In the first grade, Kate Zeller* had trouble differentiating her p's and b's and couldn't read short, frequently used words like "both" and "some." Kate's teacher reassured her mother, Laura, that early-reading difficulties were common, so Zeller and her husband hoped their child's problem fell into the "she'll grow out of it" category.
When Kate failed to improve in second grade and her new teacher made her feel she wasn't trying hard enough, "Kate's self-esteem went through the floor," says Zeller. She began biting her nails and complaining of stomachaches. Frustrated with the private school's unresponsiveness to their concerns, the Wheeling, WV, parents paid $750 to have their daughter tested. Even though she had an above-average IQ of 120, she did indeed have a reading disability. "I was angry. I thought, Why does my child have this?" Zeller recalls. "I was afraid I'd done something wrong." Now 11, Kate is doing much better with her reading but still struggles mightily with spelling.
More parents than ever are dealing with a child who has a learning disability, defined by the educational system as a significant discrepancy between a youngster's ability (or IQ) and his school performance. (How large that gap must be for a child to be labeled learning disabled varies across America.) Six percent of public school students in kindergarten through 12th grade are currently diagnosed as having LD, an acronym that slips ever more frequently off educators' tongues. In the past 25 years, the number of kids diagnosed with learning disorders has tripled -- an increase so rapid that it raises major concerns about whether the term is used too loosely or we'd simply been ignoring the issue in the past.
"Today, schools are better at recognizing these problems," notes Sheldon Horowitz, Ed.D., director of programs for the National Center for Learning Disabilities. "Plus, academic expectations are higher, and children are being scrutinized to a much greater extent." A generation ago, kids who had problems processing information may have been put on a nonacademic track, destined for blue-collar jobs. Nowadays, everyone is expected to excel.
Jeannie Ralston, a mom of two, is a freelance writer living in Texas.
* Name has been changed to protect privacy.