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Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Initiating Family Discussions About Learning Disabilities

Some time ago I wrote about a young man named Darren, whom I had first had the opportunity to meet early in his elementary career.  Darren’s story started out like many others: He entered each new grade apprehensive about his ability to succeed and concerned about feeling unprepared for new academic challenges he would face.  The fall was difficult as he struggled to learn new skills, but by spring he had settled into the classroom structure and was attaining some success.  As the year progressed, he expressed relief about his increased learning as well as pride in his performance.  Nonetheless, each September he was again worried about entering a new grade. 

Testing revealed that Darren had learning disabilities that affected his perceptual, perceptual motor, and phonemic awareness skills.  These impacted his performance in numerous academic areas including word identification and reading fluency, mathematics, spelling, and most greatly written expression.  Yet Darren’s verbal skills were advanced for his age and enabled him to learn and express himself very well through language.  This was apparent in his easy conversational style and understanding of mature humor.  In speaking with this young man an adult would not be able to detect any hint of a learning disability.  In fact, talking with him was delightful! 

The vast gap between Darren’s ability to express himself verbally and in writing was creating tremendous frustration not only for him, but the whole family.  Here is where his parents, Becky and Rich, were unusually wise.  They brought both of their sons, Darren and his eleven-year-old brother, Nelson, to a family session to discuss the testing results.  They recognized that everyone in the household was affected.  Darren needed language to understand his challenges and learn to advocate for himself in the classroom, that was a given.  But they knew that Nelson needed this as well, an understanding of why his brother struggled so and why their mother’s time and attention often was diverted to him in the afterschool hours in which homework is completed.  For Becky and Rich, understanding how to support Darren’s learning and Nelson’s feelings about the demands of that support fostered effective co-parenting.  This enabled them to manage the strong emotions that emerged in response to the presence of a learning disability in the household.

Who is Affected by the Learning Disability?
When one member of a family has a learning disability, everyone is affected: parents and siblings alike.  I find that this is one of the easiest factors to overlook, one that families often do not recognize until it is explicitly pointed out.  It’s one that Darren’s parents instinctively knew and worked actively to address.  In my work with students I see time and time again that some of the most impactful experiences are conversations that include the whole family in the office, at the dinner table, or in the car (sometimes not having to look at one another furthers the conversation!)  Don’t overlook anyone; every family member needs a chance to talk about their experience of the learning disability and its effect on themselves as well as the family as a whole.

For Darren’s family this session started a conversation that has been ongoing ever since. Not only did it provide a context for his struggles to his brother and himself, but it offered opportunities for the development of self-reflection, insight, problem solving skills, and connection among family members that has served each member of the family.

How Does a Parent Get the Discussion Started?  
You can always begin with questions.  Here are some possible queries:
  1. How is each of my children handling this diagnosis?
  2. How I am handling this diagnosis?
  3. Are my partner and I able to work together to build our understanding of the learning disability?
  4. How does the learning disability affected each member of the family?
Don't Be Afraid to Start a Discussion:
Many parents are afraid to talk with their children about learning disabilities for fear that the individual will be “labeled” or seen as different by their siblings.  In truth, they and their siblings already know that something is amiss.  They just don’t know what it is. 
  • Tip: In the absence of accurate and factual information we make up explanations for what is occurring.  What we make up is almost invariably worse than the reality.
Give your Children Accurate Information about What is Happening in Their Family:
Make sure you too are informed.
  • Know the name of your child’s learning disability and the ways in which it affects how they operate at home. 
  • Use the vocabulary of that LD (such as dyslexia, dysgraphia, auditory processing, math disorder) in conversations with your children.
  • Let them ask questions, and tell them the truth in response. If you don’t know the answer, tell them so, and then work with them to find the answer. 
  • Tip: the more informed and comfortable you are in speaking about the learning issue the better your family’s adjustment will be.
Let’s get the conversation started!

Be Well,
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