How to Talk to Your Child About Her Learning Differences
Takeaway: Talking to your child about her learning differences will help her both practically and emotionally. Here’s what to say: (1) Explain what the differences mean, (2) Share age-appropriate information, (3) Highlight her strengths, (4) Discuss key life skills, (5) Teach her to ask for help, and (6) Celebrate other people’s success stories.
Learning differences might frustrate your child, but they don’t have to stop her from chasing her dreams.
We usually have to learn a range of skills if we want to work towards our goals. And while everyone learns at different speeds, children with learning differences often struggle more than usual. So why is this? Well, learning differences result from children’s brains being wired slightly differently. And this affects how they take in, process, and act on information from their environment. For example, children with dyslexia might find it hard to read and write, children with dyscalculia might struggle with maths, children with ADHD might lose focus in a matter of minutes, and so on. What’s important, though, is to recognise that these differences don’t have to stop your child from achieving her goals. It’s just a matter of adapting her lifestyle to support her weaknesses and take advantage of her strengths.
But this doesn’t mean you should ignore your child’s differences because that can end up confusing and hurting her.
You might be tempted to shield your child from thinking about her differences. After all, aren’t these diagnoses just labels that make your child think she’s limited? And won’t they nudge her towards feeling inadequate and simply giving up? Surprisingly, the answer is ‘no.’ That’s because your child will grapple with her differences whether you address them or not. She’ll have to deal with ‘failing’ things at school constantly, and the only explanation she’ll have is that she’s stupid, can’t learn anything, and is beyond help. So, by addressing her differences, you’re giving her hope. For one, she’ll learn that she’s not the only one with these challenges. Then, she’ll learn that her differences don’t mean that she’s ‘dumb.’ And finally, she’ll realise that there are tools and techniques to harness her unique learning style.
So, how do you talk to your child about her learning differences? These are principles to keep in mind.
Your goal is to teach your child how to help herself. The better she understands her needs and expresses them in healthy ways, the better she’ll do at school. And it’ll make moving from school into adult life easier. So, with that in mind, here’s how to approach these types of conversations.
1. Discuss what her learning differences mean beyond the label.
Labels like ‘dyslexia’ and ‘dyspraxia’ don’t mean much without context. So, help your child understand what her diagnosis means. You’ll want to point out that although she’s different, being different isn’t that unusual. For example, you can teach her how everyone (different or not) has a preferred learning style. Some children are visual learners and love to read books, look at pictures, use flashcards and so on. But there are also auditory learners who love to listen to lectures, be part of group discussions, and talk things through. And, similarly, there are kinesthetic learners who prefer hands-on activities and doing things rather than just watching or listening. The more your child explores these diverse learning styles, the easier it will be to accept and embrace her differences. And she’ll realise that many of her ‘weaknesses’ can be strengths.
2. Think of this as an ongoing conversation and share age-appropriate information gradually.
It’s never too early to talk to your child about her differences, but you’ll need to explain things in a way she’ll understand. And this will change based on her age. For example, a 6- year-old isn’t going to understand the brain mechanisms behind ADHD, but she’ll know what ‘feeling squirmy’ is like. Meanwhile, a 10-year-old might be able to process what ‘impulsiveness’ means, and a 15-year-old might be ready to learn how ‘executive functions’ affect her concentration. The key here is to let these ideas come up organically and see your conversations as an ongoing exchange. So, you don’t want to overwhelm with too much information too soon or make the experience feel like a prepared textbook presentation. Instead, share a bit, let your child respond, share a bit more, and let the ideas sit for a while. This will give her time to process what she’s heard, apply it to her life, and come back to you later for more. Just remember to have these conversations when your child is free and not distracted.
3. Emphasise her strengths and encourage her to nurture them.
All of us have strengths and weaknesses, and your child is no different. It’s important that she realises this. So, does she love sports? Is she creative? Can she make friends easily? Ask her to list the things she loves and/or is good at, and you make a similar list based on what you’ve observed. Then you can both discuss how she could nurture these strengths. Perhaps she can learn an instrument, join a new group, write a series of fun stories, or take part in a competition? The better she gets at something, the more she’ll enjoy it. And often, this enjoyment and passion will spill over into other areas of her life, too. Most importantly, this exercise teaches her to see life as a whole, filled with both good and bad experiences. So, for every weakness she’s sad about, there’s a strength waiting to be celebrated.
4. Discuss life skills that will help her through tough times.
There are life skills that can help any child become more resilient and mentally strong. For example, there’s the idea of setting goals and working towards them. Or the idea that any problem can be solved. Or that if you understand why you’re doing something, it’s easier to stick with it through tough times. These might sound like simple ideas (and they are), but they’re also powerful tools worth teaching your child about. And you can show her practical ways of using them to solve her problems. Perhaps she can set a few simple goals (e.g., perform a song for the family, finish her homework on time for a week, etc.) and outline the steps to achieve them? You could help her deal with obstacles that pop up and show her how to motivate herself along the way. These sorts of parent-child challenges will bring you both closer while teaching her the skills to be more self-sufficient.
5. Teach your child to ask for help when needed.
Talking to your child about her learning difficulties shows her that it’s okay to be different. Encouraging her to ask for help does the same thing by reinforcing the idea that she doesn’t need to hide or be ashamed of her learning needs. So, as she discovers more about herself, teach her to share these discoveries with others. For example, at school, she can tell the teacher that a noisy classroom makes it harder for her to think straight, which is why she struggles to answer questions. If necessary, she could also share her diagnosis — perhaps, for example, explaining that she has an auditory processing disorder. And this openness gives the teacher a chance to accommodate your child’s needs (e.g., letting her doodle in class because it helps her focus.)
6. Celebrate motivational stories and examples of other people with learning differences.
It’ll help your child to know that her learning difficulties don’t have to hold her back and aren’t a reason to give up. A great way of doing this is to share the success stories of people she admires. It could be the stories of celebrities with learning differences — e.g., Keira Knightley (dyslexia), Daniel Radcliffe (dyspraxia), Justin Timberlake (ADD and OCD), Bill Gates (dysgraphia), and so on. But it could also be the stories of friends and family — for example, an aunt who had to repeat a grade but is now a successful chef.
There’s a lot you can do to guide your child through her learning difficulties. But sometimes, it’s worth consulting a specialist for a bit of extra support.
If you need help talking to your child about her learning differences, The Ed Psych Practice offers face-to-face and online assessments, consultation, advice, and problem-solving strategies for parents, nurseries, schools, and universities in London. We have psychologists, paediatricians, and therapists who can help assess your child and offer guidance and support. To consult with us or set up an appointment:
- Phone: +44 (0) 78 3344 7356 / (0) 79 9053 8654
- E-mail: Office@TheEdPsych.com
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