My Pre-K Kid Only Knows 3 Letters, and I'm Freaking Out

Last week, I had one appointment on my calendar that I had been dreading for months. No, it wasn't my annual trip to my ob-gyn (note to self: schedule that) or even a date with my dentist. It was actually a meeting with a perfectly lovely woman — my 5-year-old son's preschool teacher. The catch was we were discussing his kindergarten readiness at this parent-teacher conference, and I knew it wasn't going to run even remotely as smoothly as any of the conferences I'd attended for his older sister.

In many, many ways, my now almost 8-year-old daughter is my more challenging child, but when it comes to school, she's pretty much a breeze — a fact that I've mostly given credit to my own genetic makeup (how naive we parents can be). I remember how self-righteous I was after her pre-K meeting three years ago. After humbly listening to the glowing review (she's acing every readiness test! She's practically reading already! She's going to be a kindergarten superstar!), I walked out with a smug smile on my face.

My parenting naivety was clearly showing.

Of course she was killing it at school. She was my daughter, and school was always my thing, too. Her annual assessments in grade school have been equally wonderful experiences, virtual love fests about her academic skills and wonderful personality. No joke, more than one teacher has told me she wished she had 20 students just like her in the classroom, and I've actually felt guilty about the fact that I'm so grateful that I only have one at home. Yes, she may be a dream student, but at home, she's kind of a nightmare.

Her brother is a completely different kid (much more like me in so many ways), so before he started preschool, I assumed he would be an equally, if not a more, enthusiastic and quick learner than his sister has continually shown herself to be. Again, my parenting naivety was clearly showing. My son likes school, but really only for its novel toys, games, and puzzles and myriad social and play opportunities. The actual learning part is clearly not his thing — not even a little bit.

This has become even more obvious in the last few months, as I've kept waiting for something to click, some developmental milestone he'd pass that would activate his inner stellar student. Instead, again and again, I've discovered that my child can't tell an A from an E. While he can tell you how to spell his three-letter name, and can even write it out with admirable penmanship, if you ask him what an M looks like (one of the letters in his short name), he's clueless. Flash cards, alphabet puzzles, videos, iPad apps, more patience than I've ever mustered in my life, and desperate begging seem to have no effect on his retention.

Instead, again and again, I've discovered that my child can't tell an A from an E.

Clearly, I knew that when it came to this kindergarten-readiness conference, I couldn't expect round two of what I'd experienced with his sister. His teacher didn't tell me that he magically knows everything at school that he seems clueless about at home. In fact, she suggested I look into additional resources and carefully teetered around the idea that "something else might be going on," not that she "wanted to freak me out." I was freaked out. No longer, I realized, could I wait around and hope he eventually got the letter and number concepts every other child in his age bracket seemed to be mastering. I needed to make a plan.

So that's what I did. He started one-on-one tutoring with another preschool teacher that we'll continue to attend once a week. We bought new videos and iPad apps and flashcards, hoping these would be the ones that would work. I started small, setting aside a few minutes, a few times a day to focus on just five letters. We'll wait until he masters those to move on to more. I mustered up even more patience. I set aside my sadness about the fact that he's struggling and tried instead to focus on small victories, like the continued recognition of that A (E, we're still working on).

He starts kindergarten in five months, and maybe everything will click before then. Maybe it won't. Maybe school will always be a challenge for him. But it's a challenge we're going to meet together.