According to the National Institutes of Health, about 15 to 20% of Americans have a language-based learning disability, yet many parents of typical kids don’t quite know how to deal with children with LD. Even conversations with parents of kids with LD can go awry with a few badly chosen words. It’s hardly surprising. As prevalent as learning disabilities are in our society, they remain largely invisible. Unlike attention deficit disorder, autism, and other higher-profile conditions that also shape children’s success in the classroom, LD often flies under the radar.
While learning disabilities are neurobiological conditions that affect people’s ability to learn specific skills — such as reading, writing, and math — the effects often go beyond the classroom into the realm of daily social interaction. Children with learning disabilities may need special support in other areas of their lives — even at the park or a playdate at a friend’s house. Here’s a primer to avoid common LD faux pas and successfully interact with kids and their parents.
When talking about learning disabilities, avoid labels like “normal” as the opposite of LD. “Typical” is now the preferred word for the population without learning differences. People-first language also helps to avoid defining someone according to his or her disability — instead of “LD child,” say “child with LD.”
Learning differences usually mean teaching differences
One of the biggest mistakes parents commit when dealing with kids with LD is to inadvertently make them feel that if they are struggling to do something, it’s their fault. Rather than focus on the struggle, focus on how you are presenting the material or project. As Carol Barnier, a parent of a child with LD and the author of The Big What Now Book of Learning Styles, puts it, “The child’s failure to learn is a failure to teach.”
Whether you’re helping a child with homework or explaining a new board game, keep in mind that kids with LD tend to blame themselves for their cognitive differences. When tackling homework, take the time to explain concepts with concrete examples (show a pencil dropping to illustrate gravity) and lessons from the child’s own life (discuss immigration by talking about a grandmother moving from Mexico to the United States, for instance). Kids with LD can learn like gangbusters when the information is conveyed in a personal or visual manner.
When a child with LD visits your home, learn ahead of time about his or her particular strengths. You don’t have to micromanage the playdate, but if you notice your guest getting frustrated, anxious, or even angry, be ready to suggest another activity that will give the child a chance to excel. Avoid pressuring someone with LD to “come over and play with the others” or “help finish building the volcano for science class.” Due to social awkwardness, many kids with LD choose to play on their own. If they do join a group activity, it needs to be on their terms.
Besides their cognitive challenges, kids with LD often face big obstacles in friendships and social interactions. Years of failure in certain school subjects, coupled with teasing from classmates, can lead to an inferiority complex, depression, difficulty forming friendships, inappropriate behavior in groups, and other social issues. Kids with LD often endure frustration in the classroom that builds up over the day, only to explode after school with parents and friends. Angry outbursts often mask depression or other troubled states. Give the child constructive feedback and engage him or her in the process of solving the problem.
For reading-challenged kids, keeps lots of audio books on hand. Listening to a story instead of reading it (or listening while reading along) is a great way to stimulate a love for storytelling, which is the basis for a lifetime love of learning. Many children with LD are extremely creative, and audio books are a great way to stimulate their imagination without miring them in the frustration of trying to absorb information exclusively through the written word.
Parents of children with LD know that reading and other homework can be exhausting. So give kids lots of breaks (this is good advice for all kids, actually). Fifteen minutes on, 15 minutes off, works in many cases. Alternating mental work with physical activity, such as throwing a ball or jumping rope, can also be beneficial.