My journey began on a crisp October day 15 years ago. I was surrounded by a sea of small and eager faces in neatly pressed uniforms. As part of a government-funded project, I was working with kindergarteners to understand what cognitive skills are important for academic success.
I met Andrew that day. That six-year-old boy stood out from the rest. He loved being at school and made friends quickly. In the classroom, he was always excited about participating and would raise his hand to answer questions. Andrew enjoyed ‘story time’ best, when Mrs Smith would ask the children to present a short story. Andrew loved telling stories and would be so animated and use such creative examples that all the children enjoyed them as well.
As the school year progressed, I noticed that Andrew began to struggle with daily classroom activities. He would often forget simple instructions or get them mixed up. When all the other children were putting their books away and getting ready for the next activity, Andrew would be standing in the middle of room, looking around confused. When Mrs Smith asked him why he was standing there, he just shrugged his shoulders. She tried asking him to write down the instructions so he could remember what to do. But by the time he got back to his desk, he had forgotten what he was supposed to write down.
His biggest problem seemed to be in writing activities. He would often get confused and repeat his letters. Even spelling his name was a struggle, he would write it with two ‘A’s or miss out the ‘W’ at the end. Mrs Smith tried moving him closer to the board so he could follow along better. This didn’t seem to work; he would still get confused.
Mrs Smith was at a loss. She always had to repeat instructions to Andrew but he never seemed to listen. It was as if her words went in one ear and out the other. On another occasion, an assistant found him at his desk not working. When she asked him why he wasn’t doing the assignment, he hung his head and said, ‘I’ve forgotten, sometimes I get mixed up and I am worried that teacher will get angry at me.’
His parents contacted me to see if I could help. They were concerned that Andrew might have a learning disability. When I tested Andrew on a range of psychological tests, I was surprised to find that he had an average IQ. Yet, by the end of the school year, he was at the bottom of the class.
Two years later, I went back to the school to conduct some follow-up testing on the children. Andrew seemed such a different boy. He was placed in the lowest ability groups for language and math. He became frustrated more easily and would not even attempt some activities, especially if they involved writing. His grades were poor and he often handed in incomplete work. He only seemed to brighten up at playtime.
I was determined not to let Andrew slip through the cracks and remember his schools days as a time of frustration and failure. As I was analyzing my data, I found a clue that would change Andrew’s life and thousands of students like him.
It was my encounter with Andrew that started me on this journey, a journey that I am still on today. Many of you have already come on this journey with me and I am glad for your company. As a psychologist, I am grateful to the thousands of teachers and parents who have contacted me and taken me beyond the world of theory and data to see the classroom from your perspective. Your struggles and successes have inspired and motivated me to keep searching for answers to find out what makes the difference for students like Andrew.