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Talking with Your Elementary School Child about Learning Difficulties

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By Brian Inglesby, M.A., L.E.P.

Choose Your Words

Figuring out what terms to use when you describe your child's learning problems to him can be tricky. General statements such as "your brain is unique and wired differently" may help your child understand that each human brain is unique. Choose the phrase carefully and decide which words are most comfortable for you. Encourage other adults in your child's life to use the same description you have chosen so there's consistency.

For some kids, it may be important to balance the "differences" statement with a more optimistic phrase like "differences in how your brain works may actually make you more skilled in certain areas than other kids." Tell him about family members, friends, or celebrities with learning disabilities who are successful and/or famous.

Educators, clinicians, and researchers each have their own vocabulary to describe learning problems. In the public school setting, for example, special education law requires that kids be identified with a particular label in order to qualify for special education services. The eligibility category of "specific learning disability" (SLD) is a broad label used to describe a group of disorders that may affect reading, writing, and/or math skills.

Use the Correct Terms

If your child receives academic support from a resource teacher or in a special education classroom, it's important to use the proper term to describe the type of class he attends. For many kids, the terms "special education" or "special ed" are negative and upsetting labels, so be prepared for some resistance when he hears this term. But use the correct term when you talk with him because he's going to hear it sooner or later from teachers or peers. It may help to take the stigma away from the term "special education" if you use it interchangeably with a term like "resource help" or "reading help."

Make the Problem Concrete

Simply telling your child that he has a learning disability in reading doesn't really help him understand the problem, nor offer any clues about how to manage it. On the other hand, if you tell your child that he has "trouble remembering the details of a story" or that he "needs to work on increasing reading speed," the problem is clear, specific, and suggests a goal for improvement. It also lets your child know that his learning struggles are limited to one aspect of reading, and that he can be successful in other areas of school which are less dependent on reading, such as science, math, art, or physical education. Show him examples of his work that illustrate both strengths and weaknesses. Ask him if he can think of ways to make specific, challenging subjects easier and to learn the skills that are hard for him.

Listen Carefully to Your Child's Response

"Other children may be embarrassed to discuss their problems, feeling that the spotlight is always cast on the things that are problematic for them." - Dr. Bob Brooks

Each child is unique; your child's reaction to a conversation about his learning problems may be unpredictable. Your child may be upset or angry about being "different." It's important to recognize his right to these feelings. When he seems able to listen, offer him reassurance that, through his own efforts and some adult help, he can learn. Back off a little if he's looking overwhelmed. He may need time to process the information about his learning issues and then return with some questions. Or, he may be inquisitive from the start and ask more questions than you can answer. Listen to his questions and give him honest answers. If you don't know the answer, assure him you will find out.

Follow Up Regularly

After you've had your first talk with your child about his learning struggles, you will likely want to have several follow-up conversations. It's good to begin these talks by asking your child to describe in his own words how he currently understands or experiences his learning difficulties — and his progress. You may need to repeat your explanation of his learning difficulties several times before he is really able to grasp what it means. Once he has internalized some of the language and ideas, he may feel more comfortable talking about these issues with peers. In so doing, he is laying the foundation for self-advocacy at school.

Brian Inglesby, M.A., is a licensed educational psychologist who enjoys the challenges of working with students with a broad spectrum of learning issues. Of special interest to him is the opportunity to provide teachers, parents, and students with the ability to better understand and manage a student's unique learning profile.

Comments from readers

"My experience with the public schools in Belmont, CA outside lSan Francisco, CA have been a nightmare. They do nothing to help these chlldren with learning differences. Transfer your child to a private school and file for reimbursement. My advice get a lawyer!!! "