By Amanda Morin
It’s important to talk to kids with learning and attention issues about their weaknesses. It’s equally vital to remind them of their strengths. Here are tips to help you strike a healthy balance and keep the lines of communication open.
Grade-schoolers may not be able to reflect on their strengths and weaknesses. But they do notice how they compare to other kids their age. Start a conversation with an observation: “Sometimes it seems like it’s hard for you to read aloud. I’m sure you see kids in school who can do it pretty easily, even if you don’t think they’re any smarter than you.” This opens the door for him to talk and perhaps confirm your observation. It also may encourage him to talk about what he is “smart” at.
Kids in middle and high school may be more able to consider their own strengths and weaknesses, but they’re often less willing to open up. It helps to be specific with them: “I know you struggled with organization on that project. The art looked great. Did the writing part end up being what you wanted?” Then let him take the conversation where he wants.
Having trouble with one activity might be deflating for your child. For example, he may have trouble reading aloud and decide he hates reading altogether. Remind him that reading aloud is only one part of enjoying the written word. If he loves to be read to and has great insights, tell him so. Ask questions that allow him to see that he has things to contribute even in situations that are hard for him.
Kids need to talk about what they’re good at, but they also need to talk about what they’re not so good at. Talk with your child about what he struggles with—not in a hurtful “you can’t do this” kind of way, but in an “I know this is hard for you” kind of way. Let him lead the conversation as much as possible. You may know what his issues are, but only he can tell you how they make him feel and their effect on his daily life.
Your child needs to know that his weaknesses aren’t going to hold him back in every aspect of his life. Case in point: If he has trouble with math, that’s not that big a deal at swim practice. At the same time, he needs to know that his strengths will help him move forward. For example, his ability to make friends wherever he goes may not help him in English class. But it may make it easier for him to get a job when the time comes.
Most families have things that everybody knows and makes fun of in a good-natured way. Maybe Mom can never remember phone numbers. Or perhaps Grandpa’s clothes never match because he’s color-blind. Talking about those family traits is a great way to start conversations about strengths and weaknesses.
Listen as your child talks, then follow up when he says something that stands out. For example, if your child mentions that another kid got detention, ask why. It can open up a conversation about the types of things other kids find challenging. You can also ask your child questions that don’t put the spotlight on him. A general question like “How was school?” will usually score a dead-end response like “fine.” Instead, ask questions that are more specific: “Tell me how reading group was today. Who read? Are there some kids who don’t read?”
Learning and attention issues are lifelong. All that means is that you and your child will have to continually re-evaluate what’s working well and what’s not. It doesn’t mean your child isn’t going to make progress. In fact, the skills and strategies he’s learning now may make some of his current challenges less of an issue down the road. Remind him that there are people who can help him get better at the things that are difficult. This offers him hope and acknowledges the challenges he’s facing.
Just because your child has learning or attention issues doesn’t mean you need to expect less of him. Try to keep your expectations realistic but not too low. And be sure to adjust goals as time moves on. Caring for the dog, for example, might not be suitable for him now. But he may well be up for the job next year. Ongoing conversations give you a good chance to review and adjust those goals together.
Your child isn’t always going to want to talk about how things are going. That’s OK. But let him know that sometimes you need to say what’s worrying you or what’s making you proud—without it becoming a conversation. Make sure he knows that he can do the same if there are times when he just needs you to listen.
Your child may not know right away what he’s good at or what things he loves to do. It may take some exploration on everybody’s part to find that out. This means you may have to give up your own dream that he’ll love soccer or will become a great artist. But once he finds his own passion, you’re likely to have a happier and more confident child.
It’s important for grade-schoolers with dyscalculia to start learning self-advocacy skills. But it can be hard for them to know what to say and when to say it. Here are some ideas you can use to help your child practice speaking up for what he needs.
It’s important for middle-schoolers with dyscalculia to learn how to self-advocate and ask for help. But kids this age may be self-conscious about speaking up. They also may not know what to say. Practicing common situations like these with your child can help.
Amanda Morin is a parent advocate, a former teacher and the author of The Everything Parent’s Guide to Special Education.
Mark Griffin, Ph.D., was the founding headmaster of Eagle Hill School, a school for children with specific learning disabilities.
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