“Just like our fingerprints, people are all different. It’s no surprise that we learn differently too.”
The above explanation is one that I often provide to young people when they are diagnosed as having learning disabilities. I also explain to them that most of the time, our schools teach the most common, and sometimes the most efficient, ways of learning. All children learn differently, and as a result, many children find learning or school challenging.
“What do I tell my child about their Learning Disability or ADHD?”
This common question is an important one. The best response a parent can give is to be honest with your child on a developmentally appropriate level. If you are not truthful, or avoid the conversation, your child may make other assumptions for why school can be difficult for him. He may assume that he is not smart, or she may think she is just a “bad kid.”
Oftentimes the labels that children give themselves when they don’t understand something are far worse than the truth. It is up to the child’s parents, caregivers, and teachers to help the child see herself positively and realistically, not as a failure or someone who is damaged.
By better understanding who he is, a child can better advocate for himself. Through this self-advocacy, the child may receive support, instead of redirection, shame, or even discipline. Without understanding the context of the child’s behaviors, the symptoms of LD or ADHD can look like laziness, misbehavior, or defiance to teachers or peers. Teachers, as well as other supportive people, need to understand what your child is going through. Once they understand, they can be part of the solution to help your child gain knowledge and self-assurance. There is no one better to explain your child’s struggles to other people than your child (with the help of their parent).
Here are some steps to help your child understand their Learning Disability, and move forward
Explain your child’s learning style to her in words she can understand
You can say, “You learn best visually and have a hard time sounding out new words. So, it can be hard for you to read quickly.” Or if your child has ADHD, you could say, “You are distracted by other sounds, or when other kids are silly or loud. It makes it hard for you to sit still.” Or, if your child is hyperactive or restless, “You have a hard time sitting still. You try your best, but sometimes, you need to move around.” Even the simple, “You are bright and you learn differently,” can be helpful to a child.
If your child is older, you may also want to read some books together that talk about ADHD or learning issues. Attitude magazine has a list of their ten favorites that you can look at here. The Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity also has some book suggestions here. Another great site (and my personal favorite) has a list of books for children with positive characters with Dyslexia. Many of these books are available on audiobooks through Audible (through Amazon) or Overdrive (through your public library).
Teach your child the correct name for her Learning Disability and how to explain it to others
You can teach your child to say, “I have Dyslexia, or I have ADHD.” You can teach her to explain that she may need to move more, or that she may need a less distracting spot in which to work. You can teach her how to approach a teacher at a quiet time, and let the teacher know that she is struggling with a reading or math assignment. You can let her know it is ok to let someone know. No student should have to struggle in silence with learning issues.
Talk about your child’s strengths
Help your child know about the things she’s good at, too. Affirm her interests. This will boost her self-esteem, and others will see her in a positive light. There are several strength areas that your child may have, such as intelligence, creativity, social skills, kindness, math, perseverance or “grit.” Explain to your child that she is more than her difficulties. She is a complete person with many wonderful traits. Be specific about these too. You can list these strengths out on paper, and hang them in a prominent place in your home. For example, you could list traits like, “I am great with riding horses. I have a good free-throw in basketball. I have two good friends. I have parents who love me. I love math and science.”
Talk to your child about your own strengths and weaknesses
Every person struggles in life, somewhere, sometime. Talk to your child about what goes well for you and what is hard for you. Most children with learning disabilities have a parent or relative with similar issues. If you can share this information with your child in a loving and simple way, it can be very helpful to your child’s self-concept and mental health. Most of all, your child will feel less alone, and it will help remind your child that everyone has learning differences.
Let your child know that learning disabilities are not an excuse to not use good effort
Many parents worry that if they tell their children about their learning disabilities, that the child will use them as an excuse not to work hard, or try their best in the classroom. It will be important for you to acknowledge to your child that they will work harder than others at times. Remind them that everyone works hard at times. Remind them that they will still need to use good effort, but that you will always be there to cheer them on, talk to them, and advocate for them. Remind your child that she will make it through this, stronger and braver for having gone through the struggle. Help your child to learn to be kind to themselves when they are struggling, and to use self-compassion when needed.
Help your child talk to peers or classmates
If your child is struggling at school, feeling different from other children can be embarrassing and shameful. It can be really hard to let others know that you are, in fact, different (although we all are). Sometimes, it helps to talk to the classroom teacher first, as s/he may be able establish an accepting and supportive environment for everyone to talk about learning differences. My son’s first grade teacher used to always say, “Perfect is boring,” which was a good message for many of her students to hear.
If your child is uncomfortable talking to others about her learning issues, ask what’s bothering her. Reassure her and talk through her fears or doubts. It can be helpful to talk to a therapist or mental health professional as well. She’ll feel better and you’ll have the information you need to support her emotionally, as well as academically.
If your child is bullied or teased for her learning differences, it is imperative that you talk to your child’s teacher immediately. Explain how brave your child is, and how she is trying to access a community of support. Schools have a no-tolerance policy for bullying, and it is important for teachers and staff to help advocate for students. Make sure your child knows that she can always come to you, and that you will work these issues through together.
Author: Cindy Anderson
Dr. Anderson is a Board Certified Clinical Child Psychologist. She also owns Hope Springs Behavioral Consultants. Dr. Anderson has achieved a high degree of specialization in working with children and families. She holds a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology and completed APA Accredited internship and postdoctoral training in Clinical Child and Pediatric Psychology. She prides herself as a life-long student and tries to learn something new every day.
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