| Jul 07, 2011
IN OTHER WORDS
BY KIMBERLY SABATINI
I started my career as a New York State Certified Special Education Teacher, working with elementary students. The kids I was drawn to and chose to work with had a broad spectrum of behavioral and emotional difficulties. I couldn’t help but notice a pattern. Every child that was challenged emotionally and behaviorally also struggled with reading. Not only was reading moderately to extremely difficult for them, but they also lacked a desire to connect with books. It was hard not to jump to some quick (and possibly even accurate) conclusions about these kids, and once I started thinking about them I couldn’t stop. But one question kept returning more than all the others—how were these two issues linked?
I know the problem isn’t actually as simple as asking if behavior issues cause reading problems or if the reading problems cause the behavior. I’m painfully aware that there are additional factors to throw into the mix. Parenting and economics are just a sample. And perhaps it isn’t always a cause and effect relationship at all. There are so many variables it makes my head spin. But, as a teacher, I had little or no control over most of what was going on in these children’s lives. So I did what I could, to the best of my ability. Some days that made me proud and sometimes it made me cry.
It wasn’t long before I left the teaching profession, but it was for a really good reason. I now had three wonderful boys of my own. My oldest, who is now ten (I’ll call him J) has reminded me that you can leave a job, but you can’t walk away from the questions that knock on your mind.
J is dyslexic. He’s a great kid, smart and always well behaved at school. Yet, at home I was running into behavior problems. Nothing major. But every year the struggle to keep up with homework, learn sight words, study for spelling tests, and write it all down was causing more and more friction between us. Just like the kids I taught, I was seeing that emotions and behavior were walking hand-in-hand with his reading difficulties.
The one place where I didn’t see the pattern repeating itself was with his love for books. I’d been reading to him incessantly since he was an infant and we’d also made the natural progression into audio books. Now he devours stories, in an audio format, at an unbelievable pace. That’s when one of the pieces of the puzzle fell into place for me. This was an issue of access, but by access I don’t mean just the ability to unlock words. This was about allowing kids to share the emotions of being a reader. This may sound strange, but for a non-reader—sometimes reading isn’t about reading at all.
For this blog post, I decided to ask my son a couple questions, I first reminded J that he was a talented and very smart boy. Even though he has transferred to a school specializing in dyslexia and is doing well, I asked him if he could tell me what it felt like to be a kid in a classroom full of readers. He became quiet and his voice dropped and he said… “It’s strange. And disturbing. It makes me upset.”
I then asked him what it felt like when someone read to him or he listened to books in an audio format. He stood up straighter and bounced on his toes, his whole face lighting up. “It makes me happy because I can do stuff that other people can do. It’s my way of reading.”
I know you can feel and visualize the difference between those two remarks, but I think it’s the next one that is the most enlightening. One day my three boys were sitting around discussing what characteristics they shared with my husband and myself. They were comparing looks, personality, interests and talents. J commented that he looked just like his Dad, which he does. Then he looked at me with his eyes bright and his chest puffed out and said… “But I’m also just like Mom; we both have a passion for books.”
This is a kid who hates to read. He will implore any trick he can find to avoid decoding the words on a page. He has a passion for books. I’ll always cherish this comment and it will remain high on my list of moments I’m proud of. I remember thinking how cool it was that I was raising the most well read, non-reader that most people had ever seen.
Yes, it is our job as educators and parents to give our students and children the gift of literacy, but it is equally as important and maybe even more necessary that we give them a desire for stories. Do behavior issues cause reading problems or do reading problems cause the behavior?
I still don’t know. And maybe it doesn’t matter. Perhaps it’s just as important to rethink the parameters of reading. Instead of focusing on how a child digests a book, we should spend more of our time making sure that we provide access to stories that fill them. It is my belief that learning new things, sparking the imagination, finding heroes and envisioning potential is what combats the things that break children’s emotions and challenge their behavior.
I’ll never stop helping J become a reader in the traditional sense of the word. Conquering that mountain is to his advantage. It will make his life easier and broaden his access to the books he loves. But, I’ll be honest with you, when I look at my son, I don’t see him as being broken. I see a boy who is gifted. I see a child who believes that anything is possible—because he’s read it in a book. Kimberly J. Sabatini is a former special education teacher who is now a stay-at-home mom and a part-time dance instructor for 3, 4, and 5 year olds. After her dad passed away in 2005, she used writing as a way to make sense of the experience and discovered that she’s full of questions that need to be answered. She lives in New York’s Hudson Valley with her husband and three boys. Kim writes young adult fiction; her debut novel,
Touching the Surface, will be released by Simon Pulse in fall 2012.
© 2011 Kimberly Sabatini. Please do not reproduce in any form, electronic or otherwise.