En español | In October 2014, we launched Understood.org, a website devoted to providing resources and support to the parents of children with learning disabilities. Three and a half years later, we assist more than two million individuals each month, including parents, grandparents and even teachers themselves in meeting the educational needs of these kids.
The problem we’re trying to solve
One in five children have brain-based learning and attention issues, such as dyslexia and ADHD. These issues aren’t related to intelligence, yet far too many of them experience failure early in school, lose self-esteem and begin a downward spiral that lasts a lifetime. Their high school graduation rates are lower than average, and they’re twice as likely to end up in prison or unemployed than typical students. Unfortunately, families can unintentionally contribute to the problem. They don’t know the signs of these issues, and as a result, they don’t know how to advocate for their children and make sure that they get the help they need. From research and experience, we know the difference that confident and capable parents, grandparents and other adult caregivers can make in the lives of these 1 in 5. We created Understood.org to provide parents with state-of-the-art technology, personalized resources, free daily access to experts, a secure online community and practical tips for raising children with learning and attention issues. By raising awareness, providing support and empowering families at an unprecedented scale and depth, we aim to help unlock the strengths and potential of 20 percent of the U.S. population.
The moments that sparked our passion
Both of us dedicated our 40-year careers to teaching children with learning disabilities, Kristy as the head of Churchill School and Center in New York City, and Mark as the founding headmaster of Eagle Hill School in Greenwich, Conn. After retiring, we both received a surprise dinner invitation from Fred and Nancy Poses, who had established a charitable foundation to help children with learning and behavior challenges. They asked if we’d like to help families who couldn’t afford to send their children to schools like ours. As educators who had devoted decades to helping thousands of kids and their families, this was music to our ears. We jumped at the chance. The next thing we knew, we were working with their foundation staff to form a vision of free comprehensive, personalized digital resource geared to these parents. Three years later, Understood.org was born
Advice to others who want to make a difference
If an opportunity that you’re passionate about presents itself, jump on it. If you feel daunted, or need help, don’t be afraid to ask. You’ll find lots of people happy to join in, including people with expertise in the field who are thrilled to provide information and hold your hand throughout the entire journey. When we launched understood.org, we didn’t know how far it would go. We thought we had a good idea, and obviously had a great number of resources behind us, but we never envisioned we’d have 2 million global users each month. Sometimes, you just have to take a leap of faith and go for it. You never know, especially in the beginning, what will happen. In our case, the results were truly beyond our wildest dreams.
The struggles that shaped our lives
At a very young age, Kristy was diagnosed with dyslexia and dysgraphia (trouble writing) and struggled with reading and writing all through her school years even though she was a very bright, verbal child. She was very fortunate that her parents were dedicated to her success, and got her the support she needed so that she could go on to college and eventually a master’s in education from Columbia University. Mark has always dealt with attentional issues. He was never given a formal diagnosis, and unlike Kristy, he never faced challenges in school because he always found coursework easy. His struggles instead appeared when he moved into the professional world and was faced with more complex organizational tasks. He has a lot of trouble staying focused, and even today constantly scrambles to meet deadlines. As a result, both of us have always recognized and appreciated difference. We believe that our diverse world is made up of people who learn differently, and that everyone should be respected and given the same opportunities.
Why our approach is unique
Traditionally, when a child shows signs of struggling at home, with friends, or at school, parents are often told “she just needs to try harder” or “he’ll outgrow it.” But in reality, she’s already trying very hard, and he won’t be able to outgrow a brain-based issue such as ADHD. Parents are embarrassed, and feel alone. They don’t know what to do or where to turn. To make it even trickier, many of these kids have a combination of learning and attention issues. Even the most well-intentioned school can have difficulty identifying the right set of supports.
We’ve really democratized knowledge, resources and access to experts previously available to few. A small minority of parents with vast financial resources can hire tutors and coaches and send their children to expensive specialized private schools. But for the vast majority, daily life can be sad and frustrating as they watch their kids struggle at home and in school. When we spoke to these parents, we quickly learned that many were overwhelmed by the jargon used by so many experts in the field. They wanted the most up-to-date, cutting edge information, but in easy-to-understand, accessible language. We’ve given them exactly that. We’ve partnered with fifteen learning nonprofits, all with different strengths and capabilities. We have dozens of the field’s leading educators, psychologists, researchers, physicians and advocates to answer parent questions and provide support.
At Understood.org, we also make clear that we’re telling parents what they can do, and never what they should do. We respect the fact that they — and only they — truly know their child, and that they are one of the most important influences on them. These parents have often already been unfairly judged and stigmatized by others. We want them to feel empowered, not lectured to. We’ve also kept in mind that some of our parents may also have learning and attention issues themselves. Understood.org was designed with the best practices of Universal Design for Learning (UDL). It works equally well on computer, tablet or smartphone, and is available in English and Spanish, both with read-aloud mode.