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My son has dyslexia. How can I help him during the school year?

The question: My son was recently diagnosed with dyslexia. I'm afraid he will have a tough time during the school year. What do I need to do to help him along and ensure his success?

The answer: Late August is back-to-school season when parents and students look ahead to the new school year. Preparation and planning for the next grade is particularly important for families with a child who has a learning disability.

Dyslexia is the most common learning disability, occurring in about five per cent of children. Those affected by dyslexia struggle with reading and decoding written information; it has nothing to do with one's level of intelligence. People with dyslexia typically have normal or often above-normal IQs.

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The importance of a proper evaluation to diagnose dyslexia cannot be over-emphasized. It is diagnosed through comprehensive testing, usually conducted by a psychologist who has an expertise in learning disabilities. Local school boards should have a professional who does this testing, although wait lists can be long. Alternatively testing can be done privately, but can be expensive, as much as $2000 or more. Comprehensive testing is critical to ensure proper diagnosis of the learning disability, to suggest management strategies, and to confirm or rule out other conditions, such as ADHD.

Hopefully you and your son have both enjoyed a summer reprieve from the stress that often accompanies the school year for families coping with dyslexia. Although children with dyslexia are able to learn concepts just as readily as other students, the fact that school curriculums are heavily weighted with both reading and writing can lead to frustration for students, teachers, and parents alike.

Ideally your son has been able to continue some light reading over the summer. Regardless, incorporating a brief (say 30 minutes) reading period in your daily schedule between now and Labour Day will certainly be helpful. Resist the temptation to "challenge" your child with reading material that he may find difficult and frustrating. Reading at home should be fun while reinforcing skills already learned and building confidence. If possible, make a trip to your local library and let him pick out his own reading material. Try not to be judgmental about his literary choices, anything that promotes interest in books and reading is likely to be beneficial. Some children may be drawn to more non-traditional forms of reading such as crosswords, find-a-word puzzles, and comic books.

Once the school year starts, make an appointment to meet with you son's teacher to develop a plan for the year. Don't assume that the new teacher will have read your child's psycho-educational report or even be aware of the dyslexia. Children with dyslexia and learning disabilities often need (and are entitled to receive) accommodations in the classroom, particularly when performing tests that involve significant amounts of reading and writing.

Developing an academic plan for your child early in the year will hopefully promote success and prevent needless frustration. Inquire if there is a teacher at the school who works with children with learning disabilities and clarify if your child will be receiving extra support. Typically, the psychologist that originally diagnosed the learning disability will have also made recommendations and suggested strategies for the school. Discuss these with the teaching staff to see what can be reasonably implemented. Consider setting up regular meetings with your son's teacher throughout the school year to ensure that he is progressing as expected.

Dr. Michael Dickinson is the head of pediatrics and chief of staff at the Miramichi Regional Hospital in New Brunswick. He's a staunch advocate for children's health in Atlantic Canada through his involvement with the Canadian Paediatric Society.

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The content provided in The Globe and Mail's Ask a Health Expert centre is for information purposes only and is neither intended to be relied upon nor to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

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