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Opinion: Deborah Lynam explains how in order to be effective advocates for difference learners, parents need to understand the legal landscape and their own responsibilities

From Awareness to Action: The Parent’s Journey

 

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Parenting a child with learning differences can feel confusing, overwhelming and often lonely. A mother or father may need to work through deeply personal feelings, including frustration or grief, and may become disillusioned with educational professionals that can’t offer quick fixes. There is much to learn, and an overwhelming amount of information to absorb and understand about a specific child’s unique learning needs. It’s important for parents to map out a path from awareness to advocacy, which includes information on a child’s rights, resources for remediation and accommodation, and strategies for collaborating with teachers and administrators.

Parents who have been through this journey know the road can be bumpy and challenging. It often starts with a sense that our child is not progressing as she (or he) should be and we set out to find answers. This effort will take time, persistence and tenacity – but it is well worth it. The overall goal should be to secure the most appropriate learning environment for our child, so that she can become a well-rounded, confident, independent learner. Without our advocacy and investment, we know she may miss that chance.

To be an effective advocate, you will need to understand the legal landscape, as well as acknowledge that you also have important responsibilities.

Understanding Your Rights and Responsibilities

It is vitally important to research and learn all you need to know about your school’s policies, and any relevant educational mandates or laws that may impact your child’s right to an appropriate education. To be an effective advocate, you will need to understand the legal landscape, as well as acknowledge that you also have important responsibilities. As a parent, you know your child best. It is imperative that you engage with your child’s teachers to share your insights and perspectives of her learning needs. The best outcomes for students with learning differences are realized when families and educators work together. Building your own knowledge base about the learning challenge, and preparing yourself to actively participate in parent-teacher meetings and discussions, are key steps.

A therapist uses visual aides to teach the alphabet

A therapist uses visual aides to teach the alphabet

Identifying Resources and Supports

One thing you can do as a parent is ask direct questions about potential resources in your school or community that may be helpful in meeting your child’s needs. Children who learn differently will need support in a few distinct areas: remediation, accommodation, and self-advocacy. If your child is not making progress with the general curriculum or traditional teaching methodology, then she will need an instructional intervention designed to remediate her areas of weakness. You can ask your school what types of specialized programmes are available in reading, writing or mathematics. Or you might visit a local tutoring center in your community to identify services available for your child outside of the school day.

When it comes to accommodations, you can speak to a technology specialist at the school, or search the Internet for information on assistive technology tools that would help your child access information and demonstrate knowledge without being held back due to isolated areas of weakness. Your child may benefit from using audiobooks or text-to-speech technology if they have difficulty decoding written text. Or perhaps writing or spelling challenges could be overcome with the support of a volunteer scribe or dictation software. The goal is to keep your child progressing in grade-level content by supporting her specific needs. Assistive technology tools and other accommodations – such as extra time for exams – can be extremely helpful.

While it is important to focus on these academic strategies and supports, it is equally important to keep an eye on your child’s social and emotional well being. Many children with these types of learning struggles may suffer from low self-esteem or anxiety. Teaching and supporting the development of self-advocacy skills should become a top priority. Children need to be able to request assistance and explain what they need to learn in many different settings. Parents can look to identify programmes or seek the support of caring teachers who can help the child learn these skills, build self-confidence and gain an understanding of his or her own specific learning profile.

The best outcomes for students with learning differences are achieved when families and educators work together toward solutions. Active participation in parent-teacher meetings, for instance, can go a long way to ensuring a child receives the support and services she needs.

The best outcomes for students with learning differences are achieved when families and educators work together toward solutions. Active participation in parent-teacher meetings, for instance, can go a long way to ensuring a child receives the support and services she needs.

Connecting to others that have personal knowledge of learning differences can help you and your child weather the emotional ups and downs, and eliminate feelings of isolation.

Communicating and Collaborating

The better you can communicate your concerns about your child’s needs and build consensus among the teachers and staff members who will be working with her, the faster you can move your child towards the supports and services she needs. You may feel frustrated or even angry at times that issues are not being addressed in a timely manner, or that the process feels confusing or disjointed. At these times it can be helpful to stay focused on your child. Instead of getting into uncomfortable conversations based on subjective measures or opinions, ask to discuss your child’s progress data and focus discussions on why your child may need a specific intervention or support, rather than just making general requests or demands. Talk to your child’s teachers about why you are seeking certain supports or solutions and clearly explain why they are important to you and your child.

 

Building Support Networks

Finding supportive peers in which to confide and share the journey can bring
a tremendous sense of relief for you as the parent, as well as for your child. You are not alone. Learning differences are very common. While many families may feel it is stigmatizing to share with others, there are many others that realize it is not. It can be liberating to share stories of your child’s unique learning needs, and to find that other parents share similar experiences with their own children. Connecting to others that have personal knowledge of learning differences can help you and your child weather the emotional ups and downs, and eliminate feelings of isolation. Talk to your child’s teacher, tutor or specialized service provider about whether they have information about local parent or family support groups. You might also try attending a workshop or conference on related educational issues to meet like-minded parents. If it’s difficult to find groups already in existence, perhaps you could organize something at your school or in your community for families of children just like yours.

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Becoming a persuasive and courageous advocate takes work, but it is well worth the effort.

Adopting a Strengths-Based Perspective

There are many myths and misconceptions out there about learning differences. We must of course help our child understand her areas of deficit; just as importantly, we must encourage her to see and celebrate her areas of strength. All children will have things they struggle with and other things they are good at or that they especially enjoy. Helping your child feel good about herself by finding opportunities to be successful will help her establish a healthy self-image, and will build resilience to persevere when certain tasks are difficult. It is our responsibility as parents to help educate others about our children. By sharing accurate information about learning differences with teachers, professionals and members of our communities, we can help others not only accept, but also embrace, diversity.

Becoming a persuasive and courageous advocate takes work, but it is well worth the effort, both at an individual and systems level. Many parents who have successfully advocated for their own children soon find they are able to help others avoid some of the pitfalls and challenges typically experienced along the way. You can get involved with local education groups or non-profit organizations focusing on improving education for all children. While you may start out on the path to support your own child, you may ultimately find yourself in a position to speak out to a broader audience about systemic change.

Deborah Lynam is the Director of Partnerships & Engagement at AIM Institute for Learning & Research in the United States. She is the parent of three children, two of whom are dyslexic. She was awarded the Outstanding Achievement Award by the New Jersey Branch of the International Dyslexia Association in 2013 and is a founding member of the parent-led grassroots movement, Decoding Dyslexia.

 

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