When the world takes one glance at you and reminds you of everything you aren’t, you need to rely on constant reinforcement at home to remind you of everything you are. – Meg Zucker
Parents are the first teachers. Before a child begins formal education, crucial years of learning have already taken place. The influence of parents on their developing child especially during the first three years of life is beyond measure. Literary, social and emotional skill sets are happening every day by word and example in the home. Along with those skill sets, moral values and attitudes are being formed.
Child psychologist, Dr. Burton L. White, puts emphasis on the unique role of parents during the early years. “The informal education that the family provides for their children makes more of an impact on a child’s total education than the formal education system. If a family does its job well, the professional (teacher) can then provide effective training,” according to White, who served as a professor and researcher at Harvard, Tufts and Brandeis during his lifetime.
Facing Learning Differences
Children are not cookie-cutter versions of their parents. They each possess unique gifts and talents. Some children are athletic, while others are artistic and even others are musically inclined. Within a classroom, teachers observe a wide range of aptitudes across the curriculum. Some children learn differently.
According to the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD), approximately 1 in 5 children in the U.S. experience learning issues. These issues may be rooted in attention problems such as ADHD, language-based problems such as dyslexia or other differences that impact learning. All children who learn and think differently can thrive with the right support which may include encouraging and developing a sense of empowerment.
Be Brave – Be Fearless
Raising children to be brave starts early and can pave the path to empowerment. Darby Fox, a child and adolescent family therapist who practices in New York, explains “Many parents try to intervene on their child’s behalf, but it’s so important that as early as possible, parents are encouraging and empowering children to speak up for themselves.” At an early age, this can be practiced with a teacher or a coach rather than the parents coming to the rescue and “fixing” the problem.
Acts of bravery are the building blocks that foster empowerment. Self-esteem, resilience and self-advocacy are strengthened when the courage muscle is exercised. “You can help your child visualize him or herself as a superhero who is brave and courageous,” Maureen Healy, child psychologist and author of “The Emotionally Healthy Child,” offers as one effective technique in helping a child find their courage. Meg Zucker, author of the recently published book “Born Extraordinary: Empowering Children with Differences and Disabilities,” echoes the power of the visualization technique. “You are not what the world thinks of you. You are what you think of you,” one of the quotes from her new book. Boosting confidence in the face of nervousness and fear can go a long way in letting children know you have faith in their abilities.
Talk – Normalize the Differences
Talk to your child about their learning differences. Treating the differences as something to be embarrassed about creates an elephant in the room situation. For example, if your child had a heart condition, would you whisper to your child not to tell anyone about the condition? Would the secrecy impact the child’s self-worth? Similarly, a learning difference follows the same pattern.
Acknowledging that the differences exist opens the door for discussion and helps to normalize things. When parents are not talking about something, it sends the message to a child that it must be “really bad” if mom and dad are not talking about it. Some internalizing might further lead the child to question, “Does that mean because of my differences, I must be really bad?”
Embrace Differences as Gifts
Judy Bass, CEP, founder of Bass Educational Services and internationally recognized expert in the field of college planning for students who learn differently, offers the ABCs for empowering children who learn differently.
- Help them understand their strengths (specifically, what they are good at doing) and how to learn through their strengths.
- Embrace the positive qualities of the child, whether or not these are academic. Encourage the child to continue doing what he/she loves to do, whether drawing, playing a sport, gymnastics or reading; it really doesn’t matter as long as the child feels good about it.
- Find a camp or outdoor activity that allows the child to go out of his/her comfort zone and have to push themselves farther than they believed they were capable. Examples: adventure courses, high-ropes, etc. For younger children: going down a long, steep waterslide or climbing to the top of the monkey gym.
Every child is unique. Every child is different. Our differences make us unique. Sometimes the differences are visible while other times they may be invisible. Amanda Gorman, the youngest poet to write and read her work at a presidential inauguration, embraced bravery as she struggled with a speech impediment during her formative years. Gorman enthralled both young and old as she delivered her powerful poem, “The Hill We Climb,” at President Biden’s inauguration.
Similar to Gorman’s experience, those who struggle with learning differences come to view those differences as their greatest strengths and gifts. Visible or invisible, encouraging bravery through words and actions opens the child up to an incredible sense of empowerment.
“There is always light. If only we’re brave enough to see it. If only we’re brave enough to be it.” – Amanda Gorman