Clarice Jackson, a Black mother in Omaha, NE, knew her daughter had problems in school since PreK. By fourth grade, the girl was still unable to read simple three-letter words and was displaying hyperactivity and impulsivity in the classroom – both symptoms of ADHD. Whether you call them learning disabilities or learning differences, they were definitely learning problems.

Jackson knew something needed to change, so she began the long fight for an Individualized Education Program (IEP) for her daughter, hoping she’d be placed in special education and finally get the kind of instruction she needed. She finally got the IEP and found that it addressed the girl’s ADHD — but not her reading. “They said, ‘we’re doing the very best for her,’ but the very best was more of the same,” Jackson says, referring to the type of reading instruction she was receiving. “Except now, the expectation was lowered.”

Her story is emblematic of what many parents go through when they suspect their child has a learning disability. The school has good intentions, but the follow-through doesn’t solve the problem. And that’s a serious challenge, especially for families of color who may not trust “special ed” programs anyway.

Black children are overlooked for learning disabilities

Research shows that while children of color and English language learners are often overrepresented in special education classrooms, they are less likely to be identified as having learning disabilities, says Paul Morgan, a professor of education at Penn State who has studied bias in special education.

“When you look at kids with similar rates of poverty, similar levels of academic achievement, similar levels of behavior — what you find is consistent evidence that white and English-speaking children are more likely to be identified [as those with learning disabilities],” Morgan says.

It wasn’t until Jackson, at her own expense, moved her daughter to a private school that specializes in helping struggling readers, that she made progress. Within a year her daughter was reading at a third-grade level, and her ADHD symptoms improved.

Parents of color too often see that schools don’t want to “stigmatize” these kids with the special education label, misdiagnose their students’ learning problems, or are reluctant to pay for the service a child needs. Here are some things to do about it.

An evaluation for learning disabilities is the crucial first step

If you or your child’s teachers see ongoing academic or behavioral difficulties at home and school, you should request a disability evaluation. This is free in public schools but may take some time to happen after the initial request. The evaluation will ask what you and your child’s teacher(s) have seen, as well as whether there are any medical issues. This is the first step in getting services for your child through an Individualized Education Program (IEP) or a 504 Plan.

An IEP entitles your child to services that can include a modified curriculum, specialized instruction, occupational therapy, physical therapy, speech therapy, and/or counseling. A 504 Plan allows a child with emotional or learning disabilities to get accommodations in school. While the two have some overlap, the 504 does not offer all the services of the broader IEP and is generally easier to get. Understanding your child’s issue will help you  decide whether an IEP or a 504 is what you need to ask for.

If you’re unhappy with the school’s evaluation, you can also get an outside independent evaluation at your own expense. Independent evaluations can easily cost $1,000 or more, though you can sometimes find low-cost options through hospitals, universities, and state government agencies, among others.

Once you know your child’s issues, educate yourself. Start by checking out the website and materials from the Learning Disabilities Association of America. Many specific disabilities also have their own advocacy organizations, such as CHADD for ADHD, Dyslexia Alliance for Black Children, and Decoding Dyslexia, which has chapters in several states.

The critical IEP meeting: IEP or 504?

After the evaluation is done, the school will form an IEP team, which includes the parents, the child (if they are 16 or older), at least one of the child’s general education teachers, a special education teacher, a school district representative, an expert to interpret the evaluation’s results, and a translator if needed. Parents can also bring a friend or advocate with them.

Together, the team determines whether the child has one of the 13 disabilities — including autism, ADHD, and dyslexia — protected under federal law and whether the student needs special services in school. It’s not uncommon for a child to have more than one type of learning problem. The student may, for instance, have both ADHD and dyslexia, as Jackson’s child did.

The IEP meeting is not always a straightforward process. In fact, it can be long, tense, and sometimes even hostile. Jackson recommends not only that parents know as much as they can about their child’s disability beforehand, but also know something about the law, specifically, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).  Jackson even suggests bringing the law book to the meeting — as she did — and setting it on the table so everyone understands you’re ready for them.

IEP meetings often determine that a child isn’t eligible for special services. “Schools can be naturally disinclined to have the child identified,” Morgan says, “in part because of funding considerations and part because of legitimate disagreements about whether the child is truly displaying the symptoms or impairments that are associated with the specific condition.”

If your child has a more common disability like mild ADHD or dyslexia that can be addressed with small classroom adjustments, you can consider a 504 plan instead of an IEP.  The simpler accommodations might include extra time for a child to take tests or a desk closer to the teacher so they can better pay attention. “Obtaining a 504 can be more general and less specific,” Morgan says.

Here are a few things for parents of color to know as they seek and IEP or 504 help with some common learning issues.


Dyslexia is the most common learning disability, affecting 20 percent of the population. There are many different signs, but overall it’s a notable difficulty in learning to read and reading. Dyslexia does not mean a lower intelligence level. As with many other disabilities, it is under-identified in children of color.

Sometimes parents need to fight a school’s low expectations for their child in addition to fighting for the school to recognize a learning disability. That’s what happened to Resha Conroy, who founded the Dyslexia Alliance for Black Children in 2020 amid the summer of racial reckoning and following her own journey to get help for her son with dyslexia.

Conroy’s son struggled with dyslexia even after she managed to get him an IEP. But she continued her research and found out why. “They were doing balanced literacy, a little bit of phonics — a hodgepodge of things,” Conroy says. “That’s not what works.”

Evidence shows that a structured literacy approach is what works best. Conroy recommends parents learn about different types of reading instruction and find out whether their school uses structured literacy.

Math struggles, known as >dyscalculia, are a related but less widely known learning disability that easily can derail school progress. Children with dyscalculia might mix up numbers or find simple mental math very hard to do. What’s worse, these children can also have dyslexia, making it even more difficult to grasp basic math concepts. For more on dyscalculia, visit the National Center for Learning Disabilities

Speech pathology

While every child progresses differently when it comes to speaking and communicating their thoughts, there are some signs you can look for that might identify a need for a speech therapist, such as being able to follow instructions but unable to respond well verbally. The parent of a child diagnosed with a speech-language impairment is entitled to request an IEP for them.

Speech pathologists can help children with a variety of disabilities, including autism, cleft palate, and even reading and writing difficulties.

Parents of color should be aware, however, that people assessing children for speech or language impairments have been shown to be racially biased at times. This could mean they judge a child to be making a speech error when it might actually just be a difference in dialect or accent. To combat this, try to find people who are culturally trained and aware of the language and dialect you speak at home.

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder

Experts estimate that between 4 percent and 12 percent of children have ADHD, which is marked by the inability to pay attention in class, hyperactivity, and difficulty controlling impulses. While ADHD is technically not a learning disability, it can seriously affect a child’s behavior and ability to learn, so an IEP or 504 plan can help.

You should be aware of the possibility of racial bias in ADHD identification by teachers. One study showed that white teachers rated the likelihood of ADHD in Black boys higher than Black parents did. The white teachers with more negative attitudes toward Black people were also more likely to attribute Black boys’ behavior to ADHD. Moreover, some educators will simply consider kids with ADHD to have behavior problems and never consider that they might have a learning issue. These attitudes could wrongly land a child in a special education class when they don’t need to be there.

Some accommodations are simple, like having the student sit closer to the teacher or setting up a designated quiet space in the classroom where the child can focus. Parents also have the option to give their child medication. Certain medications are effective for kids with ADHD but can have side effects, like insomnia or decreased appetite. It’s important for every parent to talk to their doctor to decide what’s best for their child.

Psychological help

Kids are increasingly in need of mental health support, and they may be entitled to it at school, though this help can be hard to get. According to Morgan, “schools should be able to provide some support, and your child has more protections legally if there’s an identified disability that’s resulted in psychiatric difficulties.”

Sadly, too many Black and Hispanic youth suffer from undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) because of neighborhood violence or abuse at home. If a child has an emotional or behavioral disorder that’s interfering with the ability to do school work, such as PTSD, ADHD, or oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), the school can provide counseling as part of an IEP.

Don’t forget you’re not alone

It can be intimidating to face the obstacles involved in getting help for any child with a learning disability.  Black and Hispanic parents may also fear having their kids caught up in a special education system that historically has treated their children badly. They have to balance the fight for the services their kids need against the knowledge that many special education students of color end up with poor school and life outcomes.

Nevertheless, it’s important to remember that many other parents have faced the same dilemma finding an IEP or 504 plan, and have nevertheless found a path forward. Advocates are now available to help you when once there may have been none. Jackson, for instance, went on to start the Voice Advocacy Center in Omaha and the Nebraska chapter of Decoding Dyslexia.

She says it’s important for parents to remember that they are experts too, especially when walking into the crucial IEP meetings with professional educators. “At the end of the day, you are your child’s best advocate.”