“I have always loved working with children. It’s easy to be motivated if you have the knowledge of how to help, and you see a
“What I have learned is always be kind. You never know what people are going through.”
When Joyce Pickering was at Louisiana State University (LSU), she says she was fortunate to hear that there was a very new Speech-Language Department. “There, I found a field I love,” said Joyce as we chat in her beautiful apartment at The Tradition-Prestonwood Independent Living Community. Her decision to enter that field as a very young woman would eventually lead her to help thousands of children with learning differences, largely through her role as Executive Director, now Emerita, with the Shelton School in Dallas.
“Learning Differences.” The words sound very benign to those not affected or who don’t really understand what the words mean. But to children affected, many of whom are very bright, the results can be devastating. “Children with LD have processing differences that can cause them not to perceive the letters and sounds in words,” said Joyce. “The resulting poor achievement in school can lead to low self-esteem, and there is a higher risk of anxiety disorders, drug use and alcoholism in these students if LD is not diagnosed and treated.” Help, she says, can be life-changing.
Her path to helping such children was incremental as she gathered knowledge along the way. “After graduating from LSU, I moved to Natchez, Mississippi, where I was involved with speech and language pathology in public schools, traveling from school to school,” she said.
She received an offer to be trained to work with children with hearing and oral language impairments and set up a class in one school in Natchez County Public Schools. “After three years, parents came to me asking, could we have a class for children with dyslexia? I wrote for a federal grant for the new idea,” she said. “HEW (Health Education and Welfare) wanted to give a big grant, so I asked for $500,000 for three years, from 1967 to 1970.”
She got the grant—and the staff fell in place. “I think if it is meant to be,” said Joyce, “God will see that the right people turn up.”
The program was for children seven years and older as well as adults. “Everything was working so well, but the staff kept saying, ‘If we just had had them when they were younger, we could have helped them.’” They were able to do diagnostics, and they found that 20% had processing differences. That was one in every five children. Most, she said, were able to be remediated.
The third year, she was given another grant for preschoolers. Then came a monumental recommendation—to come to Dallas and see June Shelton, then at the Dean Memorial Learning Center for at-risk preschoolers. The center used the Montessori teaching method.
“I learned that I could combine the reading strategies used for dyslexic children with Montessori – a very individual approach. There was a lot of therapeutic analysis, and I had great mentors there,” said Joyce.
Next, she and her husband, Bob, worked together in education in Sao Paolo, Brazil, then in Mexico City. “I used the program with these children who were multi-lingual and multi-cultural. It worked beautifully.”
The big call came in June 1990 to come to Dallas to be Executive Director at the Shelton School. Her husband became the school’s Director of Finance.
“By then, June Shelton had started her own school, and when I came on board, there were 170 students, aged 3 to 13,” said Joyce.
Today, Shelton is pre-K through 12th grade, serves 1,010 children—and is growing. It is the largest such school in the world and is recognized globally as being unique.
But Joyce is more interested in the individual child than global recognition. She drills down, describing the process. “We go back to the beginning of letters and sounds. We start with the simplest combination, HAT, breaking language down into very small segments,” said Joyce. “The process is interactive, and the child can eventually see, read, write, spell—improve. We remediate the problem.”
In 2010, Suzanne Stell became the Executive Director of Shelton, with Joyce becoming Executive Director Emerita. Far from retiring, Joyce moved to Shelton Outreach, which she founded. She runs the Saturday and summer program for people who can’t afford the school or who live too far away. She also runs workshops and teacher training for Shelton teachers as well as others, who come from all over the United States.
What keeps her going? “I have always loved working with children, even when I was young. It’s easy to be motivated if you have the knowledge of how to help, and you see a life-changing event. Children go to school and don’t know why they aren’t doing well. I have had many children ask me, ‘Am I retarded?’ They are comparing themselves with other children. By Middle School, they are often depressed. Just one of those children is what drives me on. With the right help, lives will be different. Just knowing there is a reason for their learning differences and that others have those differences, too, is comforting.”
Joyce’s bio is multiple, single-spaces pages filled with professional achievements and awards. And at 84, she shows no signs of slowing down. “My work isn’t like work,” says Joyce with her calm and positive demeanor. “It’s just rewarding.”
Linda Faulkner Johnston – The Tradition
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