Friday, March 5, 2021

A word of advice to parents

Reading Time: 4 minutesParents must acknowledge that some children have learning difficulties and need support, rather than being labelled lazy,


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“I just want to push my son,” she said to me. Her flailing hope was palpable.

Three months earlier I had received a tentative phone call at the tutoring institute I run, from a mother who was concerned about the lack of effectiveness of the combination of in-class support and also private tutoring. Her son, she said, was not like his older brother. The older brother was in Year 11 and doing so well in the selective school. Surely the younger boy should be the same?

After one session of tutoring, my special needs tutor reported that the young boy had learning difficulties. The mother refused to believe it and, in tears, said that this could not be true. She needed her son to be bright because that would mean he could go to a good school and not the local school.

The mother refused to have the special needs tutor help her son and asked if I could give a second opinion. I obtained copies of all of the past six years of NAPLAN papers and started on the reading test in order to gauge comprehension. It was evident as he read aloud that the boy’s reading was very poor with obvious pronunciation errors such as substituting ‘f’ for ‘th’ and reading ‘three’ as ‘free’, ‘the’ as ‘duh’ and ‘although’ as ‘aldough’. Apart from this error, and a failure to stop at full stops, the reading was quite slow and disjointed.

When answering the most basic of the questions on the first three pieces of stimulus, the boy did reasonably well. However, as the reading became more abstract, there were a higher proportion of incorrect responses. This could be contrasted with the boy’s spelling. His answers on the language conventions tests were mostly correct and he displayed outstanding spelling. The boy clearly had a very disparate set of abilities.

I recommended that the mother have the boy psychometrically assessed so that any tutoring and also any teaching through school could be properly informed. She was reluctant. Surely her son just needed to ‘work hard’. The cost of the testing was waived so that any issue of cost was not a factor.

The psychometric test revealed that the boy was well below average (bottom 3%) in terms of reading comprehension. However his spelling was in the 99th percentile. Moreover, he had a very short working memory. This type of psychometric profile clearly indicated learning difficulties.

At this point the mother seemed to accept that her son needed to be understood and she needed to make decisions about him that matched his ability. However, this was only temporary.

By the end of the week she had her son do several more reading tasks and purchased copies of books for preparation for the selective schools exam. I suggested that she have him read aloud for 20 minutes a day to improve his literacy and we commenced free weekly one and a half hour sessions of reading comprehension.

It was during the holidays in one of these sessions that I asked the boy how he would spend the rest of his day. The boyreplied, “At my muder work”. When I later inquired about this with the mother she said that every day of the holidays he had spent all day at work with her and that he spent the day learning. He had not seen any of his friends, did not see any movies and did not play computer games at all in the two weeks.

A week later when we had a session together, the boy got just over half of the 50 items correct. When his mother was being shown the work he would smile when she saw the correct responses, but would closely read her face when she saw his incorrect responses. I commented that the boy appeared to be tying his self-esteem to her approval and disapproval around the success of his answers. He nodded when I said this and she looked down.

A day later I received a phone call from the mother. In it she stated that she would no longer be bringing her son to tutoring as her ‘shift times had changed’. I suggested times outside of her altered shift times. She then said, “I still want to push him. All he has to do is stop being lazy”.

At this point I was reminded of a parent who came to me a few years ago seeking help with his son. I suggested he start to understand his son by listening, rather than telling him what to do. A year later the father returned for ‘more wisdom’. He had booked an hour. A quick inquiry as to what he sought ‘wisdom’ about was met with, “My son is lazy and he never listens, though I tell him a million times”.

I turned to him saying, “Last year we spent time together and you stated then that you would listen to your son. Instead, all you have done is what you have always done and the outcomes are the same… So, my so-called wisdom is the same as last year, hence ‘ditto’”.

The mother in this case was doing exactly as this father did. Ignoring their child for the sake of some pre-cast view of what a child should be. Her son was stressed to the point of scratching himself to bleeding when studying with his mother at home. Away from her he could concentrate and smile during tutoring. He displayed resilience despite getting many test items incorrect.

If she ever brings her son back I will continue to help him without charge. However, sometimes people turn away. I hope that the boy holds on to the memory of my belief in him that he is a good boy, who is trying his best and whoever he is, is plenty good enough.

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Mohan Dhall
Academic leader, M2K Education and Advisory and CEO of Australian Tutoring Association and Global Tutoring Association.

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