Dyslexic student thriving at new school
As children diagnosed with learning disabilities age, it becomes more difficult to find the resources on island to help them succeed.
Gary and Alison Mitchell waited months for testing, saw their son being bullied, tried out different school settings, received misdiagnoses and found that the lack of resources on the island suggested a troubling future for many students.
Their son Matthew was diagnosed with dyslexia when he was 10 but Ms Mitchell said, looking back, she wished she had stuck with her first intuition and had him tested earlier.
“The school he was in never really told me there were issues that they were worried about, and I think it's difficult as a parent who doesn't have a teaching degree to know whether your child is making the grade or not,” said Ms Mitchell, who co-parents Matthew, 12, and Gabriella, 10 with her ex-husband Gary Mitchell.
“Whenever we had the end-of-year reports or meetings it was always ‘Relax, he's fine. He's not the top of the class but he's certainly not the bottom, he's just middle of the road'.”
Matthew, who attended public primary school, “cruised” through his first few years, but his difficulties became more apparent when he moved into P6.
“When he got into his final year in primary school I couldn't believe this was okay, the way he was behaving, and that's when we took him to The Reading Clinic, and he was diagnosed with dyslexia.
“At the time, The Reading Clinic said he has been cruising, because between P1 and P5 you can somehow fake your way through it, but when you get to P6, and there's more expected of you, and there's more studying, more writing, and a lot more involved, that's when it gets to the stage where it really highlights the problem and for Matthew he just really wasn't coping at all.”
Wanting to move Matthew out of the public school system, the family looked into other options but found little in the way of help. Matthew is now in his second year at the Bermuda Centre for Creative Learning, a private school designed to teach students diagnosed with learning differences, who learn best in a non-traditional environment.
“He's come out of his shell since he's been at BCCL,” said Mr Mitchell. “Maybe it's a combination of him getting older, but he's very comfortable at the school.”
Ms Mitchell added, “Matthew is very happy and loves going to school. We've never had him wake up and he's not wanted to go to school, even when he is sick as a dog. He's happy to go to school, and that was a big selling point for us.”
While Matthew's attitude towards school has been positive despite his earlier challenges, the family wants to make sure he is always being challenged to be the best he can be.
“There's never any guarantee of a child going on to university coming out of any school, but we'd like to know that he'd be able to be integrated, so that has been a challenge for us,” said Ms Mitchell. “The school has been fantastic for Matthew and all of the kids because they are at a school where children all learn differently, and it's kept them very open and accepting of everyone. It's reinforced at the school that there are people from different walks of life and there's nothing wrong with that.”
As co-parents they recognise that communication between themselves, their children and also schools are an important part to making it work.
“Regardless of whether you're married or not, your focus is on ensuring that your child receives the best,” said Ms Mitchell.
“It's never the child's fault that marriages break down, so they shouldn't be made to suffer for it. So I think that Gary and I have a strong input on how our kid's education and upbringing is going to be.”
The family recently vacationed together in Disney World where Matthew found a connection through one of the rides.
“Of all the things he loved the most at Disney World was Tom Sawyer's Island,” said Mr Mitchell. “Tom Sawyer is dyslexic — we walked around, and all the signs had been misspelt, but Matthew could read them straight off the bat, and we were standing their trying to figure out what it said, but that had a connection for him.
“He's not shy about being dyslexic. That doesn't mean anything, that just means ‘I learn differently' and he's comfortable with it. I think it was a relief for him to be diagnosed with a learning problem, and I think it's a relief to all these children when it's finally explained to them that they are not stupid, they just have a different way of learning and grasping things, and if anything they have to try harder.”
But the lack of resources on the island and the desire to see students with learning differences succeed is worrying for the family.
“We're sacrificing to send Matthew to a specialised school so what hope is there for all those children who deserve the best education.
“All kids have to learn things that are in their curriculum, and it takes a very special teacher to be able to capture the imagination and interest of every child. Children with learning differences have to be taught in a specific way that captures their imagination and piques their interest. If you can't do that, then it's too much hard work for them to put in that extra effort.”
For other parents finding themselves in a similar situation, Ms Mitchell said: “Listen to other parents and don't be afraid to question more. Yes, there might be a stigma for some people that your child is not a perfect A-student making the grade, but it really doesn't matter and doesn't take away from what a child is, and there's nothing to be embarrassed about. Just get it out there and get it dealt with.”
• Robyn Bardgett is media communications consultant working with Bermuda Centre for Creative Learning