Finding support and understanding
Families of students with learning differences join togetherParents Education Network
Like all parents, Stu Shader wants his children to be happy and thrive. He and his wife worried as their elder daughter struggled in school during her primary grades, yet he also had a sense of déjà vu. Though now a successful global sales account manager for Microsoft, Shader also found academic work challenging. He remembers that his parents tried everything they could to help him, but despite being identified as a gifted child, he barely graduated from high school. When both of Shader’s daughters were ultimately identified as dyslexic, his school memories began to make sense. He realized that he too is dyslexic.
When his daughters moved to a school that could effectively address their learning differences, Shader heard about an organization called the Parents Education Network (PEN). Like him and his wife, and his parents before him, parents of children with learning differences often feel frustrated and alone. So do the children, as they find themselves in an environment where they are often labeled as unintelligent or unable to learn. In reality, there is evidence that the opposite may be true, and the list of successful entrepreneurs with learning disabilities range from Henry Ford to Richard Branson to some of the biggest names in tech.
Shader’s commitment to assist parents and their children in finding help motivated him to become a volunteer board member of PEN. Microsoft has backed his commitment to PEN through training to help him become an effective nonprofit board member, event sponsorships, use of Microsoft facilities for gatherings, matching funds, expert help with organizational challenges, and paid volunteer time.
Microsoft has also supported Shader himself to become an even more effective employee by providing him with tools to manage the challenges that face an individual with dyslexia. And with Shader’s help, the company now presents an annual neurodiversity conference to help educate other Silicon Valley-based companies about how to bring forth the best in their employees.
“It’s not that people with learning disabilities can’t learn. It’s just that they don’t learn in the traditional way that we teach in school.”— Laura Maloney, Executive Director Parents Education Network
It’s estimated that up to 20 percent of individuals have some form of learning difference or attention issue. PEN’s primary focus is on dyslexia and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, though dysgraphia (difficulty with written expression) and dyscalculia (which makes it hard to make sense of numbers and math concepts) are other common issues.
Accommodating learning differences in a school setting can require resources, and effective communication between parents and educators is vital for focusing attention on the students’ needs and experiences. PEN’s executive director Laura Maloney makes it clear that “It’s not that people with learning disabilities can’t learn. It’s just that they don’t learn in the traditional way that we teach in school.”
Established in 2003, PEN’s programs help parents, educators, and students become more informed around learning and attention issues: Parents benefit from the understanding and experiences of other parents and experts; educators learn how to teach students with learning differences; students find community with other youth experiencing the same issues and learn to advocate for themselves in educational settings.
Maloney, who like many parents of children with learning differences has them herself, reports that PEN is most successful with creating a face-to-face community for parents to feel supported as they and their children deal with these invisible obstacles. “I did not want my kids to hate school. I knew they were smart and I wanted them to enjoy the experience of being in school.”
Shader’s heart lies especially with the students who are associated with PEN, and he’s devoted time and funds to further developing youth groups and gatherings. “I remember being confused, ostracized, left out … not really understanding what was wrong, “he recounts about his school years. “I wish I’d had something like this to say, ‘This is our little pack, our little family, our little group. We can all get through this and work together.’ So it’s important to me. It’s really important to me.”
Throughout the year, PEN offers lectures and workshops across the Bay Area. School liaisons and support groups at both public and independent schools are established and maintained, and newsletters keep members up to date. Every April, PEN presents EdRev (Education Revolution), a national conference that attracts about 2,000 parents, students, and educators from as far away as Hawaii and Connecticut.
Tech can help
In 2016, Microsoft was the lead sponsor for the EdRev conference and introduced a new feature of OneNote that makes it possible to read content aloud—a very valuable element for individuals with dyslexia. Some employees developed the feature during their free time, and it won a company-wide hackathon competition.
Microsoft and others have been creating technology tools that help those with learning differences, but the same tools can be used broadly. For example, when Shader “came out” as dyslexic, Microsoft engaged a consultant to identify what would help Shader to better deal with reading and writing and manage dyslexia-associated short-term memory challenges. The speech-to-text software, screen reader, and recording device the company provided to help Shader are useful for many people in many contexts.
Technology is also key to PEN’s plans for growth. The success of the annual EdRev conference brings requests for PEN presence in other communities throughout the country, and a grant-funded strategic planning effort has produced a three-year, $3 million expansion plan. The organization’s growth will flow in part from enabling more virtual connections, and PEN’s participation as founding organization of the understood.org website of resources related to learning differences.
“Microsoft has so many ways to help a nonprofit that an employee can tap into.”— Stu Shader, Global Sales Account Manager Microsoft
Making the most of matching
“Microsoft has so many ways to help a nonprofit that an employee can tap into,” Shader attests. “There are all these resources available, and trust me, I have used every one of them!”
He also makes the most of Microsoft’s policy of paying nonprofits for every hour that an employee volunteers, and of the matching donation program. “I take my matching hours through the year, I match the total personally, and then Microsoft matches that so it becomes three X!” That brings an average of $20,000 per year to PEN. Maloney adds, “And I would say Stu’s time to us is priceless.”
PEN invites all parents of children with learning differences and parents who have learning differences themselves to become members and participate in events. Donations and volunteers to help with the EdRev conference fundraising are needed. And PEN encourages everyone with learning differences to share your story so that employers can help make the most of your talents. Visit parentseducationnetwork.org and understood.org to learn more.