Talking to your child about their learning difficulty

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Every child needs to know that they can count on unconditional support from their parents. This is especially important for children who struggle to learn. 

It’s familiar territory for many SPELD NZ parents: A happy and well-adjusted 5-year-old starts school.  Frustration and shame mount as they struggle to keep up with peers. Parents and teachers see a bright child unable to meet their expectations. The child appears to be making ‘careless’ or ‘silly’ mistakes, not trying hard enough. Their behaviour goes down hill and families come under huge stress. Finally, a diagnostic assessment reveals dyslexia and/or other specific learning disabilities (SLD). It usually comes as a relief to parents to have an explanation for an otherwise intelligent child not succeeding. At last they have a detailed breakdown of their strengths and weaknesses, plus a roadmap for how best to help them. But will their child see it the same way? How should parents tackle the topic?

Help them understand the nature of their learning difficulty

Children are often glad to learn there is an explanation for why they are having trouble. Help them understand what dyslexia/SLD is. It’s important children understand their challenges and potential strengths; it’s also good for them to know they are not alone – that about one in 10 children have dyslexia/SLD, even though they may all be different.

Use accurate language

Others may prefer the word ‘neurodiversity’ but your child will hear the word ‘dyslexia’ at school and elsewhere. It’s important to normalise the word dyslexia so it doesn’t seem scary – use it openly and often.

Encourage them not to hide their dyslexia/SLD

Children shouldn’t feel like it’s a secret or something to be ashamed of. You want them to be comfortable explaining it. Talking about their SLD openly with their teacher and friends can help them understand the bigger picture of who they are.

Ensure they understand it’s nothing to do with intelligence

Explain that everyone’s brain works differently, we understand the world in different ways. People with dyslexia/SLD generally have average to above-average intelligence.

Emphasise the benefits

Thinking differently can be a really good thing. Neurodiversity is often associated with a plethora of talents. Someone with dyslexia/SLD might be especially good at seeing the big picture and thinking outside the box, solving problems, recognising patterns, taking things apart and putting them back together, inventing, creating and storytelling.

Point out role models and their achievements

Dyslexic/SLD people have gone on to achieve great things, playing to their strengths and having the right support. There are many inventors, writers, scientists, musicians, actors, architects, artists and entrepreneurs with dyslexia/SLD – some have become famous or even changed the world.

Remind them they will learn – there are ways through

It’s crucial your child knows things can improve. There are obstacles on their learning pathway but with the right support, those obstacles can be managed. Skilled teachers and technology will help. Remind them that many people have overcome the challenges of their dyslexia/SLD.

Offer consistent, ongoing encouragement and support

Your child may live with anxiety every day they step into the classroom, even if they don’t have the words to explain it. Be empathetic, never communicate despair, and don’t keep pointing out mistakes. Give them specific praise for their effort and personal progress, not just ‘the end product’ and have realistic expectations and goals for them.

Keep reminding your child of what they do well, and support those activities

Often an assessment may indicate some exceptional strengths. Keep talking about what those strengths are. Your child may also have other fabulous talents, such as sport, art or dance. It’s vital to identify and foster a special interest or hobby where a child shines, where they feel confident and positive, not always struggling to catch up. Rejoice in these successes.

Suggest ways they might be able to help others

As they get older, dyslexic/SLD people may reach out to help others in some capacity – perhaps through volunteer work, peer tutoring or coaching someone who is struggling. This kind of experience can really help young people with dyslexia/SLD to feel better about themselves.

Keep the conversation going

A conversation about dyslexia/SLD is not a one-off, it’s an ongoing dialogue. Encourage your child to keep talking to you about their difficulties and feelings. As they get older, the conversations about how their brain learns can become more complex.

Find out more:

Seeing Dyslexia Differently This is a great little animation on YouTube by the British Dyslexia Association aims to help young people understand their challenges and potential strengths.

The website Understood offers some excellent examples of what to say to dyslexic/SLD children.

SPELD NZ libraries also have good books you can read with your child to help them understand their SLD.