In Their Own Words

THIS IS OUR STORY  //  by Jen & Mike Vrabel

THIS IS OUR STORY // by Jen & Mike Vrabel

I think I embarrass my son Carter by telling this story but I think it's important for people to hear it. I think it's important for other parents to feel like they're not alone, and for other kids to understand that having learning differences and needing extra help is ok. You're not wrong and it's not your fault, and no one should make you feel otherwise.

When I think all the way back to try to pinpoint where it all started, where this whole journey with Carter started, I remember he would never sit still to read a book. My older son, Tyler, loved to read books. But Carter would never sit still.

I noticed it but I didn't think anything of it at the time. I just thought he was active.

Later, we couldn't dismiss it. We knew there was a problem. It would manifest in his behavior. He would have these meltdowns when he came home from school. It was terrible. It literally looked like he was possessed.

It was first grade when we did some intervention and testing. The school he was in at the time was not good for him. Nobody had an answer. But more than that, they kept telling me everything was ok. But I knew it wasn't ok. They couldn't see him at home.

It would take 30 or 45 minutes to do basic homework. He would have a huge tantrum and then we'd have to calm him down. I understand why now but at the time we just thought it was behavioral.

We went through the ringer trying to address it. As parents, you just want to give your kids what they need to be successful.

He worked with a reading specialist in first grade. In the summer before second grade, we had him tutored by his future second grade teacher. We took him to the library, I don't even know how many days a week.

That summer, the teacher came to me and said he doesn't know his sounds.

Kids can memorize things but that doesn't mean they know them. Carter was trying to do what he thought we wanted by memorizing the things he thought he should know, but he wasn't learning.

Kids use phonic sounds to associate letters and letter combinations with words they read. If you don't know your sounds, you'll have trouble reading.

So we put him in a phonics program four days a week for twelve weeks. He wanted to kill me but he learned his sounds.

All the extra tutoring outside of school was helping but I was starting to get frustrated with the in-school aspect, feeling like Carter is just being pushed through the system.

It was becoming obvious that he just doesn't learn the same way as other kids. As his mom, I wanted to help him but I didn't know how. No one could tell me how, and he couldn't either. He couldn't vocalize specifically what he was having trouble with because he was so young.

He was scoring low on standardized tests but the school would just send the test scores home. There were no one-to-one conversations about why this was happening. No one seemed to want to get to the root of the problem.

I sought out every program I could possibly find. I wanted anything that would work. I was desperate to help him.

Carter hated me. He didn't understand why I was making him do all this extra work. He didn't understand what I was trying to do, that I was just trying to help him.

All of third and fourth grade, we worked different reading programs. We just wanted something to stick. Everything helped a little bit, but never enough. It was never enough to get him back on track, to where he was supposed to be, where I knew he could be.

One thing I've come to know and accept is that learning differences are so misunderstood – by parents, by other students and even by educators.

Teachers either love Carter or despise him. There's no in between. I think it's because it's really hard to understand him.

At the end of one school year, I had another mom come up to me and say: "I've wanted to tell you this but I didn't know how. My daughter came home every day from school and said that she couldn't believe how mean her teacher was to Carter. It upset her so much."

It's so easy to react to kids who are acting out. All along he thought he was the kid people didn't want in his class because that's how some of his teachers made him feel. That kind of thing really affects your confidence and your belief in yourself and what you can do.

Once he feels like he has an advocate, he thrives. The problem is that there aren't enough of those people, of those advocates. It's a safety net for kids to know that people are accommodating them. Knowing they have a resource or an advocate or a solution is a security blanket. It lets you focus on what you're supposed to be doing instead of your anxiety.

Sixth grade was the first time I felt like his school was accommodating him in a way that was conducive to learning.

He started to realize that he could do this; he just needed to learn a little differently than his peers. His teachers were really accommodating with his test taking, which was and still is one of his biggest challenges.

Things regressed a bit when Mike got the job with the Houston Texans. Texas didn't honor any of Ohio's testing so we had to redo everything. They diagnosed him with a math learning disability and anxiety.

We really regressed that year with the move and all of the change associated with moving. Our whole life was sitting with Carter and begging him to do his homework every night. It was our whole life.

Our whole family just reacted to Carter. My older son Tyler was just floating out there. It wasn't a healthy dynamic but at the time we were so focused on helping Carter.

Finally, in eighth grade, he took a test that pinpointed his learning differences. It was so crucial to get that information before high school. But just because you have the right information doesn't mean its smooth sailing. Implementation can be just as difficult.

When he started his freshman year, he had the meltdowns again. He wouldn't use the learning center because he didn't want people to know he needed extra help.

He was almost failing school. It was overwhelming enough to be in high school and he didn't want to seem different by accessing the resources he needed to succeed.

I called the learning center behind his back. I called them and I said: "Don't tell him I'm calling you but he needs help and he needs to figure this out. He needs to be his own advocate."

That's what I've tried to do throughout all of this is teach him how to be his own advocate. I want to make sure that he can advocate for himself and his success when I'm not around.

When Mike got the job here in Nashville, the transition was so easy. His school has been so accommodating and it's so healthy for him.

We have the regular teenage struggles but he's in such a good place now. When he gets behind or he gets a new teacher, he still gets some anxiety and stress. But we're worlds away from where we started. I've even started to get positive emails. I used to only get emails telling me he had detention or he had some sort of issue.

If you're the parent of a child that struggles, you know what it takes. They're stubborn and anxious and when he's in the middle of his anxiety, there is no reaching him.

Going through this with Carter, I just wonder how many kids fall into the category at school where they're labeled as having behavior problems, when it's really a learning difference.

That behavior labeling doesn't allow you to get to the root of the problem. As a parent with a struggling child, that's all you want.

I remember at one point, really in the thick of trying to address his challenges, I got a call from the guidance counselor at one of our schools in Ohio. She was basically telling me to knock it off. I was trying to be an advocate for my son because I wanted him to get what he needs.

My message to parents who have kids with learning differences is to talk about it. You'll be surprised how many people are in the same boat as you. That's how I found the best resources for Carter, through other parents.

I don't shy away from the fact that Carter needs extra help and he needs extra accommodations. Unless you put yourself out there, people can't help you. The biggest thing you can do is teach your kid to advocate for themselves. I'm not at school; I can't tell him how he learns. Only he knows how he learns best.

I always relate it back to football when I talk to Mike. I tell him it's like expecting offensive linemen to run the same conditioning test as the defensive backs, and for them to make the same times. You just can't expect that. You have to put people in a position to succeed and set realistic expectations.

Mike was still playing in the NFL when we were in the thick of it with Carter, so he was really present in Carter's struggles.

Now that he's coaching, sometimes it's hard for Mike to shut that off when he comes home. He has really high expectations for his players and it's hard for him to taper that when it comes to his kids. So that's something we've worked on, too.

He's always made it a priority to be present. He would do crazy, ridiculous things with his schedule to see even just ten minutes of Tyler's football games or Carter's baseball games.

This long road and long struggle, I think, has ultimately made us stronger as a family.

Those early years really affected our entire family dynamic. It got to the point, we didn't even realize it, but Tyler had no coping skills. He would just leave the house or leave the room when Carter was having a meltdown.

The low point was reaching out to a family counselor. We thought it was just for Carter but it was for all of us. We had no idea how much we would get out of it as a family.

The counselor helped us write a family contract so we made expectations really clear and we made consequences really clear. That was so important for our family.

I also recognized that I put everything on myself. I felt like I was a bad parent. I realize now that's not the case. I'm doing the best I can for my kids and it's their responsibility to take what I give them and be advocates for themselves and make good decisions.

Overall, Carter has grown up and he's becoming more independent. He has his driver's license now.

Tyler is doing really well at Boston College. High school just wasn't his thing. I think that's why it wasn't as hard as I thought it would be sending him off to college. He was so ready.

He's blossoming into his own person now that he's up there and he has his independence. Tyler is just free now to be who he wants to be and find his own way.

I want that same thing for Carter. If I'm being honest, I am nervous about college for him. A huge part of getting into college is standardized testing. But I'm trying not to worry about that until the time comes.

As much as it breaks my heart, and Mike's heart, I don't tell him we're worried about that. You don't want to see your kids struggle but I have hope. He's learned so many life skills through this struggle.

He learned at a really young age that not everyone is the same. Some people struggle and some don't and it's ok to be the one that struggles. It doesn't mean there's something wrong with you; it just means you need to do things a little differently.

Carter has learning differences but it's not my fault. And it's not his fault. It's just our reality.

Mike Vrabel

This is Our Story // The Vrabel Family