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Learning Disability Diagnosis and English Language Learners

How parents can help kids get the right support

Writer: Gia Miller

Clinical Expert: Daryaneh Badaly, PhD, ABPP

en Español

Lots of children are diagnosed with learning disabilities (LDs). A diagnosis is important because it helps kids get the right support from their schools and find ways to learn that work for them.

However, English language learners (ELL students) sometimes receive incorrect or incomplete LD diagnoses. That’s because they’re learning English at the same time as other school subjects, so it can be hard to determine the cause of any learning difficulties.

If your child is an ELL student and has been diagnosed with an LD, here are some tips to help you make sure their diagnosis is correct and support them going forward.

How to get an accurate evaluation

If the school suspects that a student might have an LD, they will conduct an evaluation. For ELL students, there are several questions that evaluators should ask, including:

  • Has the student always struggled in school?
  • Is this the first time the student been taught in English?
  • Do the sounds in English exist in the student’s native language?

“To prevent a misdiagnosis, parents need to be involved in the evaluation process,” says Daryaneh Badaly, PhD, a neuropsychologist at Child Mind Institute. “They need to provide the evaluator with important information about their child, including their educational history, language history and family history of disabilities.”

You can also tell the evaluator about any cultural differences that might affect testing. “For example, not all Spanish dialects are the same,” says Dr. Badaly. “If they use a test created for someone with a different dialect or cultural background, then results could be incorrect.”

If your child is diagnosed with an LD, you will be invited to attend an IEP (Individual Education Plan) meeting where you will join teachers and specialists to discuss which special education services your child should receive. These services are different from ESL (English as a Second Language) instruction, which help them learn English. A special education teacher will address your child’s specific disability and help them learn in a way that works best for them.

Even if you are undocumented or in the United States on a special visa, your child still has a legal right to special education services and supports at school.

How to know if your child has been misdiagnosed

Sometimes, children can receive the wrong diagnosis. ELL students struggling because of a language barrier are sometimes mistakenly diagnosed with speech delays and/or language disorders.

Some signs that your ELL student might not have an LD include:

  • They have always done well in school when taught in their native language.
  • This is the first time their teachers have expressed concerns.
  • They do not have any challenges speaking or understanding their native language.

On the other hand, some signs that your child’s challenges are due to an LD include:

What to do if you think your child has been misdiagnosed

If you think your child has been misdiagnosed with an LD, begin by talking to their classroom teacher. Ask them what they’ve noticed and if they believe your child has been misdiagnosed. If you’d like to request another evaluation or have questions about what services your child should receive, ask the teacher who you should contact. You can also talk to a school counselor, ESL teacher or special education teacher.

“Follow your instincts,” recommends Myriam Alizo, a manager at SPAN Advocacy Network, which helps immigrant parents of children with disabilities. “If you think your child was misdiagnosed, received an incomplete diagnosis, or has a disability but they didn’t receive a diagnosis, you have the right to ask the school for a free independent evaluation to make sure the initial one was correct.”

Another option is to pay for an evaluation yourself, but before you do that, discuss your plans with the school. “If you decide to pay for an independent evaluation yourself, the school doesn’t have to accept it,” says Alizo, “so ask them if they will accept it before you go forward.”

How to support your child at home

If your child does have a learning disability diagnosis, you may be worried that they will always be behind in school or feel left out. But with the right support, children with LDs can excel like anyone else.

“All children learn differently and no doctor or professional can tell you what your child will or won’t be able to do when they get older,” says Alizo. She says that some brains are wired differently, like the difference between an iPhone and a Samsung — they do similar things, but they have different wiring inside. “Although children with learning disabilities will have difficulties in the beginning, when the right supports are provided they can really thrive and conquer the world.”

Supporting your child at home can help, and you don’t need to speak English fluently to do that. “Let your child know you understand that this is really hard for them and help them a little at a time,” Dr. Badaly advises. “For example, you can build their love of reading by reading to them in your native language or work on their math skills when you are grocery shopping.”

If you’re not sure what to do, don’t be afraid to ask for help. “At the IEP meeting, ask for training on how to help your child with homework, manage their behaviors or create structure at home,” Alizo recommends. “You can also look for reading and literacy programs in your community and sign up for one together or join your school’s special education parent group.”

Your active involvement will help your child get the support they need now and in the future.

This article was last reviewed or updated on October 30, 2023.