2015 Youth Achievement Award

Educating Your Child About
Learning Disabilities

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By Marcia Brown Rubinstien, MA, CEP

We’ve all heard horror stories about giving children irrelevant information at inappropriate times. When your three-year-old asks where he comes from, he may actually want to know if it’s Connecticut or California. That explicit explanation you’ve been saving about “when two people love each other…” could be inappropriate. As a parent, you must make sure that he has the right information at the right time so that he can navigate his world with confidence.

Timing is Everything

The same is true for information about learning disabilities. In the absence of another explanation, your child will assume that he is stupid if he stumbles when called on to read aloud in class, struggles to keep up with assignments, and sees that others need less assistance to learn. If you haven’t educated your child about his or her unique learning style before that happens, you’ve waited too long.

On the other hand, if you describe to your child all the cognitive difficulties that may develop from a particular testing profile, you may be creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. Your child may assume that he or she is incapable of learning anything, so why bother trying? In that case, you have disclosed too much too soon.

Is there a perfect time to inform your child about her learning disabilities? Of course. But the perfect time is different for every child, in every family, in every culture, in every setting, in every school, for every type of intellectual range, and for every type of learning disability.

Parents often agonize about telling a child that she has learning disabilities. But can you imagine not telling your child she has asthma because you don’t want her to feel funny using an inhaler to breathe?

Learning disabilities are just as real and just as disabling as biological differences. The sooner they’re remediated, the better the prognosis for a productive future.

So how and when should you begin to educate your child about her learning differences? The answer is simple: When you are ready, when she is ready, when the time is right, better sooner than later, never in anger, and always in an atmosphere of optimism and confidence. Following are tips to help you through the process.

Explaining Learning Disabilities
to Your Child

1. Recognize the signs that your child may have learning difficulties. After you rule out physical reasons that explain his behavior, have him evaluated by a learning specialist.

2. Educate yourself about your child’s assets and deficits before communicating the scope of the learning disability to her and other family members. Seek information from reliable websites, books, other parents, and professionals.

3. Reassure him that he’s perfectly healthy, then explain his specific learning disability in detail suitable to his age and intellect. If he has dyslexia, for example, you may want to say that his brain works differently when he reads. If he’s been mixing up his letters, point it out as an example of what happens with dyslexia.

4. Tell him how you’re going to get help. Reinforce the fact that you and all family members will do everything it takes to guarantee his success. Share some examples of successful people with LD. With older kids, prepare material for them to read and referrals to websites that explain their specific type of LD.

5. Explain tasks she’ll find easy to complete and ones that might provide challenges. Find support professionals to cover areas you cannot manage yourself. This includes emotional as well as cognitive issues.

6. Maintain an ongoing discussion about your child’s future. Discuss your expectations and hopes—and theirs. Make sure she knows that she can excel as long as she works hard. Don’t downplay the fact that there will be frustration along the way. Reinforce the fact that you and all family members will do everything it takes to help guarantee success.

7. Communicate clearly. Make sure your child understands everything you’re saying. Children don’t think like grownups. Self-esteem is often fragile in a child with LD. Make sure he can apply the information in proactive, upbeat ways. Compliment him lavishly and often, but make sure you mean it. Never give empty or gratuitous praise.

8. Get involved in your child’s school. There is no alternative for your active and obvious presence. You are the primary advocate for guaranteeing your child’s appropriate education. Make sure that the teachers and administrators know you and know that you are overseeing the optimal delivery of her entire school program. Don’t find out too late that accommodations were not carried out.

9. Tell your child at least once every day, “I love you.” This advice works well for kids without LD too, but for those with LD, it’s as critical as food and shelter.

There may be few things more difficult than having these important discussions with your child, but if you get stuck, keep going back to No. 9. It’s more important than all the others combined.