Behind the Smiles

For anyone with a child over the age of five, the rhythm of life eventually molds to the school calendar. “Next year” begins in August as kids don new clothing, their backpacks overflowing with fresh supplies. They pose for Back to School pictures their parents will splatter across social media saying “Third grade – where did the time go?”

Behind the smiles are some students where a new school year’s academic and social rigors may bring to light learning challenges. Struggling to complete homework, slipping grades and behavioral concerns are some of the clues parents notice.

Margaret Evans was trying to help another parent find resources when she suspected her son Candler needed help. As the curriculum became more demanding for 5th graders, she noticed Candler taking longer with homework and lacking critical thinking skills she expected he would have given his intelligence level. “It happened at the time they start writing essays and piecing out information. He would struggle to put things into words.” she said. “He was lost.”

The Language Group Unlocks the Magic
As many as 10% of children have a learning disability, according to Psychology Today. Left untreated, the difficulties continue to adulthood. Danielle Moore saw this first-hand growing up. Her otherwise capable and talented father struggled with key elements of his job, likely due to an undiagnosed language disorder.

Moore began what is now a 22-year career in Speech and Language Pathology, and is the Clinical Director of The Language Group. She describes their work as “unlocking the magic inside” of children who feel frustrated or sad because they haven’t been taught the right strategies.

The Language Group serves Atlanta area families and students who experience a variety of communication needs. With locations in Tucker and Roswell, they treat disorders in: Dyslexia and reading, language, auditory processing, executive functioning, ADD/ADHD and Autism spectrum or social communication.

“Sometimes the symptoms appear behavioral. A parent will ask a child to go upstairs, change their clothes, grab a book, and bring it down to read. They’ll then wonder why [the child] never returns down the stairs.” Moore said. “It could be the way they’re processing directions.”

Suspecting Something’s Not Right
Margaret Evans was correct, her son needed help. She turned to The Language Group three years ago. While there is still work to do, Evans said Candler has made great improvement. Most notably he’s gone from being a kid who needed someone with him “all the time” to help him with homework to working independently.

Jennifer Allred is a parent who came to Moore with diagnosis in hand and hope nearly gone. Since age two, her son Jack had been through several therapies to treat his speech delay and wasn’t making the progress Allred expected.
“I felt like he was getting everything there was to offer in terms of language, and he just wasn’t coming along,” she said. “We didn’t know what his future would look like. We didn’t know if we was going to be able to navigate the world on his own. We had a real fear.”

Jack is now 16 and has “graduated” from working with The Language Group. He earns A’s at school and participates in baseball, basketball and chess.

“My goal is to work myself out of a job with each client,” Moore said. “There’s no bigger compliment I get than hearing from a former client who’s now successfully enrolled in college and having them tell me they are using the study skills and learning strategies I taught them.”

The Cloverleaf School Champions Neuro Diversity
There is no going “back” to going to school for some children and families, as Kim Ryan knows well. When her son, Walker, was just over a year old, he began displaying symptoms that eventually led to a diagnosis on the autism spectrum. That was nearly 12 years ago. Since then, Ryan has known a way of life familiar to parents of children with neurally diverse needs – a relentless search to find a place that’s both safe and challenging for their children to learn.

Walker went through several public and private schools, some hits and others misses in terms of fit for his needs. Then Ryan found The Cloverleaf School.

The Cloverleaf School is a private K-8 school in Decatur founded by four families intending to serve a niche by providing rigorous academics in an environment that empowers neurally diverse children. The student-centered, whole body learning approach serves students with ADHD, Autism, Dyslexia and other learning differences.

The name and symbol of the school stems in part from a cloverleaf interchange, which co-founder Katherine McGee said is symbolic of the fact that everyone is coming to the school from different places and will leave to go in different directions, but are all in the cloverleaf together. She recounts a time when she and other families were struggling in another environment and one of them said, “We could start our own school.”

“We had found a few amazing teachers and knew our kids were capable of more,” she said. McGee is both a parent of a neurally diverse student and now serves as Admissions Director. They later learned that opening a school brought complications and logistics they had not considered. In the end, it was well worth the work involved.

Lost Stress, Found Safety
The search for schooling can be grueling and relentless for families. “There’s nothing quite like hearing your child is the most difficult a teacher has faced in 30 years and not knowing whether that teacher has the experience to know how to work with him,” Ryan said about a prior experience. “Our first year at Cloverleaf was spent helping Walker know he was safe at school. They are spectacular.”

School Principal Sharonda Frazier has seen the toll that something as simple as finding a place to learn can be for families. “Children and their families often have struggled before they find us. Some have been shunned, for others the stress of school has worn on them. What we hope they find here is a love of learning and that they carry that home with them.”

Rick Lockridge found what Frazier was hoping to deliver. He came to Cloverleaf after advocating for his son, Vance, in traditional settings for years. Lockridge credits the small class size (the school boasts a 6:1 student teacher ratio) and the commitment and enthusiasm of the administration and teachers for the success Vance experienced at Cloverleaf. Lockridge said where just going to school was once difficult, at Cloverleaf, “Vance became attached to the teachers, and they became his allies.”

Where Are You Going?
The school motto is Quo Vadis? which means “Where are you going?” The intent behind it, according to McGee, is not to pre-define or limit the potential of neurodiverse children – socially or academically.

“The story isn’t written for these students,” McGee said. “We don’t have a pre-determined course for them based on their diagnosis. We want them to be as prepared as possible for their next setting. Some leave for a typical setting, others for another specialized school. While they are here we want to give them strategies for life: self-regulating, self-advocating and finding the right way to ask for and get what they need.”
McGee describes the approach as “supportive but realistic – we meet them where they are and have high but reasonable expectations for them.”

In addition to traditional academics and rotating extras such as art, yoga and gardening, the school day always includes a social skills lesson. Here discussions center on how conduct affects the way others think about us and the way we think about ourselves. Lessons vary from how to join a group to being a social detective and understanding the reasoning behind the way we do things. Students take these social skills to the outside world in their community connections where they experience art, nature, and even do volunteer work.

Students are also offered a sensory diet to fit their needs. That could be a quiet place free from stimulation, headphones to cut down noise, or sensory breaks for movement seekers.

Every year the students focus on the core values of the school with lessons, activities, and celebrations. The foundation of the school is to empower these students to become even more capable, connected, considerate and creative.

“It’s our job to believe in these kids,” Lockridge said. “We finally found [in Cloverleaf] someone who was willing to fight for them. It’s a massive undertaking, like chipping away at an iceberg with a shrimp fork. But what I learned was there is a common-sense model that will work when you figure it out.”

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Find The Language Group at or call 404.477.9400