Does My Child Have A Learning Disability/Difference? A Step-By-Step Guide For Parents
Ah, the joys of going back to school! New Supplies! New friends! And, if you’re a work-at-home mama, more sleep because you’re no longer trying to cram in all those work hours after your kids’ bedtime (as I am while drafting this)! But what if your child dreads going back to school? Have you been wondering if your kid has a learning disability? (Or learning difference, if you prefer.)
If so, then back-to-school is probably NOT your family’s favorite time of year.
The new school year often brings new challenges. For our kiddos, the higher expectations and workload of a new grade level can be overwhelming and paralyzing. And it can be hard to start off a new school year successfully when the same academic “gaps” keep reappearing. Over and over, without fail, like clockwork.
This is where we were at as a family, for several years. This is the first fall that one of our dear daughters is heading back to school with a sense of confidence and newfound hope. Because she finally knows, and is learning to understand, how her brain is wired differently from those of many of her peers.
As of this past March, we finally have a diagnosis to explain those wiring differences. And let me tell you, knowing what is going on – so we can more effectively help DD address her challenges – has made all the difference, for her AND for us.
But it was not a quick and easy path to this point. That’s why I’m writing this post, for those of you who’ve been asking yourselves if your kid has a learning disability. So you have some idea of where to start, and what steps to take to get to the bottom of what’s going on.Wondering if you child may have a learning disability? If so, you need this quick-start, step-by-step guide, from a mama who's been there.Click To Tweet
I Think My Kid Has A Learning Disability – Now What?
1. Stay tuned in
Does your pediatrician have you fill out developmental checklists at each well-child visit in the early years?
Both our girls kept coming out ahead of the curve on many intellectual-processing areas. Thus it’s not surprising that their scores on things like motor skills lagged behind, relatively speaking.
But one DD in particular wasn’t just “behind” in these areas compared to her strengths. She was actually behind the average development for her age.
Pay attention to these things. Ask your pediatrician about them, especially if the gaps persist and/or widen. If your pediatrician suggests “early intervention” screening, follow through.
But even if your pediatrician seems unconcerned, keep track of what you’re noticing. (Taking notes and recording dates, whether in a special notebook or in a place like your Bullet Journal, is helpful.)
2. Talk to teachers
Which assumes your child has teachers (other than you. I have nothing against homeschooling on general principle, and my hat goes off to the mamas who can handle it. I would not be able to do so gracefully.)
In our area, those kids who aren’t already in full-time childcare by age 2 start preschool then, usually to solidify academic skills before kindergarten. When DD started preschool, academics were the last thing we cared about. Instead, we hoped she’d become more comfortable being around other kids her age.
Teachers who aren’t you, even at this early age, will see your child with fresh eyes. As a result, they may notice things that you haven’t. Or comment on what’s “normal” in their experience, and how your kiddo displays behaviors that are outliers.
For example, at DD’s preschool parent-teacher conferences, we bounced DD’s developmental lags off her teachers, to compare notes (and see if she was making any progress in these areas).
At the same time, DD’s teachers mentioned to us certain behaviors that, in their experience working with DD’s age-peers, were unusual. Behaviors for which we brainstormed appropriate interventions as a team. (Looking back, I realize that – without passing judgment, and without suggesting a diagnosis to us – many of the interventions DD’s teachers suggested are recommended tools for managing the diagnosis DD now has.)
Your kiddo’s teachers will see a whole different side of your child than you do. Starting in preschool, keep the lines of communication open. And with each new grade, use the start-of-school-year parent conference to discuss your concerns frankly with your child’s new teachers, if you feel comfortable doing so.
3. Research your district
Chances are, you probably did some research on local school districts before buying your current home, or renting that apartment in the new neighborhood. This research is different.
This time, you need to start with your current district’s website. Look under student services. Then look under academics. Look in every place you can think of. Do a search on your district’s site for things like “learning disabilities,” “learning differences,” etc.
What you’re looking for is information on how your district handles “exceptional” students, and what your local and state laws say on the subject. Under the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, “public accommodations [i.e., places like U.S. public schools]…may not discriminate on the basis of disability.” This means that your local public school district has to provide appropriate accommodations for children with diagnosed learning disabilities.
But – a few caveats:
- The 1975 IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) outlines 13 specific categories of “disability” under which students may be qualified for special education services. It does not guarantee that children with these diagnoses qualify for special education services under an Individualized Educational Plan (IEP).
- If the district determines that your child does NOT qualify for an IEP, you might still be able to get them a Section 504 plan. Section 504 plans get their name from Section 504 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act, a civil rights law that offers broader protections for LD students than either IDEA or the ADA.
Also look into state law:
Your state’s education laws may further qualify the rights of students (and responsibilities of schools) regarding services for students with LDs. And these laws will govern whether your district thinks your kid is eligible for special education assistance:
- Some districts may insist that only their own professionals can evaluate students to diagnose learning disabilities. (These professionals, who are after all working in the district’s best interest, sometimes have a remarkably low rate of diagnosing learning differences severe or conclusive enough to qualify for services under the ADA.)
- Other districts may not have the personnel to conduct such testing in a timely manner, and/or may insist that you find and pay for your own private testing – even though it’s the school’s legal obligation to identify LD kids under the part of IDEA called Child Find. (This is what my parents had to do to get a diagnosis for my younger brother Evan, who is very bright but also very dyslexic. In the 1980s before the ADA, he was the first officially diagnosed “learning disabled” student in our rural public school district. Even though between 10% and 20% of Americans have a learning disability or difference, depending on which source you consult.)
This is why it’s important to learn as much as you can about your/your student’s rights, before you request a formal evaluation from the school.
4. Rally your network
While you’re on the “special ed” or “exceptional children” portion of your district’s website, see if your district has a support group or network for parents of children who don’t fit neurotypical learning patterns.
Our district has a group for “parents of exceptional children” that meets several times a year. If this term is new to you, “exceptional children” is NOT a reference to “special snowflakes.” Rather, it means children with any learning difference – whether they have a learning disability, are gifted in one or more areas, or both.
For what it’s worth, roughly one in seven gifted kids also has a learning disability. Kids who are both gifted and LD are sometimes called “twice exceptional” or “2E.” This is why I’m glad our district has a single support group for all “exceptional” parents.
And as we know firsthand from this network, our district does a lot better with accommodating some LDs than others. Especially where 2E students are concerned.
(And in our case, because DD’s grades are still at the top of the class, our district hasn’t exactly jumped to offer her either an IEP or a Section 504 plan, to help with the shortcomings and skill gaps that her new diagnosis helps to explain.)
5. Work the process
Doing your homework first will arm you with the knowledge you need to get your child evaluated in your district. If s/he is sympathetic, talking with your child’s teacher about your concerns may also give you helpful tips. The same is true for the parents’ network/support group.
Even if you suspect that your district is not super-cooperative on evaluating kids, it’s critical to follow the steps spelled out on the district’s website.
- You will probably need to submit a formal request for evaluation in writing.
- The district will probably give themselves a very generous timeframe (up to half the school year!) in which to carry out the evaluation and get back to you with the results. This is not because they’re trying to be difficult; this is because it takes time to get all the pieces organized.
- There will almost certainly be parent evaluation forms you’ll need to complete as part of the evaluation process. Fill them out promptly, make copies for your records and file them away accordingly, and return them to the specified address ASAP.
- Don’t be surprised if the first you hear back from the district is a request – perhaps by mail, perhaps by phone from the school office – to show up at a meeting. Chances are good they will not discuss ANYTHING with you, or give you copies of any findings, prior to that meeting (although it never hurts to ask).
- Do everything you can to be available for that initial meeting time. Even if it’s inconvenient. Even if it means rearranging your own schedule, and/or that of your co-parent (BOTH of you should be there, by the way).
Most likely, the district has already had to move mountains to get the school’s principal, counselor, psychologist, relevant special-ed team members, and your child’s teacher into one room at the same time. (Especially since some of them, like the psychologist, may have to commute from another building within the district.)
Not to mention the fact that they’ve had to arrange classroom coverage for all the individuals who are ordinarily teaching during the time slot of your meeting.
You need to bend over backwards to show them you’re a “team player” by making yourself available for the meeting.
6. Check with your pediatrician
But what if it’s summer? Or the end of the school year? Or your child is in the process of changing schools?
If the timing just isn’t right for requesting a formal school evaluation, discuss your concerns with your child’s pediatrician at the next well-child visit. (This is also your next line of defense if you disagree with the school district’s initial findings.)
Another advantage of consulting your pediatrician is that they’ve probably known your child for longer than your school district. Your child may even see the same provider at most visits.
Discuss your concerns with the pediatrician, and seek their advice on next steps – especially if your district has recently told you that “results are inconclusive,” and/or that your child’s diagnosis does not qualify for special education services.
Your pediatrician may be able to recommend outside testing options. S/he may also be able to tell you how that process works, and what to expect on timeframe and cost.
7. Don’t give up
As your child’s parent, you know that child better than anyone else. So if you think something is “off” or “not quite right,” you need to trust that gut instinct.
The first round of testing may indeed be “inconclusive.” You may need to work closely with your child’s teachers to see if there is another explanation for their classroom challenges, and what you can do together to help your child over the hump.
Try, try, and try again. Work with your child and their teacher(s) to find better solutions and different things to try, to help them get over that hump.
Again, keep notes. With dates. Especially of any conversations you have with your child’s teachers or school officials about your child’s learning and struggles. Document and/or reconfirm conversations over email, so there’s a written trail.
Why document everything in writing?
Because you’d better believe your child’s teachers will be keeping detailed notes. Notes of all the ways they’ve bent over backwards to try to help your child. (They’ve been trained to do this, and are probably already sharing some of these notes with you over email.)
And if you haven’t already, consider starting a binder/binder section to help you organize all those notes, conversations, emails, and test results. Add in important or relevant examples of school work, such as mastery tests or writing samples.
Also, if you’re facing resistance with getting your child the help s/he needs to learn effectively, you might want to double-check your child’s diagnosis and school type against this list of 2016 clarification letters to schools from the Department of Education. Apparently, other parents in our district aren’t the only ones who’ve had challenges getting their children (especially 2E kids and those with certain diagnoses) the special education help they need.
8. Build your village
Throughout this process, it’s important to keep in touch with other parents – whether near or far – who have faced similar challenges in raising their own children. Maybe you already know one or more families in your area with an LD child. (Or child with a LD, if you’d rather.)
If not, seek out other parents with whom you can network. If there’s a local parenting group on Facebook, through Meetup, or somewhere else, become a member (if you’re not already) and then seek out support there. If not, consider starting one.
It can be hard to discuss your concerns at first, whether with strangers or with those who know your family well. But you need the support and wisdom of other parents as you move forward.
Even if their child’s diagnosis is totally different from what you suspect for yours.
They’ve probably been through similar uphill battles along the way, navigating the system and trying to figure out what they’re doing. They will understand what you’re feeling and experiencing a lot better than parents of neurotypical kids. And this level of unconditional, nonjudgmental support is what you need right now.
Besides moral support, these parents probably have firsthand tips to help you navigate the system. If they’re in your district, they may have suggestions on teachers to seek out, and others to avoid. Or they may have tips on how to get an appointment for outside testing sooner than you otherwise might, or professionals/group practices to recommend.
For far too long, I was afraid to discuss my concerns with any of my mama-friends. But little by little, I learned of some of their children’s diagnoses. And when I started to share my own worries about DD, they became my bedrock of support. Which was crucial when trying to figure out testing and services. Not to mention how to manage the family challenges that make a lot more sense with that diagnosis in hand.
(Memo to parents everywhere: Please be kind, and please don’t judge. Dynamics, behaviors, and challenges you don’t understand do NOT signal a “bad parent” or a “bad kid.”)Memo to parents everywhere: Please be kind, and please don't judge. Dynamics, behaviors, and challenges you don't understand do NOT signal a 'bad parent,' 'bad kid,' or 'bad family.'Click To Tweet
9. Read up
Once you have an actual diagnosis (or two or three), it’s time to move forward and help your child transcend their difficulties.
The best way you can do this is if you read books on parenting a child with your kiddo’s learning difference(s). Ask the pediatrician, other parents, etc. which book(s) they recommend on this diagnosis, and why. If at all possible, grab your own copies of the latest books. ✅Shop online for gently-used copies, so you don’t break the bank, and can keep them as long as you want. (E-copies are also a great idea for building your collection, if you have an e-reader.)
The more you understand about your child’s diagnosis, the better you can help them navigate this strange new world.
And educate your child as well.
Along the way, you will probably encounter suggested books for LD children to help them thrive with their diagnosis. Get your child their own copies of these workbooks. Read or skim them before passing them along, so you know what advice they’re giving your kiddo.
RELATED POST: Holiday Gift Ideas for Neurodiverse Children
One of the biggest challenges newly-diagnosed LD students often have is getting beyond their own mental roadblocks. More than once, DD has said to me in a fit of utter frustration, “I’ll never be able to do [fill-in-the-blank]!”
She uttered these words, loudly and often, when she was first diagnosed. Whenever we asked her to do something that she now knew was harder because she had this new “thing” to deal with.
At first, we were tempted to give in and agree. But we soon learned from our reading that this was the wrong approach. She CAN and WILL learn these skills; it just may take her a little longer to get there.
10. Think outside the box, and don’t give up
Keep working with your child’s teachers and school officials post-diagnosis to come up with a workable plan to address your child’s learning differences, whether it’s an IEP or a Section 504 plan. Keep taking notes, filing away schoolwork samples, and otherwise tracking your child’s progress. (Or their failure to thrive in their current school setting.)
Learn what strengths and positive traits go along with your child’s diagnosis. Then see if you can find activities that will play to your child’s strengths. DD has already found some new loves by doing this.
Research unconventional ways to help your child address their skill gaps and weak spots. For example, while growing up, my dyslexic younger brother played soccer, learned to play the drums, and jumped rope/hopped on a trampoline/practiced skipping for hours a day. These were all therapies designed to improve his hand-eye coordination, in an effort to help him cope with some of the challenges of his dyslexia.
Try as much as you can to work within your child’s current school district. Even as you keep thorough and detailed notes, always assume (until and unless you have direct evidence otherwise) that they are acting in good faith, and sincerely want to help your child excel – even if their resources are limited.
But if things just aren’t working out, don’t be afraid to explore other options. As I wrote late last spring, that was the crossroads we faced with DD regarding her schooling this fall.
The application, financial-aid forms, interviews, and acceptance were a long and draining process. But I can now report that DD is switching from our local public school to a Montessori school for the fall. We have high hopes that the completely different Montessori learning model will help DD with some of her skills gaps, in ways that her public-school teachers simply have not been able to pull off (through no fault of their own).
Have one or more of your children been diagnosed with a learning disability? Do you have personal experience of growing up with a learning difference? What have I missed? Please let us know in the comments!
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