TYPICALLY, they are bright, articulate and eager to learn when they arrive in Prep. Yet within a couple of years, these seemingly model children have become withdrawn or disruptive. They perplex and exasperate their teachers. Why can’t they learn to read and write?
Sarah Asome, winner of the 2015 Victorian Outstanding Teacher Award, knows the likely answer: Dyslexia. As Learning and Curriculum Support Leader at Melbourne’s Bentleigh West Primary School, she is also keenly aware that early screening for the frequently misunderstood learning disorder is vital.
“Why wait? Eight is too late!” is the rallying cry of the dynamic educator who will address delegates at a key attraction of the 2018 National Education Summit: the Special Needs Symposium on August 31.
“At Bentleigh West Primary we start screening incoming Prep children for dyslexia indicators and phonemic awareness in October before the school year starts,” she says. ”Along with early identification, evidence-based teaching is critical for successful intervention. “
Easier said than done. As Sarah observes, extensive research has shown that phonics through explicit instruction is the most effective way to teach reading, writing and spelling, but many teachers lack those skills because they were taught the whole language approach.
“High quality teacher training should be the top priority in Australian education,” says Sarah, a mother of three who trained and taught in Britain, and held a senior post at an international school in Singapore for eight years before returning to Melbourne where she joined Bentleigh West Primary in 2010.
The school’s dyslexia intervention program has proved a resounding success and not just with dyslexic children. “Structured, systematic phonics instruction benefits all our students, especially with spelling,” notes Sarah. “Our top kids score significantly above the national average. They’re up to four years ahead of their age group.”
Many dyslexic children are also potential high-flyers – the long roll call of famous dyslexics includes Steven Spielberg, Richard Branson, Kiera Knightley and Jamie Oliver – though without intervention, self-esteem is soon shattered and the repercussions can be grim.
The erroneous perception that dyslexic children are “slow” is especially galling to Sarah. “There is no link between intelligence and dyslexia,” she stresses.
That was abundantly clear to thousands when Sarah appeared on SBS TV’s current affairs show Insight early last year with Primary 4 student, Meredith Buffa, who couldn’t even write her own name when she moved to Bentleigh West Primary two years earlier.
Sarah Asome, who has retrained the school’s teaching staff so instruction is consistent across the board, changed all that. “She helped me so much,” said the engaging little girl who could now read, write and do maths. “I’m so happy to have her in my life.”
IT WAS one of those revelations parents dread. “I thought you should know there’s a really bad case of bullying in that Year 3 classroom,” the school mum told Ruth Devine.
“I assumed my eight-year-old son was the bully,” confesses the Sydney journalist and author who will also lead a session at the Special Needs Symposium . “I was wrong. She was talking about the teacher who, as I learned, was constantly picking on my boy and making him utterly miserable.”
Ruth’s assumption was understandable. She may have adored her eldest child, but he’d been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and she was well aware he had behavioural problems.
A decade on, he is at university in Canberra and Ruth is acknowledged as a leading light in the field of ADHD. She is abundantly qualified. Her three sons all have ADHD. And to numerous young fans , she is the author of the six riveting books that comprise The Chronicles of Jack McCool.
Inspired by a hunter-warrior famed in Irish mythology, the chronicles’ hero is “a regular wise-cracking schoolboy” who loves chilling out in his bedroom with his dog Fergus – at least until he discovers a mysterious time travelling trunk that catapults him into extraordinary adventures that include breaking an ancient curse and discovering a magical amulet. And oh yes, Jack has ADHD.
“I’m now planning a series for younger children,” reveals Ruth. “This one will be about an ADHD girl, though the first book won’t be published for at least a year.”
You can safely bet that like Jack Mc Cool, the heroine will be a whiz at thinking outside the box – a trait shared by the author’s sons and depicted as a fantastic asset, rather than an inability to follow rules.
“ADHD kids need people who believe in them,” says Ruth. “I couldn’t have gone through what my eldest son did, but we lucked out when we moved him to a private school. His teacher there absolutely loved him and really appreciated his strengths, such as his incredible memory.
“Still, I felt huge guilt that I hadn’t picked up on the signs that something was badly wrong at his first school. As a journalist, I started reporting on ADHD 25 years ago.”
As a parent, Ruth knows all about the challenges of raising ADHD children. The impulsivity, bouncing off walls, tantrums and refusal to share – it’s a tough road, but it can be successfully navigated and there are plenty of positives to build on.
“High intellect and a propensity for delightful quirkiness are common traits,” notes Ruth Devine. “Properly trained teachers are crucial. There is so much misinformation about ADHD out there, so many myths and half-truths.”
To hear more from Sarah Asome about how to screen for and support students with dyslexia and from Ruth Devine about a parents perspective of ADHD register for your tickets today at: www.nationaleducationsummit.com.au
Tickets are $88 per stream for the Special Needs Symposium and there are four streams available; Dyslexia, ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorder and Anxiety.
What: National Education Summit
Where: Melbourne Convention & Exhibition Centre
When: Friday 31 August – Saturday 1 September, 2018
More Info: www.nationaleducationsummit.com.au