Shut-Down Learner

Dr. Richard Selznick

In October I had the pleasure of attending the workshop: Dyslexia-Reading Disability:Myths and Realities, presented by Dr. Richard Selznick and hosted by Center School in Abington, PA. Dr. Selznick is the author of The Shut-Down Learner- Helping YourAcademically Discouraged Child, a book I had read years earlier that really resonated with me and my struggles as a parent of a dyslexic child. With Dr. Selznick’s expertise as a Licensed Psychologist and Director of Cooper Learning Center, I knew he had a lot more to offer me on this journey with my son, and this workshop did not disappoint!

A little background:

Years earlier when I read The Shut-Down Learner my son Evan, then a third grader, was struggling with reading, writing, math, and ME. As Evan’s primary teacher in our home classroom, using a public cyber-model of education, I came to realize that much of what I was doing in an attempt to help him wasn’t actually helping him at all. Nagging didn’t work, nor did raising my voice. Bribing didn’t reap much either. I wanted so much for my son to learn like other children, but it didn’t take me long to realize that when it came to educating Evan, I couldn’t fit this square peg into a round hole. He learned differently. I needed to reevaluate what I was doing and to change how I delivered his instruction. More importantly, I needed to give my son a break and stop being the task master that I had become, expecting him to perform like other children. I needed to get out of denial, and get out of his way. I consulted his cyber school teachers and began an honest dialogue to get us all on the same page with what Evan was experiencing each day as a child with dyslexia. Dr. Selznick’s book helped to guide me. The book was filled with no-nonsense pearls of wisdom that hit home with each page that I read. I began to realize that Evan’s instruction needed to be modified and chunked. He needed to get up and move to keep him engaged in learning, and assistive technology needed to be introduced to help level the playing field for him so we could get through the day more efficiently. I began scribing for him when he needed it, and I encouraged him to do his best every day and to let me know when he was “at his max” so we could avoid meltdowns. I changed, instead of expecting him to, and we began to see success.

Back to the Workshop:

Dr. Selznick presented in a down to earth way. His humor broke the tension in the room as he reminded us all, that with the proper remediation and supports for our children, they will get through K-12 education and beyond and become successful adults. As parents and educators we can be instrumental in helping them travel along this rough road as unscathed as possible. Dr. Selznick is generally uncomfortable with labeling kids, as he sees them more in gradations and shades of gray. He does acknowledge, that in a given family you may see both “rough road” and “smooth road” children. Smooth road kids have an easier passage from preschool to college. Rough road kids tend to have a bumpier passage throughout. Many kids are deemed “average” by the schools standards. They may be in the “lower average range”,but these kids struggle and because they are lumped into the “average” category they may not be getting the appropriate support they require in order to thrive. Kids need help despite whether they are of average or above average intelligence, and as parents we need to push for this help in the schools.

Dr. Selznick emphasized the importance of what he refers to as the Three Headed Monster of Reading: decoding, fluency and comprehension. He spoke about the myth of upside down/backward reading as an indicator of dyslexia, and how that can be a real obstacle to a full understanding of what dyslexia actually is. The importance of phonemic awareness, phonics/decoding, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension as key building blocks to a child’s academic success were also outlined. He spoke about the importance of verbal/non-verbal abilities, processing speed, cognitive efficiency, and working memory and their relationship to the above building blocks required for fluent reading. When it comes to assessments and testing for children with dyslexia, Dr. Selznick stressed the importance of going “beyond the scores.” There is a combination of quantitative and qualitative data that goes into the assessment and diagnosis of a child, but as Dr. Selznick put it, “dyslexia is not a score.”Visual processing tasks need to be looked at in addition to spelling and written expression. He encouraged us to communicate to educators to look at the” total child.”

The level of severity drives the level of intervention. Some children may not meet the criteria for formal services because they fall in the “average” range, yet they still need remediation. Suggested remediation is multi-sensory instruction (Orton-Gillingham), which can be provided individually or in small groups, as soon as possible after the child is identified. As the child ages, the focus shifts to incorporating more assistive technology (text to speech, speech to text, audio books, etc.) and accommodations for continued success in the classroom. Just as no two snowflakes are alike, neither are our children, as they are all neurologically diverse. Dr. Selznick ended the evening emphasizing the need to nurture the strengths in our different learners. He reminded us to help them discover their “smarts,” whether their skills are interpersonal, spatial/visual, mathematical, musical, linguistic, artistic, or even something we haven’t yet uncovered.

Moving Forward:

After four years of cyber educating Evan at home he has transitioned into our public middle school as a 6th grader. With a few solid years of Orton-Gillingham instruction, he is now tackling advanced Greek and Latin roots, so remediation does continue. As he is getting older our focus is shifting to using accommodations and assistive technology. He is getting trained to use some really cool apps on his iPad. The future is bright! As for me, I am still getting used to my new role as “just” mom and advocate now that my son has returned to public school. Evan and I don’t bump heads as much, and we are both happy about this. He’s a bright boy who has learned to self-advocate, and I am very proud of him. I cheer him on daily as he learns something new each and every day.

Did we travel down this road totally unscathed? No, not quite. But we are doing much better. Our school struggles have decreased. There is light at the end of the tunnel and hopefully years of smoother traveling ahead. Thanks Dr. Selznick for helping me along in my journey with my rough road child, and thanks to Center School for hosting this fantastic workshop. Visit Dr. Richard Selznick at -, on Facebook at The Shut-Down Learner: Helping Your Academically Discouraged Child, and on Twitter at @Dr.Selz.


Dr. Richard Selznick will be one of the experts presenting on Dec 5th at Learning Ally’s first ever virtual conference on dyslexia for parents. Ben Foss, Headstrong Nation Founder and Board Member will also be presenting alongside Larry Banks, the new Chairman of the Board of Headstrong Nation. Here’s the link for registration (Early registration until Nov. 15th) –

Dr. Selznick is also the author of another great resource: School Struggles-A Guide to your Shut-Down Learner’s Success.

Listen to Dr. Selznick interview Ben Foss on the Coffee Klatch – Blog Talk Radio

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