How to Help Kids Talk About Learning Disabilities
Sometimes opening up about learning differently is hard, but with practice, the rewards can be huge
Clinical Expert: Angela Dewey, PhD
What You'll Learn
- Why is it important for kids to talk about learning disabilities?
- Why is it hard for kids to talk about learning differently?
- How can parents help kids speak up?
“I learn differently.” Three small words that can make a big difference for kids with learning issues. Sounds simple, right? Wrong.
When kids are struggling, speaking up can feel scary. To outsiders, the symptoms of learning issues can look like laziness or acting out. And kids who need help often end up in trouble instead. Helping kids talk about their learning differences can help. But many kids may feel embarrassed or ashamed of not being able to learn the way other kids do. Or just not know where to start or what to say.
You can model speaking up by talking with your child, and to others, about learning differences openly. Help kids get comfortable by talking through any questions, worries or fears they have. Then work together to come up with some conversation starters they can use: “Sometimes I look like I’m not paying attention, but…”
It’s good to help kids get comfortable saying the name of their learning difference — for example, “I have dyslexia” or “I have auditory processing disorder”— so there is no confusion. Not all kids with learning issues are the same.
Help your child to understand and share how their learning difference impacts them. For example, “When there’s background noise I can’t hear the teacher.” If your child has habits or strategies that help them manage their learning difference, encourage them to let the teacher know. For example, “Drawing helps me pay attention.”
Encourage your child to share their strengths as well as their struggles. Talking about, and participating in, things they’re good at will boost self-esteem.
“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?
If your child has a learning disability, getting them help—working with the school to get an effective IEP—is the first thing on your mind. But helping them 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 their 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 their learning issues, have a talk about what’s bothering them. They may be feeling embarrassed or ashamed of being “different.” Take this as an opportunity to reassure them and talk through their fears or doubts. They’ll feel better and you’ll have the information you need to support them emotionally, as well as academically.
What to say to teachers:
Once your child is feeling comfortable and you’re confident they’ve got a strong understanding of their LD, help them get their 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 their 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 their LD affects their 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 them 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 they’re “bad” at, but to talk about things they’re good at, too, and their interests. This will not only boost their self-esteem, it will help the teacher place them in activities that allow them to demonstrate their 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 their teachers into allies.
- Tell on yourself: If your child has habits or strategies they use to manage their LD that don’t necessarily look like what they are, encourage them 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 your child feels ready, go over what they’re going to say a few times at home. This way you can be sure they’re sharing useful information and give them a chance to practice in a safe, non-judgmental environment.
- Provide back up: Talk to them about how they’ll handle situations that are less than perfect. And if they’re not getting the accommodations they are entitled to, agree that they’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 they’re feeling nervous, encourage them to pick one person they feel comfortable with—a favorite teacher, camp counselor, or even a family friend, as a “test” candidate they can practice on.
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.