“I learn differently.”

Three small words that can make a world of difference for kids like me who grew up struggling with learning issues.

Sounds simple enough, right?

Wrong.

If your child has a learning disability, getting her help—working with the school to get an effective IEP—is the first thing on your mind. But helping her get comfortable talking about it is also important. And for a lot of kids, opening up isn’t as easy as it sounds.

Why your child needs to speak up

Without context, the symptoms of LD can look like laziness or disobedience, and, more often than not, that means kids find themselves being disciplined rather than helped.

I have ADHD and dyscalculia. As a kid I was dreamy, disorganized, and really (really) bad at math. I doodled during class and regularly missed homework assignments. On the other hand I was also smart, talkative, and good at writing. The discrepancy made my weaknesses seem willful.

“I was in trouble all the time,” agrees Kaitlin, a 16-year-old high school student with ADHD and auditory processing issues. “I was afraid to tell them what was going on with me, so they just thought I was a bad student. It seemed like I didn’t care about doing well, which wasn’t true.”

Kaitlin’s mother was working with the school to get her the accommodations she needed, but Kaitlin was still uncomfortable talking about her learning disability.

“It took time for me to open up, but in my second semester of 9th grade I started telling my teachers that I had learning difficulties and right away things got a lot better,” she says. “For the first time, they saw that I really was trying, even if it didn’t always seem that way, and I got the help I needed.”

How to help kids open up

When you’re a kid who’s struggling to stay afloat, drawing attention to yourself can feel scary. If your child is reluctant to open up about her learning needs, doing a little groundwork at home can help get the conversation started.

  • Assess readiness: Some kids, especially younger ones, might not be ready to speak up, and that’s okay! You can model good advocacy skills by talking with your child (and letting her see you talk to others) about learning differences frankly and comfortably.
  • Ask and listen: If your child is uncomfortable talking to others about her learning issues, have a talk about what’s bothering her. She may be feeling embarrassed or ashamed of being “different.” Take this as an opportunity to reassure her and talk through her fears or doubts. She’ll feel better and you’ll have the information you need to support her emotionally, as well as academically.

What to say to teachers: 

Once your child is feeling comfortable and you’re confident she’s got a strong understanding of her LD, help her get her message across clearly with these pointers:

  • Name your LD: Even though teachers should have the information, it’s good for a child to get in the habit of naming of her learning difference—for example, “I have auditory processing disorder”—so there is no confusion.
  • Be specific: Not all kids with learning issues are the same, so encourage your child to spell out the ways her LD affects her personally: “It’s hard for me to hear when there’s a lot of background noise, so sometimes I miss parts of the lecture.” Knowing what has worked for her in the past—and what hasn’t—will give teachers a head start on providing the best support.
  • Talk about strengths, too: Encourage your child not to just recite a list of things she’s “bad” at, but to talk about things she’s good at, too, and her interests. This will not only boost her self-esteem, it will help the teacher place her in activities that allow her to demonstrate her strengths.
  • Express enthusiasm: Sometimes learning issues can make it hard for others to see how passionate kids are about succeeding in school. Expressing enthusiasm and interest in doing well will help your child turn her teachers into allies.
  • Tell on yourself: If your child has habits or strategies she uses to manage her LD that don’t necessarily look like what they are, encourage her to let the teacher know. For example: I pay attention best when my hands are occupied, so I used to draw all through class. I heard every word, but to my teachers I looked disinterested and bored. Once I learned to let teachers know why I was doodling, they knew I was paying attention, even if it didn’t always look like it.
  • Test drive: When she feels ready, go over what she’s going to say a few times at home. This way you can be sure she’s sharing useful information and give her a chance to practice in a safe, non-judgmental environment.
  • Provide back up:  Talk to her about how she’ll handle situations that are less than perfect. And if she’s not getting the accommodations she is entitled to, agree that she’ll tell you about it right away. This way you can provide comforting, positive feedback, and make a time to talk with the teacher and the administration if you need to.
  • Start small: If she’s feeling nervous, encourage her to pick one person she feels comfortable with—a favorite teacher, camp counselor, or even a family friend, as a “test” candidate she can practice on.
  • Provide back up:  Talk to her about how she’ll handle situations that are less than perfect. And if she’s not getting the accommodations she is entitled to, agree that she’ll tell you about it right away. This way you can provide comforting, positive feedback, and make a time to talk with the teacher and the administration if you need to.

Help your child talk to peers, too

“I didn’t really learn to talk about my ADHD until college,” says Lauren, who struggled with learning issues throughout middle and high school. Looking back, she feels strongly that finally having a community of LD/ADHD-friendly peers was what helped her to open up.

“I ended up at a school where other students had learning issues and talked about them!” she says. “For the first time I had friends who spoke openly about having LDs. Finding out I wasn’t alone made me feel more comfortable talking about my ADHD. Now I’m more forthcoming. It’s almost like a disclaimer: ‘You’ll have to be ok with this part of me if you want to be my friend.’ ”

For many kids who struggle with the stigma of learning differently, finding out that other kids they like and respect also struggle with learning issues boosts self-esteem and helps bust stigma. It was huge for me.

We all have, somewhere, a list of things we wish we could tell our younger selves. It’s going to be okay. You don’t have to change to fit in. Your hair looks great. I promise!

But if I had to pick just one thing to tell my past self it would be this: 

Speak up about your learning issues. Do it loudly and often. Don’t be scared. You won’t be sorry.

As a parent though, you don’t need to be a time traveler to help your kids develop the confidence to advocate for themselves. Just pass the message on. You’ll be giving them the tools they need for a brighter, better future.