Teacher working with elementary school girl at her desk.

I always love working with kids of all ages. When I was in school I struggled myself. I liked school but I had a hard time in all subjects — math, reading, spelling, and writing. When I had kids I wanted them to do well in school and never feel how I felt, so I made sure to read to them and played educational games as much as possible.

When all three of my kids were in school, I always volunteered in their classroom. After a few years, I realized I could get paid for the same sort of work I did, so I put my name on the substitute list at Black School Regional Schools and was busy almost every day. When the right job and school came up, I applied for an Educational Assistant job with kids with disabilities. I went back to school at Grant MacEwan at night for seven years. I got my diploma in Special Needs Educational Assistant in 2012 while working full time and being a hockey, soccer and dance mom.

With the wonderful support of my family, technology and awareness, I now help kids who need help learning and help them do their best. I don’t want any kids to feel what I felt. Everyone can learn — I just have to help them figure out the best way so they can understand and succeed. I love my job, and seeing the kids so proud of themselves when they get the concept.

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Dear Family Member,

I know you thought you were helping. I know you meant well when you told me that my learning disability was just a state of mind. I know that in your world of perfect children who do great things and maintain 4.3 GPAs it can be hard to accept that someone who seems so smart could do so poorly in school without it being their fault. I know you never meant to hurt me and invalidate my experience as a disabled person. But there’s so much you don’t know.

For the past 14 years of my life I’ve been told I’m lazy — that I just need to try harder. When you tell me my disability is all a state of mind, my anxiety lies to me and tells me everything everyone ever said about me is true. That I’m lazy and I cut corners and it’s such a shame that such “giftedness” was wasted on someone who will never live up to her potential.

As a sophomore in high school, I’m taking pre-algebra. When I glance to my left there is a 12-year-old sitting next to me soaking in all the material like a sponge, while to me, everything sounds like gibberish and my brain shuts off. I’m terrified of taking the SATs because if I fail them I’ve been told my life will be over. Some days I wish I could still be that lazy girl with the wasted giftedness because at least I wouldn’t feel like I’m perpetually screwed up. Some days I can’t even get out of bed because I don’t want to face the reality that no matter how hard I try, math will never be easy for me.

I cry at night because of thoughtless, ableist comments like yours. You would never tell someone who was in a wheelchair that their disability was a state of mind, that they could just try harder and will it away. So I leave you with this lingering question: “Why is mine any different?”

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“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”
— Abraham Lincoln

Honest Abe has a point. You probably don’t want to be figuring out what your thoughts are when all eyes are on you at the Individualized Education Plan (IEP) meeting. That’s when I tend to say, “Sure…I guess,” even if I don’t mean it. Proper preparation provides a game plan and gives you the confidence you need to make sure your voice is heard. It is much easier to meet your goal (whether chopping a tree or having a productive IEP meeting) if you get your tools in order beforehand.

Consider this your pre-meeting checklist:

1. Ask for a draft copy of the IEP in advance of the meeting.

IEPs are dense legal documents. A quick scan while five professionals are talking at once is not enough to ensure your child is being supported appropriately. Get a copy, bring it home, and mark it up. Compare it to last year’s IEP — are the goals building on one another, or has your child had the same goal with minor changes for the last several years? If that is the case, does the new IEP reflect different strategies, supports, or interventions to make sure your child can make real progress toward those goals? Go in knowing that document as well as the person who wrote it.

2. Type up your parent concerns.

You know that spot in the document for you to share your thoughts? It is typically on page two. Make sure it really captures what you want to say. By typing your concerns, you can ensure they’re included verbatim in the IEP and you don’t sugarcoat your true feelings (or forget something important) when the time comes to discuss. This is important because if something you are concerned about (say, reading fluency) is not addressed in the IEP through a specific goal, you can go back and reference your concerns later as a point of leverage for including a strategy or a goal around that area for next time.

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3. Make a list of priorities.

Think of this as your agenda for the meeting. Know which battles you need to fight and which ideas fall into the “this would be nice but is not crucial” category. Realize that your priorities may differ from the school team (who tend to view things through an academic lens first and foremost). Is it really important to you that your child has stronger social/emotional goals? Make that priority known, and discuss how much better your child will perform in school if, for example, he had better impulse control. I have found that if you ask for more than you typically expect, you may end up with what you need.

4. Organize your paperwork.

Papers on papers on papers! Sometimes I look at these binders filled with information and jargon and I wonder if I accidentally woke up in a small, disorganized library instead of my home office. You never know what you might need to pull out in an IEP meeting and having your ducks in a row (or your papers in binder) will help you access any information without wasting time (because no one needs an IEP meeting to last any longer). Remember that the current IEP team may not know what you know, especially about what has previously been successful, unsuccessful, implemented or tried at another school.

5. Bring examples and documentation.

Fighting for a certain goal, accommodation, or placement setting? Bring anything that you have that supports that outcome. Doctor or therapist notes, homework or school work examples, evaluations, audio or video clips, and even data that you have collected at home are fair game to bring to meetings. Remember, the IEP team only gets to see your child in one context — at school (or for some, a single classroom environment). Providing evidence can help create a more balanced, nuanced picture of your child’s academic needs, and evidence always gets results more readily than anecdotes.

6. Invite people to join.

While IEP meetings can be packed already with just the school team, if there is a member of your “home team” that knows your child well, invite them to come along and provide their insight. This can include an outside therapist, BCBA or counselor, for example. Additionally, you may want to consider inviting a representative that can provide advice about your child’s next steps, such as a counselor from Vocational Rehabilitation (which provides job training and job placement services), or an admissions counselor from a local inclusive college program. Other options, if you need outside support, include an educational advocate or a special education attorney. Make sure you inform the school of any visitors who may be attending — some schools may want to prepare differently (or reserve a bigger room).

7. Come with questions and something to write with to add more throughout.

Think of this as a business meeting, and the IEP team is trying to sell you a product– an educational program crafted specifically for your child. Use your Ws: Why was something chosen over something else? Where will this intervention take place? What assistive technology option would be least restrictive? This shows you’re invested and you want to be a collaborative part of the process. It also shows you take the process seriously and that you are not going to smile and nod if something doesn’t sit well with you. Plus, you will learn new things as you go to add to your IEP arsenal for future meetings. A win-win!

The IEP process can be a bear, but it can be made more bearable by preparing ahead of time for a productive, collaborative meeting.

Want more advice about making sure your child has a great IEP or how to advocate like a boss? Visit us at The IEP Guru for more tips and tricks!

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My world has always been more complicated than my sisters. We had the same opportunities, love and care from our parents, and each other. But I struggled. I struggled for as long as I can remember. Things that were easy for my sisters, took me hours to understand and complete. I felt I couldn’t catch a break. Hours spent sitting at the kitchen table with my mom reviewing and completing homework as my sisters were allowed to go about their lives… mine stood still as I completed work I just didn’t understand. I cried often and felt “stupid.”

It wasn’t until I was in ninth grade that my needs were examined more closely. It was determined that I have a learning disability involving automatic recall, memorization, and mathematical practices. I began receiving special educational services, like resource room, remedial math and English. These additions to my schedule leveled the playing field enough for me that I didn’t feel like as big of a failure. But the damage to my self-worth and confidence was done.

With this information my body calmed and things started to make more sense for me. I wasn’t “stupid,” I struggled because something in my brain wasn’t firing properly. Unfortunately my self-confidence was in the basement, and still as an adult I am struggling to build that confidence. I share this story because as an adult with a learning disability I have made decisions that have formed my life today. I went to college knowing I wanted no other child to feel as badly about themselves as I did. I knew with more supports from teachers I would have not felt so awful through most of my educational career.

I earned my Master’s in special education and have worked daily to build my students up to be the best they can be. No one should ever feel the way I did the first 18 years of my life. Like me, my students are not worthless, they are not “stupid,” they are not troublemakers. They deserve the best and that’s what I try to give them. I encourage them to discover what works for them and try things that push their comfort zones. Every day when they leave school with smiles on their faces, I know I have made a difference.

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They don’t cry because the work we don’t rush through is to hard. We work until we understand it. They don’t cry because they are being left in the dust, because we work until we understand it. They don’t cry because they are different from their peers, because we work to accept and love each other! My goal as a teacher is to build children to feel successful and worthy.

My students are the mighty and deserve every opportunity in the world to be their best. As an adult with a learning disability, teaching children with disabilities, I can relate to their struggles and advocate for their successes.

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I grew up in a relatively large suburb just north of Boston, Massachusetts. I grew up in a typical middle class family. My father was a truck sales manager and my mother stayed home with my siblings and I.

My sister is two and a half years older than me. People would always describe her as exceptional. She was extremely intelligent and hit all of her developmental milestones early or right on time. By the time I was a toddler, my parents were very concerned that I had not hit those milestones the way she had. I did not walk until I was almost 18 months old. When I was in preschool, the teachers expressed further concern about issues such as my lack of concentration, being overly sensitive, and sometimes shying away from my peers. My parents were also concerned with how clumsy I was. I was constantly tripping over things and dropping things.

My preschool recommended occupational therapy to help combat some of these issues. It did help, and my parents thought we had turned a corner. The feeling was temporary, however, when it was thought I had begun to regress.

My parents were determined to get me help, despite the challenges they were going through at the time. My mother had just had my younger brother, so they were also dealing with a new baby at home. My parents had three children under the age of 5 that all needed the same amount of attention and care. Despite that, my parents had begun contacting doctors and specialists to figure out what was happening with me.

When it comes to testing, I’ve pretty much done it all. My parents had me tested for ADHD, autism, and OCD, among a myriad of other things. However, after all of that testing, my parents still did not receive an answer. By the time I began kindergarten, I was in OT three times a week and speech therapy twice a week. Although these services helped, the school system was reluctant to provide them to me because at the time I still did not have a concrete diagnosis.

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When I was almost 6 years old, my father took me to see yet another specialist in Boston. Although not much is known about NLD now, when I was tested for it  back in 1999, it was virtually unheard of. When the doctor presented this diagnosis to my parents, there was an overwhelming sense of relief. My dad described it as my “quirkiness.” My parents didn’t use the term nonverbal learning disability, as they felt I was too young at the time. The doctor did tell my parents it was not a “firm diagnosis” but it was the inclination she had.

The doctor recommended I continue the OT and speech therapy as well as other supports. I had received these “pull out” services throughout my entire time in grammar school. I received other supports such as a special seat cushion to help me stay alert during class, and was offered an Alphasmart device due to my very poor handwriting. Finally, I was in peer friendship groups to help with my social skills.

Growing up with these supports, I knew I was different; I just could not put my finger on what was “wrong with me.” My mother described it as extra help with math, or my father described it as quirkiness. I never knew I was living with a nonverbal learning disability.

The last week of sixth grade, in June 2005, I was in my speech and language session. The speech pathologist decided to describe NLD to me. I believe her heart was in the right place and she was just trying to educate me. I was in shock; I had no idea NLD existed, nor that I had it. It was a lot for a 12-year-old to take in. I was upset with my parents that it was kept a secret from me for so long. My mother was more upset than I was, I think. She wanted to tell me herself, because she knew how she wanted to explain it to me.

The rest of middle school was hard. I was bullied severely, and my social awkwardness and quirkiness did not help. In October 2005, I told my parents I felt suicidal. I was unable to grasp my NLD or some of the hurtful things the kids were saying to me. My peers were telling me that I should kill myself, and that no one would miss me.

My parents felt the public school environment was no longer right for me. They knew I needed a place where I could thrive and be the best I could be. My parents wanted to send me to a school for kids with learning disabilities like my own. However, my parents first wanted to get a “firm diagnosis.” In November of that same year, I was “officially” diagnosed with a nonverbal learning disability, as well as depression and anxiety disorders.

After what seemed to be a long and never-ending battle with the public school system, in May of 2006, at the end of my seventh grade year, my parents pulled me out of our public school system. Our school system had finally agreed to help pay to send me to a school for children with learning disabilities.

When I first started at the new school, I found it hard to fit in, and I thought my parents had wasted all their time, efforts, and money. I felt as though I couldn’t fit in anywhere. It wasn’t long before I started to make new friends and flourish.

It was hard for me to believe that when I graduated from high school, I was on the honor roll and I was able to give a speech in front of my peers. I talked about my journey, how it has affected me so far, and how I believed it would affect me in the future.

I have been going to college on and off since I graduated from high school. It is a big adjustment, and I think I may have bitten off more than I can chew. I am now 24 years old. I am working full time and pursuing my passion of writing. I am very blessed. I have a loving family, supportive friends, and a strong faith that keeps me going every day.

One of my future goals is to write for children with NLD and their families to know they are not alone, and that there is someone out there who is wants to help them. I know that I can do anything I set my mind to. NLD affects me, but does not define me.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

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If you had told me when I was in second grade that I was going to work in the field of education, I would have laughed. My reaction would not result from any belief that education is humorous, but because at that time I was struggling in various areas of school. Furthermore, my struggles were not strictly academic; I was being bullied, told I was “stupid” and I was beginning to believe it. As the “space cadet” in my classes, I was thinking about what sport I was playing after school or how I was going to make it through the day without getting beaten up or mercilessly teased.

The bullying stopped in middle school, but the damage had been done. I believed the spiteful commentary that I was “stupid.” Luckily, I did have one blessing: friends on which I could rely and a solid set of social skills. Overall I was well-liked, and my friends didn’t judge me for any perceived lack of academic prowess.

As I moved through middle school and high school, I was in lower-level classes for kids with learning differences and ADHD. Additionally, I had a resource period every day where I would be expected to do my homework. I learned I was quite talented at asking my resource teachers for help and subsequently having them complete my assignments, while I sat back and thought I was “winning.”

As I was pushed through high school, I had a below average ACT score and GPA. My college counselor at school told me that if I wanted to go to college, I would need to go to a two-year school. She said I couldn’t get into a “real” college. This assertion further reinforced my continued low perceptions of my academic ability.

I ended up going to Curry College, a four year school outside of Boston with great learning support. I continued to thrive socially and stumble academically. I could not comprehend why I was struggling so much. It seemed that while I understood the content, my organization was non-existent. After being at Curry for three and a half semesters, I stopped going to class, avoided my tutor, was lying to my family about my grades and felt terrible about myself. I didn’t know what my friends were doing in college that I wasn’t doing. Before I knew it, I was told my sister was coming to pick me up.

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The following semester, I enrolled at Chicago’s Roosevelt University. I started strong, but as the semester continued I became discouraged with my ability to sustain success. I isolated myself. Before long, I had withdrawn again.

At this point, I became completely lost and without direction. I had a couple mediocre jobs I didn’t remain at for long for various reasons. Eventually I found myself playing video games in my basement for days on end, avoiding friends and family because I didn’t know what was “wrong” with me. I felt like a failure.

As a 21-year-old, I was finally, properly diagnosed with ADHD in addition to my other learning issues. Some people might be bothered or upset with such a diagnosis, but for me that wasn’t the case. I was relieved at the possibility that I might be able to find the resources that I needed.

My mother, who has a Master’s degree in special education and is an independent educational consultant, was not surprised with this news. She had been asking since I was in elementary school about the possibility I could have ADHD. All the educational professionals, including a well-respected neuropsychologist, said no. After she heard the news, we started talking about next steps. Luckily for me, my mom was the perfect person to help me; she makes her living helping students with learning differences find the correct college or post-secondary placement.

I still remember when my mom asked me, “Do you want to go to college?” I was sitting in the basement with my arms crossed, head looking to the ground. I was miserable. With my eyes red and teary, I told her that I absolutely did. At that moment, I wasn’t sure about anything except that I could do college work and succeed.

By the winter of 2006, I was enrolled at Landmark College in their Bridge Program for students who have struggled at their previous college. Landmark College is in a tiny town in Vermont and only serves students with learning differences and/or ADHD. I felt this was my last chance; if I didn’t succeed here, I wouldn’t be graduating from college.

After three semesters, I found myself confident, successful, and utilizing new strategies I was taught. I was even telling friends I couldn’t hang out because I was going to the library. The library? I was allergic to the library my entire life and I was going there to work almost every day. I had never loved school until then. I was truly excited about learning and continuing to thrive.

In 2008 I transferred back to Roosevelt University. My hunger to learn continued. Not only was I doing well, but I helped Roosevelt University develop a peer mentoring program for incoming freshman who were at risk. Finally I had found success in school and could appreciate the skills I had gained. I still get chills thinking about the day I was sitting in the historic Auditorium Theater at Roosevelt University, listening to Chris Matthews give his commencement speech. I was reflecting on the journey I had taken to get to that point. Then I heard “Jordan Burstein.” I walked onto that stage with a huge smile on my face as I shook the hand of the president of the University and received my diploma. I looked into the crowd to see my mom shedding tears of joy or possibly relief. Her baby boy had done it! I was a college graduate.

It was the summer of 2010, and I was a new college graduate entering a brutal job market. I began working as a Mental Health Specialist at a psychiatric unit on the north side of Chicago. With the exception of working 12-hour shifts and starting on the night shift, I loved that job. I was good at it, too. I was great with patients and really enjoyed talking to them and helping them through road bumps in their lives. Working with mentally ill people provided me with invaluable experience.

After working there for three years, I had learned so much but I was ready to move on. I talked with my mom about where to go from there. She asked me to join her practice. My particular academic journey would allow me to bring a true understanding of the importance of a positive academic experience.

Now, like my mother has for the last 15 years, I work with high school students applying for college. However, I also work with younger students who are struggling in their current academic placement. Occasionally I find myself slipping back into the same timid kid who lacked confidence, but I am always able to remind myself of how hard I have worked to get to where I am today. I am a thriving partner in a business, and am working with students who are in the same place I was 13 short years ago. My experience and insight into the students with whom we work allows me not only to help students find good matches, but also to help them understand how much college differs from high school.

I can’t believe I was the kid in the basement, lost in life, directionless, and now I am helping students find their way. My journey was not completely enjoyable, but I gained invaluable knowledge because of it. I wouldn’t exchange my life for an easier, more conventional path.

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