Sign up for our parent newsletter!
How Child Therapists Can Support Parents of Clients With Learning Disorders
It can be scary, and in some cases alarming, for many caregivers to learn that their child has a learning disorder. This discovery may fill the parent with all sorts of thoughts and feelings, including fear, denial, anger, and guilt. The idea that their child may have a disability of any kind may be shocking, and it is normal for parents to react with intense emotions of disbelief, fear, and even shame in response to hearing the news. The reality is that before parents and caregivers can accept the fact that their child has a learning disability and work collaboratively with you as the therapist to support their child’s needs, they need time to adjust and process.
As with relaying any sensitive information, education is key. Parents may have an inaccurate definition or mental concept of what a learning disorder really is, and they may not even be familiar with the learning disabilities most common to adolescents. When you, as the therapist, suspect that a child you’re seeing in therapy has a learning challenge, or a parent you’re working with has just had this confirmed for them about their child, you can help the parents avoid jumping to conclusions or extreme hypotheticals by covering the preliminary basics up front.
What is a learning disorder?
A learning disorder is a cognitive inability to acquire knowledge in the same way as others in a particular age group. One in five children have a learning disability, and common learning disabilities for elementary and middle school children include: Dyslexia, ADHD, Dyscalculia, Dysgraphia, Dyspraxia, and Auditory Processing Disorder (also called Central Auditory Processing Disorder).
Warning signs of common learning disorders:1. Dyslexia
Children with dyslexia have a difficult time reading, writing, speaking, and comprehending verbal instructions.
Primary symptoms of Dyslexia:
- Writing letters backwards or flipped
- Difficulty with reading comprehension
- Delayed speech development
- Trouble comprehending instructions
Even though Attention Deficit Hyperactivity (ADHD) is not considered an official learning disability, it is common for children with ADHD to have another specific learning disability, and the two conditions together often cause learning challenges.
Primary symptoms of ADHD:
- Inability to sit still and concentrate
- Lack of basic organization skills
- Extreme forgetfulness
- Incapacity to be attentive
- Low motivation and drastic mood swings
3. DyscalculiaChildren with Dyscalculia have a specific struggle with understanding even the most basic concepts of math.
Primary symptoms of Dyscalculia:
- Struggling with measuring time and estimating/gauging duration
- Difficulty understanding order of operations
- General struggle with all things mathematical/numerical
Children with Dysgraphia struggle to write legibly or quickly and also find grammar to be an intensely challenging subject to grasp.
Primary symptoms of Dysgraphia:
- Lack of spatial awareness required for legible writing
- Difficulty holding a writing utensil properly
- Writing while speaking out loud
5. DyspraxiaDyspraxia presents itself in a variety of ways, however this learning disability primarily interferes with learning associated with hand-eye coordination skills. As a result, writing and participating physically with learning practices requiring fine-motor skills is challenging.
6. Auditory Processing Disorder
Auditory Processing Disorder impacts the way the brain hears and understands speech and spoken words. Children/adolescents with auditory processing challenges may struggle to differentiate between sounds (especially rhyming or similar sounds), comprehend what is being said, identify sound sources, or differentiate primary sounds from background noise.
Therapists are responsible for being familiar with the warning signs and symptoms of learning disabilities and working with caregivers to obtain the formal diagnosis necessary for supportive services to be secured. To this end, a therapist has three primary objectives when discussing learning disability concerns with a child’s caregivers.
How to support parents and children with learning disabilities
1. Advocate with compassion and transparent integrity.
Ultimately, the goal is to ensure that the child/adolescent receives the resources necessary to have their best chance to experience as much success as possible with all learning endeavors. If the child is an older adolescent who you suspect missed out on a proper diagnosis and treatment at an earlier age, then be sure to exercise additional care when communicating concerns to caregivers. There are many reasons why an adolescent may have missed out on early treatment such as access to suitable resources and support, pandemic learning related issues, prolonged illnesses, attribution of challenges in school to behavioral issues rather than learning disorder symptoms, multiple home placements, such as foster care, or frequent family moves..
2. Be proactive. As soon as you suspect a child or adolescent may have a learning disorder, speak up.
Early intervention is best. It is important to address and/or diagnose early for educational reasons and because delayed diagnosis and struggling without understanding why can lead to depression, low self-esteem, behavioral issues, and other developmental concerns.
3. Be a resource for helping parents obtain support services.
If you are unable to provide a particular form of support, then be a helpful resource and refer caregivers as appropriate so that they can get the help they need. Be sure to include telehealth providers, especially if the necessary supportive services are not readily available in the location your client needs help.
7 Tips for how to talk with parents about their child’s learning disabilities
If you suspect a learning disorder, it is important to help parents accept the child’s disability and work collaboratively with them to ensure the child/adolescent receives support. Here are seven effective strategies for talking with parents about their child’s learning disability.
- Mindfully tailor what you say to parents. Research indicates that the way in which a diagnosis is relayed and explained to caregivers has a powerful influence on the parent’s reaction. What you say to parents will also impact how they will communicate with others about their child’s diagnosis, including the child with the diagnosis, the child’s siblings, other family members, school, and more. When possible, help parents prepare for how they will talk to their child and others about their child’s strengths, challenges and needs.
- Hold space for authentic reactions. Between the shock of hearing the news and accepting and responding to the news, there is an adjustment process.. The stages of adjustment a caregiver experiences may include thoughts and feelings of denial, avoidance, fear, self-blame, or even anger. Your role as the therapist is to be compassionate, comforting, and supportive to help parents reach acceptance so that the important work of securing resources for the child can begin.
- Provide accurate information to normalize what is often seen as abnormal. The stigma that unfortunately surrounds disability concerns is unwarranted, and according to the National Center of Education Statistics, around 33% (or one-third) of grade school students receive some form of special education services. Thus, it is important to reassure parents that they are not alone, and there are many resources available to help them establish a new sense of normal. There are many current examples of leaders, inventors, and other role models who have overcome challenges and have made important contributions to the world. This awareness can provide parents and their kids with hope.
- Be prepared with a list of resources available to assist the child and parent. Caregivers often “don’t know what to do” when they are informed that their child may have a learning disability, so it is very important to have the next steps for securing diagnosis, treatment, and supportive resources at the ready. To avoid information overload, you may establish rapport with parents by directly asking them how much and what types of communication they find helpful. Respected sources of learning disability related information includes Child Mind Institute, Learning Disabilities Association of America, Understood, LDOnine, and Center for Parent Information and Resources.
- Be honest. There is always hope, so articulating hope is both useful and comforting, however be cautious to not give false hope as this can lead to unrealistic expectations and disappointment.
- Encourage questions. Discovering that their child has a learning disability can cause shame within many caregivers. This is due in part to the stigma surrounding learning disabilities but may also be ascribed to a sense of guilt, especially for older children who may have gone undiagnosed during more formative years. As with most complex emotions, feelings of shame and guilt can result in silence, and some reassurances and promptings for questions may be helpful.
- Support your clients through all stages of adjustment and even after acceptance has been achieved. Caregivers are often overwhelmed with grief when they learn that their child is unable to fulfill any subconscious wish they may have had for an “ideal” or “normal” child. It is important to reassure parents by pointing out the many avenues for progressive success to occur. Remember, parents are a child’s primary support system. If you discern that a caregiver is having a particularly difficult time adjusting, individual parental counseling or coaching for additional support may be recommended.