By Leslie Lingaas Woodward
Parenting a child with learning difficulties can be a lonely journey. It can sometimes feel like there are two worlds: the one that other moms and dads at your child’s school inhabit, and the isolated and often frustrating one you live in.
One thing that has helped me overcome this sense of isolation is the parent support group at my daughter's private school. This eight-year-old group has introduced me to a community of parents who, like me, are grappling with how to help their children succeed in school despite their learning difficulties.
The group offered a lifeline when my daughter was diagnosed with dyslexia in first grade and I struggled to understand what it would mean for her and for me. There was an overwhelming amount of information to process. The parents in this group provided exactly what I needed at the time - others who had wrestled with similar issues, who understood, and offered feedback as I shared my anxieties and questions.
During this critical time, the group provided emotional support and practical advice. If I was looking for a tutor, another parent would have a recommendation. If my child had problems in a particular subject or communicating with a particular teacher, another mom or dad in the group was apt to have "been there, done that" and could offer some useful pointers.
More and more parents at other private and parochial schools are looking at ways to start their own groups. I’ve learned there are many ways to structure them; here’s what has worked for us:
The Parent Group on Learning Differences, as our group is officially called, has the same status as other parent committees within the school. A volunteer chair is responsible for overseeing the committee for the academic year. We’ve found that a two-year term works best.
We hold an evening meeting from 7:30 to 9 p.m. once a month in the school library. The dates are published in the school calendar, and the school's weekly newsletter includes a meeting reminder with specifics about discussion topics. Given the many demands on parents' time, we’ve found phone calls or email notes are also useful reminders of an upcoming meeting.
All parents in the school community are welcome to attend. Some parents are just beginning the bewildering process of learning about learning disabilities (LD). Others are veterans who have been coping with their child's dyslexia or Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (AD/HD) for years. Although many "regulars" are parenting children with identified learning disabilities, others have noticed subtle differences in their child's learning style and want to know more.
One big decision schools must make is whether or not the staff learning specialist or another faculty member should be present at the meetings. Administrators may be concerned that meetings will turn into a parental "gripe session" or that inaccurate information about teachers or programs will be given out if a staff member isn't there. As with the other parent committees, our school has never required the regular presence of staff or administrators at the meetings, although staff are invited to attend.
Our group's founders envisioned an informal gathering where parents could provide one another emotional support and share practical skills to help their kids with LD. Other schools choose to have faculty regularly participate. An advantage of having staff at the meetings is to let them hear first hand what’s working or not working in the eyes of parents. On the other hand, parents may feel they can be more open about school issues if the meeting is for parents only.
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