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How to talk to your child about learning differences

One of the questions that we’re most frequently asked is “what should I tell my child about his (or her) learning differences?”

Some parents worry that naming a learning difference may be self-limiting or want to protect the child from feeling that something is wrong with them. However, for children who have been in a classroom setting, the truth is that they already know. By this point in time, they have likely compared themselves with their classmates and may have feelings of inadequacy or shame.

What you tell your child depends on the age of the child. For younger children, it shouldn’t be about a diagnosis, but rather framing the discussion to highlight strengths and areas for development. The discussion should focus on why certain tasks are hard for the child and how you can support him or her.

For older children (middle school and beyond), the diagnosis of a learning difference (LD) is relevant because they need that information to advocate for themselves and to access classroom accommodations. LDs include dyslexia, ADHD, dysgraphia, dyscalculia, dyspraxia and other learning disabilities and related disorders.

With an open and honest dialogue, the goal is for your child to take away that: “My parents see my strengths. And my parents also understand what’s hard for me — and that doesn’t make me any less smart.” This discussion can be a huge relief for the child to be seen by the parent, be open about fears and understand what support is available.

What are your tips for talking to your child about his/her learning difference(s)?

Most importantly, remember that the goal is for your child to feel loved and supported.

Take the time to understand more about your child’s diagnosis. Read the evaluation report and any materials provided by the psychologist. Write a list of questions in advance of the evaluation follow-up and ask specifically about age-appropriate ways to explain the learning disability. The psychologist will likely want your child to be a part of a meeting to discuss the results.

Stay positive. Reassure your child of her unique capabilities. Share how the adults in her life are coming together to help her succeed. By feeling supported, your child will feel more motivated to push through challenges.

Your first conversation should be the start of an ongoing dialogue.

Why is it important for children to be aware of any learning differences?

Children with learning differences often feel worried about not meeting expectations. That worry can lead to clinical levels of anxiety and depression. Why should the child live with this struggle as if it’s a secret to bear alone?

Once children understand more about themselves and how they learn best, it can be extremely empowering. We want the child to understand that: “I’m a whole person with wonderful gifts. Just like everyone else, I have areas for development AND here’s what can be done about it.”

Knowledge is power. If children understand how they learn, then they can better advocate for themselves and thrive with the right support. That support varies — depending on the learning difference and grade level — and could range from tutoring and executive function coaching to classroom and homework accommodations.

When should children be able to advocate for themselves?

As you know by now, all youngsters grow and mature at different times. Some children naturally begin advocating for themselves during their elementary school years, while others aren’t comfortable with this skill until the end of middle school.

Before entering high school, students should be advocating independently, unless the LD diagnosis is recent.

How can you encourage children to advocate for themselves?

Self-advocacy is a skill that can be learned. If a parent is always interfacing with teachers and the one writing an email with questions about a project, the child is not gaining critical skills in advocacy and self-reliance.

To transition this role to the child, parents can take a scaffold approach. For example, instead of being the one to write an email to the teacher, a parent can sit next to the child while he emails the teacher. Or, the child can dictate what needs to be conveyed to the teacher. Little by little, a parent can start to transfer advocacy so that teens can function with little to no parental intervention ahead of entering college.

As executive function coaches, we regularly teach students skills on how to be an effective selfadvocate, a critical life skill that can help your child navigate the world with confidence.

Final note: while we prefer the term “learning difference,” many people use “learning disability.”

Learning Differences - How to Talk to Your Child
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