Beth was the youngest of three sisters. Previously, I had successfully tutored the first two girls in the family in test preparation, but Beth was starting out with a lower score on the SAT than her siblings. She was a good deal more shy than her older sisters. There was something different about her. Her oldest sister was a very industrious student and a relatively fast learner, and the middle sister was the stereotypical black sheep who pretended she didn’t care much about academics and just wanted to get her mom off her back. Beth seemed more anxious than the first two girls. She understood, on some level, that she possessed the intelligence to do better. She also knew that acknowledging the gap between her scores and her abilities could make her look foolish if in fact she wasn’t able to progress with the same tutor who had enabled such big improvements with her older sisters.
Beth’s parents were recently divorced, which turned out not to be irrelevant. When I stated that I thought Beth might have a learning disability, Beth’s father was quick to pooh-pooh my recommendations. From his perspective, the whole notion of accommodations on standardized tests (and even the need for test prep tutoring!) seemed like something cooked up by his ex-wife, whom he viewed as neurotically overanxious about the college admissions process. In his eyes, he was the good, selfless parent. He also worried about the psychological damage that telling his daughter she had a learning disability could inflict. According to Beth’s father, his ex-wife’s support of my analysis of the situation was self-indulgence around gaming the college admissions system.
Now let’s zoom out for a minute: If Beth were my student in a classroom of thirty, it’s unlikely I would have learned any of this relevant information. In fact, at Beth’s expensive private school, where there were excellent teachers, no one had realized how slowly Beth was reading. Perhaps along the way, a teacher or two had mentioned it in passing but never with enough conviction for Beth’s parents to realize the significance. On top of that, Beth was naturally shy, making figuring out why her academic performance was subpar difficult. Indeed, as with many students, it was precisely because she possessed other intellectual abilities that her learning differences had gone undetected for so long.
The reality is both parents were right to some degree for all the wrong reasons. Beth’s mother was obsessed with college admissions (she scoured College Confidential, a forum website where all things college are discussed, for hours every day), and she was more concerned with Beth’s score impeding her college admissions chances than understanding the cause of her low score in the first place. Meanwhile, Beth’s mother was right that Beth was far more capable than her starting score indicated. Instead of choosing sides, I had Beth take a 1-hour cognitive assessment. It’s a good thing I did. The test results showed her processing speed to be in the bottom decile of the ranking scale, which then led to a much costlier battery of psychoeducational tests that revealed Beth had dyslexia.
Formerly, working with Beth without the accommodation of extra time on the test was a matter of squeezing what she and I could out of the available time we had: she would answer half of the questions accurately and then hurriedly guess on the rest. The experience felt like what parents perceive as conventional test prep. instead of the holistic learner development possible with savant tutoring, we were improving her score in incremental ways through boring time management exercises. Selfishly and selflessly, I wanted to provide her the appropriate runway to succeed because my efforts to help her reach her potential as a learner were being stunted by externally imposed limitations.
Once we received her full psych-ed testing results, and later learned she would be granted extra time on the SAT, my approach to teaching and her approach to learning changed. For once in her life, Beth was given the time and space she needed to fully and comfortably comprehend things, to appreciate and understand the work she was doing at the speed and level that were right for her. The whole time, I kept saying to her that I had higher expectations for her than anyone else in her life had. My new mantra was: “Maybe you’re the smartest sister. Did you ever consider that? Time to start filling those shoes.”
I refuse to talk down to my students. I don’t find the need to, and besides, it’s never effective. Student-centered communication should be grounded in reality while remaining aspirational. To reconfigure your relationship with your child accordingly, constantly praise their potential and simultaneously call them out regularly on any self-limiting behaviors. Even shy students with broad smiles like Beth need this treatment, albeit a modified version when they can handle it. We all benefit from having our constructions of reality shaken up. Don’t fret about sharing hard truths with your child. If you fail to acknowledge (and accept) their shortcomings, they won’t feel like you actually know them. The more you praise who they are today as if they were perfect, the more estranged your child will become, convinced you only love what you think they should be instead of who they actually are. Moreover, students need authentic feedback now more than ever so they can gain the foundational skills school is purported to confer—skills needed in the world to confront today’s challenges and complexities.
By the end of our tutoring sessions, Beth’s SAT score improved by 400 points. She ended up receiving a merit-based scholarship to the college she attended. Sure, her skeptical father was pleased. More importantly, she began to believe in herself in a way she never had before, having lived most of her life overshadowed by her older sisters and the stressed expectations of her parents.
This excerpt was taken from Ian Siegel’s book School Sucks Your Child Doesn’t, The Secret to Unlocking Your Child’s Untapped Potential. You can order the book here.