Early in my teaching career, I worked in a substantially separate special education classroom for middle school students with significant disabilities. Many of these students had a diagnosis on the autism spectrum while others had cognitive impairment of varying severity. With some of these students, their impairments were so significant that they were unlikely to notice the extent of their differences from their peers. They got all their instruction with me in the small group classroom, with the exception of art, gym, and music. While they attended lunch and recess and social activities with their middle school peers, they needed the support of small group instruction at their academic level for their other classes.
One graduation night, I was in my classroom with a couple colleagues getting ready for the ceremony. A young adult we didn’t know came in and said, “I used to come in this classroom when I was in middle school. I never got the point of being in here. What do you teach?”
I hesitated, wondering if this young woman was unaware that she had been in special education in middle school. I knew of her, because some of her siblings were still at the school, but I had never met her when she went to school there. I didn’t really know much about her as a learner, except now I knew that she had been in my specialized program as a middle schooler.
I said, “Well, teachers have figured out that some students do their best learning in a big class with about 20 other students and different teachers all day long. Other middle schoolers do their best learning in a small group classroom where they have the same teacher for all their subjects.” She nodded and said goodbye. She seemed satisfied with that answer. But it made me think: what is the best way to tell students about their learning differences and when should they be told?
Now I have been working with a different population of learners. Many of the students I work with have specific learning disabilities in reading, writing or math. Some have diagnosis of dyslexia. I still work with some students on the autism spectrum and others with a variety of diagnoses, including ADHD. While many of these students are younger, I’m starting to wonder at what point they need to be told they have a disability.
While it’s certainly not my place to tell students any information that their parents haven’t explained to them, I do often have to have challenging conversations with students who are noticing their differences from peers and feeling like some of the work is too hard for them or than what they’re being asked to do is not fair.
It seems like third grade is the time that many students start to express this. By that point, everyone in the class knows which students have to leave the classroom to go to another teacher for reading, and which students are either never called on to read out loud or struggle and look miserable when they do get called on. In many classrooms, students protect and help the students who are struggling most. They often will take the lead in reading if they have a struggling reader in their group or jump in to help someone spell a word if they think it’s a difficult one. But 3rd grade is also the time when many of my students begin to wonder what’s wrong with them or begin to see themselves as stupid.
In my lessons with them, I do several things to combat that perception. First of all, I make a point to focus on the strengths of each of my students. Students with terrific vocabularies get asked to teach word meanings to their peers. Students who have had lots of explicit phonics instruction are called on to identify the vowels in a word because while many other students may be able to read the word, not all are able to analyze it in the same detail as my students who have had extensive Orton-Gillingham instruction. I make it a point to call on students to share their background knowledge about sports, or fishing, or animals, if I know it’s an area of interest and strength.
But I also frequently have to talk to students about their weaknesses. The way I do this is I start to ask them questions about things that are easy for them and things that are harder as young as kindergarten and first grade. These young students often have a great deal of difficulty identifying their best subject or their weaker ones. In fact, they often tell me that their favorite class is the one they’re struggling in most. Sometimes I wonder if that’s because that is when they get the most adult attention and help. But older students, beginning in about second grade, can pretty clearly tell me what they can and can’t do. They might say “I love to write but I’m bad at spelling.” Or, “I know all my math facts, but I’m not a good reader.”
For these students, I validate their experience, but I reframe it. If they say “I’m not good at spelling.” I say, “I’ve noticed that sometimes you have trouble remembering how words are spelled. Sometimes I see that you get all the consonant sounds right in your words but you mix up the vowel sounds. Is that what you notice, too?” I want them to analyze specifically what they can and can’t do so that they’ll be able to see their own progress. I also don’t want them to think of themselves as being bad at something. Having a growth mindset means that they see their struggles as goals they have not yet accomplished. When we think of skills that way, students are able to see that they make progress from week to week, month to month, and year to year.
These discussions about strengths and weaknesses are the same ones any parent can have with any child, regardless of whether they have a disability. But I think they’re especially important to have with children who struggle particularly in one academic area. It shouldn’t be a secret that students read slower than their peers. The teacher knows it, the parent knows it, and it’s important that we tell the student what we know. They should know that their area of difficulty is not something to be ashamed of. We know it’s not because of lack of effort. And we’re working hard to try to help them develop that skill. They need to know that.
After these conversations about strength and weakness, as a parent, you may want to give the child a name for those difficulties. I worked with one first grader who was incredibly proud to tell me that the reason he couldn’t do the spelling I was asking him to do was that he had dyslexia. What he hadn’t figured out yet is that’s why we worked together in the first place, but those realizations come with time.
Telling your children the name for the struggles they are experiencing can feel scary. The anxiety you may have had about their diagnosis and your worries about what will happen as they grow up may make you want to hide this information from your child. But I believe this is misguided. You can avoid naming your child’s learning disability, but you can’t protect them from it. They live in a world of struggling to read or not being able to remember math facts. In fact, giving a name to the thing that can frustrate and overwhelm them can give them a lot of power.
These discussions can happen over the course of years, as you feel your child is mature enough to understand different things about their way of learning. Just like with any part of parenting, discussing a child’s learning disability is a long journey. But if you gradually give them information and responsibility, they will be much more ready to take on the self-advocacy and planning responsibilities required to help them succeed in school, college, the workplace and other facets of their lives.