[OPINION] Navigating Dyslexia, Changing Worlds

Jennifer Bernheim knows the challenges of navigating special education in a public school district. She’s the mother of a dyslexic learner, and founder of Right to Read Advocacy, which educates and empowers parents.

Jennifer lives in Weston with her husband and 3 children. She writes:

Like many, I had a front row seat to my child’s education during COVID. My son was in kindergarten, and we slogged through the dreaded daily Zoom calls.

I watched him struggle with his “homework,” labor over writing a sentence, and turn away from reading books aloud on EPIC.

Already unable to memorize sight words like his 2 older siblings, I had a strong suspicion that my son was dyslexic. While my husband and I didn’t know anyone in our families with a dyslexia diagnosis, I knew that my kindergartener wasn’t learning to read with the same ease as others.

I trusted my gut and went with my intuition, exploring this possible diagnosis.

Jennifer Bernheim and her son.

During 1st grade we enrolled him in a private school, knowing that more time on Zoom during COVID would not be conducive to his learning style. We were also hopeful that smaller class sizes and a different reading curriculum would help him develop as a reader.

When his progress was still lacking, I reached out to our district. Evaluations determined the possibility of a specific learning disability – yet no diagnosis of dyslexia yet. During early spring of 1st grade, we moved him back into the district where he could receive reading intervention immediately.

What unfolded from March of 2021 to now has changed me personally, and altered my career trajectory.

I waited for my “welcome to special education” packet, but no one delivered it. I learned first hand how broken the US public school system is when it comes to identification and early intervention for dyslexic learners.

I learned that crying at PPT meetings doesn’t move the needle, and that often even the best-intentioned teachers and administrators are unable to provide the support these students need.

And with the timely release of Sold a Story: How Teaching Kids to Read Went So Wrong, I learned that dyslexic students and struggling readers across the country are unsupported through the typical whole literacy approach. I also learned why my child always studied the pictures before he attempted to read: Thank you three-cueing.

While this “pulling back of the curtain” on American education left me disheartened, frustrated and often sleepless, it also ignited a passion in me. It is a passion so strong that I left my successful career as a PR practitioner to start an advocacy education consultancy.

I dove deep into educating myself about special education law and advocacy, so that I could best advocate for my son and ready myself to advocate for others.

I’ve spent endless hours learning all I can from courses including the Council of Parent Attorneys & Advocates’ esteemed Special Education and Advocacy Training, WrightsLaw Special Ed Law & Advocacy Training, and Overcoming Dyslexia (free on Coursera) by Dr. Sally Shaywitz – all of which I highly recommend.

Now, through my advocacy, I lessen the learning curve for parents with dyslexic learners. I help shoulder some of the burden navigating the special education system. I listen to parents empathetically, while assuring them that there is a community of other like-minded parents also willing to provide support and share resources. I’ve met some of the most amazing moms on this journey.

During the days of Zoom PPT meetings, reviewing evaluations that at the time made no sense to the layperson, and advocating endlessly, I certainly didn’t know that what felt like a burden at the time, would become my greatest gift.

My son who became anxious, continually melted down upon returning home from school, and started to experience school reluctance, is now thriving at The Southport School. His self-esteem has been restored, and he’s on his way to reading with a renewed confidence.

He’s a different kid and I’m a different mom. I attribute his dyslexic diagnosis for changing my world, for the better.

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20 responses to “[OPINION] Navigating Dyslexia, Changing Worlds

  1. Thanks, Dan, for sharing this important article and thank you, Jennifer, for pointing the way for parents(not just “moms”) to navigate around a child’s possible reading reluctance and the public school systems total, unrecognized, failure to address the causes of that reluctance.

  2. charles taylor

    Take Heart Mom! Along with dyslexia come other gifts! I’ve been dyslexic Sean’s birth. I never looked at things the same as other children. I couldn’t subtract or so long division until my 4th grade teacher ( who didn’t know my mom) sent me to summer school!
    I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for children or adults who struggle in school. I stayed after school during algebra and chemistry classes until my fellow football player thought I was dating the teachers. I graduated from high school and college on time however. It meant I spent a lot of time on home work. All this to say I’ve had a great life as a songwriter and non profit executive. I’ve had people and creative skills all along you see. Identify your sons interests and support them. He has talents the world needs!

    • Charles, Thanks so much for sharing about your successes! At first, we only focused on the reading/spelling deficits, yet the more I learn about dyslexia, the more that I learn about the many gifts of being dyslexic! I’m excited to see what the future holds for my son.

  3. Mrs Diane Yormark

    As a parent of a special needs child who went through hell with the westport public school system, I applaud you! I know first hand what a Herculean effort it takes to help your child, despite the virulent and abysmal special education department in our public schools. The Southport School (Formely known as Eagle Hill Southport) saved my child’s life! I have said for a long time, the special Ed superintendent and their underlings should be a voted position, not appointed. My child is an adult now and hugely successful in business and in life, no thanks to the small minded and punitive special Ed leaders in the public school system. I thank the Southport School every day as well as my husband who partnered with me at every step. I will go to my grave knowing I left no stone unturned, and for a stupid amount of money to save my child. More has to be done for all the wonderful children who fall beside the bell curve of the Public School (broken) system!

    • Diane, It sounds like ours kids had a similar path. I agree, The Southport School is such a special place. The difference that I’ve seen in my son in just one year is truly remarkable. In addition to learning how to read, his self confidence has been restored. I wish so many more kids could have TSS experience, which is truly life changing.

  4. Annelise McCay

    Thank you for sharing your story. We had a similar situation as my son was growing up. After advocating for my son with similar difficulty. My son attended Eagle Hill for a few summers and had tutoring early on with former Westporter Malvene Ravage. She was amazing while working with my son and teaching me how to advocate for him for his educational needs. It seems the school systems completely leave it up to parents. The squeeky wheel gets results. It was a long, difficult & expensive road. What I learned is these kids my have a slower road to learning to read, because their brains just work differently. Meanwhile they become incredible creative thinkers. And often discover creative talents.
    My adult son now works for a medical architecture firm and is thriving.
    It’s worth going through the struggles advocating for these creative thinkers. It is unfortunate & unnecessary that school systems make it so challenging for parents & students to do so.
    Annelise McCay

    • Annelise, Thank you for sharing your experience with you son. I love reading about success stories of other dyslexic students. It sounds like you were a fierce advocate as well. I’m excited to see my son bloom at Southport and recognize his creative talents too!

  5. Such an inspiring story. What an incredible Mom and advocate for her son and others.

  6. Stephanie Bass

    Very long back story navigating the Westport school system with a vague diagnosis “Your 7 year old kid will never learn to read.”

    With lack of respect for authority figures, outside tutors and living at Coleytown El for 5 years:

    Outcome: 3 college degrees; successful corporate job in a company where she is highly regarded and a kid who doesn’t think she’s dumb.

    Be a squeaky wheel! And contact the Westport based SMARTKIDS W/LD for excellent guidance on what your kid is entitled to and how to navigate the system.

    • Don’t know how long ago the “Your 7 year old kid will never learn to read” insult was spoken, but whomever spoke it should be fired if still employed. What a depressing tell that statement is about public schools.

      • Eric William Buchroeder SHS ‘70

        On what grounds would you fire the individual(s) in question? Certainly not insubordination. As our dear leaders like to say, they’re not your kids, they’re our kids.

    • Stephanie, I’m sorry that you went through that with your daughter. I’m happy to read about her positive outcomes though! It sounds like she worked so hard – our dyslexic kids are certainly resilient too. And yes, SmartKids is a valuable organization. We are lucky to have them in our community.

  7. Stephanie Bass

    PS: SMARTKIDS W/LD is nonprofit. Sign up for their newsletter. Brilliant and encouraging. Approach is 2 fold: get the educational and psychological support your kid needs to be successful and make those voices in their heads positive.

  8. Thank you! I use the term I coined, “differ-abilities”. Everyone has something positive about them. Differences are okay, we are still similar, we are humans.

  9. Ms Stein, the Guidance Counselor at Long Lots in 1960, told my parents to have me drop out of school at age 16 and put me in a trade school to be a carpenter or plumber. They didn’t listen to her and I earned a Master’s Degree and taught for over 30 years! I had some really bad teachers 60 and 65 years ago. Westport had us on half sessions too because they needed to build more schools around 1957.I’m sure others have stories to share.

  10. Hannah Schneewind

    I appreciate your advocacy on behalf of your son and others. Students with dyslexia do need specialized methods to learn to read, and going through the process of getting an accurate diagnosis is lengthy. However, I would caution readers about Emily Hanford, and I question your statement that you learned that “…struggling readers across the country are unsupported…” Emily Hanford takes the story of a few parents and children to make massive generalizations, many of which are not backed up by research. There is no either/or when it comes to reading instruction. Reading instruction includes decoding, fluency and comprehension. There is widespread agreement about the importance of including phonics in early childhood classroom. Emily Hanford misrepresents many issues in her reporting.

  11. Eric William Buchroeder SHS ‘70

    I can’t believe that the WEA/NEA/AFT/DNC allowed this wonderful story of parental love triumphing over “the system” to be published, particularly on 06880. I guess freedom is not quite dead.

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