The Power and Danger of Learning Disability Labels

“When we diagnose and treat these kids we often, inadvertently, instill the most dangerous learning disabilities…what truly holds people back in life. The dangerous disabilities are fear, shame, loss of hope…and a feeling of being less-than. Those are the disablers. Without meaning to, teachers, parents, doctors, and other professionals instill these disablers every day—in the name of helping children.”
—Dr. Ed. Hallowell

Labeling is not casual. It has power.

Negative messages affect children. You will need to learn to speak out and actively advocate so your child will receive protection and support as they learn. Your child is watching. When you model advocacy behavior for your child, they can learn to advocate for themselves. But be careful and conscious about the words that you use, and the words that you teach them to use to describe themselves.

Like many issues around raising a child who learns differently, there are no simple suggestions or solutions. When you go to the school to negotiate support for your child, you need to use the term “learning disability” to qualify for services. It might help you or your child to be specific about diagnostic terms in other places as well.

Some parents use the term “learning difference” and encourage their child to realize that everyone’s brain is different, with unique strengths and weaknesses.  Other parents feel that it empowers their child when they teach their child that they have a “learning disability” and that they should speak up and educate people about it.

Some parents actively reject the idea that their child is disabled, and work hard to find education that supports them as different learners. Many of these parents end up homeschooling their children, because they can use positive approaches that support their child’s strengths.

Labels Can Affect Perception and Treatment

Make sure that you’re comfortable with the terms that you use when you present your child to others. Try to choose a term that is effective, and make sure that you don’t label your child in situations where it will make it harder for them.

Be very careful using medical diagnostic terms outside of the classroom. LD terms can cause people to judge your child. It’s a good idea to always think about why you are describing your child. Do you want your child’s behavior understood empathetically by a coach?  Or are you explaining to a teacher why your child’s LD affects classroom performance, so that she can craft a learning experience around it?

If you’re just watching out for your child in a social or sport situation, you can use terms like shy, anxious, immature, or uncoordinated. These real words aren’t scary. For example, if your child is awkward socially or has left-right issues, it’s best to tell a soccer coach that they have some anxiety, or get confused about left and right, rather than using labeling terms like ADHD or dyslexia.  A soccer coach isn’t educated in LD.

Whenever possible choose an effective, positive way to describe your child.  Compare:

My child is bad at math. vs My child has trouble visualizing math, and works best when you demonstrate with manipulatives
My child can’t sit still. vs My child focuses better when he moves his body.

On the left side is a simple statement, describing a child’s failure or problem.  On the right are alternate ways of communicating that information. Both examples offer a solution or reason for the behavior, giving the teacher or coach a way to help the child. The posts about “What’s In This Diagnosis” on this website list which skills are typically weak within each diagnosis, and can help you be specific.

Talking about specific challenges (For example, “my child has trouble translating spoken words into actions”) can educate teachers and coaches about why your child learns differently and why you’re asking for a specific accommodation. And education can only help.

  • Many people know nothing about LDs. Some people confuse autism, dyslexia, and ADHD, so if you mention one term, you can find yourself trying to explain how your child does NOT have the other two terms—which can cause even more confusion.
  • Many parents suggest that you try to keep the conversation less about what your child “has” and more about what your child “needs,” in order to succeed.
  • Some parents report that a low key “I learn differently” or “I use audio books for reading” works well, especially for young children.

Speaking about LDs in Front of Your Child

As Jenifer Fox says, in her book “Your Child’s Strengths,” “The language parents and teachers use with and in front of children is critical to developing strength or focusing on weakness.”

One of the biggest things to remember when raising an LD child is to be very careful about what you say in front of your child — and make sure that others are as well. While your choices may be different, here are some suggestions:

  • Don’t discuss your child’s issues with specialists in front of your child. Don’t let specialists engage in labeling or pathologizing your child’s learning in front of your child.
  • In general, don’t let teachers issue critiques to you in front of your child. Listen to what the teacher says first, and if there are one or two messages that you want your child to hear, bring your child in once you know what the teacher is going to say.
  • Put other descriptive words into your child’s ears. Maybe they have a good sense of direction, or is great with animals. Perhaps they are great with children and a “born teacher,” or an artist, or loves to cook. Your child should get practice defining themself in positive terms. Identify, label, and develop strengths and interests. Point out or spend time with adults with similar gifts, so your child can see adults like themselves.

Be Cautious of the Push to Self-label

Many people think that self-knowledge is the same thing as self-labeling. It is not. Knowledge brings power. Learning disability labels can bring bad feelings if not done right.

Shelly’s daughter was under a lot of stress and was starting to have some obsessions. Shelly found an OCD workbook for her. “I thought it would be great,” she said, “but I read it and the entire book kept saying “You have OCD.” They used the label again and again.  She was 12 years old and I just wanted to give her some coping techniques, not a psychiatric label. And I certainly didn’t want her to start telling herself that she has a psychiatric condition just because she read a workbook at home.”

It’s a good idea to read help books before giving them to your child, and to watch out for messages that your child receives. How does your child refer to themself? Early self-labeling can internalize and stay with a child.

It turns out that self-talk is a powerful tool for success.  Does your child know to use self talk?  How do they talk to themselves? Pay attention to words and messages and choose them consciously.

Some people want to use the term, “disability,” from an early age. But if your child could succeed in a differently-structured learning environment, are they still disabled? First grade is not life.  It’s a specific learning situation.

How a Diagnosis Can Help

So if learning disability labels aren’t good for children, why diagnose children with LDs? Kids like to work, to achieve, to do well. And a lot of kids with LDs report feeling like they’re “stupid,” and “losers.”

It turns out that if you help a child who is struggling in school figure out what’s going on—if you help them understand why they learn differently, and then if you get help for them, and teach them how to “drive” their particular brain to success—it can be a life-changer.

Many adults with LDs talk of how relieved they were to discover that they had dyslexia, dyspraxia, auditory processing, or other problems. It meant that they weren’t stupid.

This can also be a good reason for sharing a diagnosis with your child. Not to label, but to explain, to lift the hood on their brain so they can understand it and operate it better.

Studies that focus on success have found that perception is surprisingly powerful. If a person believes that they are in control of their lives and that effort and ability determine their future, they are measurably more successful than people who believe that luck, chance, or other people’s behavior controls their fate.

Even if you have multiple diagnoses, what you call yourself can be important. While some children with an LD say “I have a disability,” others say “I learn differently.”

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Your Child’s Strengths: Discover Them, Develop Them, Use Them

Jenifer Fox is an educator who has written about developing children’s strengths in activities, relationships, and learning. Her book includes workbook tools and an affinities curriculum that Fox has implemented in her own school.



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