At eight, Philip could not read. His parents were exasperated. Most children are able to rattle off a dozen different words from their favourite story books by the age of five, so why not their son?
His inability to read weighed on his parents’ minds, but it was years later before Hilary Craig realised that her parenting skills did little to help her now 40-year-old son Philip. It turned out that he had severe dyslexia but Craig could not help him overcome his problems.
Since then, Craig has learnt a lot about helping children who learn differently. She says it starts with having faith in your children.
“If you don’t believe that your child will progress, chances are very high you won’t see much progress,” says Craig, a mother of three.
In her recently launched book, Small Steps, Big Difference: A Toolkit For Parents Of Children Who Fall Through The Cracks, the specialist teacher and first-time author stresses the importance of the believing parent.
“To benefit your child, you must be honest with yourself about his abilities…. For improvement to happen, his needs must be addressed. Firm unyielding belief in your child requires you to be aware of what he can do, then build on that. Believe that progress is possible and your belief in him will be the catalyst for things to happen.
“There is amazing power in firm, unyielding belief. Children understand when an adult truly believes that they can progress. I see it happen in my centre every day,” writes Craig, 68.
She is the founder of Hils Learning Centre in Solaris Mont Kiara, Kuala Lumpur which helps children with learning differences, or as she puts it, “children who fall through the cracks”, succeed in life. Hils is short for “Happiness in Learning Success” and runs on strategies and programmes developed in-house by Craig and her team of educators, some of which have been included in Small Steps.
Apart from having 28 years of teaching experience in schools and colleges, Craig also holds specialist qualifications in Dyslexia, English as a Second Language, Math and Science, Child Development and Child Psychology, and Early Childhood Education.
“Schools in the early years are represented by two subjects: math and language. And very often, it is these two subjects that determine a child’s success. There can be children who are highly-intelligent and very put together but just because they’re not A students in math or language, that’ll knock on their confidence and eventually everything else will fall apart,” Craig says.
Mainstream schools are great for the normal child, but they can do “enormous damage” to those with learning differences, she adds.
“I’ve encountered the musical child who is brilliant with music but can’t learn the times (multiplication) tables. But then you get someone singing the times tables and he gets it! Every child is unique and some will learn differently. It’s not a bad thing if your child is different. My book aims to help parents find ways to effectively guide their children in their own special way. For children not to lose confidence in themselves and fall between the cracks, they need to have strong, knowledgeable parents,” Craig says.
In Small Steps, Craig says she regrets not knowing how to deal with her son’s learning differences in the early days – a situation that a lot of parents can probably identify with.
“The reading programme in (my son’s) school was heavily auditory and it just didn’t work for him.
“Many years later, he told me something that was so powerful it forced me to think about setting up a centre for children like him. He said: ‘When I was in class and I couldn’t read, I felt stupid. But then you sent me to a tutor and I still couldn’t read, so I knew I was stupid.’ My son made me realise my thoughtlessness. I had never consulted him about what he needed,” she writes.
The book that got Philip, now a Master’s Degree holder, started with reading was The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy and by then he was almost 14.
“It was a slow struggle and we supported him all the way. We told him: ‘Your math is great; your artwork is fabulous. Why don’t you show us how to do it through your art?’ And that’s when he started writing words on his pictures and basically learned from there. Through what he was good at, we worked on the things that he wasn’t good at.”
While Small Steps was largely written for parents with children who have learning differences, it also draws on useful information that any parent can refer to.
One of Craig’s main concerns, also addressed in the book, is how the digital age affects children’s development.
“More and more people are handing their parenting over to the digital world and I think we are going to pay dearly for the results. Research has shown that children are starting to develop memory issues and have problems concentrating because they’re constantly exposed to the fast-paced world of the computers and the Internet,” Craig observes.
Small Steps is framed around the core belief that all children can make progress through different methods of learning by addressing four essential skills – listening, attention, memory and social skills.
Suggestions on how to get your child to listen better, what to do when your child doesn’t play well with others, what to say when your child talks loudly in wrong situations and what you can do when your child never wants to say “Hello”, are included.
“A lot of parents may feel as if they are alone, or are even struggling to the point of giving up because they don’t know what to do with a child who is simply different. What I want to do is to inculcate a more positive approach towards getting children to learn.
“Instead of saying ‘Don’t run!’ to your children, try asking them to walk and you’d be amazed at the results,” says Craig.
Small Steps, Big Difference: A Toolkit For Parents Of Children Who Fall Through The Cracks (RM60) can be purchased at Hils Learning Centre (Happiness-is-learning-success.com) and online.