Dear Dr. Beal: I have a son and I don’t want him to become labeled and fall through the system. I feel he would be just another black male lost in the educational system. Before COVID they were trying to schedule testing to see if he has a learning disability. He has problems reading and is not on grade level. He will often turn his numbers and letters backwards when writing. Should I pursue the testing?
Signed, Trying to save a Black Boy
I totally understand how you feel about your son and wanting the best for him. There have been many stories, some true and some untrue, about black boys being railroaded in the educational system. However, the best thing you can do is what you are doing now and that is reaching out for information and being an advocate for him. Testing is the only way to help determine what is preventing him from reading. However, if it is proven that there is a learning disability, that does not mean that your child can not learn or become a productive citizen. It only means that one would have to determine how he can best learn. Importantly, please understand that a disability does not have to be debilitating. School focuses on the very things that may be difficult for the child – reading, writing, math, listening, speaking, and reasoning.
Research indicates that 1 out of every 5 people in the United States have a learning disability. Almost 3 million children (ages 6 through 21) have some form of a learning disability and receive special education in schools. In fact, over half of all children who receive special education have a learning disability (Twenty-fourth Annual Report to Congress, U.S. Department of Education, 2002). The reported numbers are higher for black boys and learning disabilities as compared to other racial groups. Let’s start with a working definition of a learning disability.
A “learning disability” defined by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a federal law that guides how schools provide special education and related services to children with disabilities.
“. . . a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, that may manifest itself in an imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or do mathematical calculations, including conditions such as perceptual disabilities, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia.”
However, learning disabilities do not include, “…learning problems that are primarily the result of visual, hearing, or motor disabilities, of mental retardation, of emotional disturbance, or of environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage.” 34 Code of Federal Regulations §300.7(c)(10)
Just like any other mental health disorder there are certain criterias that must be met. A child could have one or several of the symptoms below. When a child has a learning disability, he or she:
- may have trouble learning the alphabet, rhyming words, or connecting letters to their sounds;
- may make many mistakes when reading aloud, and repeat and pause often;
- may not understand what he or she reads;
- may have real trouble with spelling;
- may have very messy handwriting or hold a pencil awkwardly;
- may struggle to express ideas in writing;
- may learn language late and have a limited vocabulary;
- may have trouble remembering the sounds that letters make or hearing slight differences between words;
- may have trouble understanding jokes, comic strips, and sarcasm;
- may have trouble following directions;
- may mispronounce words or use a wrong word that sounds similar;
- may have trouble organizing what he or she wants to say or not be able to think of the word he or she needs for writing or conversation;
- may not follow the social rules of conversation, such as taking turns, and may stand too close to the listener;
- may confuse math symbols and misread numbers;
- may not be able to retell a story in order (what happened first, second, third); or
- may not know where to begin a task or how to go on from there.
Specially trained diagnosticians may perform a diagnostic educational evaluation assessing the child’s academic and intellectual potential and level of academic performance. Once the testing has taken place the next step for the school is to schedule an Admissions, Referral, and Dismissal (ARD) meeting. At that time the results will be discussed, and the school personnel will offer solutions. The school, with your permission, will develop what is referred to as an Individualized Education Program, or IEP. This document will describe your child’s unique strengths and weaknesses. It also describes the special education services that will be provided to meet those needs. These services are provided at no cost to your child.
An example of some of the services that may be offered can include supports or changes in the classroom (sometimes called accommodations). Your child may receive individual help by someone coming and meeting with them individually throughout the day. Included in the recommendations are “Tips for Teachers.” Assistive technology may also be offered to work around their learning disabilities. Assistive technology can range from “low-tech” equipment such as tape recorders to “high-tech” tools such as reading machines (which read books aloud) and voice recognition systems (which allow the student to “write” by talking to the computer). All of the services are based on the type of disorder and what will best help your child learn.
Now one additional point that I would like to leave you with is that a child’s learning disabilities may need help at home as well as in school. Don’t leave it all up to the school. You have to be apart of the process to help your son. Self-esteem is especially important in the learning process and will keep your child engaged. Here are a few tips that you can do as a parent:
- Praise your child when he or she does well. Children with learning disabilities are often very good at a variety of things. Find out what your child really enjoys doing; such as dancing, playing soccer, or working with computers. Give your child plenty of opportunities to pursue his or her strengths and talents.
- Find out the ways your child learns best. Does he or she learn by hands-on practice, looking, or listening? Help your child learn through his or her areas of strength.
- Let your child help with household chores. These can build self-confidence and concrete skills. Keep instructions simple, break down tasks into smaller steps, and reward your child’s efforts with praise.
- Make homework a priority. Read more about how to help your child be a success at homework. (See resource list at the end.)
- Pay attention to your child’s mental health (and your own!) Be open to counseling, which can help your child deal with frustration, feel better about himself or herself, and learn more about social skills.
- Establish a positive working relationship with your child’s teacher. The teacher should be your friend. Do not work against them. Through regular communication, exchange information about your child’s progress at home and at school.
Learning disabilities are lifelong but with hard work and accommodations your child can graduate from high school and go to college. There have been some students with learning disabilities that end up in honor classes. Yes, I did say honor classes. We lose most of our black boys in the ninth grade, which is the beginning of high school. According to Toldson,2020 : “Among the nearly 40,000 black male 9th graders currently in honors classes, 2.5% have been told they have a Learning Disability, 3.3% Autism, and 6% ADHD… Black males with and without disabilities can excel in schools that have adequate opportunities for diverse learners and a structure that supports personal and emotional growth and development”; Once the evaluation is complete, the basic approach is to teach learning skills by building on the child’s abilities and strengths while correcting and compensating for disabilities and weaknesses. Other professionals such as speech and language therapists also may be involved. Some medications may be effective in helping the child learn by enhancing attention and concentration. Psychological counseling may also be helpful. The most important part is to start early and find out the nature of the problem.
CHADD – Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder
8181 Professional Place Suite 150
Landover, MD 20785
Tel: 301-306-7070 800-233-4050
International Dyslexia Association
8600 LaSalle Road Chester Building, Ste. 382
Baltimore, MD 21286-2044
Tel: 410-296-0232 800-ABCD123
Learning Disabilities Association of America
4156 Library Road Suite 1
Pittsburgh, PA 15234-1349
National Center for Learning Disabilities
381 Park Avenue South Suite 1401
New York, NY 10016
National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD)
National Institutes of Health, DHHS
31 Center Drive, Rm. 2A32 MSC 2425
Bethesda, MD 20892-2425
National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH)
National Institutes of Health, DHHS
6001 Executive Blvd. Rm. 8184, MSC 9663
Bethesda, MD 20892-9663
Tel: 301-443-4513/866-615-NIMH (-6464)