Talking With Your Child About A Learning Difference

Scott, a fourth-grader, had been struggling with reading skills but otherwise was thriving at a small, independent school.  Based on the findings of a private educational evaluation, it was determined that Scott has a Specific Learning Disability and would likely benefit from  a different reading curriculum than the school normally provides.  The school recognized that their core reading program does not match everyone’s learning needs, and they decided to provide individual tutoring in a more compatible reading series.

Scott’s father, Joe, explained that he and his wife had “made up a little lie” to explain to Scott why he would be getting this extra tutoring.  “We told him that it’s not that he has a problem, but his teacher, Laura, is learning how to use a special reading program for kids who need help and he will be doing this to help her practice teaching  it.”  Joe wants to quietly “slip in” the extra help and not draw attention to The Problem.

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Joe is well intended but misguided, and he is missing a great opportunity to “talk the talk” of learning differences. He may not recognize or acknowledge it, but he is disappointed in his son.  He is worried Scott can’t or won’t learn to be a good reader and is afraid of what might be “wrong” with Scott. He insists, despite ample evidence to the contrary, that Scott doesn’t really know he is behind in reading and that they don’t want to make him feel different or dumb because he needs extra help.

Caring parents and teachers all too often worry about “labeling” a child with a problem while failing to realize that the student himself already has done so. Younger students in that situation tend to conclude that they are “stupid,” while older students may also decide that reading itself is dumb and so are the people who keep talking about it. This is not the healthy and constructive language or thought that helps students succeed.

How To Talk To Your Child

  • Scott needs direct acknowledgement of the challenges he faces. He needs to know that his parents know that he finds reading hard and that they are not disappointed in him.  He will be happier if he feels that the adults in his life understand that when he gets a B on a spelling test, he may have worked twice as hard for that as his friend who easily got an A.
  • Joe can support Scott by talking about what a great teacher Laura is and how she can help him be a better reader.  He can emphasize what a fortunate opportunity it is to get this help and still acknowledge that the extra tutoring can also be a drag when it takes away from other activities.
  • Scott’s parents can enlist his support by acknowledging that Scott will likely have to put more effort forth than his peers. They can in turn reward the extra commitment and sacrifice and emphasize that it is Scott’s effort that is most valuable and their greatest source of pride.

Contemporary educators now have enough experience to know that students with specific learning disabilities have just as much potential for life-long success as students who do not face the same challenges.  Teachers and parents do not need to be afraid of “labels” in the way we once did when learning differences were much less understood.  Instead, we need to strive to understand specifically the strengths and challenges in a student’s learning pattern.  Then we need to engage in an ongoing dialogue with students about their job, the tools they have to do it with, and how they can best tackle what is hard.

When we are able to speak with students about that process in a nonjudgmental way, sure of their strengths and interested in their challenges, they gain confidence.

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