My Journey

boys journey learning with dyslexia

My name is Breda Coughlan and I have over sixteen years’ experience as a Paediatric Nurse. I am the mother of four young children and my eldest son, Andrew, is dyslexic. I would like to share with you the journey that Andrew and I have made together.

As early as Pre School Andrew did not have the interest or the attention span to sit and colour or to make jigsaws. As he was my eldest I thought that this must just be a” boy thing”. We live on a farm and he and our other children love to be outside. I wasn’t unduly concerned.

Andrew started school at the age of five and a half. He settled in quickly, had very good interpersonal skills, was well behaved and seemed to manage his homework reasonably well.

When he was half-way through Senior Infants, however, both his teacher and I began to have concerns about his school work. He was experiencing difficulty with his reading, he seemed to be overly dependent on phonics and was having problems concentrating. I did extra work at home with Andrew to try to improve his reading but, with little knowledge on my part, he made very little progress. By the time he was in First Class and his work load had increased, he began to notice that his friends were better readers than he was. Homework became a battle for us both. It got to the stage where I dreaded 3 o’clock and having to face his homework with him. I knew that what should take us thirty minutes to do would most likely take an hour and a half, at the end of which he would be frustrated and I would be exhausted.

I formally requested the school to have him assessed by an Educational Psychologist because, by now, his writing and his short-term memory recall of spellings and tables were becoming real issues for him. His poor concentration was becoming more and more obvious. The smallest thing would distract him. The net result was that this normally self-confident, happy child was using every excuse, such as feeling thirsty or needing to go out to the toilet, to avoid reading out loud and copying from blackboard.

Despite help from the learning support teacher, Andrew made little progress. He was half-way through Second Class when he was eventually assessed by an Educational Psychologist. We were told that he was severely dyslexic and that he would struggle in the academic world. He would need a huge amount of support to get through school and college.

My initial reaction was one of relief. We had an explanation as to why he was struggling. I tried to be realistic and told myself that being dyslexic was not the end of the world. As a paediatric nurse, I have attempted to console mothers and fathers who have been told that their precious child is critically ill. But still my heart broke for Andrew. I just did not want him to have to struggle so much. The change in my little boy’s confidence was absolutely heartbreaking. He started calling himself “stupid” and” thick”. He tried so hard to learn, but learning took so long. Witnessing this day in day out was absolutely soul-destroying.

While the teachers did their best and Andrew did receive learning support, the type and level of support was limited. Due to the demand on the service and the budget allocation from the Department of Education, the reality is that the educational system does not adequately support children with dyslexia.

I decided to look outside the school system as I felt there must be a program available that would help Andrew. I researched a lot of different programmes and through a friend was told about Martin Murphy who is the founder of dyslexia@bay. I was impressed by the visualisation aspect of the program. I spoke to Martin on the phone and soon afterwards filled out a pre- assessment questionnaire. I began to feel quietly hopeful. We travelled to Bray in Co. Wicklow to meet Martin.

He assessed Andrew and quickly identified an eye-tracking problem and a small perceptual screen. Furthermore, Andrew was constantly in peripheral vision and this accounted for his lack of concentration and him being easily distracted. Martin explained that Andrew was depending too much on auditory memory to learn. This meant that a lot of what Andrew was trying to learn was, to a greater or lesser extent, “going in one ear and out the other”. No wonder then that the Friday spelling test was always a source of upset and disappointment! Martin told us that his program would train Andrew to use his visual memory and that this would make learning much easier for him. He assured us that, by the end of the first session, Andrew’s eye- tracking would already have begun to be corrected and that he would have increased Andrew’s perceptual screen size. This all sounded a bit too easy but, after one hour, Andrew, who would normally have struggled to spell a five-letter word, was able to spell HIPPOPOTAMUS, forwards and backwards! I was speechless! For the first time in two years, I felt a weight being lifted off my shoulders. At last, we seemed to have found a program that would allow Andrew to fully participate in mainstream schooling, feeling just as confident as any other child.

On our second visit to Martin, a week later, he worked on getting Andrew to use, firstly, his visual static and, then, his visual dynamic memory. He did this by playing a series of games with him. Andrew loved these games which helped him to learn how to sequence, follow a set of instructions and comprehend what he was reading. By the end of that session, Andrew could remember a set of twenty instructions, forwards and backwards. As we were leaving, Martin’s only advice to us was to carry out the program, exactly as directed, for twenty- eight days.

Back at home, we set out on our journey of twenty- eight days. There were, of course, hairy moments, battles of wills and the practical difficulties of doing the program everyday while I had three other children, a home and a full- time job to manage. Despite these difficulties, after seven days, Andrew’s recall of his spellings was so improved that he became a celebrity at school! He could now spell all his weekly spellings, forwards and backwards! His reading- speed improved gradually, over the twenty- eight days. His writing also improved and he started to like” joined- up” writing. The most magical change was his ability to comprehend what he was reading. Now, for the first time, in a house full of books, he wanted to read and felt more confident about reading out loud. He became a great help with reading bed- time stories to his younger brothers. What a change!

Andrew has just completed Third Class. Reading his most recent school report felt like winning the “lotto”! His teacher could not believe the progress he had made in the course of the year. He had improved in all areas. The best thing for me, as a mother, is that his confidence has gone through the roof. He regularly states that he is brilliant at spellings and he now likes to read out loud in class. His third- class homework is no longer a struggle and although, as a typical Irish mother, I don’t take my eye off the ball, he can do ninety- percent of his own homework without my help.

This journey has been one of many tears, disappointments and of feeling no hope. It has been one of trusting a mother’s instinct. It has been, above all however, one of a mother’s determination to find a solution that would give her child the same bright future as any other child. For Andrew and for me, it has been an especially rewarding journey.

Having witnessed the initial improvement in Andrew and the continuation of those improvements, I accepted Martin’s offer to train as a Press Play Educational Consultant for the West of Ireland. Since then, I have worked with many children and teenagers, of varying degrees of ability, and seen them blossom. It is a privilege to witness the positive effect of this blossoming on both parent and child.