THE BLOG

5 Ways You are Failing Students With Learning Disabilities (and What to Do About It)

02/25/2015 03:29 pm ET | Updated Apr 27, 2015
Bonnie Schupp via Getty Images

I worked as a learning specialist at a day school for a decade, teaching students with learning disabilities how to successfully navigate the rigorous academic landscape. Be sure to take special note of the past tense in that sentence.

After 10 years, I was done. No more conforming to niceties. No more saying one thing and then having to do another. It was time to speak my truth, in service to parents and students. I've since partnered with my sister (a former teacher herself--we once had adjoining classrooms) to launch a business that creates academic transformation by helping students, and their parents, get honest, real, and take consistent action.

Of the many gifts I gleaned during my tenure as learning specialist, one was a front row seat to parent-child, parent-teacher, and child-teacher interactions. As team lead for more than 50 middle and high school students each semester, it was my job to be in the thick of just about everything. Talk about an opportunity to mine some serious human interaction gold! From avoided homework assignments and parents' ill-fated attempts to motivate struggling students, to the resulting communication breakdowns that left students feeling small and unheard and parents feeling overwhelmed and terrified, I often sensed an underlying, albeit unspoken uneasiness around the diagnosis of learning disabilities.

My takeaway is this: we all have our own reality defining sets of experiences and beliefs, which affect how we deal with situations, especially the difficult ones. Through the years, and with coaching training under my belt, I came to identify both ineffective and productive ways to deal with the emotional impact of learning disabilities. I've outlined these below, with strategies and a whole bunch of frankness and love, just for you.

ONE: Giving the learning disability diagnosis too much weight. Before you roll your eyes and stop reading, please hear me out. I fully acknowledge that learning disabilities are a legitimate disadvantage, cause struggle, and can make school even harder. The proper interventions, supports, and strategies need to be in place. That said, I've seen countless fear-stricken parents completely tense and panic, talking about the student's helplessness -- right in front of the child. The result? A tense, fearful, and overwhelmed kid seriously doubting his abilities and stuck in learned helplessness. Not exactly the stuff from which strong academic foundations are made. Yes, students should absolutely be involved in the conversation of strengths and opportunities for learning; however, I'm a firm believer that it's not what you say, but how you say it. Check yourself. If you've been coming from a fear-stricken place of powerlessness, there's a better way.

MINDSET SHIFT: It's not the hand life deals you that matters, it's how you deal with it. Bottom line, do what you need to do to move through your fears, but not in front of your child. Your job is to be cheerleader, not fearleader, regardless of how bleak the situation may feel in the moment. If you can't envision what's possible, your child never will. Beliefs affect resulting choices and behavior. Just like how a person who views himself as a capable work in progress would probably do the work to create successful outcomes, someone who sees himself as a hot mess with little promise would most likely behave in destructive ways to prove the belief. Same goes for your child.

POWER MANTRA: It might take some extra work, but you're just as capable as anyone else.

TWO: Ignoring the situation completely. Nope. That's not productive either. I've had my fair share of hive-inducing conversations with parents who, masking their pain and fear with frustration and seething anger just couldn't understand why their children couldn't "get it together." Not surprisingly, those were also the parents who couldn't fathom why their kids lied about overdue assignments and poor grades. While it's important to have high expectations to set the tone for what a child can accomplish, meeting students where they are is crucial. It's a way of saying, "I see you, and I hear you, and I'm here to help you identify solutions." That's the special sauce that creates the space for a child to make mistakes, to stretch beyond perceived limits, and to feel as good as possible during the process. Otherwise, unaddressed and taboo issues are a breeding ground for negative feelings, shame and fear. When a kid feels "not good enough," or fully accepted as is, all potential for progress slows to a halt.

MINDSET SHIFT: Acknowledge the struggle and look for gap bridging opportunities. Refrain from expressing your own emotions and fears while engaging with your child in an open and ongoing dialogue around school-related struggles. Find opportunities to recognize challenges and coach the child through problem solving opportunities.

POWER MANTRA: You're enough just as you are, and how you do in school has nothing to do with who you are as a person.

THREE: Succumbing to the victim mentality. Interestingly, I've seen this from parents as well as students. From parents of capable students I've heard whiny, fear-drenched, "How on earth is she going to make it, ever?" To that I say, "Nope, not if you don't see it as a possibility and believe in your child 100 percent." Sure, he or she may not be a straight A student, and that's okay, but progress is always possible. From students, I've heard things like "I can't pay attention or be quiet because I have ADHD," with an air of entitlement, pretty much like a get-out-of-jail-free card. And because kids tend to take their cues from their parents, where do you think that mentality came from? I'd like to call serious BS on that. Sure, progress might not come easily, but by setting the right intentions, partnering with teachers and coaches to create effective strategies, and committing to doing the work, then that's when academic and personal growth can happen.

MINDSET SHIFT: Borrow this gem from Vanilla Ice: "If there's a problem, yo I'll solve it." Powerlessness and empowerment are both choices. A negative mindset hides solutions, and a positive mindset creates the space for limitless possilbilites.

POWER MANTRA: You have the power to choose how to respond to tough situations; list the ways you have the power to change your situation right now.

FOUR: Not advocating properly. Notice my strategic use of the word properly. There's the high maintenance parent who teachers all secretly roll their eyes at and talk about. Constantly checking in. Not putting the onus on the student. Blaming teachers, guidance counselors, anyone really, for the lack of follow-through on his or her part. Don't be that parent. It's ineffective, rooted in fear, and ultimately not in your child's best interest. Then there's the parent who is tuned in to his child's challenges and strengths. Not necessarily always fearless, but rooted in the belief that her child is capable and everything will work out, eventually. From there, she looks for opportunities to partner with teachers in a way that allows the student to take ownership and become a stronger learner in the process. Can you feel the shift in energy just from the descriptions? From frenetic and stress-inducing, to calm and purpose-driven. Be that parent. It's much more productive for everyone involved, and ultimately sets your child up for success.

MINDSET SHIFT: Actively put your child in the "driver's seat," even if you and his teachers are secretly steering. The whole point of school, and especially if the child struggles with learning disabilities, is to give the student the right tools and strategies to ultimately be independent and successful. Find opportunities to do just that.

POWER MANTRA: My child is team lead, and I'm an avid supporter, here to do what I can to help him adopt successful work habits and learning strategies.

FIVE: Fearing failure. Never underestimate the power of just the right amount of setback, if leveraged properly. My definition of failure here is purposely broad. From piling overdue homework assignments, to unfinished and conveniently "forgotten" essays, even poor test grades due to ineffective or nonexistent studying, what's important is that each setback provides a fantastic opportunity to coach your child through identifying what's not working and how to change his or her approach. Notice I didn't say you should default into fear mode and get really angry at your child and his teachers. Trust me, your kid feels bad enough already, even if he'll never let you see that. Focusing on the negative in the situation with emotionally charged fear and anger will cause your child to feel worse, overwhelmed, helpless and eventually shut down. To harness that small window, where the twinge of defeat ignites a desire to come back strong, the key is to provide a safe (yell free) space filled with neutral and open communication, where the child can express what didn't work and what he wants to do about it. Talk about opening the door for the child to come up with his own solutions. Empowering stuff, and a very important ingredient necessary for the child to take ownership of the learning process.

MINDSET SHIFT: Failure is actually a fantastic opportunity to establish buy-in. With less fear and anger in the equation, the student then has the space to process his accountability in the situation, identify solutions, and take action. The end result is increased responsibility, initiative, and follow-through.

POWER MANTRA: Setbacks are important learning opportunities; what matters is what he knows now and can do moving forward.

Want tips to help take the stress out of schoolwork? Click here to download 10 Power Questions to Transform Any Student From Hot Mess to Academic Success.