Talking to kids about learning disabilities


Learning Disabilities Association of Manitoba
Focus on Adoption magazine

Talking to a child about his or her learning disabilites can be tremendously difficult for parents and caregivers. Here are some straight talking tips that should help you and your child.

Call it what it is

Don’t be afraid of “labelling” the child. It is important for your child to have appropriate and accurate words to describe his or her difficulties to aid in self-understanding and in discussing these difficulties with other people. Often, children have already labelled themselves with such negative terms as “stupid” or “retarded.” Give your child the material to explain to others: “I have a reading disability and it will take me a bit longer to learn to read, but I will.”

Be accepting

If you treat the ADD/LD as a shameful secret, your child may internalize this negative attitude. Be open and frank about the disability when discussing it with family, friends, and other significant people in your child’s life. If you ignore the problem or over-react to it, your child could react in the same way. It is often a painful and difficult process for parents to be accepting. It is also essential to your child.

Strengths and weaknesses

It is important for your child to understand that everyone has things at which they excel and other things at which they must work harder. Reference to significant persons in the child’s life might be helpful here, e.g., “Daddy’s really good on the computer but he has to work hard to fix things around the house.” “You’re really good at fixing things but you have trouble with math.”

Physiological roots

Research has consistently emphasized the physiological basis of Attention Deficit Disorder and certain types of learning disabilities. It is not a flaw of the child’s character or the result of inferior parenting. It is like being born with blue eyes or brown eyes, curly hair or straight hair. Similarly, the use of medication is not a reflection of one’s failure to persevere or to work harder: we would not expect a diabetic to metabolize starches more effectively through persuasion and not require medication.

One of a crowd

It is important that your child know that he or she is not the only who has this difficulty. There are very likely other children at your child’s school who are taking medication or who require special help with their work. There may even be other children in your child’s classroom. Your child may also have a relative who experienced similar difficulties at school.

In comparing themselves to their peers, some children conclude the reason they are having difficulty is because they are not as smart as other kids. It is important to explain that attention problems and learning disabilities have nothing to do with intelligence. It is a matter of learning differently, or learning styles, and needing more time and hard work to process certain types of information and complete certain tasks, e.g., reading and writing. Albert Einstein and Thomas Edison are cases in point.

The earlier the better

Children are very sensitive to differences between themselves and their peers. The sooner you can provide accurate and supportive explanations for why the child is struggling in some areas, the less likelihood your child will develop negative misconceptions about him or herself.

Set aside time

When you are planning to have this discussion with your child, ensure that you have the child’s complete attention and that he or she is in a receptive mood. Endeavour to make this discussion interactive rather than using a lecture format: provide information in little bits so as not to overwhelm the child’s ability to process and integrate the information; encourage your child to ask questions; and be prepared to listen to his or her concerns and address them as supportively as you can.

Be age-appropriate

Be sensitive to the child’s developmental level and emotional maturity. Only give as much information as you believe he or she can handle at this age. Use words and phrases that the child can understand and pronounce. As your child matures, he or she will be ready for additional information. Understanding of these issues will build gradually over the years.

Use examples

Depending on your child’s age and maturity, his or her understanding may be enhanced through the use of concrete examples and analogies. e.g., “Your friend, Brian, needs glasses to help his eyes see better. You need medication to help your brain pay attention better.” “It’s like a TV that keeps switching channels.” “Some babies learn to walk earlier than others. They walk when they are ready. Some children read earlier than others. You need more time but you will learn to read.”

Excerpted with permission from Learning Disabilities Association of Manitoba. Learn more about learning disabilities at

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