Interview with Jessica McKee, PBIDA’s New President

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PBIDA Focus would like to welcome Jessica McKee as the new PBIDA President. Jessica is a licensed social worker and mother of five children, including a son with dyslexia. She resides in Montgomery county.


FOCUS: What has made dyslexia advocacy a primary focus for you?

Jessica: I have a child with dyslexia. I discovered how big of an issue it really is both in figuring it out for me and figuring it out for my child. I am a licensed social worker in Pennsylvania, but for a brief time I worked as a teacher’s aide in my local school district. I spent part of my time in my son’s class although I was helping another child. I witnessed firsthand the disconnect. I got to see the behaviors teachers didn’t understand and couldn’t relate to. My son was given timers to stay on task, punishments in the hall, and was told he wasn’t paying attention to his work. What he wasn’t given was research-based reading instruction. 

On the parent side, there are the IEP meetings. Preparing for an IEP meeting is the equivalent to working two full-time jobs. I felt I needed a law degree, a psychology degree, and an education degree just to get started. That’s when I realized how difficult this journey is for the most vulnerable people, the parents who can’t do all the research or who don’t feel comfortable talking to school administrators or don’t know where to begin. 

While schools are willing to tackle behavior problems head-on, they are not equipped or prepared to handle challenges like dyslexia. My experiences with my son have made dyslexia a primary focus. 


FOCUS: So far on your dyslexia journey, what has been your proudest moment?

Jessica: The Literacy is Freedom! Dyslexia Awareness Day Gathering at Harrisburg this past October. PBIDA co-hosted this event with Decoding Dyslexia Pennsylvania. That day we met with several legislators as well as the Acting Secretary of Education. I was so proud to have honorary heroes, the Dyslexia Dignitaries for a day, those who live with dyslexia daily and could share their stories with the over 100 people in attendance. We have to hold this event on a weekday while the state legislature is in session. This means that people may have to miss work and/or children would need to miss a day of school in order to attend. It is a valuable day and well worth it to miss normal, daily activities. It was a great day.


FOCUS: As a member of the PBIDA Board, what projects or roles interested you most?

Jessica: I began by helping with the conference. Then last year, I joined the Board as co-chair for the conference. That work made me more aware of both the needs of the dyslexic community and the needs of PBIDA in addressing those community needs. It’s too difficult to say what specific projects interest me the most because the needs are big, and it’s all important work in fulfilling our mission and vision. 


FOCUS: You founded The Literacy Alliance of Pennsylvania which states, “We believe the ability to read is the single most significant factor against trauma and difficulties learning to read should not result in emotional trauma.” This statement links dyslexia and emotional response. Many people, even people in education, don’t consider an emotional link. Can you explain this statement?

Jessica: Yes, failure to intervene appropriately causes emotional distress. Early on, my son decided he was stupid because of the messages he was given and the confusion he felt. While he is older, he has said he’s too stupid to go to college anyway. Despite my research and support, he has internalized those feelings over the years. Without question, for people who continually struggle, there is a negative impact on their trajectory in life. The failure in education settings to address the needs of students causes trauma. Literacy is a key to freedom, a chance to rise above, the ability to have hope, and a way to change circumstances.  


FOCUS: Should students with dyslexia be given a two-pronged approach to address both reading and emotions, or do you believe the emotional component will be addressed through effective reading instruction?

Jessica: Effective reading instruction is primary and will help students manage their emotions better. But there are those students who need additional support to develop adaptability and awareness. There are also students who need emotional support for reasons other than dyslexia.

Our culture takes for granted that talking about and recognizing emotion is part of growing up or is inherently known. Many times we assume that learning how to deal with emotions is a natural process and do not recognize the amount of modeling we do as parents or teachers, or the amount of explicit instruction we give to help children develop positive coping skills. However, maladapted adults have negative coping skills, which result in a variety of concerns and complications for children who live in environments where yelling and even violence are examples of how to cope with strong feelings. I am in favor of Social-Emotional Learning to help all students learn to recognize and verbalize their feelings and how to work with them in a positive way. 


FOCUS: If you could pick one main goal for your tenure as PBIDA President, what would it be? 

Jessica: My main focus for the year is continued growth and development.  PBIDA is already a strong organization, so I would like to continue to build on that momentum. One way to build our capacity will be to find more highly dedicated volunteers who can support the many projects PBIDA has. I intend to review our current infrastructure and assess our capacity with the goal of focusing on the continued growth of our many activities and events. I would like to find more highly dedicated volunteers who can support the many projects PBIDA has. I would also like to have a central goal that can help prioritize and organize activities and events. Christine has done an incredible job as President. I hope to build PBIDA to include more members who are as committed as she is.