By Clare Cosentino, Ph.D., Director of Psychological Services at Gaynor
Talking to children about their learning differences can be enormously beneficial. Productive and empowering conversations can foster children’s self-awareness and self-acceptance and enhance their self-esteem. Children with learning differences need to develop a healthy sense of self-confidence so that over time, they come to understand what they need to learn best and how to effectively ask for it. Self-awareness enhances resilience and enables students to become effective self-advocates in both the short- and long-term.
Children with learning differences often have fragile self-esteem. Their struggle to acquire basic academic skills can lead to significant misunderstanding about their intelligence and their overall capability. They may have experienced failure in school and perhaps received criticism from teachers and parents perhaps before their learning issues were diagnosed or understood. Children with learning differences often compare themselves to their non-LD siblings or peers and their motivation may become compromised due to their struggles. Common reactions among students with learning differences include: avoidance, denial, withdrawal, shame, anxiety, sadness, and moodiness.
It is critically important that parents understand their child’s learning differences and a comprehensive neuropsychological evaluation is the first step in demystifying their struggles. Knowledge is empowering as it can enable parents and students to understand and appreciate their strengths and provides an explanatory framework for areas of challenge.
What does a good neuropsychological evaluation provide?
- Outlines a deeper understanding of areas of strength and challenge.
- Highlights and celebrates areas of aptitude and capability.
- Identifies specific intervention approaches that mobilize areas of strength and remediate areas of challenge.
- Creates a roadmap to support your child at school and at home.
Why is feedback from a neuropsychological evaluation so important?
- Parent feedback is the first step in becoming your child’s best advocate.
- Child feedback is the first step in children becoming their own best advocate.
- While it is not appropriate for children to read a neuropsychological evaluation, they deserve feedback, which enables them to begin to understand how they learn best.
- This makes an ongoing dialogue possible between you and your child – strengths are identified and challenges provide opportunities for collaborative problem solving and compassionate understanding.
- Developmentally appropriate feedback to your child demystifies their learning differences. It should provide optimistic, positive, and reassuring information.
How is a Learning Difference defined?
- By definition, individuals with LD have average to well above average intelligence.
- LD is an umbrella construct for neurologically-based challenges in the brain’s ability to receive, process, and respond to information.
- LD’s impact academic skill acquisition in reading, writing, and/or math.
- There is usually a significant discrepancy between intellectual ability and skill levels in reading, writing, or math.
How do I start a conversation about LD with my child?
- Terms like ‘disorder’ or ‘learning disability’ should generally not be used in initial conversations.
- Initial conversations with children should emphasize and highlight areas of strength and provide simple explanations for areas of challenge.
- As children get older, they will need to understand that they have a ‘diagnosis’ that entitles them to receive certain accommodations.
- They should come to understand the accommodations and services that they are entitled to receive.
- They will also need to understand that there is a ‘science’ around how to best remediate their learning challenges.
- They need reassurance that with appropriate help and perseverance, things will become easier.
How can I explain LD to my child?
- Highlight family characteristics among biological relatives, if possible.
- This can naturally lead into a discussion about special help and/or remediation, which activates areas of the brain that will lead to more efficient processing and academic output.
- Help your child to understand that when they persevere, they actually make new and lasting brain connections (i.e., their brain ‘grows’).
How do I continue to talk with my child about their challenges?
- Partner with your neuropsychologist to provide developmentally appropriate information.
- Ask your child what they think they do “best” as a learner.
- Keep it simple and positive. For example, “You have an amazing mind.”
- Emphasize strengths/highlight intellectual capability.
- Your challenges have to do with the way your brain processes information and these difficulties are totally unrelated to your intelligence.”
- “Here’s what you can do…” (Begin to identify strategies that your child can utilize, based on the findings of the neuropsychological evaluation)
- Highlight character strengths such as perseverance, dedication, or grit.
How do I Describe Stephen Gaynor School?
- Children should be prepared to provide simple explanations to siblings and family members, non-Gaynor families and friends, if they chose to do so.
- Gaynor is a school for bright children who learn differently.
- Teachers get extra training and specialized education to understand how students learn best.
- Teachers have special ways of teaching that emphasize strengths which makes learning easier.
- It is a privilege to have such special attention.
Why does Stephen Gaynor School have a Student Advocacy Program?
- The program was developed by Erica Kasindorf, a Middle School teacher and now coordinator of the Student Advocacy Program. It is provided for all of our Middle School students.
- Discussions about learning differences are also initiated in the Lower School, primarily through literature and teacher-initiated conversation.
- The Student Advocacy Program helps students to understand their learning differences, their strengths and developing skills, and to increase their self-awareness. These skills prepare them to effectively self-advocate throughout their lives.
How can I help my child develop a resilient mindset?
- Maintain optimism.
- Cultivate islands of competence that develop your child’s innate talents and abilities.
- Engage in collaborative problem solving.
- View mistakes as challenges.
- Have empathy and compassion.
- Create structure and routines.
- Seek assistance when needed.
Resources for Parents and Children
- Overcoming Dyslexia: A New and Complete Science-Based Program for Reading Problems at Any Level by Sally Shaywitz, M.D.
- That’s Like Me! Stories About Amazing People With Learning Differences by Jill Lauren, M.A.
- Thinking Differently: An Inspiring Guide for Parents of Children with Learning Disabilities by David Fink
- Succeeding with LD: True Stories About Real People with LD by Jill Lauren, M.A.
- Superparenting for ADD: An Innovative Approach to Raising Your Distracted Child by Edward Hallowell, M.D.
- Thank You Mr. Falker by Patricia Polacco
This article was originally published in the summer 2017 issue of Gaynor Gazette.