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"You must try harder." David Flink, 34, heard those words over and over again growing up in Atlanta - from his teachers, from his father - as he struggled against dyslexia and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder.
Slowly, he learned to embrace himself as a "different thinker," and a new world opened.
Today, as many as one in five children and adults in the U.S. have learning and attention issues. In 1998, Flink co-founded Eye to Eye, a nonprofit group that sends college students with those challenges into schools, mostly middle schools, as mentors in 22 states as a way to break the cycle of shame.
Drawing on his experience and those of other families, Flink has written a guide for parents, "Thinking Differently," out Aug. 26 from HarperCollins. The AP recently spoke with Fink about his life and work.
AP: What did you go through growing up?
Flink: I didn't find out I had dyslexia and ADHD until fifth grade. I was failing in school, in many ways failing in life. My self-esteem was in the toilet. I was getting into trouble all the time. It was easier to be the bad kid than it was to be the dumb kid.
Most kids, by the time third, fourth grade rolls around, were starting to learn to read and I had no literacy skills at all. My mother was a teacher. Her feeling was, 'I'm an educator. I'm an attuned parent. How did we miss this?'
AP: What has changed since you were a kid?
Flink: There's been a conversation happening in the media for probably the past 10 years saying, 'Oh we're over-diagnosing' and all that stuff. From my perspective, we're not over-diagnosing. We're getting better at diagnosing.
I see that as a huge, huge win. If a kid can get diagnosed in first grade, their life is so much better. I spent the first five years of my schooling thinking I was stupid.
AP: What would you like parents to know when faced with learning and attention challenges in their kids?
Flink: First, they're not alone. A lot of times when families understand their kids have a learning disability it's a moment of isolation. They think they shouldn't tell anybody. They think it's something to be ashamed of.
We're identifying kids faster, but we're still systematically shaming families and kids for no reason. There's some really easy, tangible tools they can implement, but it requires being past that shame. Simply being taught to learn a different way, for example. It can be listening to books on tape rather than reading them with your eyes. It's a simple shift in pedagogy and it freed me to enjoy not only a whole world of literature but a whole other sense of self.
AP: Can teachers, schools and parents do more?
Flink: Say a kid has been diagnosed, and in a public school system they receive an IEP (Individualized Education Program). Nine times out of 10 I will see kids refuse to use the things that are outlined in that IEP because they're ashamed of it. One example is a kid who's dyslexic, who's a slow reader. They get extra time on their tests. They will refuse the extra time. They feel like they're going to be stigmatized, bullied.
A kid needs to realize that probably 20 percent of the class is going to have some kind of accommodation and think getting this accommodation 'is not because of me but because they're choosing to test me in this format.'
And that's where the power of the parent is. My father had the exact same learning disabilities that I did but he hadn't come to grips with it. He said, 'Look, I got through school by running through walls.' When I realized that it was OK to learn something in a different way, school opened up for me in a way that it didn't for him.
AP: Did you know anyone else like you in school?
Flink: Recently I went to an old friend's wedding. My work with Eye to Eye had become very public. Many of my classmates who I hadn't talked to in years came up to me and said, 'Oh, I have dyslexia, too.' I was, like, 'What?! Why didn't we talk about this?'
We struggled in silence as opposed to being empowered together.