“Self-knowledge must precede self-advocacy.” Mel Levine, MD.
After all the testing and waiting are over, and a specialist has pronounced a diagnosis of dyslexia or some other learning difference (LD), then comes the challenge of explaining that difference to your child.
In his book, The Motivation Breakthrough, Rick Lavoie tells the story of a parent who telephoned the special education school of which he was director, to request an admissions visit for her and her son. She asked the question, “Does the school have any signs or posters displayed that identify the program as a school for kids with learning disabilities?”
He went on to ask why she asked this particular question and she replied, “My son doesn’t know that he has a learning disability and we don’t want him to know.” His silent response was, “He knows, Mom. Believe me, he knows.”
The Motivation Breakthrough is the current topic of the Orton-Gillingham Online Book Club.
So why is it important for your child to know about their LD?
Remember that in a school situation, dyslexia is viewed as a disability by the teachers and by other students. For the child, understanding his LD helps him to understand himself, and understand objectively why he finds certain activities challenging.
It also helps him to realize there are solutions and technologies that can help. This can be a great motivator. In terms of dyslexia, Orton-Gillingham based teaching provides remediation for reading difficulties (see this link for available training), and technology such as text-to-speech offered by Learning Ally, allows the student to “ear read” at grade level.
In the LD community, the focus has often been on learning about famous and successful individuals with similar differences; but much more effective is relating to family members or other students they know who experienced similar difficulties, but who are now successful in the post-school world. Eye to Eye is a wonderful organization that is run by and for people with LDs. They offer one-on-one mentoring and they focus on building self-esteem and self-advocacy. Check them out at http://eyetoeyenational.org/.
How should you talk to your child about their LD?
Explaining what LDs are not, is as important as explaining what they are. My previous two blogs (What is Dyslexia part 1 and part 2) can help you here. My forthcoming blog on dyslexia myths will help you with the what-LDs-are-not angle.
Discussions should take place over a few days or weeks, rather than one blitz session. Many students with LDs are also slower processors. They need time to think about and mull over new information; being overwhelmed is a huge turn-off. Give them time and opportunities to ask questions as they build their understanding of their learning difference.
These discussions should focus not only on their weaknesses, but also their strengths in order to enhance their self-esteem. It can be helpful for a child to map their strengths and attitudes using an assessment provided by Headstrong Nation.
Figure 1: Headstrong Nation Provide a Free Tool to Map Your Child’s Strengths
To be effective, it is necessary to make your discussions age appropriate. There are a number of books available that explain dyslexia and other learning differences to children, and I keep the following available in my waiting room for parents and children to share. The first is available through the Orton-Gillingham Online Academy and is for very young children. Floppy The Bunny That Could Not Hop addresses teasing, exclusion, and ridicule which are often experienced by those with LDs.
My second recommendation is “The Junkyard Wonders” by Patricia Polacco, who is also dyslexic. Again it deals with the teasing, exclusion and ridicule faced by a classroom of children with learning differences, but this book is appropriate for an older child. Another of her books, which might also be useful, “Thank You, Mr. Falker”, explains her own personal difficulties learning to read, and the amazing teacher who helped her learn.
Figure 2: This Book Is A Way To Discuss Dyslexia With A Young Child.
Discussions should remind the child about her support systems, which might include grandparents, neighbors, coaches, tutors and of course teachers; so she doesn’t feel so alone. In the case where a child might need to move from a mainstream classroom into a special education class, I have found the book “I Don’t Want to Go!” by Delores Connors to be helpful for my students. The story helps students accept a situation that may be initially difficult, but which can have a positive outcome as they transition from “I Don’t Want to Go” to “I Will Give it a Try.” The protagonist, Mark, discovers that his special education teacher, Mrs Collins, is a part of his support system. She is on his side and ready to help him learn in the way he learns best.
Once a young person comes to grips with and begins to understand her LD, she can move towards self-advocacy; explaining her difficulties, challenges, and strengths to a wide range of people, from teachers and coaches to future employers. We see this in action in the wonderful example of Learning Ally’s YES Ambassadors. YES stands for Youth Examples of Self-Advocacy.
The order in which you tackle these subjects, and the time you spend will depend on each individual situation. If it helps you to follow a set of steps, this list may be useful to you but you should not feel this is the only way or the best way to structure your discussions.
● Discuss the diagnosis; what it means, why it can be useful to have a label and how you are going to learn together about what it means, and how that knowledge can be used to help their learning and self esteem.
● Talk about your child’s strengths: Perhaps use the Headstrong Nation tool to map their individual profile.
● Find out what things concern your child about their LD. For example, being marked out as different, going out of class for specialist instruction and so on.
● Discuss the subjects or activities your child finds hard. Do a little networking and talk with friends and family members with a similar LD that have gone on to have successful adult lives.
● Discuss the support systems that your child has available.
● Probably sometime later, self-advocacy may become a learning exercise; with role play, discussion of strategies and their relative usefulness. Remember to be sensitive to areas your child is happy to talk about.
Ultimately, it is important that children gain a deep understanding of their LD to sustain motivation at school and beyond. This will happen gradually as knowledge and executive function skills develop and with the right encouragement it will lead them through acceptance to self-confidence and on to a place where they can advocate for themselves.
Lorna Wooldridge is a dyslexia specialist tutor with over twenty-five years of experience and qualifications in the field of learning differences, from both the UK and USA. Lorna has a unique perspective on this condition as she has dyslexia, and her passion is to serve this community in any way she can.