My mom has spent over ten years as a special education teacher encouraging, inspiring, and transforming the lives of her students. I always admired the love she gave to others. She not only searches for the potential in every child, but works hard to cultivate it. In a perfect world, there would be infinite copies of my mom in every classroom. Growing up, my mom would often tell us that a disability was never an inability. Rather, it was simply a different expression of the ability existing in all students.

There are over seven million students with disabilities in the United States, a number that has grown 11% in the past twenty years. This population is increasingly susceptible to poor mental health. In fact, research suggests that people with learning disabilities are 25-40 percent more likely to develop a mental illness. Educators and administrators have a significant role in supporting the instructional, emotional, and social needs of their students.

Children with disabilities have been historically viewed through a deficit-based lens, a detrimental perspective that is prevalent in educational settings. A deficit lens characterizes a student based on their perceived shortcomings, needs, and limitations. This viewpoint is harmful to a student’s sense of belonging. A deficit-based perspective disempowers, isolates, and harms the mental health of students that struggle with learning disabilities. In addition, negative early childhood experiences have long-lasting effects. The stigma around learning disabilities is why 1 in 4 students with learning disabilities tell their college they have a disability and why only 1 in 20 young adults seek accommodations in the workplace. Dismantling harmful perspectives and fostering inclusion is a task for parents, administrators, and other significant figures present in the life of a child with a learning disability. Early screening, proper intervention, and consistent professional development training are a few ways to combat the mental health issues associated with learning disabilities.

1. Early Screening

Without early identification, children may encounter repeated incidents of academic failure. Early experiences of emotional distress, discrimination, and academic difficulties can cause a child to develop a sense of inadequacy. This makes students more prone to mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression in the future. Early screening can help children receive individualized instruction and overcome barriers in learning.

The following list from LDA contains a few signs of a learning disability:

  • short attention span
  • poor memory
  • difficulty following directions
  • inability to discriminate between/among letters, numerals, or sounds
  • poor reading and/or writing ability
  • eye-hand coordination problems
  • poorly coordinated
  • difficulties with sequencing
  • disorganization and other sensory difficulties.

2. Proper Intervention

After diagnosing a student with a learning disability, teachers can provide academic services that meet the child’s instructional needs. This includes personalized modifications in a student’s curriculum or small group activities that promote positive interactions between students of varying academic levels.

Additional support can also be provided by school specialists. Audiologists, occupational therapists, physical therapists, psychologists, and speech-language pathologists can deliver a continuum of services that build the student’s confidence in and outside of the classroom. With professional help, students can learn to understand that disabilities should not stand in the way of reaching their goals.

3. Professional development

Regular professional development programs can help instructors identify learning disabilities, implement intervention strategies, and communicate effectively with their student’s families. Training them to develop robust teaching techniques not only empowers students with a learning disability, but it also fosters a positive classroom culture. Instructors can learn to instill a sense of optimism in their students as they deliver strategies discussed by school administrators.

How can we help? First, we can become cognizant of the symptoms tied to learning disabilities. If there is someone that exhibits signs of a learning disorder, we can encourage them to seek treatment. Second, we can become involved in learning disability initiatives through PTO meetings or other advocacy groups in our community. Lastly, we can show our wholehearted care, love, and support for people with learning disabilities that may be struggling with mental health issues.

Guest Blogger: Celine Jeun, MHA Intern

Celine is a recent graduate of Phillips Exeter Academy who is on a gap year. She is an intern at MHA and a trained crisis worker at ContactLifeline. She aims to reduce the stigma around depression, addiction, and other mental illnesses. You can find her baking an olive oil cake, going on a sunset run, cuddling her two cats, or listening to Lorde.