As the parent of a now adult son with learning disabilities, I am well aware of the challenges that school presents for the child with LD. My son didn’t fit the typical student mold offered by the school system, so he received special education services throughout his academic years and was supported with an IEP. Even with this support, school was not easy for him and it posed challenges to finding success at school. So how can parents help their children with LD not only survive school but thrive as well? Here are a few ideas to explore:
Create a Learning Rich Environment At Home
From an early age make reading a priority by regularly reading together as a family and individually. Take advantage of the library by making regular trips and attending free children’s programs as well. Many with LD struggle with reading and especially with accessing age-appropriate materials, so explore the use of audio books. An excellent resource is www.bookshare.org where individuals with a print disability can qualify for free memberships that give them access to audio books. Another free resource is the Utah Library for the Blind and Disabled where those who qualify can receive books on audiocassettes or audio digital recordings, http://blindlibrary.utah.gov.
Structure and routine help any student, but are essential for a child with LD, so develop a regular homework time and stick to it as much as possible. In addition to this routine, provide a designated study area free from distractions, whether it is the kitchen table or an office, and supply it with paper, pens and pencils, calculators, good lighting and any other necessary items so no time is wasted preparing to work. Unplug! Make this a time when the television, music, games and phones are turned off. If your child struggles with attention, build in breaks, which don’t require focused concentration.
Be available to help, but don’t fall into the trap of doing the homework for your child, as the purpose for homework is to reinforce concepts being taught at school. Your completion of the homework teaches nothing but reliance on your abilities. It also makes it difficult for teachers to determine whether or not your child understands the subject material. Track the amount of time needed to complete homework, and if it is excessive, work with teachers and the IEP team to explore ways to reduce the study load but still work on concepts.
Teach your child study skills and the actual process of learning. Some ideas for this include pre-reading chapters before lectures, using flash cards, pre-reading chapter headings and captions below photos, using highlighters, reviewing notes the day of the lecture, using graphic organizers, making a list of questions when confused, studying for tests incrementally (don’t cram), reading the questions aloud and answering them verbally before writing, asking open-ended questions, setting mini-deadlines for large assignments and so on. For more ideas on study skills, speak with an educator or check out Internet possibilities. Consider reading a recent article in Psychology Today, which suggests that the technique of patterned chunking in studying with short study sessions alternating with shorter rest periods might be a more effective learning tool http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/memory-medic/201310/new-strategy-more-efficient-learning
Involve your family in activities that apply to what your students are learning in school. For example, if earthquakes and geology are the subjects, take a drive to the mountains and look for scarps from previous earthquakes and discuss how earthquakes created them. Check out the Utah Geology Survey http://geology.utah.gov to find maps of faults and trace them and discuss how earthquakes might affect everyday life. These types of activities encourage learning and help children understand how academic subjects apply to daily living.
Encourage self-advocacy, especially as children approach adolescence. Help them understand what a learning disability is and how it affects learning. Practice with your child how to briefly explain his/her learning disability and what accommodations compensate for it. For instance, “I have a form of a learning disability called dysgraphia which makes it very difficult for me to do a lot of writing, so instead of taking notes it helps me to record lectures or receive copies of another person’s notes.” Self-advocacy isn’t making excuses for a disability, but rather explaining what is needed in a straightforward way.
Define how your family determines success in school. While good grades are always nice to see, place the emphasis on school attendance and honest efforts to learn. Students with LD often absorb more information than they are able to demonstrate on tests, so the increase of knowledge should be the goal.
Educate Yourself about the Special Education Process and Learning Disabilities
The old adage that knowledge is power truly applies for the parent of a child with disabilities. Students with learning disabilities may qualify for an IEP under IDEA or for accommodations provided on a Section 504 plan, but understanding what this means and how to access those services can be challenging, so it is important to take the time to become knowledgeable. One of the great resources in this state is the Utah Parent Center that provides training and information for parents and families of children and youth with disabilities. Free workshops on the IEP process and Section 504 plans are available throughout the state as well as online. A handbook called Parents as Partners in the IEP Process is also available for download or can be mailed to you. For information on workshops and many other resources, check out the website at www.utahparentcenter.org .
There are many ways to support a student with an IEP but there is not a specific list of modifications or accommodations for LD. The emphasis should be placed on the fact that it is an Individualized Education Program, so there is no one-size-fits-all answer. One point that is important for parents to understand is that this program is developed by the IEP team, and they are essential members of that team. By taking the time to learn about the law and the IEP process you will be able to more effectively advocate for your children. In addition to specific goals on the IEP, technology can be included. For instance, schools can arrange for accessible textbooks through USIMAC (Utah State Instructional Materials Access Center), the use of which can be listed on the IEP. Examples of other technology that can be part of the IEP are computer programs that allow a student to dictate into the computer such as Dragon Naturally Speaking (speech to text) or a Smart Pen, which allows the student to take notes and record lectures simultaneously.
While the IEP allows for modifications to curriculum, the Section 504 plan does not. Sometimes a student with LD may not need the modification of curriculum, but needs some accommodations in order to benefit from education. Just two examples of accommodations might be having extended time for tests or receiving copies of classroom notes.
Become involved with organizations such as the Learning Disabilities Association of Utah, www.ldau.org , 801-553-9156. It was by attending conferences and presentations from LDAU that I made many contacts with parents who were facing the same challenges. The networking provided by such groups helps parents share resources and information in addition to offering shared understanding.
Be Actively Involved
Clear communication with the school is fundamental to success at school. From my personal experience, I found that openly communicating with my son’s teachers was one of my best tools. Find the time to speak with each teacher before school begins or in the first days. Share your child’s strengths and challenges and tips about what has worked in the past as well as the child’s learning style. Don’t wait until a problem blossoms into a crisis; let the teachers know of your desire to be notified early on about problems, so you can facilitate a solution. Establish the best way of communicating with the teacher, such as email, phone calls or in person. Additionally, share contact information, and most importantly, respond when contacted.
Use district systems (such as Canyons District’s Skyward program), which allows parents to monitor grades, assignments and attendance; discovering two weeks before the quarter’s end that a student is failing isn’t acceptable. Parents have an obligation, as do the educators, to monitor progress. Under the IDEA, the school is required to report the student’s progress at least as often as for typical students, but many parents have found that is not often enough. Take the time to discuss this with teachers and work out a mutually agreeable frequency.
Demonstrate your support of the educators and school by attending parent/teacher conferences and school events. Volunteer in the school whether it is in the classroom, on the PTSA board or the school/community council. Not only do you learn a lot about your school, your student also sees that you value the importance of school with the investment of your time.
Maintain a Positive Perspective and Celebrate Successes
It is easy for children with LD to begin to believe they are stupid or failures; this is a challenge parents can meet head on by creating a positive and safe place at home. Celebrating even the smallest of successes is requisite for children who struggle. I clearly remember the first time I heard Robert Brooks, PhD, speak about finding the “islands of competence” in the “oceans of incompetency” that people with LD experience. That simple concept helped me start to look for those strengths in my son and begin to focus more on them. Parents need to help children recognize their strengths and then capitalize on them. Identify people with LD who have been successful and what they did to compensate for their challenges. Be specific in praise and develop positive reinforcements for achievements.
Children take their cues from their parents, especially when they are young, so exhibit a positive attitude, even if worried. Speak positively about your child in front of your child and never discuss your fears for the future within earshot. Frustrations with the school or a teacher should be discussed privately, so you don’t add to the burden children already feel for not measuring up to expectations. However, it is also essential that having LD is not used as an excuse to avoid school work. By excusing failure by attributing it to a disability, parents may enable learned helplessness.
Finally, help your children envision the future. Telling children with LD that school years are the best years of their lives can be disheartening at best. There is life after school! Help them envision a future where they are successful and contributing members of society, then get to work on those goals.
Author: Lynda L. Hansen, Utah Parent Center, Parent Consultant, Serving Canyons School District