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Dos and don'ts with children with LD

Is there a student with a learning disability in your child's class? Avoid these LD faux pas!

By GreatSchools Staff

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.

Words matter

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.

Playdate troubleshooting

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.

Homework pointers

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.

Comments from GreatSchools.org readers

10/19/2009:
"Why does it take having a child with an LD to make adults (teachers, other parents, family members) realize that children who are socially awkward or a step or two behind in a conversation are human beings too! Pardon my frustration, by my sweet tween is in a special day environment and is pretty isolated from typical peers. This year he will most likely not receive any playdate or party invitations and it is heart breaking. His future is pretty bleak both socially and academically. "
10/19/2009:
"The article states LD is a neurobiological condition--so when kids fail to learn it is a failure to teach? It is not the teachers fault the student has LD Students learn is like a pyramid. At the base which is broad are parents, next level is student (does he try, is he motivated to learn?) at the top of the pyramid is the teacher with the smallest area that has an affect on the student. Parents have the students longer than any teacher."
10/19/2009:
"I cannot agree more with the writer below. I cried when I read it as I face the same circumstances except my second child is a girl. It is amazing to have a second child that truly has more compassion, the gift of giving of herself, and being nonjudgemental when dealing with her classmates, classmates' parents, and 'few friends'. We as parents have an enormous influential contribution to the shape of our children's life and should realize that not everyone is 'normal'. I say to parents put yourself in this position and have your child learn how important is to extend themselves to children who may approach things differently. It is amazing to see how much they will truly get from the experience along with a 'true compassionate and caring friend'. "
10/19/2009:
"My first child was a typical kid. Though a little late with pladates, still was able to find friends easily. Second child came along, and I told myself, I would help develop her social skills early enough so I won't go thru some problems I went thru with my first. Second child has LD, it breaks my heart to see that even young children, can see how my second child is different. She is not a 'choice' among kids. One day, I even overheard a little kid commenting about her. I try to ignore it and just told my kid how lucky I am to have her and made her feel how special she is. And really, having her has opened a soft spot in my heart. I am a better person because of her. "
10/19/2009:
"Thank you for sharing your perspective. Although we have not yet encountered a child with LD in my daughter's class (she is just in 1st grade), I am sure in the future we will, and I will remember to be as inclusive as I would like people to be towards my child."
10/13/2009:
"Although this article is well written and spot-on about LD, if fails to demonstrate how parents of children without LD need to step up and play a role in being a kinder and more compassionate society. With my first child, I never took the time nor effort to fulfill playdates with children suffering from LD. I didn't feel the need, when there were so many other classmates to choose from that were much less work for me and easily available. Other parents, along with myself would speak in condescending tones and disapproval at the behavior of LD children and their parents. Worse yet, we would ignore them and not allow them to play with our 'normal' children. We certainly wouldn't initiate a playdate. Much of the time our children wanted to play with the child that had an LD, it was us that didn't want it. I'm sure deep down we were thinking we didn't want the 'bad' behavior to rub off on our 'perfect' children. I now realize how wrong I was in this pattern of thinking. ! You see, my second child is a child with LD. I now get to sit and watch as other mother's pull their children away and refuse to let their children have playdates with mine. I get to go to school functions where parents come up and say, 'So, this is the notorious *****'. I get to hear all the other mother's talk about their children's playdates with so-and-so, without even taking into consideration that they've never once asked for their child to play with mine. So day after day, my child plays alone, always asking when someone can come over or when he can go over to their home. It breaks my heart piece by piece and brings me to tears even as I type this. You see, my child intellectually is above average, my child is always happy and looks at the bright side of things and loves everyone, but he does hug too hard and speak too loud and almost always at the wrong time. He cannot sit for any period of time and has very little coordination for any type of sport. So soc! ially, he is below average and for this LD he is isolated. So! I ask...if you're a parent of a child that is 'normal', take the time to make a playdate with a child that is not and I guarantee you, it will bring you and your child much more goodness, compassion and life lessons than you ever thought possible."
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