Reading, Writing, and Potty Training

toddler with finger pointingThis spring will be the 27th anniversary of the first time I potty trained my child. Like all good moms, I read the recommended book of the day: Potty Train Your Child in Just One Day. It worked beautifully! And while the training took more than a day, it didn't take many more. I was sure I was now a whizzing wizard, with an answer for anyone who might benefit from my expert opinion. Statistically, I had based my research on an "N of 1," meaning I had a single case study: one subject (my oldest daughter) in my personal clinical trial.

Six years later I had an "N of 3" and the now-tattered book had lost a bit of its sheen. I was no longer an expert, just a veteran with my own war stories. Let's just say that potty-training my second child was practically biblical, with lots of wailing and gnashing of teeth, followed by lamentations in prayer—and that was just my side of the story!

Potty training is a skill, and skills take training. We only use the word training in the bathroom, but it turns out, kids need training all over the house and in their world.

Training is a gerund—a verby-looking word that feels like a present progressive tense: it feels ongoing because it is. Training takes time. It takes practice. It requires foundational skills that work together in complex ways. Training usually leads to automatic skills that feel like simple tasks.

Training in a child's development requires years of parental time, attention, and emotional resources. Training is required when teaching kids to manage a spoon, tie one's shoes, ride a bike, make a bed, have manners, etc., and for teaching our children how to read. In other words, it doesn't happen in a day . . . at least not for most kids.

Training a skill in children, it turns out, is best summed up by the sage words of my friend Chuck, when asked to give parenting advice: "I may not be able to tell you what to do, but I can tell you what NOT to do!" Amen to that.

While Chuck's "what not to do" made me laugh, I followed his comment with a "but really, what do I do?" So here is my list of what not to do when engaged in training your child in how to read and write. Followed by what to do:

  • Don't trust as gospel an N of 1. In the literacy world, this sounds like: "I had a friend who's daughter could never read (or write) until she was 18, and now she is a world renowned physicist!" Or some version of this.

Look for an N of hundreds/thousands. If the ideas are sound there is research behind it. When I share ideas, I cite research or I explicitly explain when something is based on observational knowledge. There is a difference. Both ideas might be helpful, but research-based strategies cast a wide net: they help all learners, both strong and struggling.

  • Don't trust the words "simple" or "easy" or a set number of days. Complex problems require complex practice and a lot of time. We all come to new learning with our own set of strengths and weaknesses. Some will find reading to be fast and easy. Others will find it slow and difficult. Many will find it time-consuming but manageable.

Roll up your sleeves and expect hard work. My husband and I used to say "parenting from the couch doesn't work." We had to get off our duffs, show how it's done, be creative, be patient, be energetic, get engaged. Teaching kids to read and write is not a short term goal—it takes years of effort and adventure. There will be good and bad days. Kids will push back at times, just as they did when they hurled that new spoon across the room. A few bad days is a part of teaching kids how to cope with life. Months of bad days probably means help is needed.

  • Don't trust avoidance advice. This may sound like: "He doesn't have to read or write these days. Now we have audiobooks and speech-to-text technology." I liken this to being told that with hard work and the right resources my child could one day walk, but I don't need to pursue this anymore because now we have wheelchairs, segways, or cars. Basically, as long as I want my child to be limited by life's set pathways, walking isn't necessary.

In my experience, by the time parents think their child has a learning issue and they desire help, they are almost always right. Even a small amount of help can have big results. I can't tell you how often parents tell me they are glad to share their burden with us, and how empowered they feel after working with us.

  • Don't trust guilt. Guilt mostly comes from our own heads, but sometimes it is served up on a pretty platter by well-meaning friends and family. If only I was a better mother or teacher or human being or prayer warrior, etc., my child would be able to read or write. If only I didn't eat cheese curls while I was pregnant. If only my child was in this school or that school. If only the school were different.

Give yourself grace. I reassure parents to focus on the fact that they have worked to find the right resources. I just spoke with a couple who spent years and a bit of money to get to the right kinds of help. They didn't stop working to find real answers and ensure their son's ongoing progress. It took those steps to get to the right strategies and resources. It can be a windy road, but you can console yourself that you did the best you knew at the time—and you kept walking that road.

  • Don't trust thinking you can't. When my oldest started traditional Kindergarten, I realized we had both entered the world of one-size-fits-most. Class sizes were big and kind teachers were busy. My little angel was in line, waiting her turn, and vying for her bit of attention. This is not all bad, but it is no way to learn a complex skill. One day I remembered who taught me and my three older siblings to read: my mom. Every night my mom and I reviewed flash cards and practiced with Dick and Jane readers. I remember both frustration and joy. I remember lots of nights on her bed—every night on her bed, in fact—all for my turn at this magical skill called literacy. Not that I didn't have my reading groups at school. Mostly, Mom taught me at home, and the classroom was where I strutted my stuff.

Find a good support network who are proactive learners and teachers. Find the people who are engaged and want to help you be engaged too. Trust your gut and keep helping your child to progress. There are resources out there, and our job is to help you know where to look, and to provide (or help you find) the resources your child needs.

  • Don't trust soothing-talk that leads to inaction. Well-meaning spouses, friends, teachers, and family—even strangers on social media—will tell parents not to worry, not to seek help, not to pursue solving a child's literacy struggles. As a culture, we don't like the concept of a child having a "problem" or getting a "label." We want to be kind, accepting, open to natural differences—all lofty ideals, but often paralyzing. As a culture, we are also negatively reactive to "the over sensitive parent."

My hindsight as a parent and an SLP working with parents of students with learning struggles: there is never regret in being proactive, and much regret over waiting too long. It might take a while to find the right help, but no one regrets trying and finally succeeding.

Be the answer. Get training. Read. Listen to podcasts and join local support groups. Take our classes. Watch the videos.

Recruit helpers, guides, and mentors. I always look for fellow teachers, parents, SLPs, reading interventionists, writing instructors, and life's sages. We are here to help, it's what we do, and it's worth the struggle.

Reading, like potty training, is a life skill that will support your children forever, hopefully to their last breath. It is worth pursuing.

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