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My Turn: A father’s hope after daughter’s dyslexia diagnosis



For the Monitor
Saturday, June 17, 2017

Three years ago, I didn’t feel I deserved the handcrafted gift my 8-year-old daughter made me for Fathers Day. It had been a rough school year for her. Her teachers had noted she wasn’t reading at the level of her classmates. This prompted the school to provide a reading specialist who told us that she would catch up if she worked harder and focused more. Wanting to do the right thing, I pushed her to work harder.

We ran through flash cards in the car, while we set the table for dinner and before she went to bed. She spent extra time on homework every night. Still she wasn’t making progress. All the added pressure was straining our relationship, and I felt like I had let her down. I started dreading the flash card drill sessions.

Working harder on reading became the center of our universe. The bright girl who loved stories and storytelling was arguing with us about doing homework, and finding ways to avoid doing the work we were pressuring her to do. Despite everything I was trying to do, I couldn’t help her, and she wasn’t seeing results. So, when I opened the card that read “To the world’s greatest Dad,” my heart sank. I hardly felt like a great dad.

By the end of third-grade, it was abundantly clear that this “just try harder” approach wasn’t effective for our daughter. We decided to pursue additional testing. As a result, she was diagnosed with dyslexia – and our lives soon began to change for the better. Once we knew that our daughter was one of the one in five children who have learning and attention issues, we were able to start understanding the cause of her struggles and begin crafting the right educational approach.

A multi-sensory approach to reading instruction called Orton-Gillingham taught my daughter (and me!) that working smarter is more important than working harder. I didn’t know it then, but the brains of people with dyslexia process writing in a unique way. That makes it a challenge for them to decode the letters on the page.

Within three weeks of starting specialized reading instruction, my daughter went from saying “You can’t make me do it anymore!” to “I think I actually might like reading!” She learned strategies for efficiently and effectively making sense of the letters and words on the page. And she was beginning to see the results of her hard work.

I was thrilled that she was making progress and enjoying school again, but I was left with a tremendous sense of guilt. I’m a family doctor. Yet with all my medical training, I had somehow completely missed that she has dyslexia. Why did it take me so long to figure out that “just working harder” was the wrong approach? Had I made things worse by putting so much pressure on her? Was it too late for her to catch up? These questions weighed on me as I worried about her future. It wasn’t until the middle of fifth-grade that I finally let go of my guilt.

My daughter’s love of learning returned – and I met numerous other families who had similar stories. Some call dyslexia an invisible learning disability because it’s hard to see the signs and is often misunderstood. Knowing that I wasn’t alone helped me immensely. Just as important, my daughter became self-sufficient at homework, so I could stop being her unskilled home tutor and could focus on just being her dad. Now I check in with her on how her day went and let her do the work herself. She enlists me in craft projects, confides in me about tiffs with her friends and sometimes reads graphic novels with me. She has assured me that “everything is okay” now that she has the skills to understand her schoolwork.

I have been able to say goodbye to guilt through getting my daughter the right diagnosis, finding her the correct teaching approach and knowing that things will work out for her. Parents in similar situations can ask for more testing, find the right teaching approach for your child and talk with others. I found my support community at Understood.org, a place I turn to when I have questions about my daughter’s diagnosis.

This Fathers Day, I feel like I’m a better dad. I know how to support my daughter when she needs it, and we now have the time to goof around and have fun. Today, I’m getting the best gift I could ever imagine: seeing my bright, eager-to-learn, fun-loving daughter with a bounce in her step, back to her normal self.

(Dr. Travis Harker is a family physician in Concord and contributor to Understood.org.)