4 challenges of English language learners who learn and think differently

At a glance

  • You can ask the school to evaluate your child for learning and thinking differences.

  • It can be helpful for you to get to know your child’s ESL or bilingual teacher.

  • Your child may need special services in a language other than English.

English language learners (ELLs) with learning and thinking differences face some unique challenges. Here are some common ones that ELLs may encounter — and what you can do to help.

Challenge #1: Your child has undiagnosed learning and thinking differences.

It can be hard for schools to tell whether a child’s challenges are related to language and cultural differences or to learning and thinking differences. Because of this, it might take a while for the school to recommend an evaluation for services.

Solution: Talk or email regularly with your child’s teachers. (Here are sentence starters you can use.) Get to know your child’s (ESL) or bilingual teacher. This can help you feel comfortable discussing your child’s issues with the team at school that determines whether your child qualifies for services.

You don’t need to wait for the school to suggest getting an evaluation. You can request an evaluation for your child.

To learn more, watch as an expert talks about the challenge of diagnosing in ELLs:

Challenge #2: Your child’s IEP is difficult to understand.

The world of education is full of unfamiliar terms and acronyms. And many of these terms and acronyms change from year to year. It can be hard for parents to understand what educators are talking about when acronyms don’t match up with the translated terms in their home language. If your child qualifies for an (IEP), it will contain many of these acronyms. These terms will also be used during your child’s IEP meetings.

Solution: The school has to take steps to help you understand what’s happening at your child’s IEP meetings. That includes providing an interpreter who speaks your preferred language. If you need the IEP to be translated, ask the school if it can do this for you. Many schools are given money for translation services, so your child’s school may be able to have the IEP translated.

Before you leave each meeting, be sure you understand all the terms and acronyms in your child’s IEP. This includes the description of your child’s classification as well as all the services your child will be receiving.

Remember that the IEP is a legal document. When you sign it, that means you’re agreeing to it. It’s important that you understand and agree with everything in it — because once you sign it, it can be hard to get the school to make changes to it. Here are some things to double-check before signing the IEP.

To better understand your child’s IEP, take a look at the anatomy of an IEP.

Challenge #3: Your child isn’t receiving services in the right language.

Many schools don’t have bilingual service providers. This means your child might end up receiving services in English even if the school psychologist determines that your child is more fluent in another language.

Solution: Learn more about your child’s rights. Schools must take steps to ensure that ELLs can understand and participate meaningfully in educational programs. These steps are sometimes called “Lau remedies.”

This term refers to Lau v. Nichols. In 1974, the Supreme Court ruled in this case that school districts must comply with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bans discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin in programs and activities that receive federal funding.

Lau remedies might include hiring a contractor to provide services in another language. Some schools may leave it up to parents to call or take other proactive steps to start receiving these services at another facility or, in some limited cases, in their home. The most important thing is for you to be persistent. Regardless of where the services are provided, make sure each service is provided in whichever language is listed in the IEP for that service.

Follow these steps if your child is denied services.

Challenge #4: Your child is frequently pulled out of class to receive services.

Scheduling can be a big challenge. Because ESL instruction and other services are provided during the school day, it’s likely that your child will miss part of the regular classroom instruction. This can make it harder for kids to keep up with their peers.

Solution: Ask the teachers for a detailed copy of your child’s schedule. Make sure you understand which subjects, if any, your child is missing during the day. Discuss whether it’s possible for some of your child’s services to be provided in the regular classroom. These are referred to as “push-in services” and can help keep your child from missing out on core instruction.

Remember that you are your child’s most important advocate. But there are many educators out there who will fight for your child, too. Being the parent of an ELL with learning and thinking differences can be challenging at times. But there are ways to face these challenges and get the services and support your child needs to succeed.

For more ways to support your child, explore these 10 ways to advocate for your child at school.

Key takeaways

  • Make sure you understand everything in your child’s IEP.

  • You can ask the school to provide an interpreter at your child’s IEP meetings.

  • Follow up to see if your child’s services are being provided in the language that’s listed in the IEP.


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