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Neurodivergent Kids Flourish When They’re Taught How Their Brains Work

When teachers and parents talk to kids about having ADHD, autism or learning disabilities, they set them up for success

Illustration, three students in profile sitting at school desks. Children at left and right of frame are confident and raising their hands, child in the middle has head down on desk

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This piece is part of Scientific American's column The Science of Parenting. For more, go here.

Whether a child has ADHD, a learning disability or is autistic, parents of kids with special needs yearn to know what they can do to help. As a pediatric neuropsychologist and a former special-education teacher with about 50 years of experience, I’ve been approached time and again by parents asking: “How can I help my child make friends?” “What can I do to make sure my child has the skills to be independent?” “How can I boost my child’s self-confidence?” They want to know the key to helping their kids.

There is a simple and effective answer: When kids have a better understanding of the condition that affects their learning, they tend to have a better self-concept, and they are more likely to feel empowered and motivated to self-advocate. These keys unlock a child’s potential, resulting in better academic performance and better mental health.

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Many years ago, when I was on the board of the Massachusetts Learning Disability Association, I was the emcee for a panel of six high-school students with learning disabilities at a conference attended by parents and their kids. During the discussion, I asked the panel: “How would you describe your learning disability, and how does it affect you in school or in your life?”

Half of the kids responded something like this: “Well, I’ve always been a bad reader, and writing is the thing I hate most about school. I don’t really know why school is so hard; I think it’s just how my brain is wired. I work really hard, but I guess I just wasn’t cut out to be a student. Thank goodness I like art. At least I’m good at something.”

The other three kids responded along these lines: “I have learning disability called dyslexia. For me that means that I can’t always make sense of the words that I’m reading, so it takes me longer than other kids to do my schoolwork. And I have difficulty writing in a way that’s organized or fluent. I think I’m a pretty smart kid, but sometimes it’s hard to communicate that in my writing. I know what I need to do to get more out of my reading assignments, take tests better and write papers that make sense. It’s not easy, but I now know that school is something I can master.”

I then asked the kids “Who helped you along the way, and what did they say or do that made a difference in your life?” It quickly became clear that, for the self-assured students, either a parent or a teacher had helped them understand their learning challenges.

In my experience as a consultant and teacher-trainer in hundreds of schools, I’ve seen how students in schools that intentionally teach kids about their learning disability, ADHD or autism see greater success than those in programs that do not have this goal, or those where this kind of instruction is left to chance. Parents who understand that self-knowledge leads to better self-advocacy and greater confidence also teach their kids about the condition that makes school challenging, and what they can do about it.

Over the years, I’ve worked with thousands learning disabled students and their teachers. I’ve observed that when enlightened educators, parents or therapists help kids understand the nature and effects of their condition on thinking and learning, this has resulted in a sense of competence and increased confidence—traits these students carried with them as they encountered (and sought out) more challenging academic tasks. I have seen that when kids understand how and why specialized learning strategies work, they became more invested in their own education, and—wait for it—they experience more success.

They are also more likely to be role models for other kids with learning disabilities. For example, at the conference the student panelists encouraged parents and kids in the audience not to be ashamed or embarrassed in finding out they had a learning disability, but to be empowered by knowing what works and why. The impact seemed immediate. As the event was ending, many kids in the audience came forward to ask if they could be on the panel at a future event.

Having the “talk” with kids can be anxiety-producing for both parents and children. If you want to have this discussion with your child about their learning disability, timing is key. Ideally, have this conversation after a professional evaluation. This provides a framework and reassurance that your concerns are valid. I would suggest starting with observations: “I've noticed you sometimes struggle with reading. Can we talk about ways to make it easier for you?” Remember to frame the issue in a positive light: “Everyone learns differently. Some people learn best by seeing, while others need to hear things explained. You might learn best in a way that’s different from other kids.”

When explaining a new diagnosis, use age-appropriate language. For young children, you can say something like, “Some brains learn a little differently than others, and sometimes this makes it hard to learn new things. Your teachers might know special ways to help you learn better and have more success; let’s check with them.” Focus on improving the process of learning more than the product: “It’s kind of like soccer; the more you practice the correct way to dribble, the better you get.” As kids mature, gradually introduce the terms “learning disability” or “ADHD” or other diagnostic labels and explain these labels in a positive light. Remember that these diagnoses will be in their IEP (individualized education plan or program), should they have one, and as kids get older they’ll be increasingly involved in creating their own educational plans.

For all ages, focus on strengths: “You're incredibly creative, but reading or writing may not be the only way to show what you know. Maybe audiobooks or visual aids can help with reading, or software can help you write those excellent thoughts you have.”

Like many kids with ADHD or a learning disability, your child may have developed a negative assessment of themselves, saying things such as “I’m dumb” or “I’m broken.” And during the talk, you can address these misconceptions by using the results of evaluations to help make your point. “Remember that Dr. S said you were really great with tasks that allowed you to see or touch, like puzzles? He said you did so well, it’s kind of your superpower. Matching pictures to things that you read will help you understand the words or main ideas better. Your teachers know how to do that, and it seems to be helping. It may just take some time.”

Throughout, practice patience and encourage questions and concerns. Let them know it’s okay to feel frustrated sometimes. Frustration can lead to solutions. This will likely be one of multiple conversations as your child’s understanding evolves (as they get older and wiser). One of those conversations should be with the doctor or other expert who did the evaluation. That person can reinforce what you’ve said by explaining the child’s strengths to them and teaching them strategies that lead to greater success. You might also want to invite that clinician to talk to the child’s teachers, so that you all share a common understanding and vocabulary about the condition. Work with teachers and counselors to develop learning strategies and accommodations at school that help a child develop self-understanding, competence and confidence. Encourage educators to use a “language of understanding” about your child’s condition.

At home, you can share books, websites or videos explaining learning styles and ADHD. Expose your kids to other kids who deal successfully with this challenge. By connecting with support groups, parents and children with learning disability or ADHD, can learn from shared experiences.

Ultimately, be patient and understanding, as this is a lifelong journey. Along the way, you can focus on your child’s progress, rather than on perfection. All of this will help to empower kids with special needs and set them up for success.

This is an opinion and analysis article, and the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Jerome Schultz, a former special-education teacher, is a pediatric neuropsychologist and consultant to schools in the U.S and abroad. He is on the faculty of Harvard Medical School holds a Ph.D. from Boston College. His writings include Nowhere to Hide: Why Kids with ADHD and LD Hate School and What We Can Do About It (Jossey-Bass). He is a content expert and science advisor for and contributes frequently to ADDitude magazine.

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