Special Challenges

Some children have a special challenge with reading and writing or something else.. There are ways you can help your child:

  • Your reminders of his strengths and encouragement of activities that he enjoys will help balance the hard work it takes to deal with his challenges.
  • Engaging literacy games and practices will help him develop his reading skills so that he gains confidence and will become successful. (See “Games Make Learning Phonics Fun.”)
  • Seek help from your child’s teacher or some other professional;


If you don’t know yet what makes reading and writing, or something else difficult for your child, share your concerns and observations with his teacher. Ask her for feedback and suggestions of what would be helpful. Some early interventions are usually available through schools, such as being part of a small group for support at his reading level, someone to read one on one with your child, or computer programs for practicing reading and math skills.

Leo The Late BloomerDepending upon the amount of difficulty your child is having, an assessment may be called for. Possible issues include visual and auditory processing, also known as dyslexia, focus issues like Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), or physical challenges. Changes in the family situation, such as a new baby, moving, divorce, illness or a death in the family can also affect a child’s ability to focus and to learn. Sometimes it just takes a little longer for a student to make that leap forward, often about the time that you start worrying, as in the children’s story, Lea the Late Bloomer, by Robert Kraus and Jose Aruego.


Whether your child has time with a Resource teacher or not, extra help can make a big difference. In addition to your own support at home, you may want to find a friend, family member, tutor, teenager or college student who can give extra time beyond what you can do. This is especially true when your child is assessed but doesn’t meet the criteria for working with a Resource teacher. See the suggestions below for what you and/or another helper can do to support your child. But first of all, a positive attitude is essential.

Changing “I can’t” to “I’ll try”

Jack, one of the students I tutored, used to tell me, “I can’t,” whenever I asked him to read, write or do almost anything. I told him he would get a prize when he learned to say “I’ll try,” instead of “I can’t.”

“What will I get?” he asked.

I said, “We’ll decide later. And I’ll keep track of whenever you say ‘I’ll try,’ even if you say I can’t at first, and then catch yourself. It will add up.”

Of course, then he wanted to know how long it would take to earn this prize, whatever it would be. I told him, “When you stop asking, it will be coming closer.” I kept tally marks and praised him when he said he’d try and he said it more often as we went along.

Jack found out that what I asked him to do was not as hard as he thought it was going to be. I had books and materials at his level or even lower to boost his confidence. Even his homework was not so bad when it was broken down into bite size pieces. He was certainly smart enough.

Even before Kindergarten, Jack had a Speech and Language teacher. His speech had cleared by the time he was in third grade, but he was still very shy and sensitive about being called on in class. When it was his turn to give his third grade biography speech on Houdini in front of his class, his grandmother told me, “He did his own disappearing act and hid in the boys’ bathroom.” Later, his teacher had Jack say the speech just to her.

Jack became a good reader and gained confidence over time. After he’d forgotten about his prize and would try without having to be reminded, I gave him his prize. He chose a special math calculator and was satisfied.

This particular behavior modification method worked for me and Jack. Each child is different, and finding what works to encourage a positive attitude may take some trial and error. Jane Nelsen’s book, Positive Discipline, is my favorite resource book for these issues.

A Positive Attitude

Children need to feel that their efforts are appreciated. If they become discouraged, their confidence needs to be rebuilt. If they feel sensitive or embarrassed about needing extra help, they need to be reassured that they are smart and capable.

In fact, those with special challenges are usually the brightest, most creative children, which helps them compensate for their challenges. That’s been true of all the students I’ve worked with who’ve had these issues.

I tell my students who are struggling or asking why they aren’t like other kids who seem to have it easy, “Everyone’s different, with different things that are hard or easy for them. We just don’t know about other people. Everybody has something that’s hard for them. You’re working hard and doing your personal best. You have a head start by learning this now. And you can be proud of yourself. I am!” For the children who need this pep talk, I admit that it becomes more convincing when they see that they can succeed, a step at a time. To paraphrase Mel Levine, author of The Myth of Laziness and One Mind at a Time,“ children don’t try harder in order to succeed. When they succeed, they try harder.”

Mark’s Dyslexia

Mark made a mistake reading something out loud where a boy on another sports team heard and made fun of him. Mark told his mother about it and she helped him work through his embarrassment. Later and a bit older, Michael felt comfortable enough in his class to say to his teacher when it was his turn to read, “Since I read slowly, you can skip me if you want, or I can take my turn.” By the time Mark was in middle school and getting close to straight A’s, he mentioned that he’d like to help other kids who had the same problem he had. What helped Mark? He did qualify for time with the Resource teacher, and learned to ask for extra help when he needed it. This took awhile since he didn’t want to look different from the other students, but his mother encouraged him and he was glad when he did it. Sometimes the teacher and a Resource student will have a quiet signal for when he would leave for help.

Because Mark was dyslexic, his family often read textbooks and stories for school aloud to him. He was able to listen to some books on the computer while the text highlighted as the words were spoken. With his strong auditory memory and quick mind, Mark took it all in and was able to think about the material and answer questions and quizzes. As his tutor, I also read aloud to him, discussed the readings, and wrote down what he had to say in response. Then I would read it back to him and he would say what to change or to add. Mark prepared for tests by going over the material until he had it fairly memorized. He was a hard worker.

Mark loved playing basketball and baseball. He was a team player. And, as he said himself, he was competitive and liked to win. That was part of what helped him persevere with reading and writing. He wanted to do his best.

Attention Issues

For children with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), having them read aloud to you helps them to slow down and take in what they are reading. If they’re rushing past periods without a pause at the end of each sentence, seem confused, or just to check for understanding, asking them to reread or answer questions about what they read can help. When they’re distracted, gently bringing them back to the topic or the work to be done can work. Sometimes I’ll say, “Let’s talk about that later. I’ll write a note here so we can get back to it.” Sometimes I’ll let my student run on for awhile and jot down a few notes. “That’s a great story,” I’ll tell them. And it’s true. “Tell that to me again more slowly so I can write it down.”

Before your child starts writing fiction or non-fiction, story maps can help organize his thoughts. Help him make a plan, using the “5 W’s plus How” (who, what, where, when, and why, plus how): who are the characters, what is the main idea, where and when does it happen (the setting), what is the the problem and how do they solve it (why and how/the plot). Looking for the 5 W’s will also help focus in on the main idea and details when reading.

It often takes practice for children with ADD not to call out in class. When I was tutoring Matthew, we practiced taking turns being teacher and student, with the student raising a hand and waiting to be called on. Just becoming aware that he needed to work on this helped him.


If your child takes a very long time to complete homework, you may ask his teacher if his workload can be modified. For example, when the teacher was told that a student I was tutoring was doing at least three hours of homework each night, she modified his math homework to doing every other problem. She also agreed that audio books and reading aloud to him at home would be helpful. Not all teachers are as accommodating as this. I’ve known parents who have changed schools because their children have been so unhappy. In those rare cases, it helped.

Helpful Hints

  • I hope the preceding stories give you some ideas for helping your child. Here are a few more helpful hints.
  • Find the right level of reading materials. Ask the school and public librarians for help. The reading levels on some books are misleading. Ask your child’s teacher for suggestions.
  • Break homework down into manageable pieces so that it doesn’t seem so overwhelming.
  • Read aloud to him so that he can concentrate on understanding, especially for textbooks and stories above his reading ability.
  • Find that line where he does as much as he can and you support only as much as needed. This can be tricky to figure out. Check with his teacher about what he’s capable of at school.
  • Find other help when needed from a family member, friend, tutor, teenager or college student. Teachers sometimes know of tutors.
  • Help your child keep stretching his abilities. For example, my son’s math tutor, a friend of ours whom he looked up to, would tell him, “Let’s do the challenge problems!” Presented with such enthusiasm, he was happy to take on the challenge.
  • Talk with his teacher about what your child can do and what you can do that will help him the most.
  • Continue to read to your child, even after he learns to read. You can read stories above his ability level, which will help enrich his language experience and love of reading. Keep this special time together going as long as possible.

On-going special challenges can be wearing for parents. By taking care of yourself, especially when you become worried or frustrated, you can be available for your child and keep a balanced family life. Talking with an understanding friend, family member or counselor can be a help. Keeping a focus on your child’s progress and strengths without comparing him to others is also a good practice. He has his own strengths and challenges; others have theirs, visible or not.

Remember that love and acknowledgment are the most important ingredients for supporting your child.

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