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Bullying, shame, and parenting guilt: Reacting to real stories

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Has your child ever been called names because they struggle to read? Do you worry that your child’s learning differences are your fault? This episode features three audio stories from the Understood family about bullying, shame, and parenting guilt around learning differences and ADHD.

Hosts Julian Saavedra and Marissa Wallace react to each story, and offer their thoughts and advice for parents and caretakers. Listen in for practical strategies from our teacher hosts on how to respond. Find out what a “lunch bunch” is and how it can help kids gain friends and confidence, even in virtual settings. And feel less alone by hearing what you might share in common with others.

Episode transcript

Julian: From the Understood Podcast Network, this is "The Opportunity Gap," a podcast for families of kids of color who learn and think differently. We explore issues of privilege, race, and identity. And our goal is to help you advocate for your child. I'm Julian Saavedra.

Marissa: And I'm Marissa Wallace. Julian and I worked together for years as teachers in a public charter school in Philadelphia, where we saw opportunity gaps firsthand.

Julian: And we're both parents of kids of color. So this is personal to us. Welcome back. How are you, Marissa?

Marissa: I'm all over the place, but I'm good. You know, it's the end of the school year. You know how that life is.

Julian: Today we're talking about some exciting slash interesting things that are really important for everybody to be a part of, and — like always. And so today it's really about somebody that's a parent of color. And you're in a position where you're exploring school options and potentially special education services. That can be really tough. We know that that's a really hard position to be in.

Marissa: What makes it scarier and more complex, right, is that you hear so many different opinions and so many different scenarios. And this happened at this school, or this happened to my child. And so it's really challenging to know like what direction you should go in. And to be honest, I think there's also like a lack of conversation around learning and thinking differences in a productive way. And that is not always highlighted in the right way in our school settings, in our social media, in the news, or even within our own communities.

Julian: In general, the conversation that sometimes happens behind closed doors or over a text message or in the line at pickup, it needs to be happening out loud. We need to elevate that. And especially for our children of color who have learning and thinking differences, you know, they will always have to deal with double discrimination.

So as parents, as caregivers, sisters, brothers, teachers, educators, aunties, uncles, whoever we — you need to make sure, and we need to make sure, that we're supporting our children and to change some of those stigmas that are out there one day at a time.

Marissa: And so our goal today really is to start breaking down some of those stigmas. Break down some of the worries and the concerns that our listeners have. And we figured one of the best ways to do that is to kind of jump in with some stories from our Understood family. And we're going to start with a really special individual named Jade. Jade is an eighth grader and she's sharing her story about her experiences with reading challenges.

Jade: My name is Jade. I'm in the eighth grade. And reading is a huge struggle for me. Teacher would ask me to read in front of the class aloud. I'd open my mouth, but no words would come out. Not because I couldn't speak. Because I couldn't read the words on the page. They were jumping around, backwards, blurry, sideways, D was a B, W was an M. I just kept it all to myself. Like no one can relate to me. This is just my problem and I have to deal with it. I have to find a way to deal with this. 

Oh my gosh. I can still remember the names. Um, idiot, dummy, you know, slow, special ed. It's like every day, going through that takes a piece of you. After a while you're just like, you get this numb feeling like it just doesn't bother you anymore. That's when you get really worried. That's when you should get really worried. When you get this numbing feeling when someone calls you, you're like, I don't care. They're right. That's the worst feeling in the world.

Marissa: I think that that story and those sentiments are similar to how a lot of our students feel. And I think it's important that we don't want our children to feel alone in their journey. You know, we don't want them to feel that they're not smart or that they're incapable of things. So as a vice principal, what are some ways that you help building community with your students who have learning and thinking differences?

Julian: That's heavy to hear this young lady talk about how she's experienced these horrendous name-calling situations in class. You know, I can almost imagine the kids calling out and saying it while she's attempting to read, to have to work herself up to even get to a point where she can read out loud. That's heavy. That's a lot. And you and I both know kids can be mean. Adults can be mean. But kids can be mean sometimes. And they might not know exactly what they're doing, but it doesn't change the impact it has on the person receiving those words.

And so when I think about Jade and I think about the children that experienced things similar to her, as educators and as adults in the lives of children that experienced that, the first thing is making sure that we listen. And we listen with empathy. And we give them a place to just share what they're feeling and what their emotions are without judging.

So as somebody who is involved with kids every day at school, and I do have a position of power where I'm able to interact with kids and adults and shape some of the experiences that kids are having, I want to really make sure that we're impressing upon everybody involved: Let's make sure we're listening when kids are crying out for help.

Because what I heard when Jade said that is a cry for help. And what I heard is that the emotion in when she described it is something that really spoke to me. I work in a high school. And high school students are in the midst of trying to figure out how they socialize with each other. And we have a large population of students with learning and thinking differences.

And in some cases, the interaction between the kids who have those differences and the kids who might not, it's tenuous. Sometimes there's issues between them. And sometimes the kids don't necessarily understand each other. So what do we do as adults? We have to make sure that we create the environment and the circumstances possible where positive interactions can happen.

For example, there was a number of my ninth-grade boys where we're having some issues with one particular student. He has autism, and part of the way that his autism impacts him is his social awareness of reading on cues is a little bit difficult for him. He doesn't pick up on some of the social cues that some of the kids are giving him.

And a couple of the boys were interacting with him, but it was more of a situation of I'm laughing at you and not laughing with you. So they were making him say things to girls that they thought were funny and he thought, oh, this is me making friends. And what he didn't realize is that they were actually making fun of him, right?

So we caught wind of this, and I spoke with the teacher and I spoke with his mom. And she's well aware of this happening. It's not the first time it's happened in his life, and he really desperately wants friends. So we devised a situation where we said, let's take some of those boys, the ones that are very popular, and we're going to go to his classroom and we're going to hang out on his space and his comfortable space with his teacher and his friends that he's with. And we're going to hang out and do something on his terms. 

And so I took a couple of the most popular boys and we made a big deal of headed over. We headed over to his classroom and we played a game of Uno. And he beat the pants out of all of us, but it was such a cool experience because the ninth-grade boys, when they got to go and be in his classroom, in his turf, on his area, in his comfort zone, a couple of them said, you know, Mr. Saavedra, I never got to really hang out with this crew. I want to come back again. I had a lot of fun. And Mr. Saavedra, it made me feel a little bad that we were saying those things to him. I wish we would've known better. 

And when I think about, if we would have just been more proactive about creating more interactive situations like that, then we could have avoided some of the potential harm, just like Jade experienced.

And so what I think about people like ourselves who have positions of power to create the experiences, and create the environment for interaction, the most important thing is to think about both sides. Not only thinking about the students who have learning and thinking differences, but also the other side of the equation too, and making sure everybody is feeling comfortable.

Marissa: I think that the goal is to hear more opportunities like that, where you can identify and then make an action plan to address it and end up with a better result. And I teach eighth grade. So like Jade's story is like super touching and personal because I was teaching middle school, and it's already such a transitional year.

There's a lot going on in middle school. And that eighth grade year is so important. 'Cause you're getting ready for high school, for building that independence, all those things that are happening makes me super sad, is a lot of my students in the virtual school that I'm at, they have made the choice to be in these virtual settings because of just the intense amount of bullying and trauma they experienced in their schools and their in-person settings, that both their families and the students themselves, 'cause they are 13, 14 years old, so they are able to articulate, I can't be in that setting because I can't deal anymore with getting harassed or traumatized because of my learning and thinking differences or how I'm different than the other students, you know?

And it just, it breaks my heart in the setting because they have now come to a place where they feel safe, right? And we know that students need to have a sense of belonging and need to have a sense of safety to really like, be able to meet their full potential, to be truly engaged in education. Started really towards the end of last year, when I started to find ways to connect, because that is always the downfall, right?

Families are always like, this place is amazing. And academically it's really supporting my student. However, like, they don't go outside. They don't get to interact with their peers in person. And so I get that. So one thing that I've done that has been really important is I do something called the lunch bunch and it seems so simple, but it's just creating community.

I feel like that's such a big piece of it because once you create community, it really helps to break down some of the stigmas, because you have opportunities to share. A lot of these kids have very similar likes. Like their activities and what they enjoy doing, whether it's video games that I don't understand, or social media or TikTok dances, or, you know, whatever it is, they all have similar interests, right? Or art. A lot of my kids are very artistic, so they come together and they share their interests. And then it doesn't — like once you bond on something that you have in common, it makes the differences like less observable.

Julian: So for our listeners, then how do you create a lunch bunch virtually? Does everybody just show up with their lunch and turn their screens on?

Marissa: Yeah. And I always have it where I at least have an icebreaker or I have a game like this. You'd be surprised what's out there. Like we have played all kinds of like, it's called Blooket. There's all these like challenges you can do. We've done like trivia. So I always start with something, right? Something to like, get them going, thinking, interacting.

And then I always make sure that I also allow for like free talk, right? Like just let them be kids. Especially because the way that our school is designed is our kids are in classes for a lot of their days. And then they're already just with their family. So the lunch bunch for a lot of them is the only way where they can have just like actual social interaction with other kids.

So it is, it's all through Zoom. Literally the 50 children that I work with, all of them are invited. They don't always come. You know, um, I invite other kids sometimes like, hey, can my friend from this class come? Sure, absolutely. OK.

Julian: That's cool. You know what, actually I was thinking about during the, uh, the pandemic and quarantine, how you remember when a DJ D-Nice had like Club Quarantine and, you know, everybody would show up on Instagram and he put music on, like, it sounds like that where like people have something to come together and share.

Or our parents out there, what do you think they should do? Should they ask for a lunch bunch too? Or like, what do you, what do you think they can do to help with some of this stigma?

Marissa: I mean, I think that's a great idea. Like I think that there's something to be said about finding ways that don't seem so educational. You know what I mean? Like things that are like that, that come, that are obviously done in an educational setting, but that don't come across as, this is an informational meeting about blah-blah-blah because I think that turns off people. 

I think that's another thing that I think parents could really benefit if parents, caretakers, and even students, depending upon their age, if you just create a random, I just want to hear it, I just want to hear your feedback. I just want to have a conversation. And then as the professional, you go in with certain guided questions and just let people engage in a dialogue. A lot comes out of that. You know, parents asked for a lunch bunch, cool. Like set it up, you know. If they ask for some type of, I think, try to make it less isolating, try to make it a group event of some sort.

Which now let's shift gears a little bit since you brought up parents, right? And caretakers. I think that's another important piece of the puzzle where there's a lot of stigma when it comes to parents. I'm excited to introduce this next clip. This is a really important kind of tidbit for our listeners out there. She is a really unique individual. She works at Landmark College, which is a really cool college that's specifically geared towards individuals with learning and thinking differences. Here is Manju.

Manju: Culturally, Asian Americans and Asian Indians or Far East parents, are often of the mindset that this is somehow my fault that my child has learning and attention challenges. And I didn't do a good job of parenting, which is as far from the truth as it possibly can be. What often happens is students and our children pick up on what the parents are feeling. And if you're feeling the stigma and you're feeling ashamed, just know your daughter is picking it up. 

Julian: What's interesting about what she had to say to me is it's lifting up another side of the experience of people from different cultures that we don't hear about a lot. We say people of color, and people of color encompasses a really big umbrella of different ethnicities and cultures.

And she specifically spoke on the experience of Asian Americans. And even within that group, there's a whole bunch of different cultures represented. But by and large, there is definitely a stigma present for people, and those that come from communities that aren't historically represented in the larger context of education, is that the number one thing we have to think about is any sort of these learning and thinking differences that appear are not the fault of a parent. It's not a parenting flaw. It's not a mistake that a parent made in the raising of a child. This is part of who your child is. But thinking on this, you know, I think in general, any parents, for you, Marissa, what do you think is some advice that you might have for parents that might feel like they're struggling to ask for help?

Marissa: Yeah, and I think that's a big piece of it. I think that there is how Lincoln had to receive early intervention. And I remember even though, as an educated professional who's worked in the business of learning and thinking differences, like, why is he having this speech delay? 

Julian: Those are questions you had for yourself? Like you started questioning things for yourself?

Marissa: Absolutely. There's been at that point nine years in a career of education that dealt with learning and thinking differences. Just getting that news and having to go through the process of him getting evaluated, I still had these questions. Did I not read to him enough when he was, you know, like there was just so many, like random thoughts that I had that was like, what mistake? Right? What misstep did I do as the parent, as the caretaker, that caused, right, this learning and thinking difference for my child, right? 

As the adult, you first and foremost have to educate yourself, get knowledge on understanding it because once you start getting that knowledge, you'll realize it's not something you did. Once you start doing the research and learning what exactly these learning and thinking differences are, there's not going to be anything that's going to say "It is your fault, Mom. It's your fault, Dad. It's your fault, auntie. That's not going to come out. Instead, you're going to understand that these are just what you deal with. And it's just the way in which your child is going to experience the world. And I think once you're educated, it helps you then to have a different attitude. 

And remember your kids are like sponges, right? So they feel, and they feed off of whatever you're feeling. So the best thing you can do for your child is to really get to a place where you've accepted it and where you have put that stigma aside. So I think that's my biggest piece of advice. Get yourself in a place where you're comfortable with it, so that you're not projecting this like negativity or this stigma onto your child, because that's only gonna hurt them. 

In addition to the conversations that you have with your students at your school, and I know you've shared some before, like interactions you've had with families and parents. I am, you know, curious like what is going on or what is something you can think about that has occurred with a family about this particular feeling and the stigma, especially with parents of color. 

Julian: Thank you for the question. I think it's a combination of asking for help, but also like you said, the acceptance portion of it. And it all depends on what part of the journey the child and the family is on when it comes to learning and thinking differences. Like when somebody's first finding out that this exists within their child, they might be at a different place than if this is, you know, years and years and years into this understanding what they need to do for their child to be successful. And I've said many times the most important piece is the idea of trust. There has to be trust established between the family, between the school, and with the child, right? Like we've said many times, the three-legged stool. If everybody is not on the same page and equally putting in effort, then the whole thing is going to fall apart.

And so we try to make sure that in those meetings, we make it comfortable for everybody. We're calm, and I deal with teenagers. And as we know, teenagers, their emotions are on their sleeves and they can go from zero to 100 really fast. So it's really important that we think about how we say it just as much as what we're saying.

And so, as we do that, we also ask lots of questions of the child. Hey, how are you feeling about this? Or tell us more about your experience, or what do you think? Ask us any questions you might have. Because we want to make sure that at the end of the day, the child is feeling like they are getting support. So we've been intentional about trying to connect those families and saying, hey, why don't you all talk to each other and share some of your experiences?

Why don't you come together and just talk through what it's like, just like you and I, it's better to hear information from another parent sometimes than it might be from the school, you know what I mean? So that's something that has really helped. And I think, especially in schools with lots of families of color, the idea of trust is really important. And building community is really important. So finding people that are trusted and people that are respected in the community to be that conduit for connection is something we work really hard at.

Marissa: We obviously like to have lots of conversations around our families and our parents and our next clip that we're going to hear I think it connects to this, because as parents, as caretakers, one of our biggest fears, right, is that, and you kind of relaying this, is that you don't want your child to be treated differently. Right? You want them to receive what they deserve. You want them to have an equitable educational experience, and you don't want them to be isolated.

So I'm looking forward to diving into this next clip. We have an individual named Collin. And Collin speaks on this imposter complex. He is now an adult with a PhD, and he's going to share some of his experience and what it was like going through schooling all the way from elementary school to being a doctoral student and what that looked like.

Collin: I feel that the best way to treat students with learning disabilities or how I want to be treated with learning disabilities is saying like, OK, I just need, I need a specific accommodation, and that's it. And it's not a big deal. This is, I just need a reasonable accommodation. I don't want to be treated differently beyond the accommodations in my IEP. And I don't want to be called stupid. 

The accommodations I got in elementary school were the same accommodations I got when I was in graduate school, getting my PhD. So I think getting diagnosed early and getting those accommodations is incredibly important. 

Julian: Do you want to remind everybody what an accommodation is?

Marissa: So an accommodation can be a variety of things. So an example of one would be something like, for example, assistive technology in the sense of having a text reader. And meaning that if a student or an individual has a hard time with reading fluency, so they might be dyslexic, there might be a lot of blurry or jumbled letters or words. And so it's not that they can't, or they don't understand. It just may take them a longer time to read. 

So an accommodation is something where it's not changing what we're giving them or asking them to do. It's accommodating them in this case, the text reader would read it for them. So therefore they're not stressing about actually reading it. They're able to listen to it. Like an audiobook sometimes could be used. A lot of my students use audiobooks, or there's so many different programs out there where it'll actually like, you can highlight what you would like to be read aloud. And the computer program will actually read it out loud to the individual.

Now that we've heard from a few different individuals on race and the lack of opportunities with learning and thinking differences, how does it all kind of come together? Like what I, and that's a heavy question.

Julian: It's messed up. This world is messed up. We gotta do better. But there's a lot of hope. And just thinking about the three different clips we heard, right? There are people from different racial groups, people from different generations, people with different roles. So all of them spoke with different experiences, but I think the theme from all of them is the idea that education is a right. And it is a right that should be experienced by everybody. And it should be experienced by everybody to a place where they are getting the services that they deserve. 

And then Collin coming through talking about this inspirational situation where not only is he understanding and well-versed in the accommodations that he knows he needs to help him, which speaks a lot to, we know what his experience was like. And sadly, if we went around the country and looked at students of color who have learning and thinking differences, the vast majority of them may not be able to say the same things that Collin can say.

So really it's more about how can we find opportunities out there to support our students who are not getting the services that they deserve. And so the intersection really comes down to unlocking some of those opportunities that are there and making sure that the help is being received. So the stigmas that are coming with special education comes from a real place.

It is the reality for many, many, many years, students of color and families of color were not receiving the appropriate services that they deserve. That's a fact. And for many, many years, and in many cases, even today, they still are not. And so, like, public education is a right. It's not a privilege. It's something that everybody should receive.

I think it's something that is present, but it's getting way better than it has in the past. And organizations like Understood and organizations that are out there who are really actively trying to bridge the gap and close that gap to try to break that down and help families understand what they deserve, that's really where we got to get to the work

Marissa: Yeah. And I think there's something to be said about some of the younger generations too. I think that there's a lot more push and a lot more acceptance. I think that's part of the hope as well.

Julian: It's so many things that are hopeful things. There's a lot of really extraordinary things going on. And it's more about figuring out how we can make more connections between the people that need help and the people that can provide help. And at the very least sharing experiences, speaking up about what's going on on the day to day, and finding people that have common experiences, and finding people that are dealing with the same things. The more that those conversations are uplifted and the more those conversations are occurring, the better it is for everybody.

So I love the fact that we got to hear from three different people who shared their own experiences, because it makes those that are listening — it's just that comfort that you get when you're like, oh wait, I know what you're talking about. I'm going through the same thing.

You've been listening to "The Opportunity Gap" from the Understood Podcast Network. Do you have something you'd like to say about the issues we discussed on this podcast or a topic you'd like us to cover? Email us at We want to hear from you. 

If you want to learn more about the topics we covered today, check out the show notes for this episode. We include more resources as well as links to anything we mentioned in the episode.

Marissa: Understood is a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping people who learn and think differently discover their potential and thrive. Learn more at "The Opportunity Gap" is produced by Cin Pim. Briana Berry is our production director. Andrew Lee is our editorial lead. Our theme music was written by Justin D. Wright, who also mixes the show. For the Understood Podcast Network, Laura Key is our editorial director, Scott Cocchiere is our creative director, and Seth Melnick is our executive producer.

Julian: Thanks again for listening.


  • Julian Saavedra, MA

    is a school administrator who has spent 15 years teaching in urban settings, focusing on social-emotional awareness, cultural and ethnic diversity, and experiential learning.

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