Learning Disabilities: Telling a New Story

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I was diagnosed with a learning disability in first grade, and every day for ten years after I struggled in every way imaginable.

I was scared, hurt, angry, and defiant. Apparently there was only one way to teach and one way to learn. That’s what I was told. Because I didn’t conform to standards, plop went the label and down went the image I had of myself.

It wasn’t my difficulty with learning that dragged me down; it was the label, the treatment, the role of someone who is broken. Once that seed was planted, it spread to every corner and took root so deeply that a decade passed before it was trimmed down. To be honest, part of it remains.

My schoolwork suffered, my relationships with teachers and friends suffered, and my mental and emotional states more than suffered—they were devastated. I had accepted the label of “stupid,” and wore it around my neck like a two-ton weight, dragging it with me everywhere I went.

It’s clear why self-esteem and confidence play such a large role in my work with teens. I’ve been in their shoes and have experienced the pain. I also found a way out.

I may never work directly with your teen, but what follows can certainly help any child, at any age, discover inside themselves the strength and determination to turn a so-called learning disability into a life-changing advantage. There are many ways to teach, many ways to learn. If your child doesn’t fit the mold of one, don’t worry. There are many other ways for them to shine.

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1. Labels: Labels matter. In a world that can lean too far toward political correctness, people grow tired of being told to use this word and not that. I get it. Sometimes we need to stop putting so much time and effort into a word and instead focus on the actual problem. When it comes to labelling someone with a learning disability, however, the warnings are warranted. The instant that label seeps into a young mind, confidence begins to break down. No longer are they Jack and Jill; they’re now dumb and disabled. They live it, they breathe it, and they can become consumed by it. As a parent, it’s your job to ensure friends, family, and especially teachers avoid “disability” and opt for “difference.”

2. The Facts: There is more than one way to learn. Your child needs to learn a new story and this is its heart. He or she may not fit the standard practice, may not follow the standard path. That doesn’t mean the path to learning is blocked for good. It only means a new way is needed, a way that works with their strengths and natural processes.

3. Priorities: When your child is working through these struggles, it’s important as a parent to reassess your priorities. Grades shouldn’t be the one and only measurement of your child’s progress or success. School is just one facet of life, albeit an important one. You don’t want to ignore school performance, but you also don’t want to ignore the other areas such as sports, music, art, relationships, etc. Ease the stress and build on the positive by seeing and speaking to your child as a whole, not one piece.

4. What’s Working: We need to counteract the challenge in learning. Confidence-building is one of my favorite antidotes. Ask your child or teen about what’s working in their lives. Where do they excel? What do they love to do? Where do they forget about their struggle and truly flourish? Again, think beyond school subjects (though they can certainly be a part). When you pinpoint areas of excellence, dig in. “It just comes naturally” isn’t helpful here. We need to identify specific reasons they excel so you can build their confidence with proof of ability and not wishy washy luck and circumstance.

5. Pattern Interrupts: It’s hard to stop a mental pattern that has been playing unchecked for months or even years. That’s where you come in. Interrupt your child’s thoughts pattern when you sense they’re going down the rabbit hole of frustration or hopelessness. Snap them out of it by reinforcing their new story, their story of “different,” their story of “whole picture,” their story of “areas of excellence.” Break the pattern and replace it with one that uplifts and drives forward.

6. Models: It’s hard to tackle this challenge alone. Feeling like you’re the only one who is suffering drags down the soul. But when you realize you’re not alone? When you realize others not only faced the same challenges but thrived? That changes everything. You have a comrade. You have hope. You have proof that something more is possible. You can find the right models depending on the differences you’re dealing with, but here’s a quick example: Dyslexia can feel like a mountain of a challenge, but it never stopped da Vinci, Alexander Graham Bell, Einstein, or billionaire Richard Branson from living a successful life.

Hearing that your child is different is never easy. But different is not disabled. By taking a leading role in your child’s development—and helping them tell a new story—you can avoid the damage of the label and replace it with the strength and confidence to turn a challenge into an life-changing advantage.