Why is Getting Help in Schools So Hard?!


A common question from both parents and teachers is “Why don’t schools recognize dyslexia and provide help?” Of course, there are several states that have already implemented legislation that allows schools to identify and serve dyslexic students (Thank you Texas for paving the way!). But many states do not have the laws in place to allow schools to help these dyslexic children. To understand why this is, we’ll have a brief lesson in Special Education laws.

It is important to understand that schools do not “diagnose” any disability. During the Special Education process, they are only allowed to determine ELIGIBILITY. Dyslexia is indeed listed under a Specific Learning Disability (SLD) under IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 2004). States use this as their guide and then have their state statutes that guide the process. But remember that the school system is not trying to diagnose dyslexia, just determine if the student meets the criterion for eligibility. The determination of eligibility can be done through 2 ways:

  1. The child fails to respond to scientifically-based intervention for a set time period. In my state (Missouri), your school district has to file an RTI plan with the state, which will include universal screenings, progress monitoring, and scientifically- based interventions.
  2. The child’s academic performance is significantly below their expected performance, which is determined by their IQ.  This option is often referred to as the discrepancy formula. Depending on the state, the student’s scaled score on the various performance evaluations needs to be 1.5 standard deviations away from their IQ. So in Missouri, a student has to score 22 points lower than their IQ in a specific area to qualify for special education services.

Changes Are Coming!

On Feb. 18, 2016, President Obama signed the first federal legislation on dyslexia! The READ Act or Research Excellence and Advancements for Dyslexia Act requires the National Science Foundation  to fund research into “the early identification of children and students with dyslexia, professional development for teachers and administrators of students with dyslexia, curricula and educational tools needed for children with dyslexia, and implementation and scaling of successful models of dyslexia intervention. Click on the image below to read more about this wonderful, FUNDED legislation.

READ act

Prior to this, the Dept. of Education released 2 important documents regarding dyslexia. First, they released a tweet highlighting that it is OK for schools to “say dyslexia!” Click on the picture to read the actual press release.

The second important change occurred when the department issued a document providing guidance to state and local education agencies regarding dyslexia, dysgraphia, and dyscalculia. Click on the picture to read the actual guidance letter.

Dyslexia guidance tweet

Why is it Important to say Dyslexia vs. Reading Disability?

In a nutshell, recognizing that a child has dyslexia allows educators to know where the deficits lie, and what type of treatment has been scientifically proven to work.

Imagine that a child is struggling with sugar. They are sweating a lot, seem to shake at various times during the day, get irritable if they haven’t eaten, etc. If we say to them, you can’t handle sugar very well, there really is no guidance on how to help the child. However, if we say you have diabetes, then we have a very clear idea on what tests to administer (blood glucose), and what type of intervention to provide (possibly insulin). The same is true with dyslexia. When a child gets diagnosed with dyslexia (or even shows they fit the dyslexic profile through a screening), we know what types of tests to administer to find the deficits (phonological awareness test, phonetic skills, etc.) and we know what works to help them fill in those gaps.

Some students struggle with reading because they have dyslexia, “characterized by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities” (Definition of dyslexia NICHD, 2002).  However, some children struggle with reading because of a comprehension problem, but they can decode and spell without difficulty. Just like we do in medicine, it is important to treat each problem differently. Click HERE to read an article by literacy expert Louise Spear-Swerling about how to differentiate your instruction to the various needs of the students.