What It’s Really Like When Your Child Is Below Grade Level

I know it shouldn’t matter so much, but the truth is, my child isn’t at grade level and it’s really difficult sometimes. 

He is reading at a first-grade level now,” I said to the doctor, holding my breath.

What?” she said with a mix of surprise and concern. “At his age?

I paused for a moment and decided to ignore the comment welling up in my throat about how I am pretty sure I know how old he is.

Well, two years ago, he was at a preschool level, so really, he has made two years worth of progress in two years,” I said, sure she would nod her head and appreciate the progress.

She didn’t.

We spent the rest of our time together talking about the many options for dyslexia interventions, and getting him to ‘grade level’.

I left feeling so sad for my youngest son, who works so hard, but never feels like it is enough.

I understand why he feels this way.

Learning disabilities are so sneaky.

child is below grade level


His doctor is well versed in dyslexia and learning differences. She knows exactly what his IQ testing and learning profile mean. She knows the asynchrony of a child profoundly gifted in some areas, and profoundly delayed in others.

And she still cannot believe, after educational therapy and daily instruction for more than two years, that he is only capable of reading Hop On Pop on his best day.

I understand why she feels this way.

Learning disabilities are so sneaky.

When your child Isn't At Grade Level

We discussed the school vs. homeschool options for him. I used to think he needed to be in school in order to receive the intervention he needs. I have since learned better, but the doctor surprised me when she said, “With his needs, there is no way the school system would be able to adequately help him. You might be able to eventually get the school district to pay for him to go to special private school, but that would take years and I am not convinced it would be a good fit for him either.

So you see my dilemma, ” I thought to myself, but did not say.

Learning disabilities are so sneaky.

child Isn't At Grade Level

When Your Child Isn’t At Grade Level

I came home to my children, exhausted and feeling the weight of it all.

I walked away from the appointment with good advice about all the things I need to do.

I am grateful for it.

I am tired of it.

It feels like we are running some sort of race – with grade level as the finish line.

Grade level means nothing to my children.

My oldest is reading at a college level proficiency, but cannot perform sequential tasks requiring even the most basic executive function.

My youngest is several grade levels ahead in history and science, but couldn’t read the word ‘said’ yesterday.

I cannot use grade level as the standard.

I know this. And yet I long for it. I want progress to be faster and more linear. I want grade level so much it hurts sometimes.

I want to be able to say to anyone who asks, “Yes, they are at grade level,” and never again have the discussion about how to speed up their progress.

I want to avoid the panic that rears its ugly head first thing in the morning and last thing at night. “Am I doing this right? What else can I do? Am I failing these children?

When your child Isn't At Grade Level

What It’s Really Like When Your Child Is Below Grade Level

My children are children. They are not math equations. They are not projects with completion dates.

As convenient as it would be for them to achieve grade level expectations, this is just simply not possible sometimes. More importantly, when I think about who they are becoming, what matters most in their lifetime, and how they will be most successful as adults, the less reading levels and math standards even matter.

So today, rather than worrying about all the progress we haven’t made, I choose to focus on all that my sons have accomplished.

Rather than worrying about grade levels and deficits, I choose to see the computer that my son built in less than two hours, on his own.

I choose to see the book that my little guy picked up, and the true joy with which he read it, rather than the words on the cover – Step 1 Ready to Read.

Today, I will do the best that I can for these children.

That means seeing them for who they are and accepting them, exactly where they are, no matter what their grade level.

For more encouragement and support:

Why Do I Feel Like I Am Failing At Everything As A Mom?

When Your Child Is A “Slow Learner”

101 Reasons To Consider Homeschooling Your Child With Special Needs

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  1. “Am I doing this right? What else can I do? Am I failing these children?”

    My thoughts, too. My kids are at or above grade level in their studies. And I’m still afraid. Afraid I’m not doing the right things to help them reach their potentials, to have good character, to develop executive functioning skills (as if the other things weren’t enough to worry about).

    My prayer for both of us and your readers — to fear not. To love our kids and grow with them. To trust more that really, God is good.

    1. This is totally true and you are totally an Awesome mom! As a parent of 2 children with LD in reading…I hear you loud and clear! One went “thru the system” and got LD help for reading…but we had to be his advocate in so many ways…thankfully some of his helpers were sensitive & gave him space and let him lead….regretfully some laughed at us and told US that we knew NOTHING about our child. When our 8th child followed his brothers footsteps in reading LD we were wiser…we had chosen homeschooling for our last 3 children, so had already in place to let him progress at his level & allow time for him to mature more….and find the right “key” for unlocking his reading code. It’s coming….slowly…but there is progress! Each child is unique! God bless you for knowing that and sharing!

  2. Allison Walton says:

    Oh my goodness, there is so much to say here (all in support of what you are saying). I had very frustrating moments as an educator and the “grade level” label. I had one kid like Sourdough, who was beyond measure in the reading comprehension department, but couldn’t name one person they would consider a “friend”. I had one who could feel out the emotional tone of a room and know exactly what to say to someone who was having a hard time, but couldn’t solve basic math problems. The results from their reading and math diagnostics told a story that the district wanted to hear, but I hated to think that it was the only label that would follow them around. We are preparing our kids for the future, for who they will become and how they will interact with the world around them, and I guarantee that once “school” is finished, not one person will ask them about their grade level again. I hate the federal mandates that are driving these questions. I hate the districts and the states that aren’t fighting tooth-and-nail against them. I hate that we have no idea how to see kids individually instead of as a collective. We do the best we can, I guess. I just wish we could do it better.

    1. So well said, Allison. I always love hearing your perspective, as a wonderful teacher and now as a mom. Thank you so much!

  3. I needed this today! I’m pretty sure my kids are at grade level (or close to it) for most subjects but with one tiny WELL MEANING comment from my husband this weekend I have been stressing over my 11 year old and that he does not yet know. All that he struggles with to learn. Am I doing enough? Will he be able to function and support himself and his family as an adult. Should I push him to go to college and prepare him as if he will even though he claims he does not want to go.

    This homeschooling thing is HARD and most days I do what you said; I push aside all the doubts and fears and worries and I focus on what they do know, how hard they are working, and how much they have grown.

  4. As a mom of a preschooler and a second grader, I worry on a daily basis if they have any learning disabilities, as it was called when I was in school. Today it’s learning differences and I still struggle with my dyslexia and dysgraphia but the good new is that I have persevered. It hasn’t been an easy road and so I wish my children and all children easier travels.

  5. Teresa Vandelier says:

    This is so beautifully and eloquently written. It has all the emotions and daily worries that I and probably most homeschooling mamas struggle with. Thank you for this passage. It touched me deeply and too will will strive to follow your advice!

    1. Thank you so much for your kind words, Teresa.

  6. Thank you so much!! I am actually a clinician with a child who has dyslexia. What a perspective! I start now working on who he will be and wants to be not worrying if he has measures up to the grade level standard. Thank you so, so much!! You have no idea what peace you have given me!

    1. Oh my goodness, I am so glad you thought this helped!

  7. This is one of the most encouraging things I’ve read in a long time. My dd is 9, has just started taking off (slowly) in reading at a grade 2 level. It’s been a tough road with her, but we are persevering. She is so proud of her accomplishments, as am I. She told me the other night, “You don’t know how much I want to write a story, Mama.” I told her to start now anyway. Why wait? In fact, I might transcribe for her so she can read her own story. Thank you so much for this…tears.

  8. Sarah Andrews says:

    The words of Dr Laura Schlessinger ring in my ear. We mothers are proud of our “brilliant” and “beautiful” children, but her attitude is refreshing: The world has enough (self absorbed) geniuses and divas. What we need are loving, compassionate, thoughtful people. That your child is gifted or beautiful is fine, but they were wired that way! This is no reflection of a job well done by you [or me]. Conversely, we have to TEACH love and respect and compassion and diligence. Are you raising people of GOOD CHARACTER? Will the world be better for their presence?

    Those are the bragging points we moms should seek. I have yet to find any of those qualities measured on a standardized test. As parents, it is not our job to create yellow pencils. It is our job to raise productive, functional and (ultimately) independent individuals. The best way I know to do that is to LOVE your people for who they are, inspire them to be more than they are…and stop comparing them with “the average.”

    Forge on, fellow parent. Forge on!

  9. I cried when I read this. I am always trying to compare my son to those of his peers and trying to determine whether or not I am doing a good job as a homeschooling parent. My son struggles with reading and spelling but is above average in math and I am so determined to make sure he is reading at grade level. But why? Why does he have to be grade level? Who determines that and decides that my son is below averge? Your article was encouraging and I am going to learn to take one hour, one assignment, one day at a time and relish in the accomplishments that he does achieve.

    1. Beautifully said, Misty. Thank you!

  10. Thank you so much for writing this! You put on paper what I feel every day.Thank you for helping me see that it is ok.

  11. I love this and so spot on for me today. My question is how do you handle standardized tests? My state requires them still even for homeschoolers. I am terrified for my severely dyslexic son.

    1. Hi Anne,

      We do not have a requirement for standardized testing in our state. I do know many families that do.If you are not able to opt out (which varies state by state), many families take the test, but throw away the results without even looking at them. I think they set it up as a necessary, but not important step for their kids to take and try and take as much pressure off as possible.

      I hope this helps! Please ask more questions if needed.

  12. My heart was aching for you as I read this. Having Dyslexia myself and having a kiddo with it too I totally get the struggle. I have homeschooled all my kiddos and can tell you homeschooling my Dyslexic son has helped me grow so much as a teacher. Not everyone will ever be at grade level. One thing that has made me feel more confident is that statically most people read at a 4th grade reading level for pleasure reading. If the kids can at minimum get to a 4th-grade reading level they can read almost anything. Getting to that point can be extremely tricky for a Dyslexic kiddo. We were lucky enough to have a neighbor who works at the school in the reading department tutor our son several times a week for over 2 years. Even with all that help, plus homeschooling over this summer things just seemed to click for him, and his reading improved dramaticly. So dramaticly he is only 1 year behind in reading now, compared to the 4 he was back in June. He had to get to a point where he wanted to read better, and be willing to put in the time to struggle through, till he figured it out. So there is hope, for anyone with Dyslexia!

  13. Yes! And I wish people would just rejoice with me when I share a new skill or a new step taken. Be excited for me . . . don’t offer encouragement or ideas for him to do better. Just BE EXCITED and proud of him, for his sake (and for mine). I am thrilled for the progress my children make, each and every one of them, but when I share the progress of certain children people always put a damper on it. 🙁 Just be excited for him. Please!

  14. Marisol Stewart says:

    Love this post.

  15. My son is 17, a junior, and does math at grade 3.5. Last year he was at 3.2, so he gained three months in a year.

    We just started the paperwork process for getting Social Security (turns 18 in three months) and our disability life planner wants us to document everything including his educational problems. (This is NOT a kid that is ever going to live independently, so I’m grateful that there’s a bit of a cushion with SS.)

  16. Jenny Wolff says:

    This article is giving me hope and encouragement that i need for my daughter who is not at her grade level.
    I am feeling guilty and worried every day and asking to myself, what did i do wrong? Sleepless night that if she is going to be ok if I am not around one day!

  17. Thank you!

    “I am grateful for it.

    I am tired of it.”

    So true, so very very true. My son has dyspraxia, and it shows up with numbers, movement, and speech. No one sees what he can do – just what he can’t. Even church isn’t a safe place lately. Some mean well and some don’t. Sometimes it’s hard to know the difference. All I can do is hand it to God and pray. Thank you for sharing.

  18. Well said! Totally agree!

  19. Krysten T says:

    I had/have one of those sneaky learning disabilities. It was caught in second grade by a teacher who noticed my reading and comprehension abilities were well beyond my spelling and writing levels. I spent 2nd-8th grade receiving special services with an IEP. I had amazing teachers and aides and others I would not let watch a babydoll, much less a living thing. My mom was my advocate but this was before the internet and she did not know her rights or anyone to get advice from. We figured it out on our own. Starting in middle school I learned to ask for the adaptations I needed and how I learned. By the time I finished 8th grade I no longer needed the extra help or a label. I was successful in high school and college, and considered going on to get a Master’s.
    In my education classes in college I learned that a more accurate diagnosis for me was dysgraphia. I called my mom and was so excited to tell her what I had learned.
    I know my parents worried about me catching up but I was only required to do my best. I was not held to other’s standards, only that I do the best that I could do. In 4th grade I failed every spelling test, but practiced every night because that was the best I could do.
    My experience in public school is a small reason why I’m homeschooling. I never want my kids to feel dumb or that they’re not keeping up. I also know from my education classes in college and my own experiences that a lot of the expectations in school are not developmentally appropriate anyway.

    1. Thank you so much for sharing your experience. This is so encouraging for those of us trying to figure out how to best help our kiddos. Your perspective is invaluable. 🙂

  20. I just sat down this weekend and wrote out a list of educational goals for my (suspected dyslexic) daughter. My priorities are shifting, again. I would love for her to have it easy academically, but is that important for her life? Probably not. My true hope for her is that she will be able to read as well as she will need to, that she will be happy and confident in her ability to learn and do and reach her goals, and that she will be able to recognize and develop her own talents and strengths to reach her own God-given potential. She may never be a great speller, she may not be able to breeze through a chapter book, but she is a wonderful person, and I hope she always recognizes that she is enough just as she is.

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