Essay: Pandemic Year Lets Pasadena Parents Make Startling Discovery With Daughter

”In a year that could have counted as a loss, we found the missing piece for our daughter. ”
Big sister takes center stage with her younger siblings, helping them with a backyard craft project during a 2020 stay-at-home order.

I’m a journalist; my husband is a rocket scientist. How was it possible that our 7-year-old couldn’t read? And that I didn’t see it until the shutdown?

From an early age, our daughter baffled us with her stage presence. While the two of us are hardly antisocial, we’re also not going around seeking an audience. Meanwhile, the talent show was the highlight of our daughter’s pre-pandemic school year. All by herself, she choreographed and performed a dance routine to a song from the Descendants 2 soundtrack. She was truly wonderful, well beyond her 6 years, and although neither of us can relate, we couldn’t be prouder.

When we moved to Pasadena from the Westside in 2013, our daughter was months old and I’d just given up my magazine office job for full-time mothering. (We’ve since welcomed a son in 2016 and another daughter in 2018.) I started parent education classes right away. After the infant class, I took the one for preschoolers, and eventually elementary-age students. The Whole-Brain Child, co-authored by neuroscientist Daniel J. Siegel and Pasadena’s own parenting expert Tina Payne Bryson, became a bible, taught in every class for every age and stage. Child-rearing by the wisdom of neuroscience. While the perspective did wonders for helping us manage emotional little kids, I never imagined that years later I’d be looking to brain science to address signs of dyslexia in my second-grader.

Conversations with friends and even teachers about our daughter’s low test scores and academic resistance left me without answers. When she was in kindergarten, I’d assumed she couldn’t read because we came from a progressive preschool. In first grade, it made sense that she tore up her notebook because another kid was poking fun at her. What could be wrong? Our curious extrovert had been read to, socialized, and extracurricular enriched up the wazoo. But then distance learning began, and I could make no mistake. From my involuntary vantage as her unpaid teacher’s aide, I could see that the same girl who’d been thriving in dance and gymnastics class was in fact having a very difficult time in school. After opening up to my parenting class instructor, she suggested an hour-long cognitive test that swiftly filled the void of explanation.

Reviewing the results—which did not diagnose her but identified lagging skills such as auditory analysis and selective attention—felt disorienting. Hearing words like “dyslexia” and “attention deficit” brought a gut-punch of grief. Shock, denial, anger, and shame flared up as I became ravenous for information. I read articles and listened to podcasts such as Emily Hanford’s Educate. Hanford’s reporting on the “science of reading” exposes a gap between new brain research and literacy instruction. In her 2018 The New York Times op-ed, “Why Are We Still Teaching Reading the Wrong Way?” she writes, “While learning to talk is a natural process that occurs when children are surrounded by spoken language, learning to read is not.” But the thinking among educators remains largely that children will read naturally with proper access to books. Hundreds of studies have shown that more than exposure, many students require explicit, systematic phonics instruction to read proficiently. “You’ll hear teachers telling kids to guess at words they don’t know based on context and pictures rather than systematically teaching children how to decode,” Hanford writes.

Following our daughter’s low test scores in September, our public school provided a small-group reading class with a specialist over Zoom. We debated a third-party tutor, but from what I understood, she didn’t need to read more—she needed to develop her parietal and occipital lobes and capacity for phonological processing. So we hired a cognitive trainer to, as we explained to our daughter, “make the muscles in your brain even stronger.” After months of one-on-one meetings multiple times a week, the strength of her brain muscles would be permanent. It’s been three months so far, and for the first time, she’s testing at grade level in reading.

With the help of nonprofit organizations like Made by Dyslexia, I’ve learned to reframe learning challenges as superpowers. I’ve heard stories about young kids who, instead of believing bullies who make fun of their slow reading, can articulate how their brains work and find acceptance from peers. My shame has faded into the acceptance of a genetic brain difference. Did you catch that? I’m saying that despite initial fears, these challenges are decidedly not my fault.

As capable as she is in after-school activities, where pre-COVID I daily sat and watched her succeed, our daughter was struggling in the classroom, where I just couldn’t see. There were reasons to think she didn’t need help. She’s bright, well-liked, and excels in plenty of areas. We could have missed it. She might have slipped, like many students, under the radar until junior high or high school, getting by, believing the bullies, and not understanding how her brain works. Through cognitive training, she knows how she’s smart and where she needs to work harder. This isn’t where we expected to be, but we see the path forward.

Local Resources

Accurately identifying and addressing learning challenges can be the key for children to become independent, successful learners. These local partners specialize in identifying and improving underlying cognitive abilities.

Center for Connection

This interdisciplinary center founded by bestselling author and parenting expert Dr. Tina Payne Bryson is “a place you can turn when you don’t know where to go. When your child is struggling—in terms of handling emotions, making good decisions, succeeding socially or educationally, dealing with physical or health limitations, or anything else,” says Bryson.

Stowell Learning Center

Since 1984, students have worked one-on-one with clinicians trained under founder and author Jill Stowell to become independent and empowered learners. The center’s customized programs help clients overcome dyslexia, learning differences, and attention challenges.

Stretch Your Brain Cognitive Training

This boutique firm draws on 20 years of experience to customize sessions for clients facing learning challenges such as dyslexia, ADHD, and memory deficits. Learning skills specialist Vicki Rekedal works to strengthen weak areas of the brain using results-driven programs including PACE, Master the Code, Brain Gym, and Sound Therapy.

LCPC Parent Education

An outreach program of La Cañada Presbyterian Church, Parent Ed has welcomed parents of all faith backgrounds since 1978. Classes expose parents to a range of parenting styles, often incorporating the latest in brain science, and are tailored to specific age groups from 0 to 18, so the curriculum is immediately relevant.

Vital Head & Spinal Care

The 12-week Vital Brain Training program guarantees significant, measurable, lasting results. Dr. Giancarlo Licata uses high-quality qEEG brain mapping and neurofeedback to identify and address challenges, including attention, anxiety, sleep, and memory. Clients sit comfortably in the center’s home-theater room and essentially play a video game while wearing a special cap fitted with sensors. As the brain responds to the visual and auditory feedback from the game, the brain trainer directs it to so-called Goldilocks frequencies, where people feel the most relaxed and lightly focused.

Book Brag

Despite dyslexia affecting an estimated 5 to 15 percent of students, Edinburgh, Scotland-based book publisher Barrington Stoke ( believes every child can be a reader. The independent, award-winning company hires fantastic writers like Julia Donaldson, author of bestseller The Gruffalo, to write dyslexia-friendly fiction that’s printed in a proprietary font on a particular color of paper to increase readability. Games and jokes decorate the first and last pages of the Little Gems series to get young readers laughing and excited to engage with the books even before they start reading.

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