As you work with students with learning disabilities, you will encounter all types of parents. Many will have spent hours researching their child’s disability and are prepared to advocate for their needs. But you’ll also work with parents of newly-diagnosed children who are still trying to understand what this disability means for their kids.
Educators can provide valuable resources to parents and guide them through a new diagnosis. Follow these tips to make sure your students get the care they need and the parents feel like they are making the right decisions for their children.
Normalize Learning Disabilities
The first step when working with a family processing a new diagnosis is to normalize the disability. This can help the parents and students feel less stigmatized while you assure parents that you have the resources to provide for their kids.
According to the Learning Disabilities Association of America, 2.3 million students are diagnosed with specific learning disabilities and receive services through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. This accounts for 35 percent of all students receiving special education services.
“Parents are often the first to notice that ‘something doesn’t seem right,’ but sometimes knowing what to do and where to find help can be confusing,” they write.
If you can describe other students in the class or grade with similar disabilities, or discuss working with students in the past, you’ll assure parents that your school has the knowledge and resources to help students with learning disabilities succeed.
Spend some time reviewing the disability with parents and the different resources available to students. Shelbie Williams at Pearson highlights some of the most common learning disabilities. These include:
- Dyslexia: trouble with reading comprehension.
- Dysgraphia: difficulty forming and recording written thoughts.
- Dyscalculia: trouble with numbers and math skills.
- Auditory Processing Disorder: difficulty translating sounds into coherent thoughts.
- Visual Processing Disorder: difficulty translating images into meaningful information.
Dyslexia is the most common of these, accounting for 80% of diagnosed learning disabilities. Still, almost any condition on this list (among others) can make processing and retaining information in a classroom difficult.
It’s understandable that parents will be emotional during the time of diagnosis. By approaching learning disabilities as a fact of life with options for students, you can demonstrate that you are qualified to teach these kids.
“Having a disability is not a tragedy,” says Marisa Howard-Karp, chief operating officer at Exceptional Lives. “They are still the same person you have loved since you met them. It’s just that now you know them better and you can start to understand how to meet their needs.”
A diagnosis is an opportunity and a solution, not a mark of inadequacy.
Meet Parents Where They Are Emotionally
It might take some time for parents to get on board with a learning disability diagnosis. They have to overcome their own perceptions of disabilities and set aside their worries about how they and their child will be perceived.
“I have found that a parent’s sense of stigma is most acute when the child is newly diagnosed,” writes Anne Ford in her book, “The Stigmatized Child.” “This is the time when parents do all they can to avoid labeling the child. A child diagnosed with mild dyslexia probably doesn’t need the whole Special Education label, but a child who unquestionably needs Special Ed is granted no favors when a parent delays treatment altogether due to fears of a label.”
You may experience this if you are working with parents who have yet to receive a formal diagnosis for their child. Denial and stigmatization are also common in parents who understand that their kids have “quirks” but are too afraid to confront the potential of a learning disability.
“Parents make excuses for their child’s academic setbacks because they don’t want to accept a disability,” says school psychologist Ann Logsdon. “They may blame their child’s struggles on teachers or a spouse instead. Or, they may accuse the child of being lazy and refuse to allow special education services to be provided.”
By normalizing learning disabilities and providing resources, teachers can work with parents to move away from this denial stage and head toward acceptance and growth.
Keep the Student Informed
Along with helping parents with this process, you might want to ensure the student is fully informed about their learning disability. Kids pick up on emotions and stress in the house — especially if they are the perceived cause. It is better to be upfront about a learning disability than to try and hide it, which can leave a child feeling ashamed.
“I understand why many parents don’t tell their children about their disabilities; they are trying to protect them,” says Anna Stewart, a family advocate. “But the kids know. Withholding information about who they are and how they learn means they will likely internalize it and feel badly about themselves.”
A child or teen might think that if a parent refuses to talk about something, it must be really bad. This sets them up to avoid difficult conversations and situations in the future.
“Understanding their diagnosis and your efforts to assist them, [means they will] feel supported in their journey instead of feeling alone and as if they are incapable of overcoming their differences,” writes the team at Parallel Learning.
If a child needs glasses but worries about getting bullied, then they won’t wear them and will continue to live with vision problems. Similarly, if a student feels ashamed of their disability because their parents hide it, they won’t want the resources and support provided by the school. Kids will do almost anything to avoid standing out in a negative light that could lead to bullying.
Help Parents Learn About Their Options
“My child has a diagnosis, now what?” This is often the state of mind that teachers encounter in parents trying to figure out support options for their kids. These parents can quickly get frustrated if they are handed off to different administration teams and provided with complicated support materials.
“Education is full of terminology that is difficult to understand,” says Alina Davis, a program specialist for parent and family engagement with Orange County Public Schools in Orlando. “Share information in simple terms and explain words or concepts that are complex. Keep their native language in mind when communicating terms that may not translate easily.”
For educators and administrators, it’s second nature to recommend accommodations and set up Individualized Education Program (IEP) meetings for parents. It’s different for a student’s parents: This is often the first time they are learning about these options. It takes time to understand them.
“When children are diagnosed with a learning disability, parents can sometimes be overwhelmed by the educational options; depending on their diagnosis, a child could receive an IEP or a 504 plan,” writes Josh Watson, chief marketing officer at Aspiro Adventure Therapy. “In addition, a child’s curriculum could have accommodations or modifications to meet his or her specific learning needs.”
If possible, try to find support groups and community resources for parents. While you are a valuable resource, parents can also benefit from meeting education advocates and peers who understand them.
In an article for Care.com, Nicole Fabian-Weber lists 10 organizations for families and children with disabilities. Check to see if any of them have chapters in your area. These groups benefit both parents and their kids. Students can make friends with people who have similar experiences, making their disability less alienating.
Focus on the Student’s Strengths
As you meet with parents, don’t let the disability be the only topic you discuss. Use this time to go over some of the best parts of having this student in your class. Bringing some positive stories and comments to a meeting can go a long way to making parents feel better about their child’s diagnosis.
“All children have things they do well and things that are difficult for them,” says Jennifer Zubler, a board-certified pediatrician and pediatric consultant.
With this approach, teachers can assure parents that their children are able to thrive in a classroom environment. This can help parents and teachers work together to keep students engaged in learning. Students can understand that they have valuable skills in some subjects but need to work a little harder than their peers in other areas.
“The term ‘learning disability,’ or LD, covers a lot of territory,” writes clinical psychologist Peter Jaksa, former president of the Attention Deficit Disorder Association (ADDA) and author of the book “Life With ADHD.” “People with LD are generally of average or above-average intelligence, but they process certain types of information differently from everyone else. When these differences cause significant impairment in the ability to read, write, speak, spell, do math, or build social skills, we call that impairment a learning disability.”
Jaksa shares the story of one student who was diagnosed with ADHD and received support but still struggled with school. It took a few years for her parents and teachers to realize the child also had dyslexia. Treating one disability but not the other creates a frustrating learning environment for everyone involved. When parents and teachers work together, they can take steps to meet all of the student’s needs.
Establish Open Channels of Communication
Once a newly-diagnosed student is set on a path with the right accommodations and support, parents and teachers can exhale. However, this doesn’t mean the rest of the school year will run without any problems. Both parties need to work together to communicate and make adjustments to the learning process as needed.
“The best thing a parent can do to assist a teacher with their child is to establish a supportive and informative relationship, letting the teacher know that you want to work with him/her to provide support,” says Tom DeGeorge, a psychologist and assistant professor in the graduate counseling department at Rosemont College in Pennsylvania. “By establishing an open dialogue early in the school year, you avoid any miscommunications, and both parties are better equipped to handle any future issues.”
Some parents are going to be easier to work with than others. You might meet parents of children with disabilities who have had negative experiences in other school districts or worry that their child is getting ignored in a large class. Remember, these parents just want the best for their kids.
“You may be told that parents/carers are hard to engage. You may also be told that parents/carers are too warrior-like. Perhaps you’ll hear the mum of the child with ADHD and dyslexia referred to as ‘a Karen’, or be warned by your colleagues that a ‘problem child’ means ‘problem parents’,” says advocate Carrie Grant at the Special Needs Jungle. “An us-and-them attitude is never the route to the best for our children.”
Remember to take time to connect with parents outside of disability discussions. A child is defined by more than just their learning disability — and their school performance can reflect factors unrelated to the disability.
“Beyond children with disabilities, families often have challenges that teachers aren’t aware of—a child’s father just lost his job, grandmother just had surgery, or there isn’t enough to eat at home,” writes social worker Jennifer Bertram.
Even with the right accommodations, a student might still have a hard time in class if they are experiencing social or emotional distress in other parts of their lives.
The more you work with parents of children with disabilities, the more you will understand the different emotions and behaviors at play. You’ll understand why some parents shut down when you start talking about Individualized Education Programs, especially if you use complicated terminology. Do your best to establish yourself as a partner and ally — and to normalize learning disabilities — to help parents and ensure your students get the care they need.