Most children currently identified as “learning disabled” are literally “wired” to learn differently than most other children. Given the brain’s incredible resourcefulness, in most cases these differences need never become disabling—unless we let them.—Dr. Fernette and Dr. Brock Eide, The Mislabeled Child
The Way We Discover LDs is Broken
The way that we discover learning differences is brutal. You have 5 years at home and in preschool with your creative and happy child. School starts and all of a sudden, your child learns that they can’t do things. Your child, who is still learning how to socialize and act in a classroom, begins to realize that something is wrong — with them.
It’s common for children to start the school year excited and happy. Parents talk about watching their children develop embarrassment and humiliation, as they realize that other children “get” things and they don’t. This shift—from happiness to sadness—is one of the indicators of a learning difference.
Unfortunately, there is no smooth process by which our society identifies a LD child and says “Your child’s brain works differently. We know that they can learn just fine, if we teach them differently. We’ll do this.”
As a part of their job, teachers from preschool through grammar school are required to identify children who demonstrate learning disabilities. Children who display LD are supposed to be observed, tested, and (by law) provided equal access to a “free and appropriate education.” It sounds good, but in reality, it’s a pretty bumpy process.
GREAT RESOURCE: The Center for Parent Information and Resources helps you find LD help. Here’s their short introduction to what you should know about LD.
Our system doesn’t automatically test children who have trouble in school. When children do get tested, they’re often just tested for one thing, not broadly tested for potential LDs. Some school districts refuse to acknowledge that particular LDs exist. School districts don’t provide support for all types of LD. And, since each child with a LD is unique, teachers and parents often must use trial and error to be effective.
In this unclear environment, the parent must turn into a kind of project manager, making sure that her child’s needs are met, and that the process to support her child continues, throughout different teachers, different grades, and even different schools.
Partnering with Your Child’s Teacher
Your child’s teacher is one of the most important people in their life. Every year, especially during the first years of school, your child will spend hours in an environment that is controlled by the teacher. It’s important to make sure that the teacher has all of the information she needs in order to be effective working with your child.
Get to know your child’s teacher at the beginning of every year. After all, the two of you will team up to make your child successful. Your job is to provide education for the teacher, negotiate expectations out at a top level, if necessary, track performance, and provide support.
Today’s teachers often have up to 30 students in their classrooms, so if you want the teacher to have specific, important information about your child, many parents choose to send an introductory letter during the first week of school.
An introductory letter will help the teacher meet your child’s needs, even if your child doesn’t have a 504 or IEP. Your letter should be professional and positive. You don’t want to prejudice the teacher against your child by sounding like he’s going to be hard to teach. At the same time, you want the teacher to know that you’re here to support your child and her.
The 504 plan and IEP are legal documents that specify how your child’s education is supported in school. This page describes both programs, and this page tells you how to apply for an IEP. This page tells you how to apply for a 504.
Parents recommend the following tips for your letter:
- Keep it short. Pretend that it’s a summary for an executive. Don’t explain everything, just say the important stuff and leave the door open for future conversations.
- Make the letter pleasant, to emphasize that you’re on the same team and you’re looking forward to working with the teacher.
- Many parents say that they’re checking to make sure the teacher received the 504 or IEP plan (if applicable.)
- Mention one or two things your child loves or is good at: “I want to introduce my son, John. John is in chorus, loves to draw, and plays baseball very well. He is empathetic and loves to help.”
- What are your child’s learning issues? Anything you can say about them? (“James has dysgraphia, which means that he can think much faster and better than he can write. This is very frustrating for him, because he knows answers, but it’s very difficult for him to write them down.”)
- If your son had problems last year with remembering homework, you can mention it by saying “I would like to meet with you to set up support for remembering homework. I would like to know if you have suggestions.”
- If you do have specific suggestions or requests, it’s often more effective when the suggestions come from a doctor or other professional, rather than from you. (For example, “Last year, James’ teacher, Mrs. Wilson, performed a binder check after school every day. That worked well, and she suggested that we do it this year.”) (You can also put this type of thing into a learning profile, as described below.)
A learning profile is a one-page document that tells the information about this child, and what teaching methods and approaches are most successful. The learning profile is developed by the parent, as described below. Many parents say that writing a summary of who their child is and what works is helpful, and because it partially focuses on teacher success, teachers will often refer to it.
A learning profile is different than an introductory letter. You can use both, although some parents choose to use one or the other. The learning profile is not a personal letter. It looks like a professional tool for the teacher to use and is meant to be used year after year, as an updatable reference page. You can think of it as “teaching shortcuts for my child’s success.”
Top Tips for Making Teacher Relationships Effective
Here are some tips from experienced parents for making teacher relationships work smoothly.
- Be friendly. Don’t overshare. Stick to just a few talking points.
- Teachers have a natural guard up against emotional parents. The minute you become emotional you lose ground. Keep emotion out of the situation, no matter what happens.
- Treat this like a job. If the teacher dresses up, do the same (a little less than she does.) If she doesn’t dress up, then be more casual, but not sloppy. Be respectful of her needs.
- Don’t barge into her classroom. Make appointments. At the same time, keep your eyes open. Some parents admit to showing up a bit early and looking around to see how their child is doing.
If you are nervous about a class, you can always request to observe by sitting in the classroom. (You will never get a clear view if you do this, since both teacher and your child will behave differently if you are around. Sometimes parents hire a professional to observe.)
- Use very few words. What’s the most important thing to tell her? Letters should be as short as you can get them and should only talk about one or two points. She’s busy and has many other students. Conversations should touch on one or two points.
- You can’t get everything. Remember what your top priorities are with in this class and mention those things first.
- Some experienced parents always show up with a coffee. If you do this, make it low-key.
- If the teacher uses a new technique or tries something and it works, be sure to let her know. Positive feedback is always appreciated. And of course always thank her for the time and the effort she is spending with you and your child.
In general, keep an eye out for teachers who are kind and will try to help your child. If you discover a wonderful teacher in the next grade up, sometimes it’s a good idea to go right to the principal and ask for that teacher for the coming year.
- It’s a lot less trouble to diplomatically ask for what you want in the first place, than it is to ask for your child to be moved or supported because the year is a failure.
- You’ll never be able to find the perfect teacher. Everyone is human. You want to avoid teachers who might actively harm your child. Secondly, you want to find a teacher who will support your child’s learning needs, especially if they have had training in how to teach children with LD.
- If you fear your child has been assigned a teacher who is a poor fit, remember that one child’s unfriendly teacher can be another child’s favorite teacher. Some unlikely teacher/student pairings end up being magically positive.
- Fears aren’t enough of a reason to move your child. If you want to move your child out of a classroom, document problems, concerns, and conversations. Remember that you have a limited number of requests that you can make. What if you ask for your child to be moved and the new teacher is no better? If possible, try to work things out first.
- If the situation is not working out, and the teacher isn’t following the 504 or IEP, or isn’t responsive, feel free to meet with the principal. Stay pleasant, but tenacious. Sometimes a principal can help to straighten things out with a teacher. If things are bad enough to move classes, state your worries and then ask specifically for an alternative placement and tell the principal which teacher you want and why. Finally, if the school isn’t following an IEP, you can file a complaint, as described in “Disagreeing with the School and System” in Chapter 5.
Meeting with Teachers Before School Starts
Sometimes parents want or need to speak with teachers or school administrators in the weeks right before school starts. Although you shouldn’t do it unless you need to, you might want a meeting like this because your child had issues last year, or your child is transitioning to another school and you want to meet the team. Another reason for a meeting is teacher assignment.
You can email a teacher to see if she’s available to meet before school starts for the year. If you do this, it’s a good idea to email your introduction letter first, and then ask for a meeting. You can also talk with the counselor, to see if the teacher is available, and the counselor can help to set up a meeting. If the teacher is resistant, don’t push it.