My Daughter, My Learning Disability

There is a pile of ashes in my fireplace. We don’t normally light fires, but something needed to be set ablaze last Friday, so the fireplace naturally seemed the most logical place for that event to occur. The piece of paper that was the victim of my pyromania: a timed multiplication test.

My daughter ran off of the bus, past me, past her brother, past her best friend who was calling after her, past the dog (who was more than confused), up to her bedroom and slammed her door. Sobbing echoed through the sunny hallway. Her brother shrugged and said, “I don’t know. She got on the bus like that.”

I did the typical line of Sherlock questioning, parent-style. Did she have an argument with a friend? Did something embarrassing happen? Were her feelings hurt? Was she in trouble? Was her shirt tucked into her underwear all day? No, no, no, no. MOM! No.

Twenty minutes later, it all came out in a stream of snot and tears. She failed a review (timed) multiplication test. It took her all morning to finish her weekly reading assignment (which she dreads with same level of misery as someone on the way to have a tooth pulled), and she wasn’t able to finish her writing. It was a day of frustration, in every subject area.

In all honesty, it has been an entire year of frustration in every subject area. For enough reasons to write a book about, my daughter has struggled this year. I don’t care about grades. Genuinely. I think they are arbitrary and subjective, and I don’t measure the worth of my child’s academic achievement by a letter. What I’m looking for is an enthusiasm and positive attitude about learning, combined with effort and conscientiousness regarding her schoolwork.

She has the effort in spades, and I wish that she would be less conscientious after the second hour of doing homework. However, enthusiasm and a positive attitude went out the window during the second week of school.

“This is 3rd grade,” is what I kept hearing. This year is the one where it gets hard. It’s the year when students stop learning to read, and start reading to learn. The workload increases, and they have to take standardized tests in the spring. It’s a whole new world, but not one that Disney would want to write a song about.

My daughter has a mild learning disability. Her academic challenges aren’t dramatic enough that she qualifies for special education services in our public school system, but they are there. We had her tested. Literally.

She has a deficit in auditory processing. The Twitter length definition is that although she can hear sounds, her brain doesn’t always interpret the sounds of language correctly. This in turn makes understanding oral language and reading (both activities based on the interpretation of sound) very challenging. Not impossible, but challenging. It affects her ability to participate in conversations with her peers and other adults because she can’t keep up with what everyone is saying. It makes sounding out words almost impossible if they have more than two syllables. It makes listening to directions painful. She is amazing, because she’s determined to conquer it all, but it is a lot more mental work for her to get through a day, and it can be exhausting.

I say all of this because we know that things are going to be more challenging for her sometimes. It is part of the package. We are fortunate that her deficit is mild and not severe, and that she has compensated and learned a plethora of coping strategies over the last few years.

Sometimes though, she is angry. And honestly, so are we. Typical, standard classroom teaching strategies don’t always work for her. She gets tired of asking for help, and so do we. Especially when we keep hearing again and again that she doesn’t really NEED help.

Except that she does, because the most important part of education isn’t happening; the enthusiasm and the positive attitude. She needs things repeated, she needs visuals, she needs more time, she needs encouragement. She’s not enthusiastic about learning. It’s a never ending uphill climb. She’s not positive about learning. She sees a lot of red ink on her papers, and a lot of wrong answers. And it’s not because she’s not trying hard enough.

Her reaction to the failed math quiz was devastation. She was a failure, and this time it was in a subject that she normally feels positive about.

My reaction was anger and resulted in lighting the paper on fire.

I felt her devastation because it was mine once.

I always failed timed math tests. I would fail one now. I have a Bachelor’s degree, I was an educator, I am a published writer, and I’ll be 39 on Friday, but if you gave me a timed multiplication quiz right now, I guarantee you I would fail with flying colors.

I was never diagnosed with a learning disability, but I always struggled with math. Reading, language arts, content areas; no problem. Math was my Achilles heel.  It isn’t just a flaw in effort or memorization. Numbers themselves have never made sense to me. Like my daughter, I’ve learned to compensate and cope so that when I calculate the tip on the check, I get it correct 3 out of 4 times (but I blame the 4th time on wine so I’m saved from embarrassment).

Here’s the real kicker: I teach remedial math part-time. I have used my weakness and turned it into a strength. I understand why these kids hate math because they are the same reasons that I hate(d) math. I still don’t LOVE math, but I have come to understand the necessity of it and the beauty of patterns and formulas in the natural world. I need it in my daily life, and although I will never take calculus, I have a life full of math and manage to get through it relatively unscathed thanks to calculators and Google.

The same could not be said for my attitude about math as a student. My daughter is actually strong in math (with the exception of the timed tests, which is more about the timing and less about her inability or ability to retain math facts). I was not strong in math. I counted on my fingers, and then when that wasn’t allowed anymore, I started tapping my toes. I tried to hide. Literally. In the back of the classroom, under my arm, quiet as a mouse, even if I didn’t understand a single solitary thing about what we were learning.

Most of the time, I didn’t. I worked hard. I studied for hours just to get through with C’s. With effort, I could do enough math to (barely) pass a test. I always felt like I had a huge secret though; I wasn’t smart because I couldn’t retain anything relating to numbers. Even my phone number was hard to memorize.When I was in college.

In the back of my head the self doubt always lingered. “You’re such an idiot. You’re not fooling anyone.” It still sits there, taunting me.

I got through it, but it was a determining factor in my college major. I wanted to go into nursing, but was afraid of the higher level math and science classes that I was convinced I would fail. I never even tried.  I had hidden my non-understanding of math so well, but I knew the truth. I did good of a job of fake-learning for many years, but I knew that I couldn’t cut it at the end of the day.

My hatred of math didn’t start with timed tests. My hatred of myself as a math student started with timed tests. I hated that no matter how much I studied, I couldn’t earn the coveted “-0” in the rectangle on the top right of the paper. I hated that I wasn’t smart enough to do math.

That is what caused the impromptu bonfire. I was furious when she showed me that test. Not because she failed, but because her reaction was that she wasn’t smart. She used to love math; now it has joined reading and spelling as the worst subjects ever.

This isn’t really about the timed tests (although in a way, it is). This is about a system of education that takes the natural enthusiasm and curiosity that is in all children and squashes it under the weight of test scores and wrong answers. A system that is only concerned with whether or not you can pass the test; not whether or not you learned something.

Our public school system expects that all children learn the same way, at the same speed, and penalizes them when they can’t.

Get the right answer. Get it fast. Remember it forever. Sometimes that just isn’t enough. Most of the time that isn’t enough.

When I was young, someone noticed that I couldn’t pass a timed math test. They continued to give me timed tests, thinking that I would get it eventually, only to watch me fail, again and again and again. Was the goal that I finish the test in 5 minutes or was the goal that I learn my math facts? They aren’t synonymous. I needed to be instructed and assessed in a different way.  Maybe it would have changed how I thought about math. Maybe I wouldn’t have grown up thinking I was an idiot because I broke out in a cold sweat when I had to multiply a number over 5.

Who knows. If I had been taught a different way, maybe it would have changed the way I thought about life. Maybe I would be a nurse right now, instead of a teacher who “retired” early and is still trying to figure out what I want to be when I grow up. Maybe all I needed was for someone to help me with my multiplication tables instead of timing me on them.

My daughter has more academic strengths than weaknesses; so did I. The tragedy is that I grew up as a student only thinking about what I couldn’t do, and I let it limit my choices as an adult. I want to change that for my daughter. I want her to think of her strengths first, then work on developing her weak areas without the same self-hatred that I possessed for so long. I want her to know that sometimes she is going to fail tests, but it doesn’t mean she has to be a failure in that subject. Her brain, like her mother’s, just works differently. It doesn’t always work the way the system of education wants it to. Their loss, not ours.

I want to make sure that one day, if my daughter wants to go to school to be a nurse, she doesn’t let her 3rd grade timed math test be the reason she doesn’t do it. She will have to work hard, just like I had to work hard, but she won’t be afraid of what she thinks she can’t do.

So we lit that test on fire and watched it burn, because it didn’t deserve to be agonized over. It didn’t deserve to hold her self-worth in its score. It was just a timed multiplication test, after all.

If you would like information about the research that has been done regarding timed math tests and the effects on students, this is a great link: Timed Tests and the Development of Math Anxiety .

Information on Auditory Processing Disorder: Auditory Processing Disorder

Information on Dyscalcula (difficulty organizing and remembering numbers and math facts)  Dyscalcula