Jennifer Hillman of Vilonia describes her 10-year-old daughter, Molly, as a poster child for dyslexia. She’s smart, extremely talented but has low self-esteem. She also has problems with reading and spelling.
Molly, Hillman said, struggles daily with self-confidence — a common symptom of dyslexia.
"The biggest struggle for Molly has been her self-confidence. Her internal dialog consisted of ‘I’m stupid,’ ‘I’m not as smart as her’ and ‘I can’t do that because I’m not smart enough.’"
Molly was tested in January 2012 when she was in the second grade. Early intervention, Hillman said, is crucial to a child with dyslexia.
Hillman is a cheerleader for an education bill that was passed in Arkansas in 2013 and will require school districts to be in compliance by next year. That bill requires a dyslexia specialist in school districts. Also, it requires teachers to receive awareness training and requires schools to screen children in Kindergarten through second grade for dyslexia. Any child identified as having dyslexia will also receive intervention or treatment.
Prior to the testing, Hillman said, she had no idea Molly was among the 20 percent of the population living with dyslexia. And, on that note, she didn’t really know the truth about dyslexia. Since Molly’s diagnosis Hillman has emerged herself in information.
"Initially, because I was terrified and then because I was invested and intrigued by how gifted most of these people are," Hillman said.
According to researchers, dyslexia leads to problems with reading and comprehension of written language. Since reading is a key element in learning, children with dyslexia can have trouble mastering basic skills and succeeding in school. Children with dyslexia have problems processing the information they see when looking at a word. Often a dyslexic child will have trouble connecting the sound made by a specific letter or deciphering the sounds of all the letters together that form a word. Researchers have found that dyslexia is caused by a difference in the way the dyslexic brain processes information. Experts do not know precisely what causes dyslexia, but several recent studies now indicate that genetics plays a major role.
Simply put, Hillman said "dyslexia is a language-based, learning difference. Basically, because of the way their brains fire off, they have to be taught language, both reading and spelling, differently. Outside of that, their gifts outweigh their difficulties."
Many times, Hillman said, children are labeled as lazy and dumb or as having a behavioral problem when it is really they don’t have the ability to sit still. They become disoriented, not because they have ADHD, but due to the stress of trying to "see straight" while the letters are dancing off the pages. Molly would have been "passed and passed and passed" in public schools because her grades are acceptable, but she may not have achieved her potential.
That led to the decision to homeschool Molly this year. Hillman has no special training. However, she leans toward curriculum tailored to dyslexia students. She said she can also adapt the daily curriculum based on Molly’s strengths.
"A typical school day was exhausting to her because she had to try four times as hard to understand the aspects of traditional teaching," Hillman said. "This way I can add textiles and multi-sensory manipulatives to every subject. She can use a keyboard for writing instead of attempting penmanship, and she uses her text on audio books all the time."
With more than a year of tutoring, and with Molly’s perseverance and dedication, Hillman said her daughter has made amazing strides.
In Arkansas, with the passing of the bill, there is an awareness movement under way and Hillman is pleased.
"I’m proud to see so much awareness being spread," Hillman said. "I am passionate about not letting another child slip through the cracks when some of our most amazing inventors, artists, actors, architects, musicians and athletes have dyslexia."
Updating the Vilonia Board of Education at the August meeting, assistant superintendent Cathy Riggins spoke briefly about the education bill. While she didn’t go into any detail, she said the district will be in compliance.