Kierstyn Lawson hated kindergarten. She struggled to keep up with her peers, leaving her mother at a loss for how to help.
“What kindergartner doesn’t like school?” recalled the parent, Stephanie Lawson, of California, Mo., a rural community halfway between Kansas City and St. Louis.
Kierstyn was not diagnosed with dyslexia until she turned 9. Once she was, her mother said it shed light on why Kierstyn was struggling in school. Yet even after the diagnosis, Lawson had to fight to get her daughter the support she needed from her school. Eventually, Lawson hired a private dyslexia tutor—a move that ultimately helped her daughter move forward. Kierstyn, now 11, can read more fluently and comprehend what she sees on a page.
Catching Dyslexia Sooner
The state of Missouri is now rolling out a dyslexia law aimed at identifying and supporting students like Kierstyn early in their education. State-mandated dyslexia screenings for children in K-3 take effect in the 2018-19 school year in all Missouri regular public and charter schools. The law, signed in 2016, also led to the development of dyslexia training for teachers and recommendations on how best to support dyslexic students throughout the state.
Missouri joins dozens of other states with dyslexia laws and is among the latest to face the challenge of implementing, explaining, and coordinating the screenings and subsequent follow-ups with students. While the screenings are not designed to diagnose dyslexia, they will identify where students are struggling and leave it to parents, districts, and educators to decide what is best.
Dyslexia affects the way people process written and oral language. A common characteristic is difficulty connecting letters to the sounds that those letters represent. The Education Department says that 3.4 percent of students aged 6-21—about 2.4 million children and youth—are receiving services for a specific learning disability through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The category includes children with dyslexia.
Advocates, however, argue that the prevalence of learning disabilities is much higher. The National Center for Learning Disabilities says that 1 in 5 students has “learning or attention issues,” including dyslexia.
The Missouri education department has provided a list of recommendations for conducting screenings and offering classroom supports for students with dyslexia. For some districts, the law will require supports beyond their existing special education and reading programs. The mandate also annually requires two hours of dyslexia training for every practicing teacher in the state’s 518 districts.
Rep. Kathy Swan, a Republican state lawmaker who originally proposed the bill that led to the new law, said it’s up to the schools to choose what screening tool they will use for the assessments.
“There was concern during the bill, in its passage, over the cost of that,” Swan said, adding that some screening tools are free and others come at a price.
Swan said a subcommittee in the Missouri House of Representatives proposed funding in February to cover any costs for the screenings. If approved, the funding would be part of the fiscal year 2019 budget and falls within the current Missouri legislative session, which adjourns May 18.
Efforts by organizations such as Decoding Dyslexia, which launched in 2011, have fought to keep dyslexia at the forefront of discussions among educators, parents, and lawmakers.
Erica Lembke, a member of the 21-member dyslexia task force established by the state, said a key part of the commission’s process was hearing hours of testimony from educators, parents, students, and others.
“To me, it’s a great example of how parents and families can push legislation forward,” said Lembke, who chairs the special education department at the University of Missouri.
A total of 29 states have dyslexia-support and -identification laws, according to statistics from the International Dyslexia Association available as of December 2015. Six states have resolutions or initiatives addressing dyslexia, and 14 offer procedures or handbooks for educators and parents to support dyslexic students.
Kim Stuckey was hired in 2016 as a dyslexia specialist for the Missouri education department. She worked with the task force to devise a plan to implement the legislation.
In its research, the task force discovered many gaps in how Missouri school districts and educators understood dyslexia, Stuckey said.
“The awareness piece has been really important,” she said. “For many years, teachers [would] tell you, ‘We’re not allowed to say dyslexia. We’re not allowed to talk about it.’ Anecdotally, you would hear that across the nation.”
Some school personnel have been reluctant to use the term, saying that dyslexia is a medical diagnosis, or that educators should focus on specific deficits and not a label. The U.S. Department of Education addressed that issue in an October 2015 “Dear Colleague” letter. The letter explained that dyslexia, along with dysgraphia and dyscalculia, were acceptable terms to use when discussing a student’s evaluations, special education eligibility, and individualized education program.
Stuckey said the letter, and now the Missouri state law, are steps in the right direction to remedy the lack of conversation and understanding about dyslexia. She said the screenings are designed to equip educators and parents with more information to help students who are struggling.
“At the end of the day, schools overwhelmingly want to do what’s best for kids,” Stuckey said.
Lembke said she hopes universities and colleges around the state will also improve dyslexia training for preservice teachers.
After the task force surveyed higher education institutions, Lembke said she was surprised at how many were not properly equipping preservice teachers to address dyslexia. State lawmakers Swan and Rep. Donna Pfautsch are seeking to craft requirements for colleges and universities to better prepare future teachers to handle dyslexia in their classrooms.
When it comes to additional costs, resources, and time that may be required of administrators and educators, Swan said it comes down to the “right thing to do” to ensure students succeed in their education, careers, and lives.
“We are doing a great disservice to people in the state of Missouri if we do not begin to recognize [dyslexia] and do something about it,” Swan said. “It’s a critical effort.”
A version of this article appeared in the February 28, 2018 edition of Education Week as Missouri Tackles Challenge of Dyslexia Screening, Services