Dyslexia: A Very Different Journey for BIPOC Students

Dyslexia: A Very Different Journey for BIPOC Students

October is Dyslexia Awareness Month. This is close to our hearts at Shadow Project. We hear from parents every day who see their kids struggling with reading due to disabilities, and we know that in Oregon just 22% of 3rd graders with disabilities are proficient in reading.

But here’s what we want to know more about: What is dyslexia like for children of color and their families?

“Get Real with Clarice: Dyslexia Explained” is a recent webinar that gave us some insights on this question. We followed up with presenter Clarice Jackson after the webinar, as well as Lisa Lyon of Decoding Dyslexia Oregon, which hosted the webinar.

Jackson is the founder of Decoding Dyslexia Nebraska and Voice Advocacy Center, and also speaks from her experiences as a Black woman parenting a daughter with dyslexia and ADHD. Lyon is Decoding Dyslexia’s founder and Community Outreach Director. Lyon, who is white, has a son with dyslexia. They shared their perspectives on the unique ways that learning disabilities can impact students and families of color and what communities can do to ensure that all children have the opportunity to thrive in school.

Dyslexia is a learning disability that makes reading or learning to read difficult. It is neurological in nature, and people with dyslexia can learn to read when taught in the right way. Both Jackson and Lyon say that structured literacy is the most effective way to teach kids with dyslexia. It’s also highly effective for students without learning disabilities.

But structured literacy alone will not address the education barriers facing students of color.

Systemic Racism Compounds Barriers

Jackson emphasizes that for BIPOC students with dyslexia, the journey is very different from that of white students.

BIPOC students are placed into special education at higher rates than their white peers, says Jackson. Black students are more likely to be identified with a Specific Learning Disability like dyslexia than students from other races, according to Jackson and the US Department of Education. Furthermore, says Jackson, parents of BIPOC students may have limited resources, time, knowledge, and support to advocate for their children.

Then, there is the fact that BIPOC students, and especially Black students with disabilities, are disproportionately disciplined in school.

Students who struggle with reading may enact their frustration in class. But instead of being given more support, kids are often punished. In fact, 65% of Black students with disabilities receive exclusionary discipline such as suspension or detention, versus only 26% of white students with disabilities.

“For students of color who are already up against systemic racism in schools, struggling to read can contribute to disengagement with academics and emotional damage,” says Lyon. Adds Jackson, teachers need to recognize students’ anger and frustration as symptoms of their learning challenge, and not “disorderly conduct.”

Part of Jackson’s work includes providing teachers, themselves under resourced, with tools to support dyslexic students.

“It’s important to make sure teachers have the tools to understand by giving them the signs of what dyslexia looks like,” says Jackson. She leads a dyslexia simulation with teachers and support staff to walk through what it’s like to have ADHD, dyslexia, and dysgraphia. This helps staff understand students’ lived experience.

Welcome to Having My Child In Your Classroom

Jackson recommends that parents write teachers a “welcome to having my child in your classroom packet,” which includes “their story, signs and symptoms of dyslexia, accommodations needed, and tools for dyslexic students.” This opens up communication between parents, child and teacher, and prompts the teacher to connect with the child as a whole human being. It can help teachers see a student’s behavior as a result of frustration with learning, and respond with support rather than discipline.

Putting this packet together can be difficult for all parents. For BIPOC parents, systemic barriers and lack of resources can make the process even more difficult. Also, notes Jackson, “Sometimes dyslexia is hereditary, and for parents writing can be uncomfortable.”

Lyon explains another barrier, noting that “families of color do not want to have their child recognized as having dyslexia because of the stigma and generational trauma attached to special education.”

Voice Advocacy Center helps parents write a student-story packet and advocate for their children. Jackson’s organization does this work for parents and students nationwide through virtual and remote channels.

Jackson suggests other organizations can support parents advocacy by recruiting volunteer advocates to help parents write their child’s story. She suggests advocates make sure the letter is coming from the parent and “gets into the hands of anyone having any level of connectivity with this child, whoever needs this information.” Locally, FACT Oregon helps families create a Person-Centered Profile similar to Jackson’s recommended packet.

Changing the Narrative

Jackson urges parents to make sure this packet is added to their child’s cumulative file, and to insist on reviewing the entire file. She stresses that “it is very important that parents understand how their child is being characterized by the teachers and the system” particularly when it is based on educators’ under-informed or unintentionally-biased perceptions of students.

By including a student’s story and needs in their file, parents can “change the narrative” around their child’s classroom behavior and learning.

More Resources

The Shadow Project thanks Clarice Jackson and Lisa Lyon for sharing this information and highlighting ways to support students of color with dyslexia and their families. We also thank Ross Faulkenburg, President of Decoding Dyslexia Oregon, for his contributions to this blog post.

Here are free materials from Jackson’s recent webinar on supporting literacy for students with dyslexia:

Florida Center for Reading Research

University of Florida Literacy Institute.

Dyslexia Training Institute

National Center for Improving Literacy

Phonological milestones:

Update: After publishing this blog post, The Shadow Project read Dr. Shawn Robinson’s blog post Unpacking Systematic Barriers for Black Boys with a Learning Disability in Special Education. We encourage you to read it as well.

A Portland Public Schools Special Education Teacher Offers 3 Steps To Empower Students

A Portland Public Schools Special Education Teacher Offers 3 Steps To Empower Students

Children rarely have much power over their lives. They are told what time to get up, what to eat for breakfast, who their teachers are, what classes they must attend, and so on. This can be especially true for students in special education who often struggle in school, and receive even more academic and behavioral instruction. When a special education student has experienced trauma—hunger, homelessness, violence—the loss of control a student feels over even the simplest part of a school day can be exacerbated.

But at our school, children in special education are empowered to thrive. They are the ones in enviable positions getting to leave their classrooms for small group sessions in the learning center where they learn to be kind, listen to others, follow routines, and otherwise “do their jobs.” These messages motivate students to self-actualize, and they are succeeding with learning tools that help them think critically and persevere when the going gets tough.

So, how do we help students feels more confident in taking control of their lives?

The answer is simple: When students are allowed to make choices, they begin to have power.

In my classroom, I use a motivational program called The Shadow Project to help kids realize and use their power in making decisions over schoolwork and behavior. The Shadow Project provides resources and incentives so that our students can do their jobs with more confidence and feel the value of a task well done.

1. Goal Setting

When students set goals for themselves, they are able to see they have a say in their own path forward. They aren’t being told where they must make gains, they are guided towards goals. They are given power in choosing their goals. They are listened to and their opinions are valued. When students’ ideas and opinions are valued, they are empowered.

2. Incentives

Not all kids get a paycheck for the work they do! Our learning center students who do their job and act like respectful, responsible students get Shadow Bucks (classroom money) just like an adult might earn a paycheck. If students don’t engage in learning in a way supportive to our community, they don’t earn Shadow Bucks like their peers. Students keep their Shadow Bucks in envelopes (we call them wallets) and periodically get to count their Bucks, and can decide to trade up for bigger bills, which is motivating as the Bucks accumulate, as well as good for math skills.

3. Celebrate

It is important to take notice of kids’ progress and accomplishments, particularly those with learning disabilities whose forward movement may be incrementally smaller, and who aren’t always recognized for their efforts.  So, every six weeks we have Shadow Day. In order to participate in Shadow Day, our students are expected to have a strong work ethic with community-minded behavior to match. This doesn’t mean that they need to be perfect. This just means that when our students make mistakes, they are motivated to set goals and improve where needed so that they can achieve their goals and participate in the celebration.

Shadow Day is a top secret event only for our kids in special education. They know not to talk about it with their peers, because it is a privilege, and we don’t want other students to feel bad that they are not included. This secret celebration makes them feel special and in charge of their destiny. Older students get to help choose the Shadow Day date. Then, we post the date in the classroom so that the date is known by all our students who need to know. On Shadow Day—like a payday for adults—students are empowered to spend their “paycheck” in whatever way they choose with their Bucks. They can select gifts, school supplies, books, sensory tools, art supplies, and more. Being able to spend one’s own paycheck as one chooses is empowering. Where else can young children in a lower-income community have the power to earn and purchase?

Empowering kids with special needs through goal setting, earning Shadow Bucks, and celebrating Shadow Day gives meaning to students’ lives. As Viktor Frankl writes in Man’s Search for Meaning, “Life is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by lack of meaning and purpose.”  When my kids feel that they are spending their days at school with a purpose they are more motivated to show up and work hard. Our students’ purpose is supported by their kind, caring teachers … and by The Shadow Project.

Shadow Teacher Beth BrodBeth Brod, M.A., is a longtime special education teacher in Portland, Oregon, currently based at Woodmere Elementary School in the Portland Public School district.