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9 Signs You Are The Superstar Parent of a Struggling Learner

Geoff Nixon

By Geoff Nixon

Tips on Raising A Child With A Learning Disability

When parents discover that their child is a struggling learner, there are a lot of unknowns. Does this mean he can’t participate in certain activities at school? Will she need assistive technology?  Should I hire a tutor or look at options to resolve the underlying learning issues?

As a superstar parent of a child with learning difficulties you probably use most or all of these best practices.

#1. You are flexible.

First and foremost, superstar parents of children with learning issues are consistently flexible. They know that their child could run into unexpected challenges when faced with a given task. They let go of their assumptions about what their child should do and instead focus on what their child can do.

The superstar parent understands that the struggling learner’s trajectory is going to be different than the one dictated by Common Core or state standards at school and it will also be different from his peers.  He will likely need a lot more time developing the fundamentals in reading, and in the early years at least, will need a lot more time for homework.

As a parent, you, more than anyone else on the planet, have a good feel for the pace of learning that is right for your child.  If that means the school is asking too much in terms of homework, risking turning your child off learning altogether, you are flexible — you do what’s right for your child based on what he can do, not on what he should do. And you make decisions that are right for your child long-term, not what teachers and others (who won’t be around in the long-term) want your child to do right now.

#2. You look for opportunities outside learning for you child to succeed.

Learning requires confidence.  It requires investing time and energy in material you might not understand to try to understand it.  Confident learners tend to go from strength to strength — they take chances, they don’t mind a bit of failure, they are energized by challenges — this is called the Matthew Effect (Keith Stanovich, 1983).

The story for struggling learners is very different.  If the end result, time and again, is failure to understand, frustration builds and natural born confidence erodes.

As a superstar parent you understand the importance of allowing talents to develop — away from learning — as a way to build confidence. This may be a sport, drama, music, hobby, game or favorite pass-time. While you understand that your child will have to spend more time on learning than most children — learning to read, doing homework, studying for tests — you trade this off against the absolute need to maintain and build your child’s sense of self worth and to keep the confidence reservoir as full as possible.

#3. You know the difference between frustration and lack of motivation.

To begin to understand the point of view of a child who has a learning disability, parents should think about a task that’s especially difficult for them personally. Perhaps exercise is exhausting, boring and seemingly impossible because of an old injury, or maybe the idea of singing in front of a crowd elicits anxiety.

The thing is: Parents usually have a choice regarding whether or not they will participate in activities that are hard to do -– children typically don’t. Learning is a child’s day job!  Imagine having to sing in public every day if you couldn’t sing in tune!  Children have to learn new things all the time, whether it’s on the playground, at school or in their own homes, and when the task of learning is made difficult because of a disability, they may very well shut down.

Sometimes, when children shut down out of frustration, they present the frustration in a way that makes it appear as if they don’t care. In the classroom, a frustrated child might put his head down on the desk, for example, or draw instead of completing an assignment. At home, children may whine or avoid specific tasks by leaving the room or using conversation as a diversion.

Superstar parents, instead of believing their children are “lazy,” or “unmotivated,” can recognize patterns of frustration and adjust accordingly. If a child refuses to read independently because it’s “boring,” her parent may instead read to her, provide a book on tape, or give her the option to read a different text. Chances are, the child will decide that reading is no longer “boring” once it’s presented in a more accessible manner.

#4. You play the long game to build a love of learning.

As a superstar parent of a child who is struggling daily you realize there is a trade-off between keeping up with the rest of the class today and maintaining a positive connection to reading and learning tomorrow.  If day-to-day reading and learning involves frustration, anxiety or tension, your child may disengage.

The stress and frustration involved in keeping up takes its toll.  On the other hand, you want your child to stay in touch with his class. Finding the right balance has become even more challenging in this era of standardized testing where schools are under immense pressure to get all children onto the same learning schedule, regardless of their learning differences.  In reality, today, this preservation of love of learning is a challenge for all parents.

While you want your child to love reading and learning, if he is not good at learning, this is going to be difficult.  This is where the superstar status comes in:  Difficult, but not impossible.

Instead of insisting on a child reading each night, you will read to your child for as many years as it takes.  There are a lot of superstar parents reading to their middle schoolers, for instance.

As a superstar parent you are protective also of what your child reads.  You are not impatient for progress, pressing your child to read books that are too hard.  You use tools like the Accelerated Reader Bookfinder to assess the difficulty of a book, and then select books that are in your child’s reading wheelhouse.

There’s no reason that a child who loves comics and graphic novels should be deterred from reading them; many of them have themes that are more complex in comparison to those found in traditional YA or children’s literature. Of course parents can encourage children to read at bedtime, but giving them choices in regard to what they read will help them find more enjoyment in the task.

Additionally, many children who have learning disabilities have great success with hands-on learning experiences. Parents can cook with their children to help them learn math, use the Internet to watch videos that supplement what they’re learning in history class, and take them outside to learn about biology. Superstar parents know that to instill a love of learning in a child who has a disability, it’s especially important to keep things upbeat, engaging and fun.

#5. You know which strategies can help.

There are so many strategies that are proven, successful learning supports for children who have disabilities. According to a report by The National Institute for Child Health and Human Development (2012), tools that benefit children with learning disabilities include:

  • Use of technological devices (tape/video recorders, computers and speech-to-text software)
  • Visual supports (pictures of concepts, color-coding)
  • Memory aids (rhymes, mnemonic devices)
  • Specialized techniques (multi-sensory approaches to reading)
  • Occupational therapy (helping the student master daily living tasks)
  • A quiet environment
  • Alerting the child in advance (providing agendas/describing expectations)

Superstar parents determine which strategies work best for their individual child, and do what they can to provide access to the tools that benefit.

#6. You listen, you validate.

Children with learning disabilities are often quite perceptive about their own struggles and limitations. They may often say to their parents that they “can’t do” something, and a parent’s inclination is usually to reply, “but of course you can!”

However, by not validating the child’s feelings, the parent isn’t really listening to what the child is saying. In the 2012 edition of How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk, Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish write, “Resist the temptation to ‘make better’ instantly. Instead of giving advice, continue to accept and reflect on your child’s feelings” — validate her thinking.  In other words, if a child says he “can’t” do something, it’s probably because he honestly believes it. If his parents negate his feelings, he’ll think they’re not listening or don’t understand his difficulties.

A sign of a superstar parent is the regular acknowledgement of their child’s feelings. Another interesting book on this subject is “Parenting From The Inside Out” by Dr. Dan Siegel and Mary Hartzell. To the child who says he “can’t,” a superstar parent might reply, “Yes, I can see this is hard for you.”

Both sets of authors (Faber & Mazlish and Siegel & Hartzell) note that it’s unnecessary to respond to a child’s negative emotion with advice. In fact, it is is recommended to avoid “educating” as there is enough of that going on in your child’s life. As a superstar parent simply validating — accepting and understanding his or her feelings — provides comfort and a helps to build confidence that will eventually lead to maturation and learning.

#7. You develop a structured routine.

All children can benefit from a structured routine, but for struggling learners structure is particularly crucial. Academic work or at-home activities such as reading, having a discussion, and completing daily chores can cause a great deal of anxiety.  It’s important for them to be able to anticipate and expect what’s ahead.

For example, if a child comes home from school on Tuesday and plays until it’s time for dinner, he may expect to do the same on Wednesday. If on Wednesday his parent asks him to spend a half hour reading before dinner (and if reading is a difficult task for him), he will likely feel disappointment.

As a superstar parent you ensure your child is always aware of the expectations at home and at school. Perhaps every day after school, the child has a quick snack and subsequently completes her homework; to help her understand that the homework process isn’t endless, her parents set a visible timer for a half hour. As long as the child is actively working during that half hour, when the timer is finished she is free to move to the next part of her routine.

Difficult activities like homework or chores become less of a struggle if they are integrated into a daily routine and the child is made aware of the time she is expected to spend on it.

#8. You offset the negativity at school with a positive reinforcement at home.

One of the most predictive statistics of a child’s life outcome is the ratio of positive to negative sentiments they hear.  Children who hear 6:1 or better positive to negative are considered to have been brought up in a healthy environment.  In fact, at least one study suggests 6:1 is an average for children in a professional home.

Children who have learning disabilities face a lot of scrutiny from teachers, other children and the adults in their lives, all who make assumptions about their reactive behavior, silence or apparent lack of motivation. And so they receive a lot of negative comments during the school day and sometimes even from their sports coach, especially if attention is an issue.

The superstar parent knows she must be more positive than normal at home to compensate for this adverse positive to negative ratio outside the home.  She uses positive reinforcement instead of taking punitive action.

Simply put, parents who use positive reinforcement focus not on what the child does wrong, but what he or she does right. This doesn’t mean children should be free to take any actions they’d like, but instead that parents should actively look for moments of success and focus on them whenever possible – no matter how seemingly short or insignificant those moments may initially appear.

Positive reinforcement helps children build confidence — many children with learning disabilities struggle daily with their self-esteem — and helps keep a generally positive daily vibe around your child.

#9. You are an advocate for your child.

Superstar parents do their best to learn about their child’s disability and find out what they can do to help. There are three themes:

  1. Use strengths to build on weaknesses
  2. Get as much support in school as possible
  3. Explore ways to target the underlying learning difficulties

Use strengths to build on weaknesses

The classic story here is getting a young boy interested in math by using baseball stats, but the scenarios are endless.  An interest in music can help develop social skills (in a group) or a work ethic (through practicing something he loves), etc.  As a parent, you are the best placed to identify strengths or areas of high interest that can become conduits for developing other skills.

Once identified, you as the superstar parent advocate for your child to make sure he has an opportunity to follow his passion so that the other benefits will flow.  For instance, if the passion is music, you will always be on the lookout for opportunities to be involved in music, even if this means you may need to twist some arms if your child’s musical skills are still a work in progress!

Find support at school

For parents of children who are eligible for special education services, navigating the technical language in an Individualized Education Plan can be daunting and disheartening. The National Center for Learning Disabilities offers an online Parent Guide that includes a section on the “most important questions to ask” a child’s teachers and providers.

Target the underlying source of learning difficulty

Becoming an advocate for a child also means looking at ways to help them overcome their learning issues.  We now know there are a number of software programs and one-on-one therapies to help reading and learning issues of all stripes.  By doing a little bit of research, you as a superstar parent understand the source of your child’s learning difficulties and the treatment options.

Some learning treatments are only suitable for older children, while others are quite intense, meaning they may be better completed over summer.  While the timing may not be immediate, you keep yourself in the loop on these learning treatment options and on any new developments in the field by subscribing to great free resources like understood.org, forums and Facebook support groups.

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