Why Won't My School Treat Dyslexia?

Why won't the school recognize and treat the underlying cause of my child's dyslexia?
--by Amy Markoff Johnson, mother of a child with a learning disability.

Few situations are more frustrating for the parents of a child with a learning disability than having a public school deny services that both parents and medical professionals deem necessary to the child's success. Aren't schools required by law to provide such services? Not necessarily. To understand why, it's helpful to understand the difference between a "therapeutic diagnosis" and an "educational classification."

A therapeutic diagnosis is made by a healthcare professional outside the school system. The goal of the diagnosis is to help guide professionals to treatments that will best assist the child in achieving his or her full potential in all areas of life.

The public school, however, does not "diagnose." Instead, a child study team evaluates a child's learning style, uncovering strengths and deficits. If the deficits are severe enough relative to the child's academic potential, the team may propose that the child be "classified" as having a disability that affects learning.

The goal of an educational classification is to treat only those problems or parts of a problem that interfere directly with schoolwork and behavior in school. Sometimes—in fact, often—this approach can have the effect of not treating the entire problem and the whole child.

Parents may see their child as profoundly frustrated and not living up to his or her potential, but the school may see no problem with a child who earns C's. The school's goal is not to fix the underlying problem or ensure that a child achieves to the best of his or her ability; their goal is simply to make it possible for a child to become capable of functioning at a basic level in the classroom. Thus, even if the school does offer support, it's likely that much of the work on the problem will be accomplished outside of school.

As examples, take the diagnoses of dyslexia and ADHD. It is important for a private therapist or healthcare professional to have an accurate diagnosis because they will treat the two conditions differently: using specific one-on-one therapies or, in the case of ADHD, individualized medications.

However, a public school's job isn't to treat either dyslexia or ADHD, nor are they set up to treat these conditions in a specialized way. Their job is simply to help the child function in a standard classroom. As a result, they will work in a very practical manner on lessening only those symptoms that cause significant enough problems to prevent a child from functioning in the classroom, and they will provide just enough accommodations and supports to address those symptoms.

To take a physical example, if a child has a torn knee ligament that is causing pain, a physician will want to accurately diagnose the source of the pain in order to correct the underlying problem using surgery, therapy, and medication. A public school, on the other hand, will give the child more time to get from class to class, dispense approved pain medications, and allow crutches to address and accommodate the symptoms, but they will not work to address the underlying problem. Rightly, they will expect the child to go see a private doctor for that.

Armed with an understanding of this distinction, we parents can spend less time in fruitless battles with schools and more time on the important work of helping children get the assistance they need from all sources.

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