Talking to Your Child About Their Learning Difference

As a parent, you only want the best for your child. So, when you or someone else notices that they’re struggling in school or with homework, it can be an overwhelming experience for all involved. This article intends to inform and educate on learning differences as well as offer tips for parents on how they can talk to their child about their learning differences.

What is the Difference Between a Learning Difficulty and a Learning Disability?

Learning difficulties are commonly misunderstood and are frequently confused with learning disabilities. Although there continues to be debate regarding terminology, in accordance with Mencap, UK learning disability charity, learning difficulties and learning disabilities are not the same. A learning difficulty can be defined as something which affects an individual’s learning as a result of medical, emotional, or language problems and will affect how they take in process and act upon information from their environment. Examples of SpLDs (Specific Learning Differences):

  • Dysgraphia – difficulties relating to handwriting, spelling, and organising thoughts, which can affect writing.
  • Dyslexia – difficulties relating to how words break down, which can affect reading, writing, and spelling.
  • Dyspraxia – difficulties with fine and gross motor skills, which can affect coordination, balance, and movement.
  • Dyscalculia – difficulties with numbers, which can affect performing mathematical calculations. Children may struggle with understanding the concept of biggest vs. smallest, counting money, or estimating distance or time.
  • ADHD – also known as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. This can cause difficulty with attention span, easily becoming distracted, or impulsive behaviour. Please note, that ADHD is sometimes described as a SpLD. However, it can also be categorised as a diagnosis in its own right, that can co-occur with SpLDs.

Today we use the term neurodiversity to describe the different thinking styles that affect how people communicate with the world around them. This is an umbrella term that sums up lots of different things including autism, ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia dyscalculia and Tourette’s syndrome.

A learning disability is a neurological condition which can make it difficult to perform certain tasks due to their ability to process information. Some conditions associated with learning difficulties include Down syndrome and Williams syndrome. For more information on learning disabilities, we signpost you to the Mencap website.

When’s the Best Time to Explain?

Signs that your child has a learning difference may appear before they start school but can become more apparent once they are of school age.

The specific age whereby a child can undergo a diagnostic assessment for a SpLD will vary between conditions. Deciding when it’s right to talk to your child about their diagnosis is only a decision that you can make. It can be tough to find what the best solution for you is, as one big concern is often that parents are worried about their child having a label and subsequently feeling different to their peers.

We all have to learn a range of skills as we progress through life, and it is important to remember that everyone learns these at different speeds.

You may be tempted to shield your child from thinking about their learning differences but by addressing them, you will be able to provide your child with tools and techniques to support their unique learning style.

Finding the Right Words

A diagnosis of a learning difficulty may mean that your child requires extra support. This could be within the school or from an external specialist who can provide tuition. When explaining this to your child, use clear and concise language. For example, some people struggle with reading/writing/numbers, and this is nobody’s fault – everyone’s brain works differently! Explain what this means for them in that they may find aspects of school harder than others. But this doesn’t have to hold them back from achieving their aspirations, even if it means learning differently to get there. 

Discuss What Their Learning Difference Means Beyond the Label

Labels such as dyslexia, dyspraxia etc do not mean much without explanation. You will need to help your child to understand what their diagnosis means for them. For example, you can talk about the fact that everyone has different ways that they like to learn. Some people are visual learners and love to learn by reading books or looking at pictures. But there are also auditory learners who prefer to learn by listening to lectures and talking things through. Similarly, there are kinaesthetic learners who prefer hands-on learning activities.

Think of This as an Ongoing Conversation and Share Information Gradually

It is never too early to talk to your child about their differences, but you will need to explain them in a way that they understand, and this will change depending on their age. You do not want to overwhelm them with too much information too soon. A good way to do this would be to share some information and then allow your child to process this before sharing a little bit more. This will give them time to process what they have heard and apply it to their lives. They can always come back to you later for more information. Just remember to have these conversations when your child is free and not distracted.

Emphasise Their Strengths and Encourage Them to Nurture Them

All of us have strengths and weaknesses, and your child is no different, so it is important that they realise this. Having a learning difference is nothing to be ashamed of, but for some children, it can affect their self-confidence. Think about compiling a list of what they are good at and then discuss how they can nurture these strengths. Most importantly, this will teach them to see life as a whole, filled with both good and bad experiences. So, for every weakness they might be sad about, there’s a strength waiting for us to celebrate.

Discuss Life Skills That Might Help When Things Get Tough

There are life skills that can help children become more resilient. For example, there’s the idea of setting goals and working towards them. These are powerful tools worth teaching your child about. Perhaps together you can set some simple goals (e.g., perform a song for the family, finish their homework on time for a week, etc.) and outline the steps to achieve them? You may need to help them deal with any obstacles that may arise, so be prepared for that. These sorts of parent-child challenges will bring you both closer while teaching your child the skills to be more self-sufficient.

Teach Your Child to Ask for Help When Needed

Encouraging your child to ask for help reinforces the idea that they do not need to hide or be ashamed of their learning differences. As they discover more about themselves, encourage them to share these with others. Teach them to share these discoveries with others. For example, at school, this openness gives the teacher a chance to accommodate your child’s needs.

Celebrate Motivational Stories and Examples of Other People with Learning Differences

It’ll help your child to know that their learning difficulties do not have to hold them back. A great way of doing this is to share the success stories of people they admire. For example, Ludwig van Beethoven had dyslexia, Daniel Radcliffe has dyspraxia, Justin Timberlake has ADHD and there are so many more successful people who are neurodivergent and learn differently. Remember though, this could also be the stories of friends and family.

Use Person-First Language

Try and use person-first language, which puts people before a diagnosis. For example, “You have dyslexia”, as opposed to “You’re dyslexic”. As your child becomes older, their preference for this may change, but person-first language puts less emphasis on their diagnosis being the entirety of their identity as opposed to just a small part of who they are. 

Be Open to Questions

It’s unlikely that after first speaking to your child about their diagnosis, the conversation will end. Continuing to communicate with them can create an open space for your child to feel comfortable talking to you about what they’re struggling with and ask any further questions they might have.

You might not be an expert on their condition, so may not have all the answers, but this can be a great time to educate yourself with as much knowledge as possible to best know how to help them.

There is an abundance of resources available that can support and educate your family. Whether your child has already been diagnosed, is showing signs, or you’d simply like to find out more, the following resources can point you in the best direction for further advice and specialist support.