for parents who discover their kids have a learning disability.
"I went through the whole thing of denial," she said.
Learning disabilities or learning disorders (LD) are terms used to describe a variety of disorders affecting an individual's ability in areas such as writing, reading, listening, speaking and mathematics. Nonetheless, there might be other disorders that fall under this category and the way they affect the learning process varies in every case.
Learning disabilities do not reflect how intelligent an individual is and are not connected to a person's intelligence quotient or IQ, rather they are difficulties individuals might experience when performing a particular action.
When Avina's son started kindergarten, the school officials told her he was not catching on to the curriculum like the rest of the students and even though she asked for help, they recommended that he finish the school year with his classmates to see how he would do. Avina regrets she was not more insistent in asking for an evaluation.
"At the end of the school year they came to me and said he was going to need some testing," she said.
Evaluation was delayed again when her son started first grade.
"They said 'let's wait,'" Avina recalls.
In the Santa Clara School District, in order to receive an assessment from the school, parents need to request that service by submitting a letter to the school. Avina found out about this protocol through another parent who advised her on the matter.
"I thought, this whole time I've been waiting and I didn't know there was a formal approach," she said."You need to know how to ask for what you want. This happens to a lot of parents, they don't know they have to do it in writing."
Avina's son was finally tested and the assessment indicated he had a learning disability. After consulting other specialists, they told her he had dyslexia.
According to the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), approximately 15 percent to 20 percent of children have a language-based disability in the United States, and most of them have dyslexia.
Dyslexia is a language disability affecting reading, writing and spelling. It also affects information processing, attention and concentration. When there are problems with math, the disorder is referred to as dyscalculia and can be present along with dyslexia. Nonetheless, dyslexia is not an impediment to becoming successful and therefore appropriate diagnosis and early intervention is needed.
Non-English speaking children face major challenges, because sometimes dyslexia is camouflaged by the language issue.
"It is very hard to find information in Spanish, and even harder in other languages", said Avina, a native English-speaker who still faced many challenges."I spent almost a year trying to find information and it was really hard because I did not know exactly what I was looking for or what information was helpful."
Having a learning disability like dyslexia and being an English learner is "almost a double disability" because it is not easily detected, said Irene Martinez, Executive director of Fiesta Educativa, Inc., a non-profit organization based in Los Angeles that provides information and training for Latino families with children with special needs.
Martinez said non-English speaking children are unlikely to receive an early diagnosis and when they receive inquiries from concerned parents their kids are already older.
"Many of them get identified when they are 8 or 9 when they could have been identified by 3 or 4," she said, adding parents may not pick up the problem either."The socio-economic factor here is also important."
"It definitely can be masked", said Jenny Thomson, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Harvard Graduate School of Education.
She said that even though children might manifest reading problems, dyslexia can be overlooked because often teachers and parents assume their children's reading struggle is caused by the second language issue and consequently they don't seek help, hoping things will get better without intervention. On the other hand, it can work the other way around.
"Sometimes children end up receiving special needs help when they actually don't need it," Thomson said.
There are not many assessments that can clearly differentiate between problems with English as a second language versus reading problems. Thomson said the main way to diagnose a reading problem is to see if the child has problems with something called phonological awareness, which means being able to think about the sounds within words.
"We can asses this by, for example, asking children what is the first sound in the word 'cat' or you could ask: 'if you had the word 'price' and you took the 'p' off the beginning what would you have left?,'" she said."If the child struggles with that, is the classic sign of dyslexia."
She said that if they do not have problems with this kind of activity, it is more likely the second language that is holding them up. If the child is struggling, he should receive help at an early stage.
"The stronger the child's first language the easier it is to acquire skills in the second," she said. "It is good to encourage reading and writing in the native language because having really strong skills in the first language will help with learning English," she said.
After receiving training by Parents Helping Parents five years ago, Avina became part of the organization and provides services to parents who don't speak English, which makes her realize how much harder it is for monolingual parents trying to access services to help their children. According to her, sometimes they don't access resources because of fear of the unknown, misinformation, immigration-related issues and stigma.
"They are afraid of having their children segregated," she said. "Spanish-speaking parents need to know they have the same rights as everybody else."
Isaac Itman is a writer for the OMHRC. Comments? E-mail: Isaac Itman
Parents Helping Parents
Fiesta Educativa Inc.
Parent Training and Information Centers and Community Parent Resource Centers
The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development
The International Dyslexia Association
Learning Disabilities Association of America
National Center for Learning Disabilities