As a school psychologist who has worked in a specialized academic setting with children diagnosed with language based learning disabilities, I have too often encountered countless numbers of genuinely bright children who sincerely believed they were just plain stupid. Often this erroneous conclusion is drawn when children have no other way to explain their learning differences to themselves.
I’ve found that for most of these children, there was a general misunderstanding about the learning differences they have. Although they could name their learning disability (LD), they lacked an understanding of what an LD is and how to comprehend the nature of their own challenges within the context of their learning differences. It is very important to explain learning disabilities to children.
Griffin was brought to my office by his language arts teacher when he was nine years old. He appeared younger than his age with radiant green eyes and curly red hair.
Griffin had a history of crying during language arts class. In the first grade it was endearing and easily remedied with a hug from the teacher. However, now in the fourth grade, classmates ridiculed him over his emotional outbursts. When he perceived he didn’t know an answer, which occurred quite frequently, Griffin cried.
Despite great efforts to do his best, Griffin’s weakness in writing far exceeded his strengths. He had an excruciating time conveying his thoughts and ideas in written format. As Griffin walked hesitantly into my office, I heard him whisper “No one can help me. My brain is broken.” His shoulders slumped, his chin met his chest, Griffin appeared defeated.
A crucial understanding
A learning disability is a neurological glitch that creates differences in how the brain is wired. These differences make it difficult to acquire certain basic academic skills appropriate for an individual’s age, level of intelligence, and education. It is not yet known what causes LD, however it often has a genetic component, a characteristic that runs in families (National Center for Learning Disabilities, 2001; Pennington and Gilger, 1996).
The most common LD is dyslexia, which is a language-based LD (Shaywitz, 1998). Though there is no single indicator, individuals with language-based LD experience difficulties acquiring and using language. For example, common problems include learning the sounds of letters, accurate and fluid word recognition, spelling, comprehending what is read, copying letters and numbers, retrieving words, organizing thoughts into spoken or written form, and associated memory difficulties. (IDA, 2008). Many individuals also struggle with their ability to make and sustain friendships which may be due in part to social immaturity and difficulty interpreting social cues (IDA, 2004).
If unaware of a child’s learning differences, parents and teachers can see a child with exceptional qualities who does not try hard enough. This could not be further from the truth. The child with LD exerts great effort to complete difficult tasks. Yet without adequate supports, they often fail.
When these bright and motivated children fail, they often have no idea why. Those children who lack an understanding of their learning challenges may be at risk of developing depression (Bender, 1994; IDA, 2004) or anxiety disorder (Stein and Hoover, 1989). Some symptoms borne of children’s frustration and negative feelings are: defying parents and teachers, lashing out at siblings and peers, ignoring rules, crying easily, preferring to be alone, developing sleep and/or eating issues, and suffering somatic complaints such as stomachaches and headaches.
Many parents report that they don’t want to talk to their children about LD for fear that talking about LD makes a child feel different. Acknowledging that their child has a learning issue may provoke in parents feelings of guilt or shame. For some it might even trigger personal feelings of helplessness since they too struggled with an LD in their childhood.
But in my experience I’ve seen that that the parent who avoids talk of LD in the home often fosters a sense of denial that inhibits their child from seeking the help they need. I encourage parents to find a way to explain LD to their child. Whether they do it themselves or seek guidance from school counselors or teachers, it is crucial that each child understands their learning differences.
Sienna was in the third grade when she was brought to my office for the first time. Her teachers reported concern that after two years at the school, she hadn’t made friends and rarely participated during recess.
Sienna was a charming eight year old with twinkling blue eyes and jet black hair. She favored pink converse sneakers to match the array of colorful hair barrettes she wore. One on one, she was quite bubbly and personable and loved to share stories about exciting family vacations and adventures with her laboradoodle. In addition, she was an impressive artist. However, at recess, Sienna presented as a different person. What I observed supported her teachers’ concerns. During games of kickball or catch the flag, Sienna could be found sitting quietly on her own, close by but never part of the group.
Sienna was quite nervous when she entered my office. She kept her gaze towards the floor and played with her brightly painted fingernails. I watched as she shifted uncomfortably in her seat. I pulled out colorful paper and markers and invited Sienna to draw with me. Suddenly her mood changed. Sienna’s eyes met mine; she sat up in her chair and eagerly worked at finding the perfect color markers. As she relaxed, she began to smile, and then laugh. In time, she began to relay funny stories about her new baby brother.
I asked why she often sat alone during recess instead of playing with the group. She shrugged her shoulders to let me know that she didn’t know why. I continued my questioning until finally she reported, “Every time I try to play with the other kids, I mess up. I get confused and run the wrong way or someone gets mad at me for doing the wrong thing. I just stopped trying and it makes me sad.”
When I thought back to previous educational evaluations that initially detected Sienna’s learning challenges, it occurred to me that Sienna’s difficulty in comprehension along with memory problems made it difficult for her to follow the guidelines of games. She needed game rules to be broken down into manageable units of information and required frequent reminders.
I explained to Sienna why group games were often difficult for her and how it made sense given the LD she had. She was initially surprised to hear that she had an LD. “My mom tells me that nothing is wrong with me.” I made sure to explain that nothing was wrong with her but that her brain was wired differently than children without LD. I helped put into context her learning and social issues considering her learning disability. At the end of our conversation, Sienna looked relieved. “I get it now; it’s not my fault that I don’t get certain things.” In time, Sienna’s participation in group activities increased dramatically.
The traffic metaphor
Through years of practice, I have developed a simple approach to explain LD using words that children understand and remember. Following is language that parent can use to talk to their children about LD. It is recommended for children starting in the fourth grade, but can be modified for younger children. The language used is purposely simple. Metaphors are used to describe complicated brain functioning so that children understand what an LD is and how it makes learning difficult.
Step 1: An explanation of how everyone learns
Explain to the child that all learning takes place in the brain. Everything we know now and will learn in the future happens by taking in information around us. Information gets brought into the brain through elaborate systems of specialized mechanisms traveling on pathways throughout the brain.
Instead of using the technical terms for these real systems, I prefer to talk about them as cars and highways. The brain is made up of millions of pretend highways with millions of pretend cars traveling on them super fast all the time. These cars transport information to different areas of the brain. You know what your mother’s voice sounds like because that information was sent in a car to a special area in your brain that keeps that information whenever you need it.
There are many different areas in your brain and each holds different kinds of information. I call these areas in the brain garages. There are garages for information on words, numbers, feelings, and so much more. When you learn new things, it’s like the information travels inside cars on highways, heading toward specific garages. Similarly, when you want to get information you learned awhile ago, it’s like a car goes to that specific garage, picks up the information, and drives it on highways to take it to the place you need it.
These cars travel super fast because there are no obstacles like traffic lights or stop signs to get in their way. It can take a car less than a second to pick up information from a garage and get the information to where it needs to go. Blinking your eye takes longer!
Step 2: An explanation of what it means to have a learning disability
When you have an LD some of the highways in your brain have traffic jams. Not all the highways in your brain have traffic jams, just the ones that are affected by your LD.
When cars sit in traffic jams no one knows how long it will take them to get to their final destination. Sometimes it can be a quick traffic jam and sometimes it can feel like forever!
If you’re someone with an LD, having a traffic jam on your highways to the reading, writing or math garage can feel very frustrating. Think about the last time you were stuck in a real traffic jam - maybe you were on your way to school or soccer practice or a friend’s home for a play date. Was it fun to sit in traffic? Were you frustrated? angry? bored? annoyed? tired? Or you just didn’t care? You probably got to where you needed to go but it just took a long time.
Traffic jams can cause a lot of problems. When you have a reading LD, trying to sound out letters on a page can take a long time. That is because there is a traffic jam going to the reading garage (where the words get stored) and the cars move very slowly. Sometimes you might confuse sounds for some letters like B and D, you might make up sounds or you might give up because you are either embarrassed or too tired to continue. When you try to do math, you might confuse the symbols so you add instead of multiply or you might line up the numbers in a subtraction problem in the wrong order and end up with the wrong answer. Even trying to tell a story can be a problem because of the traffic jams. Sometimes, you say things like “um,” “one second,” “that thingy,” or “you know,” because you can’t find the right words to explain yourself.
Step 3: Help the child understand that their potential is limitless
There are great challenges about having an LD. The good news is that there are tricks that special teachers or tutors can teach you to make learning easier. I call these tricks “side roads.” Using side roads help your cars get to where they need to go faster.
The thing to remember, though, is that these side roads are unpredictable; sometimes they get to where they need to go super fast and sometimes they take a long time because of obstacles like traffic lights, stop signs, and children riding their bicycles. You just never know what will happen on a side road. That means that even if you use a side road when you’re spelling a word, you may still make mistakes. But taking a side road is always faster than getting stuck in a traffic jam.
And using a side road over and over again means that the tasks that were once hard, like spelling, get much easier and you make less mistakes. Using side roads encourages you to be creative. Maybe that’s why so many successful artists, singers, athletes and business people have learning disabilities.
All the parts you need to be smart are in your brain. Nothing is missing or broken. The difference between your brain and one that doesn’t have an LD is that your brain gets traffic jams on certain highways. That means that it takes your cars longer to travel to information garages. Eventually, they do get there.
Griffin's new way of thinking
Not long after I met Griffin his teacher emailed me a classroom anecdote. She overheard Griffin and a friend practicing their speeches for the student council. As Griffin struggled to read his speech, his friend sensed that Griffin was becoming alarmingly frustrated and offered to take a break. Instead, Griffin smiled and said, “that’s okay, there’s just a traffic jam going on in my head right now. I get annoyed but I’ll be okay.”