By Marilyn Price-Mitchell, PhD
According to the U.S. Department of Education, almost 1 million children have some form of learning disability for which they receive special education. Parents report that over 5.4 million children have been diagnosed with ADHD, a figure that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) claims are continuing to increase annually. Millions more have varying diagnoses that affect learning and life success, including autism spectrum disorders.
For those of us who have parented children with learning disabilities, ADHD, and associated mental health issues, these figures not only represent challenges for our educational and health systems, they are deeply personal matters that affect the core of our families and our children’s happiness.
Beyond the logistics of educational assessments, tutoring, and daily homework challenges lies the responsibility of all adults—parents, teachers, and counselors—to foster a positive mindset that helps kids overcome the many obstacles they face.
Like millions of other students, my daughter’s story is unique. Among her many hurdles was learning to compensate for a reading speed in the lowest one percentile, a challenge that continues today as a 29-year-old.
But with acceptance and encouragement, children and young adults are surprisingly resilient and learn to embrace their differences. Recently, my daughter wrote about five ideas that fueled her success from middle school through law school as a student with learning disabilities and attention deficit disorder. She presented these ideas as part of an article, To Parents & Educators: From an Attorney with LD/ADHD and gave me permission to reprint them here.
Needless to say, I am very proud of how my daughter developed a path to accomplish goals she set for herself. But more importantly, what she outlines below as critical steps in her journey to understand and embrace her differences supports much of the research on positive youth development. All children must learn to overcome obstacles in order to believe in themselves!
In her own words, here are the five steps that were critical to my daughter’s success, ideas she now tries to instill in other young people.
Understand your Disabilities
Every student has strengths and weaknesses. But kids with diagnosed disabilities need to understand their academic and emotional assets and liabilities really well. By middle school, educational testing can help students look inside themselves and understand how their disabilities impact their studies and social lives. Knowing what they need from teachers, tutors, counselors, peers, and parents is a foundation for future growth.
Ask for Help
It’s okay to be different; embrace it. I can’t emphasize this enough. I have friends who were told to hide their disabilities from teachers. As a result, they felt unhappy and defeated. It wasn’t until they got tested, shared their disabilities, and requested accommodations that they were able to finally get into a college and get the degree they wanted. The earlier students learn to work with their disability and understand it as part of their identities the better. Embracing our disabilities give us the confidence to talk with teachers, administrators, and trusted friends about what we like, what we are good at, and what we need help with. We often can’t, and don’t have to do it alone.
Never Use your Disability as an Excuse
It can be easy to say to a teacher, “I need an extension on this paper because I am slow at writing.” While this may be okay early on in school, it doesn’t work in college or the real world. So why get used to it? Rather than using a disability as an excuse, students must find ways to compensate. Figure out how to work efficiently and effectively, rather than longer and harder. Most kids with learning disabilities need help developing efficient work habits. Ask for help!
Use Compensatory Strategies
Working longer hours is necessary at times. But it can also lead to burnout. There are lots of compensatory strategies for learning, and many books on the topic. You’ve likely heard of many, including, making lists, getting organized, using memory tricks, etc. The key is finding the strategies that work and altering others to make them your own.
For example, I’m a very slow reader and got frustrated when I couldn’t finish reading assignments. But I’m a good listener and I understand high-level concepts. My strategy was to listen in class, research the topic, and then boil down the minimum reading necessary. Finding strategies that worked for me helped me set limits on my school work, gave me time to socialize, and helped me have time for myself.
Taking time away from stressful school work is essential for students with learning disabilities and contributes to better mental health. It also allows students to focus on bigger dreams, careers that might take 4-8 years of secondary education!
Know you can Achieve your Goals
Setting goals is important for all of us. And most importantly, we have to develop the determination to achieve them! I encourage students with LD/ADHD to find adults who give them positive messages of encouragement, who listen to them when they express self-doubt. With the right support and strategies, we can do anything we set our minds to!
Having learning disabilities and/or ADHD is not easy. And it doesn’t end when we finish school. With every change, come new challenges and strategy adjustments. I always remember what the famous educator, Booker T. Washington said more than 100 years ago, “I have learned that success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles overcome while trying to succeed.” Challenges are what make life exciting—they are what define who we are and who we become. Embrace the challenges!
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