Monday, August 31, 2009

How Can My Kid Succeed in School? Part One

by Craig Pohlman, Ph.D.

Editor's Note: The following is an excerpt from “How Can My Kid Succeed in School?” by internationally-recognized psychologist, Dr. Craig Pohlman, who has recently joined Southeast Psych and directs our Assessment Center.

Brady is a 2nd grader who’s having a very hard time learning to read and spell. He’s great at art, enthusiastically listens to stories, and absorbs information he hears (he loves learning about reptiles). He is picking up math skills with no trouble and is a natural when collaborating with peers. Both adults and kids really enjoy being around him, but his reading troubles are starting to deflate him. In 1st grade he dashed out the door every morning to get to school. Now he asks if he has to go, and longs for weekends and vacations.

Cetera is Brady’s classmate, and she also struggles with reading and spelling. Though not quite as social as Brady, she belongs to a very close threesome of friends. She loves sports, especially soccer and basketball. Cetera also is starting to have some trouble with math. Like Brady, she picks up information very nicely when listening, though sometimes she has a hard time making connections with her prior knowledge. Lately, she’s been complaining to her mother about how hard school is for her.

How can Brady and Cetera’s learning problems be conquered? How can their parents and teachers get them to enjoy school again? Figuring out what is causing their reading challenges is the first step. The good news is that their parents and teachers can gather lots of information, analyze it, and then select targeted learning strategies. But they have to know what to look for and how to make sense of what they find.

Like all students, Brady and Cetera leave plenty of clues about their learning. For example, Brady has a hard time coming up with rhyming words. When he reads aloud he drops out word sounds (like reading “block” as “bok”) and inserts letters that shouldn’t be there when he spells (like spelling “candy” as “canku”). Cetera struggles with memory for several types of information, like math facts and prior knowledge.

Brady’s clues add up to the conclusion that word sounds are very confusing to him. He doesn’t clearly process small sounds like /f/ in “leaf,” which means he has a hard time connecting sounds with letters (like /f/ with “f” or “ph” or even “gh”, as in “cough”). In contrast, Cetera processes small word sounds just fine (for instance, she can rhyme and move sounds around to change words). As it turns out, she has a hard time remembering which sounds go with which letters.

By the way, both Brady and Cetera probably would meet criteria for a learning disability (or, more specifically, a reading disability or dyslexia). But labeling them wouldn’t do much good. That would be akin to claiming that a child with stomach pain has something like Abdomen Soreness Disorder- a label that is pretty useless when it comes to a treatment. Labels tend to oversimplify students by not capturing unique characteristics, like the differences between Brady and Cetera. Also, labels don’t convey strengths and interests, like Brady’s affinity for reptiles or Cetera’s listening comprehension.

Brady and Cetera are experiencing unique challenges. Understanding the specifics of those challenges helps identify what they need in order to be more successful readers. For Brady, the key is to bolster his capacity to process word sounds. Cetera, on the other hand, needs drill in matching sounds to letters in order to solidify this information in her memory banks. By working in these specific areas, they can make strides in their reading and feel successful again.

Dr. Pohlman conducts and supervises learning assessments for Southeast Psych and is available to present on learning issues. Feel free to contact him at 704-552-0116 or His new book is due out on Sept. 28th.