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New York City
May 2003

Hooray for the ERBs

At two -years old, I noted my daughter’s somewhat scattered language that was not in keeping with her other skills. She had walked at nine months, climbed out of her crib at eleven months and seemed to understand us fluently before she was one. But I wasn’t particularly worried, comforting myself with the knowledge that I hadn’t spoken until the age of three. Little did I know of learning disabilities.

When it came time to discuss on-going schools with her nursery school head, there was no question that she was heading for any school of our choosing. That was what it was like until she took the ERBs as they are commonly known. This intelligence test is a must for any child applying to any independent on-going school in the New York City area. We didn’t prep, just discussed it like all parents are advised to do. Of course, years ago my niece had it right when she said: “They tell you it’s a game, but we all know it’s a test.” For us these tests revealed an erratic learning style - the dreaded uneven scores - that parents and nursery school heads know, no matter what on-going schools say can be the “kiss of death” when it comes to the admissions process. Scores such as these, thank goodness, can also be the first indication of learning disabilities or “differences”, the PC term preferred by some.

A stunned and sensible nursery school head suggested further testing. That was my first venture into the world of learning disabilities. It was also one moment during which I was very proud of myself, and my husband. We did not race into denial, a common enough and understandable response among parents. On the other hand there have been many moments during my daughter’s struggle when I have not felt terribly proud of either one of us. But, fifteen years later as my daughter prepares to graduate from upper school and start her college life, I look back and recognize how much I have learned and understand how much more I need to know.

During this period I have dealt with professionals who have ranged from fabulous to those who “walk the walk and talk the talk” without doing the work. I learned to recognize biases in professionals within the subtexts of learning specialists, encountered those who had found a new and profitable industry and come up against those who still disbelieve learning disabilities exist.. What it comes down to, for me, has been combining a steep learning curve with a commitment to be my child’s advocate and a recognition that I had to many times trust my own intuition.

I call it learned intuition. My daughter’s first follow-up testing was done by a wonderful woman who told me, “I know you’re nervous and worried. So, I will let you know the results in 24hours, but you won’t get a written report for months.” Her compassion and humor extended into her verbal evaluation and many months, later her written report. Her findings: my child had a variety of learning disabilities that would manifest themselves at different periods in her academic career. Very wisely she told us that: “They won’t go away, they’ll pop up without rhyme or reason, and she will have to learn to work around them.”

Rewind back to the on-going school search. The so-called fast track schools were out. She wasn’t a legacy or a sib and, even if they had been interested, we weren’t. Nor were we willing, at this time, to look at special ed schools. Nurturing was the buzzword and we found a place that seemed to suit. We also found a dedicated learning specialist. Fast forward a few years. We were mired in the myriad world of tutors. What we had to learn the hard way was that my daughter didn’t need tutors. She needed someone who would help her learn the material in the way she learned. The concept was at times as convoluted as the search. It highlighted the fact that the most important thing I could do was understand how my daughter learned. The second most important thing was to impart that information to her school. Getting teachers to understand that visual learners need homework assignments put on the blackboard instead of shouted out as children leave the classroom was invaluable. Dealing with administrators who welcomed information from learning specialists without making them feel harassed was a goal for which I continuously strived.

My daughter learned about index cards when she was eight. She understood the importance of organization long before many of her peers, but it took her years to accept that what might take a friend ten minutes to do could take her an hour. This was the little girl who always helped out, but came off the stage in tears on the day she “graduated” from middle school. Once again she had watched those for whom “it was easy” win multiple rewards, while she and others who worked hard without achieving top honors never experienced applause. Children who are aware of their learning disabilities, a necessity if they are going to learn compensatory skills, know early on that public recognition is rarely theirs. As a parent you struggle to find somewhere they will shine.

For my child it was sports. We are lucky she’s a natural athlete. I’m in awe at her skills in any sport she tries. But we continuously had to balance the time her schoolwork took against the hours required to engage in a competitive sport. It’s a balancing act that never stops. Then, finally in her junior year of upper school it all came together. We found a school and she found art.

Many small schools don’t have the funds for the extras. We found one that did and my child found something at which she excelled. It was also the time when she could finally opt out of some of the required subjects that only caused her grief, particularly math and some of the sciences. Three years of each instead of four allowed her to take some electives. The left side of her brain was finally let loose. Hours spent in the art room produced work that was good enough to exhibit. Now we had only one small hurdle, the SATs.

For many with learning disabilities, standardized tests are hell. These tests do not take into consideration varied learning styles. They show only what someone who fits the mold knows. For those who do not fit the mold, even extended time is not necessarily the answer. Visual learners, those who can give you any answer verbally and even those who see the possibility of more than one right answer will not do well. Our daughter is one of these people. Also given today’s demographics, colleges can pick and choose. Those who excel in just one area, the arts, music, even math or science, are too often shut out of just those schools that can offer the richest and most diverse curriculums. So we went on a quest. We found a school that recognized that the SATs don’t always paint a full picture of the student. We also found a school that will allow my child to study what she loves. Was the search easy? Let’s put it this way, I’d rather have had oral surgery. But as a family we have learned that “alternative thinking” goes hand in hand with “alternative learning.” #

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