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When Your Child Has a Learning Disability: Taking the First Steps

It is a daunting task for parents to work through a child's disability. They must arm themselves with knowledge and information in order to be the best advocate for their child. One mother shares her story as well as some advice.



Young boy reading a books at a desk looking frustrated.

When my son was born he was perfect. He would grow into an adorable little boy and walk and talk and seem like every other little boy. However, in first grade I would find out that my son had a disability—a learning disability.


At a meeting with the school's special education director, school psychologist, and teacher, I tried to understand what they were talking about when they told me my son was "wired" differently. He could not learn in the same way as other students. I remember thinking the use of the word "wired" was absurd to describe what goes on inside the brain. I sat and listened. I left and cried. There were years of those meetings, resource rooms, extended time for tests, and my own private, paid tutor. My son plodded along with little success.


After years of frustration for both of us, I needed to change the formula. The first stop was an outside psycho-educational evaluation. I learned that besides having a learning disability similar to dyslexia, he also had ADD. (It seems that disabilities often run in pairs.)


I later heard about a reading program that would address his learning disability, and found out that the ADD could be addressed by medication and learned compensatory skills. As soon as I armed myself with knowledge, I became a participant at the subsequent meetings—rather than an observer. And I managed to get my son the help he needed.


Processing The Information

It is a daunting task for parents to work through a child's disability. First, their emotional reaction is difficult to appreciate unless you have stood in those shoes. Then there is a tangled web of understanding the nature of the disability, how the disability affects the child's capacity to learn, and the educational programs and services available to address the unique needs of the child. Finally, parents need to navigate the special education system, which involves education, state regulations, and federal laws. And in the middle of all that, the clock just continues to tick as their child may be languishing in school.


The First Step For Help

The first step parents must take is to request their child be evaluated. Parents need to keep their own records of their child's progress in school and his ability to complete homework. A thorough medical examination is also necessary. Once a disability is identified, parents can obtain information from doctors, specialists, teachers, family and friends, as well as the Internet regarding the nature of the disability and an educational plan to address it.


Read And Understand The Evaluations

The next step parents should take is to read the evaluations prior to attending a meeting with the school district. The initial evaluations are:


1.    Physical examination performed by the child's medical doctor

2.    Psycho-educational evaluation is done by the school psychologist

3.    Social history, which is a report from the part of the child's academic needs

4.    Classroom observation


There are also other disability-specific evaluations-—if applicable—such as speech and language or occupational therapy. Evaluations that properly reflect the student's strength and weaknesses are essential. If there is an inaccuracy, new or additional evaluations can be requested. Independent evaluations—those at the school district's expense—may also be requested.


The Legal Standard

Nationally, approximately seven million students are classified with a disability and receive special-education services. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) defines 13 specific disabilities.


All public schools that offer a free, appropriate public education (FAPE) to children with disabilities in the least restrictive environment (LRE) receive federal funding. The student's educational program and/or related services are memorialized in the student's Individual Education Plan (IEP). The law is clear in stating that the education provided need not be the "best" education, but rather an appropriate one that that fosters progress.


In order to be proactive, parents must have an understanding of the process and know how they can contribute to be an effective advocate for their child. For more information on IDEA, go to Also check out the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD).

Mary Noe is a professor of legal studies at St. John's University College of Professional Studies in Jamaica, Queens.


Also See:

How to Identify an Early Learning Disability in Your Child, with Tips for How You Can Help at Home

Does My Child Have a Disability

Reading the Signs: Diagnosiing Dyslexia

Learning Disabilities Chart: Diagnoses & Symptoms

Learning Disabilities: Know Your Child's Rights

Section 504 & IDEA Comparison Chart

How to Help Your ADHD Child





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