Speaking to Children about their Learning Differences:
Kendall, a fourth-grader, had been struggling with reading skills but otherwise was thriving in his class. An educational evaluation determined that Kendall had a Specific Learning Disability and would benefit from a different reading curriculum than the school’s regular program. The school, in response, offered to provide individual tutoring using a more compatible reading series.

Kendall’s mother Cathy explained that she had “made up a little story” to explain to Kendall why he would be getting this extra tutoring. “We told him that it’s not that he has a problem, but that another teacher is learning how to use a new reading program, and he will be doing this to help her practice teaching it.”

Cathy seems to want to quietly “slip in” the extra help without drawing attention to The Problem. She is well intended but misguided: she is missing a great opportunity to “talk the talk” of learning differences. She may not recognize or acknowledge it, but she looks disappointed when she talks about Kendall’s progress. She is worried Kendall can’t or won’t learn to be a good reader and is afraid of what might be “wrong” with Kendall. She insists, despite ample evidence to the contrary, that Kendall doesn’t really know he is behind in reading, and she doesn’t want to make him feel different or dumb because he needs extra help.

Caring parents and teachers all too often worry about “labeling” a child while failing to recognize that the student himself already has done so. Younger students in that situation tend to conclude that they are “stupid,” while older students may further decide that reading itself is dumb and so are the people who keep talking about it. This is not the kind of healthy and constructive language or thought that helps students succeed.

Kendall needs direct acknowledgment of the challenges he faces. He needs to know that his parents know he finds reading hard and that they are not disappointed in him. He will be happier if he feels that the adults in his life understand when he gets a B on a spelling test, he may have worked twice as hard for that as his friend who easily got an A. Cathy can support Kendall by talking about the great new reading teacher and how it will help him be a better reader. She can emphasize what a fortunate opportunity it is and still acknowledge that he might sometimes wish it were different. Kendall’s parents can enlist his support by rewarding his strong effort.

Contemporary educators now have enough experience to know that students with specific learning disabilities have just as much potential for life-long success as students who do not face the same challenges. Teachers and parents do not need to be afraid of “labels” in the way we once did when learning differences were much less understood. Instead, we need to strive to understand specifically the strengths and challenges in a student’s learning pattern. Then we need to engage in an ongoing dialogue with students about their job, the tools they have to do it with, and how they can best tackle what is hard. When we are able to speak with students about that process in a nonjudgmental way, sure of their strengths and interested in their challenges, they gain confidence.

-Mark A. Carey
Spring 2009 

© Mark A. Carey, M.A., and Kaulele Education Services, Inc.