5 questions with Professor Manju Banerjee on learning and thinking differences in the Asian American community

Professor Manju Banerjee has spent over 30 years in the field of learning and thinking differences. She started her career as an evaluator. Today, she’s vice president of educational research and innovation at Landmark College, a school for students with , , and other learning differences.

Banerjee is also a first-generation immigrant from India. She recently shared insights on the stigma around learning and thinking differences in the Asian American community.

Read her answers to questions about the Asian American experience with learning and thinking differences. And watch as she talks about stigma in the video below.

1. Who are we talking about when we say “Asian American community”?

First of all, the Asian American community in the United States is huge and very diverse. It includes many different cultures and countries of origin. For instance, a Pakistani American child in Detroit who just emigrated is part of the community. But so is a Japanese American whose family has been in California for over a hundred years. So it’s important to be careful about stereotyping.

When we’re talking about learning and thinking differences, however, it’s helpful to focus on Asian American families who have a very traditional mindset toward education. Generally, this means parents and children who are first- or second-generation immigrants. They tend to come from the most populous and competitive countries in Asia, especially China and India.

2. What unique issues can Asian American families face?

Many Asian American families place enormous value on education. Success in school is everything. That’s often because in their countries of origin, doing well on tests and examinations is how you climbed the economic ladder. In China, for example, the examination system has roots going back 2,000 years. So it’s no surprise that Americans who immigrated from these parts of Asia have these strong values.

Many of these families may not be aware of learning and thinking differences. Or if they are aware, they may believe these issues don’t affect Asians. In their countries of origin, parents give a lot of respect and deference to schools. So they may not feel comfortable asking a school questions about learning and thinking differences when a child comes home with a bad report card.

If their child is struggling in school, the parents often feel responsible. They may see it as a sign they did a bad job of parenting. Instead of asking for an evaluation, the parents may double down on traditional tutoring or remedial programs, which can take a toll on kids.

3. Have you seen these issues play out in your own family?

Yes, I have. I’m originally from India. Among our family and friends in the Indian American community, no one talked about getting anything less than a 4.0 GPA. Being successful in school was the ultimate measure of how your life was going.

Math has never been my favorite subject, even though my minor is in math. I’m not good at mental math at all. My parents made me practice math every day and during summer vacation. It was the traditional approach.

When I first came to the United States, I had to learn the system and to overcome my reluctance to ask for help from the professors. It was not easy. I didn’t know how to study for multiple-choice exams, so I failed my first multiple-choice test. I was very ashamed. Eventually, I learned strategies to get by in school.

4. What’s your advice for Asian American parents of kids with learning and thinking differences?

One in five kids have learning and thinking differences. That includes Asian American kids. There’s no reason to believe otherwise.

I would tell parents that these brain-based issues are real, and can affect your children. For instance, I struggle with mental math, even though the stereotype is that Indian Americans are all good at math. During my career, I’ve also known many Asian American students with learning and thinking differences.

I’d also tell Asian American parents that it’s not your fault. Learning and thinking differences aren’t caused by “bad” parenting or not studying hard enough. Moreover, it’s not just about working more or “trying harder.” It’s about understanding your child’s issues and finding the strategies and instruction that work for the child. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. It’s not something to be ashamed of.

5. How can Asian American parents find other parents to talk with about these issues?

It can be hard for any parent of a child with learning and thinking differences to find someone to talk with. But for an Asian American parent, there can be more feelings of isolation.

I would suggest the Understood online community. You can participate without using your real name, and you can ask and get answers to questions in a safe, understanding environment.

See what it’s like to have learning and thinking differences. Check out common myths about learning and thinking differences. And find out what to do if you think your child might have learning and thinking differences.


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