As the parent of a child with a learning disability, you’re likely “tuned in” to potential learning difficulties in other children. Have you met a family, through school or after-school activities, where you suspect such a problem? But you can’t be sure because English is not their first language or because cultural, educational, or socioeconomic differences between you and the family pose additional challenges?

You’ve gathered some insights along the way and you’d like to help, but you may not know how to do so. Here are some guidelines for sharing your knowledge in a sensitive way and for taking concrete steps to help.

Avoiding assumptions and suspending judgment

Before you can really help another family, you’ll need to establish a friendship based on trust and mutual respect. Also, be careful not to jump to conclusions about learning disabilities (LD). This is important for a number of reasons. For one, the history of prejudice in the United States and overrepresentation of minorities in special education could understandably lead to skepticism or mistrust about your concerns, especially if you are of European descent and the other family is not. And you should know that the term “learning disability” doesn’t even exist in some languages, making a discussion about it more challenging.

Also, be aware that language and cultural differences between you and other parents can influence communication. Different cultures can have very different concepts about time (e.g., punctuality), tone of voice, authority, or competition. Likewise, nonverbal messages expressed through touch or gestures, facial expression, and personal space can have different meanings in different cultures. Cultural practices may also greatly influence how a child communicates in school. For example, in some cultures, children avoid eye contact with an authority figure as a way of showing respect. A person not of that culture might mistakenly view the child as lacking interest or respect for the teacher. Being aware of, and sensitive to, such differences will help you better relate to families from cultures other than your own.

Here is another potential difference. Your child’s friend, Alejandro, always turns in homework late. A number of factors besides a learning disability could contribute to this problem. Is it because English is his second language and he doesn’t understand the teacher’s directions? Or is it because he lacks space or materials at home to do his homework? Or is it that he is expected to do chores or care for younger siblings and has no time for homework? According to Brian Leung, Ph. D., Associate Professor in the School of Education at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles, “Families who are poor have survival on the top of mind, and if their home life is chaotic, homework may be a last priority.”

Starting the conversation

Helping a parent sort out a child’s LD from language or cultural differences isn’t easy. It requires a formal evaluation by an experienced professional. But you can help by raising awareness. Brian Leung points out that people from other cultures may believe in different reasons for a disability, such as divine punishment or bad karma. “Be sensitive to that,” he says, “Your suggestion of a learning disability may not be immediately accepted as a reason for poor achievement.”

As your relationship with the other parent develops, you may be able to broach the subject of a potential learning disability. One way to do this is by asking advice of the other parent, says Leung. “You might ask a question like, ‘How do you keep your child focused on assignments?'” On the other hand, you can use your own child as a reference point. You might say, “I’ve tried sitting down next to Mia while she’s doing her math, and that’s really helped.”

Here are some questions you might ask a parent to prompt her to consider possible reasons for her child’s learning difficulty:
• Does your child have trouble with his native language as well as with English? You can explain that schools offer assessments to help identify a child’s skills in more than one language.
• How is your child doing compared to siblings or other children in the neighborhood about the same age?
• Does the problem show up at home as well as at school and in other settings? Has it been obvious for some time?

• Does your child struggle more in language arts than in other subject areas, such as math? If so, second-language issues could be the main problem.

Helping parents take concrete steps

You likely know the challenges of helping a child with a learning disability. Now imagine other challenges heaped on top of those. These might include English as a second language, lack of transportation, or working two jobs. In addition, parents still learning about U.S. culture and customs may not have felt welcomed in the classroom by the teacher, or, for various cultural or personal reasons, parents may not see a role for themselves at school.

You can help in a variety of ways. Here’s how:

• Keeping in mind that collaboration with school authorities may be a new or intimidating idea for her, gently encourage the parent to participate at school. You might begin by asking about the parent’s own school experiences and sharing your own.
• Model parent involvement and describe some of the benefits. “This is key,” according to Brian Inglesby, MA, school psychologist in the San Francisco Bay Area. “You might explain that parent participation has a big effect on how children view their education,” says Inglesby, adding that it also alters how the teacher regards the student.
• If transportation is an issue, offer to drive parents to parent-teacher conferences or PTA, school board, or other school meetings. If English language proficiency is an issue, ask if the parent would like you to stay with her during the meeting to help explain what is said and provide support. If integration into the school community has not occurred, introduce them to other parents and staff.
• Facilitate communication as needed. Ask if the parent would like help to organize records and notes before IEP (Individualized Education Program) meetings or would like someone to attend meetings with her. Ask if writing letters or notes to teachers or school principals would be helpful to her.
• Observe and get to know the child. Have your child and hers do homework together. Then diplomatically offer any insights to the parents. Remember to mention the child’s strengths and talents, as well as any learning difficulties. This can help enhance self-esteem and yield creative ways to help the child learn better and participate in school. For example, a child who loves to draw might design a poster for a school event or a cover for a school publication.

Expanding the support system

“Rather than focusing on a specific child, you might help by organizing a support group,” says Leung. You can set these up at the school, a community center, or someone’s home. Post a notice or get teachers to help identify children who might benefit. The school may even provide support (e.g., a guest speaker) for this purpose. Of course, it’s important to arrange for translators and child care.

Short of a support group, a variety of other resources are available. Libraries and schools often provide reading or tutoring services. Community colleges, mental health agencies, or recreation centers may also provide resources or referrals. High school students sometimes need to earn community service credits and can do so by tutoring younger students.

Many culturally specific parent groups and community or religious organizations offer parent education opportunities. You might suggest learning disabilities as a topic. This could be done as a formal presentation or as a discussion with parents from a variety of cultures whose children have identified learning disabilities. A parent may be more receptive to this type of conversation within a comfortable cultural context.

Hooking up parents and their children to these resources will go a long way toward helping them navigate what may be incredibly challenging terrain.

Bridging cultural and language gaps

Finding common ground in the complex world of learning disabilities and cultural or language differences isn’t easy. But by keeping an open mind, listening, offering your ideas in a nonjudgmental way, and providing concrete support, you can do a great deal to help other families. And though the rewards for you may not be always be tangible, gaining allies to help all children succeed will benefit everyone in the long run!