How The '5 Words Or Less' Rule Can Help A Child Who's Struggling

by Maureen Lewis
A mother holding her child in her arms on an open field
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Nothing major, but all these little comments from your child’s teacher pile up: He rushes through work. He is bored. He doesn’t write anything down in his assignment notebook. Disorganized. Haphazard work. But, yet, his grades are good. Maybe he’s a non-traditional learner, maybe he’s a non-linear learner. Hint, hint, hint.

Let me save you some time. The first best step — after all the hints over the years pile into a solid suggestion — is to ask a therapist. Maybe for a diagnosis, maybe for some direction, maybe to put your own anxiety to rest. I mean come on, we do not all learn the same things the same way.

Before you go, try these three things. Really. Just give it a shot. I’ll tell you why in a minute.

1. Simplify how you talk.

Talk to your child in five words or less, especially when giving directions. It sounds a little drill-sergeanty, I admit. “Please put your shoes on so we can go” becomes “shoes on feet.” “Hang your backpack and jacket on the hook” shortens to “hook your stuff.” Your morning litany before leaving the house sounds like “backpack glasses folder lunch cleats.” It’s so weird; this is how robots talk, not people. Three weeks. Stick with me on this for three weeks  –  it will smooth your way.

2. Say “yes” more often.

Some requests might trigger your automatic default to “no,” but hold up a hot second. Fine, sleep in t-shirts and gym shorts, not pajamas. Yes, have pasta for breakfast. Yes, sleep in a sleeping bag instead of bedsheets and blanket on your bed. Yes, camp in the yard. Yes, buy an old chainsaw at the thrift store just to take it apart. Yes, you can cook. Yes, you can climb that, jump from that, eat that, wear that. For someone struggling to toe the line all day, or who hears criticism on the regular, the “yes” is fresh oxygen.

3. Find ways to have your child excel alone.

Your child is probably chock full of rules and assignments and information and learning, and the structure of team sports or scouts or clubs might add stress. What worked for mine won’t work for everyone, but the kid could fly down a ski slope, so: ski racing. He also cooked competitively, and loved experimenting in the kitchen. Bicycling distance, exploring trails and paths, logging hundreds of miles, was his zen. He also got a summer job at a ridiculously young age because someone trusted him enough to hire him to work on a food truck, and suddenly he had responsibility and independence and walking-around money, and could make change on the fly.

These were huge, for me, adaptations that stemmed from seeking a diagnosis and learning accommodations in fourth grade. On the first day of fourth grade, he eye-rolled me in slow motion, as he announced he’d been placed with Mrs. F., “Hardest teacher in the whole school.” He’d slammed into shore or drifted along navigating second grade, in a brand new school  —  while at home, I was fighting cancer that whole year. Third grade was a forward-and-back dance, trying to figure out why some learning stuck right away (hello, lattice multiplication and mental math, where he just killed it) and other concepts remained completely foreign. But on day three of fourth grade, I had a call from Mrs. F., and she said “Tell me about him,” then weighed in with her opinion: something is up in how he processes  –  are you open to testing? And it was a long road, because he did not outright fit a profile for need.

In the first (yes, first, because we did this twice) assessment, which spanned twelve weeks and involved professionals from all walks of academics and psychology, the outcome was a 4–4 tie score: he “sort of” fit the profile for accommodations, but he’s actually functioning just fine. I was deflated. I knew getting an IEP (individual education plan) would benefit him as academics became more rigorous, even if the need was marginally now.

Mrs. F. was undaunted: “We do it again; the district will test the same student twice.” So we did. With a different team of academic and psychology professionals, from the other grade school across town. And it came back 5–4 in favor, with a diagnosis of dysgraphia. Hooray for an odd number of professionals in the room (so make sure about that: game changer).

Wait, what? Dysgraphia? Never heard of it. I thought he didn’t learn cursive because third grade was so hit/miss, and he’d just perfect it in fourth grade. When I went to the library (pre-internet here) to learn more about this, there was one book on it. One.

So I soldiered through academic journals. You can look it up; it’s a deficiency in the ability to write. And it frequently came with other diagnoses particularly in the learning disability categories, though his did not. Here was the kicker: it’s a fine motor skill disability, and the signs and symptoms exist all along. I went home and dug through the drawer in the dining room where I stored all the important school “stuff” that I would someday (maybe) organize. I remember sitting on the floor, with report cards from his kindergarten: “does not cut on dotted line,” “does not connect dots.” And first grade: “rushes work,” “cannot distinguish letters and numbers in his writing.” Third grade: “fails spelling tests.” But, aces mental math (oh my GOSH, where you DON’T WRITE ANYTHING DOWN!).

And I thought back to second grade, his first year at his new school, where while at school in the evening for Boy Scouts, he convinced the janitor to unlock the hallway door, then pulled down all his own work from the Spring Open House bulletin board, because he did not want it seen in comparison to the work of his peers. Also, in second grade his teacher called me in because he had opted himself out of standardized testing, telling her that he was not going to complete the rest of the test. He just stopped. She had been concerned that he’d have no baseline on a state-mandated test.

To his credit, he just told her “No thank you” about filling in the bubbles on sheet after sheet of tests. I was very ill at the time, and I remember sitting in that meeting asking what it would mean for him if he didn’t have this data, and she said, it would be in his permanent file that he’d refused the test. I said, okay, we can live with that. But that night on the dining room floor, reviewing all these clues as a whole, I first cried that I just hadn’t seen it — and I resolved to never not see it again.

The school therapist assigned to us told me to go easy. He’s been holding information in his head, never writing down assignments or spelling words for review, but counting on memory. The five-words-or-less directive from me would actually streamline his operation, and not bog him down, while we figured out accommodations that worked long-term. This therapist also told me, don’t limit him: the only career I’m going to rule out is that he will not be a calligrapher - -  everything else is on the table.

Okay, so what does this mean? We figured it out. He gave oral reports and presentations rather than writing papers. He took spelling tests aloud. He had standardized tests bubbled in for him (he read them, then said the answer aloud to an aide). He opted not to answer the home phone, since taking down a written message was not a strong suit.

And what a time to be dysgraphic; as school became more challenging, technology appeared. He could use a Franklin keyboard (pre-laptop, it was a little battery-powered keyboard that you inserted a piece of paper into, and could type your notes). Then eventually a laptop. And hallelujah for his first cell phone, where he aced T-9 texting. That smartphones came along in college was an uncanny aligning of technology and academic usage. His transition was seamless, and his grades reflected his ability, maybe for the first time.

To every parent who hears “dysgraphia” in the diagnosis, I want to say these five words: he is practicing law now. And these five words: it was never not possible. Also, these: it was just non-traditional. And his arguments and oratory and legal briefs are nowhere near five-words-or-less.

But those are the tools that got him there: five words at a time. That, and the belief that there would not be limits, and that the answer would be “yes.”