When Your Child Isn’t At Grade Level

by Shawna Wingert
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“He is reading at a first grade level now,” I said to the doctor, holding my breath.

“What?” she said with a mix of surprise and concern. “He’s ten.”

I paused for a moment, and decided to ignore the comment welling up in my throat about how I am pretty sure I know how old he is.

“Well, two years ago, he was at a preschool level, so really, he has made two years worth of progress in two years,” I said, sure she would nod her head and appreciate the progress.

She didn’t.

We spent the rest of our time together talking about the many options for dyslexia interventions, and getting him to “grade level.”

I left feeling so sad for my youngest son, who works so hard, but never feels like it is enough.

I understand why he feels this way.

Learning disabilities are so sneaky.

His doctor is well-versed in dyslexia and learning differences. She knows exactly what his IQ testing and learning profile mean. She knows the asynchrony of a child profoundly gifted in some areas, and profoundly delayed in others.

And she still cannot believe, after educational therapy and daily instruction for more than two years, that he is only capable of reading Hop On Pop on his best day.

I understand why she feels this way.

Learning disabilities are so sneaky.

The doctor surprised me when she said, “With his needs, there is no way the school system would be able to adequately help him. You might be able to eventually get the school district to pay for him to go to special private school, but that would take years and I am not convinced it would be a good fit for him either.”

“So you see my dilemma,” I thought to myself, but did not say.

Learning disabilities are so sneaky.

I came home to my children, exhausted and feeling the weight of it all.

I walked away from the appointment with good advice about all the things I need to do.

And I am grateful for it.

And I am tired of it.

It feels like we are running some sort of race — with grade level as the finish line.

Grade level means nothing to my children.

My oldest is reading at a college level proficiency, but cannot perform sequential tasks, requiring even the most basic executive function.

My youngest is several grade levels ahead in history and science, but couldn’t read the word “said” yesterday.

I cannot use grade level as the standard.

I know this. And yet I long for it. I want progress to be faster and more linear. I want grade level so much it hurts sometimes.

I want to be able to say to anyone who asks, “Yes, they are at grade level,” and never again have the discussion about how to speed up their progress.

I want to avoid the panic that rears its ugly head first thing in the morning and last thing at night. “Am I doing this right? What else can I do? Am I failing these children?”

My children are children. They are not math equations. They are not projects with completion dates.

As convenient as it would be for them to achieve grade level expectations, this is just simply not possible sometimes. More importantly, when I think about who they are becoming, what matters most in their lifetime, and how they will be most successful as adults, the less reading levels and math standards even matter.

So today, rather than worrying about all the progress we haven’t made, I choose to focus on all that my sons have accomplished.

Rather than worrying about grade levels and deficits, I choose to see the computer that my son built in less than two hours, on his own.

I choose to see the book that my little guy picked up, and the true joy with which he read it, rather than the words on the cover — Step 1 Ready to Read.

Today, I will do the best that I can for these children and…

I will not run the race to an imaginary grade level finish line.