Experts weigh in: Learning and thinking differences in the Hispanic community

When kids with learning and thinking differences are also learning English, they can face added obstacles at school. But there are opportunities, as well. Here, three experts who work with Hispanic kids with learning and thinking differences share their insights.

What are the greatest challenges for Hispanic kids with learning and thinking differences?

Claudia Rinaldi, chair of the education department and associate professor in education at Lasell College: One of the greatest challenges is not having class materials that speak to their culture and language. Another challenge is having teachers who don’t understand the double burden Hispanic kids face. They are learning English and the subject matter at the same time. That’s on top of learning or thinking differences.

Myriam Alizo, bilingual special education trainer at SPAN, the Parent Training and Information Center of New Jersey: The greatest challenge is lack of early identification. Many Hispanic kids live in homes where English isn’t spoken. Because of that they sometimes don’t get identified in grade school. Teachers and educators assume their school struggles are due to lack of English language skills. But in reality, they’re caused by learning and thinking differences.

Many Hispanic families that come to this country don’t have the means to pay for preschool services. Their kids miss out on a chance to be identified and get intervention early. Also, a lot of families face language and immigration status barriers. They have trouble navigating the systems. And it’s more difficult for them to find state and local resources in their community.

Giselle Ceja, family therapist in Pasadena, California, with a specialty in kids and education in the Hispanic community: Hispanic kids with learning and thinking differences often don’t get the right resources in a timely manner. That’s because they’re not identified as having learning and thinking differences. Teachers who mean well may categorize them simply as “English learners.” And their parents may think they’re “going through a stage” and may grow out of it.

Also, parents often say the information they get about learning and thinking differences is very limited. Especially in their language.

What are the greatest opportunities parents of Hispanic kids with learning and thinking differences can pursue?

Claudia Rinaldi: The greatest opportunity is the option to enroll in a two-way dual-language school program. These programs teach their first language, Spanish, and then use it to leverage English. Kids spend half of their time learning academics in Spanish and half in English.

Myriam Alizo: Many Hispanic kids could benefit from the Head Start and Early Head Start programs. These programs are staffed by professionals who are aware of signs of learning and thinking differences. They can refer kids to early intervention services or to Child Find. That’s the system set up under federal law for identifying and evaluating kids who may have learning and thinking differences.

Giselle Ceja: Being informed. Having informed parents is how kids are able to take advantage of the services their school offers. By law, schools must provide an interpreter so if parents don’t understand English, they can still fully participate in the special education process.

Another opportunity exists after high school. Hispanic kids are often eligible for grants and scholarships that encourage them to attend college.

What are some positive changes that have helped Hispanic kids with learning and thinking differences?

Claudia Rinaldi: Many states now require special teacher training. Teachers are taught to develop instruction in a way that supports students in the regular classroom who are learning English.

As a result, many teachers now know the stages in learning English. They also know how a learning and thinking difference may be the reason a child doesn’t understand what’s happening in the classroom.

Another positive change is that teachers who work with students learning English are working more and more with general education teachers.

­­Myriam Alizo: Having parents involved in the process is crucial. Over the last two decades IDEA has funded at least one parent center in every state.

These centers help families understand their rights in the process. Most have Spanish-speaking staff and offer training and support groups in Spanish for parents whose kids are struggling at school. They also offer training and resources for students to gain self-advocacy skills.

What you can do

The more involved you are with your child’s school, the more support he’ll get.

Learn the key terms you may hear as you help your child. Understand the issues around testing for learning and thinking differences in . And get tips for working with your child’s teacher. Together, you can come up with the best ways to help your child.


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