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9 ways parents can empower a child who has learning issues

(Amy Matsushita-Beal/For The Washington Post)

Brian and Daniel raced down the sixth-grade hallway, scribbling on anyone they could ambush with Sharpies. By the time they got hauled into the main office, they were covered in ink. The principal let them have it, then paused to answer his phone. That was when Brian noticed the stamp. By the time the call was over, Brian had branded Daniel's forehead with the words, "From the Desk of Principal Brent."

Brian had been impulsive in elementary school, but sixth grade brought bigger challenges. He buckled under the pressure of multiple classes and no recess. A psychologist diagnosed him with attention-deficit disorder, and his school gave him a Section 504 Plan. His formal accommodations, which included frequent breaks and preferential seating, helped him meet the increased demands of middle school.

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As a school counselor, I often hear from parents whose children are struggling academically or behaviorally. They have questions that vary from the logistical to the personal. Should they consult a professional or give it time? How can they know if their expectations are realistic? Would a diagnosis kill their child's self-esteem?

Bob Cunningham, head of the private Robert Louis Stevenson School in Manhattan, advises parents to trust their instincts and take action when their children's grades decline, their behavior changes, they resist going to school or their friends start ditching them. "Don't let small slips add up to big problems," he says. Research shows that identifying problems early can improve a child's outcome, adds Howard Bennett, a pediatrician and author of "The Fantastic Body."

As parents embark on the journey to identify and address learning or attention issues, here are nine ways they can support and empower their child.

Treat kids as the expert in their lives (but interview others)

"Most questions delivered to kids are really accusations with a question mark at the end," says Ned Johnson, president of PrepMatters and co-author of "The Self-Driven Child: The Science and Sense Behind Giving Kids More Control of Their Lives." "Ask: 'Do you think this is harder for you than other kids? Are you the last one done on a test?' "

Keep a log and talk to counselors, teachers and other adults in your child's life to identify patterns. Parents might discover that symptoms change depending on the classroom setup, the skills required in a specific class, the teacher's behavior management skills or their relationship with the child, says Melanie Auerbach, the director of student support at Sheridan School, a private school in the District. "If the teacher is highly distractible and the student likes to rap his desk with his knuckles, that's not going to be a good combination," she says. "Testing makes sense when there's been a persistent and chronic issue across settings, as opposed to situational behavior."

Partner with the school

Provide the school with work samples, the historical record and any diagnostic information, says Amanda Morin, author of "The Everything Parent's Guide to Special Education" and an expert for Understood, an organization that supports parents of children who have learning and attention issues. Be specific. Parents can say, "My child isn't reading at grade level," or "English causes more outbursts than math."

Be deliberate in how you communicate. Don't fire off accusations or present a list of demands. Ann Dolin, founder of Educational Connections Tutoring in Fairfax, Va., suggests that parents use the words "I've noticed" instead of "you." As in, "I've noticed that even with my help, Jimmy is spending two hours on Spanish homework."

Chris Nardi, principal of the Thomas W. Pyle Middle School in Montgomery County, tells parents and educators to pick up the phone or meet in person whenever an email exceeds a paragraph. He recently emailed his son's teacher with a concern. When her response was terse, he knew there was a disconnect. "I said, 'Can we go offline and talk, because I think we're misinterpreting our tones?' "

Everyone wants to do what's best for your child, Nardi says. "Call a teacher or counselor, share your concerns and ask them to help you understand." Gather data from other sources, too. Know the special education process and your rights. Section 504 and Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) are legally binding documents, and parents are equal participants on the team by law. Parents can find more resources and information about support groups at Understood ( and Parent Center Hub (

Identify the right issues

Kids with specific learning disabilities can have attention issues, and children with attention issues can have anxiety. The root of the problem isn't always obvious. Parents might think their child is anxious because math is a struggle, but math may be hard because of their anxiety.

Ella Tager, a seventh-grader who was diagnosed with dyslexia in first grade, notes that she has symptoms that are typical of someone with attention-deficit disorder. "Sometimes I need to move to process the frustration of not knowing what's going on," she explains. "It gives me time to get unstuck." The right strategies and interventions will vary by child and change over time.

Don't ignore the social sphere

"If your child has poor impulse control and says whatever is on his mind, it doesn't take much to imagine the social implications," Cunningham says. If he's late or disruptive, a teacher may punish the entire class. If he doesn't pull his weight on a group project, his social standing will take a hit. Parents can role-play scenarios at home, such as forgetting to meet a friend. "Help her say, 'Jenny, I know that was a problem for you when I was late. I didn't mean to be disrespectful to you — that's something I'm working on,' " he says.

Professionals often emphasize the importance of having one or two close friends, but that may be a mistake for kids with social difficulties. "Deep friendship can be hard for the target friend," Cunningham says. "A lot of kids with social issues will have significantly improved lives if the goal is more comfortable interactions with a broader range of classmates or teammates."

Change what you do first

Parents need to think about what they can do to provide a better situation for their children who are struggling. "If your child isn't getting to school on time, you might have to get up earlier, or check that your child is in the shower before you start making lunches," Cunningham says. "Your expectation is still that your child is going to get to school on time, but you need to offer more scaffolding."

Cunningham tells parents to try one new strategy at a time and stick with it for three weeks. Maybe your child has a separate alarm that reminds them it's time to pack up, or uses lists to help prioritize their "must do's," "should do's" and "could do's."

Capitalize on kids' strengths

and interests

Make sure teachers know where your child excels. If your kid is strong socially but has weak literacy skills, group work might be a good choice. Schools can offer children leadership roles that highlight their skills, build their confidence and influence the way others view them. Challenges often come with built-in strengths, says educator Laurel Blackmon, the founder of LCB Consulting, which works in the D.C. area. "Kids with dyslexia can make connections across big ideas, and kids with ADHD bring energy and dynamism to a classroom," she says. When teachers draw on kids' interests, they build their capacity to sustain attention.If your child loves astronomy, for example, the teacher could assign a text about space exploration.

Model self-advocacy skills

Miriam Tager, Ella's mother and an assistant professor of early-childhood education at Westfield State University in Massachusetts, says her daughter knew how to ask teachers whether they had read her IEP by the time she was in fifth grade.

"My parents were constantly advocating for me, so I figured out how to use teacherly language," Ella says. "Teachers take you more seriously when they see you understand and want to learn." By sixth grade, she was implementing her own strategies. "I used my study hall to watch a video on evolution and cells, so when they came up in the text, the visual popped into my head."

Take the 'I do, we do, you do' approach

Supports should be removed as kids learn skills. "Is your goal to make sure they're getting everything right, or to teach them how to do it independently next time?" asks Donna Volpitta, founder of the Center for Resilient Leadership in Pound Ridge, N.Y. Parents can contact the school for their child, then guide their children as they write their teacher an email, then step back when they can do it on their own.

Morin tells parents not to overcompensate: "I know I'm doing too much when I'm making three trips to the school to bring sneakers and a textbook, and it's interfering with the rest of the family's functioning."

Be direct but sensitive

A professional can help children understand how they learn without judgment, Auerbach, of the Sheridan School, says. "They can say: 'Know why it's so easy for you to memorize those math facts? Because you have really good long-term memory. It's harder for you to remember six plus seven when you're solving a word problem because your working memory is not as strong.' "

Parents may need to work out their own issues so that they can be calm and empathetic. "Your child is exquisitely sensitive to your reaction," says Rachel Simmons, author of "Enough As She Is." "We have to check ourselves and make sure our disappointment about a limitation in our child is not about an unresolved wound or an over-identification with our child's success."

Mary, whose seventh-grader Zoe has attention-deficit disorder, sought therapy because she had trouble coming to terms with her daughter's diagnosis. Her psychologist helped her understand that Zoe will be consistently inconsistent. "She's like a 9-year-old who has no filter and doesn't recognize the boundaries of privacy," says Mary, who wanted to use only her first name to protect her daughter's privacy. "It was liberating to let go of expectations that were setting us both up for failure."

It's not always easy to take the long view, but Ella hopes parents will embrace her attitude. "Disability stands for something you can't do," she says. "I can read and learn, just differently. When I grow up, I plan to be a rocket scientist or an astrophysicist."

Phyllis L. Fagell, LCPC, is the counselor at Sheridan School in the District and a therapist at the Chrysalis Group in Bethesda. She tweets @pfagell and blogs at

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