I hope you’ve enjoyed the Everyday Decisions series. So far we’ve discussed everyday situations in which kids with learning disabilities (LD) face challenges related to sports, music instruction, doctor’s visits and more. Today, we’ll wrap up the series with some everyday situations that kids face at school.
Back to the BasicsIf I had to name the most challenging thing that I feel my children with LD and other special needs face on a day-to-day basis, I would say without hesitation that it’s just “fitting in” at school. While their father and I spend countless hours advocating for them to receive the special educational services they need and deserve on their school campus, by far the biggest challenge that I observe my kids facing at school isn’t academic. It’s just being accepted for who they are and how they learn, communicate and play by their peers. Plain and simple. There are many times when I can see clearly that other kids don’t treat them the same as others because they realize my children are somehow different. And in all honesty, it’s heartbreaking.
So, while concerned parents like you and me certainly play a vitally important role in approaching our children’s schools to ask for academic assistance, accommodations, modifications and special services, what can we do to help our kids with differences not feel so different everyday at school? Aside from classroom settings, what challenges do children with LD face at school that parents should both anticipate and feel comfortable addressing in the way that is most appropriate for their child?
The School CafeteriaOne of the main settings (outside of the classroom) where I see kids with differences struggle is in the lunchroom. Social challenges, sensory issues (such as sensitivity to loud noises, smells, tastes and textures) as well as problems related to ADHD can make the lunchroom an uncomfortable place for many kids with LD and other issues with learning and behavior. Other LD-specific problems like reading the menu (for kids with dyslexia), counting the right change (for kids with dyscalculia) and problems with coordination and fine motor skills (my son can have trouble opening a water bottle or plastic bag and my daughter sometimes has trouble balancing a cafeteria tray while walking to her table) can make the setting a downright nightmare for kids, especially if they are already feeling left out or stigmatized socially.
So what’s a parent to do?
Discuss the cafeteria in your child’s 504 or IEP meetings. IEPs and 504 plans cover the entire campus, not just your child’s general and/or special education classrooms. If your child gets Occupational Therapy services, make sure your child’s therapist knows that your child needs help with things like such as carrying a tray or opening a package. Make sure the professional who works on your child’s reading helps them work on reading a menu (with the pressure of the cafeteria worker asking them what they want to eat!) and other practical daily skills that may be more challenging due to LD.
Make sure that the IEP team designates a member to talk to the cafeteria monitor or other workers about your child’s challenges (in a discreet way) so that they can offer assistance and support when needed. Sometimes just one adult being aware of why and when a child may struggle can make a huge difference in a child’s confidence level. Both of my kids know that they can talk to the cafeteria monitor and ask for help and that she will not call them out or make them feel badly for doing so. This is a huge plus, but I had to bring up the cafeteria in IEP meetings for it to be addressed by our school. Don’t assume that the entire campus is on board and ready to serve your child if you don’t ask them to be prepared to do so.
If you work with a private Occupational Therapist, Physical Therapist, or Speech Therapist, ask these professionals to work on cafeteria skills with your kids. They are great resources, and when you bring up a specific struggle your child is having, they are always more than happy to work on that specific scenario during their next therapy session. And you’ll be glad you asked when both you and your child see the results.
Library HourThe library is another opportunity for you to engage other school-based resources outside of your child's IEP or 504 team to help them engage and learn appropriately.
I found that when I reached out to my dyslexic daughter’s librarian to inquire about age-appropriate reading material, audio books and other resources, she was more knowledgeable in many ways than anyone on my daughter’s IEP team. She went above and beyond to help, ordering books that were of interest to my daughter, making an extra effort to send home books that she thought my daughter would like to read and more. It was surprising and refreshing that on a public school campus where my daughter’s IEP would not recognize her dyslexia, her librarian not only did, but knew immediately how to help. That was a huge source of encouragement for our family and spurred me on to seek additional dyslexia resources for my daughter campus-wide.
Here are some other ways to help your child be socially and academically supported at the school library:
You may need to ask for a “reader” or assistant to be with your child for book selection.
Alert the parent volunteer who works in your child’s library hour each week that she may need help.
Volunteer yourself during library time so you can be there to observe your child’s comfort level and progress in the library.
Making FriendsIf you’ve been advocating for your kids for a while, like I have, you probably realize that advocacy can only go so far when it comes to certain things. You can’t make other children be nice to your kid. You can’t tell every bully that makes fun of your child to go away, leave your child alone and mind their own business. You aren’t always there, and that’s just the way it’s going to be.
So what can we as parents concerned that our kids with LD just aren’t being accepted by their peers do to facilitate relationships between our children and other kids at school?
Be friendly yourself. The more parents that you are friendly with and get to know, the more you will have the opportunity to open up with about your child’s challenges. Nine times out of ten, once I share with another parent what my kids are facing, I notice that their children are more open to and understanding towards my children, and sometimes even invite them to play or make a point to include them in activities at school or in the neighborhood.
Play it cool. Some kids just aren’t going to be the ones that will embrace and accept your children, and you’ve got to accept it and move on. Don’t worry about trying to make sure that everyone thinks your kids are friend-worthy–worry instead that your children are being taught to treat everyone they meet like they are important and worthy of kindness and respect, no matter how they are treated.
I told my son the other day that you can’t control how people treat you, you can only control how you respond to others. If you treat others kindly even when they are unkind to you, you win–because you did the right thing. He liked that, and it has made a big difference in his attitude and confidence level lately.
Buddy Fun DayAny school-sponsored event that requires children to have a friend can be difficult. Not every child with LD has a “best friend” on their school campus.
My kids look forward to Buddy Fun Day like everyone else, but I secretly dread it each spring. I always fear that the kids who are “assigned” to my kids will feel “stuck” since my children don’t socialize on the same level as their peers in some situations. While my son does have a “bestie,” sometimes I can tell that my daughter sometimes feels left out of the 2nd grade social scene. I don’t know if it’s because she is behind academically due to her dyslexia, or because she is slightly behind socially due to her speech articulation delay, or both. But it always breaks my heart just a little when she isn’t the first one to be “picked” as a buddy or has to be paired up with someone she doesn’t know very well.
While I realize that a lot of this is typical parenting heartache, the degree to which you feel these growing pangs as a parent should not be increased simply due to the fact that your children are treated differently by their peers because they don’t accept or understand their differences. I find myself wanting to stop the kids that are leaving them out and explain what’s going on–but of course, I don’t. (My kids would die and my husband would kill me!) But, sometimes it just feels that an explanation is the only way to protect my children from feeling like there is something wrong with them when they are shunned or left out by their peers.
Feedback, Please!This is where I could use some help, parents. Do you have suggestions on how to help your kids with LD feel like they fit and make friends when they are being stigmatized at school? I would love to hear your tips and suggestions in the comments section below.
Thanks again for tuning into the Everyday Decisions series! I value your encouraging comments and helpful feedback and hope to be engaged with you related to our amazing kids again in the near future. Until then, take care.
Lyn Pollard is a freelance writer, parent advocate, and the mother of two kids who learn and play differently. A former journalist and change management consultant, Lyn writes, talks and tweets about advocacy, literacy and safe schools for kids with learning disabilities and special needs. Check out her piece in the New York Times.