Shall I Talk to My Student about Their Diagnosis?

When a student receives a diagnosis, whether it’s ADHD, Language-Based Learning Disability such as Dyslexia, or Autism Spectrum Disorder, parents are the first ones to know. Then it’s the parents’ choice whether to tell their child about the diagnosis. Shall I tell my child their diagnosis? Will the medical terms confuse them? Will my child feel labeled and have lower self-esteem? Will my child use the diagnosis as an excuse to get out of tasks? These are some common questions parents wonder about. They are all valid.

As an educational therapist, when it comes to whether to talk to the student about their diagnosis, my answer is an absolute YES.

Demystification Promotes Self Awareness

According to Dr. Mel Levine, a respected developmental pediatrician, students can’t work on their problems if they don’t really understand them. Demystifying -- removing the mystery of -- learning challenges helps students understand their strengths and challenges.

Without context, the symptoms of learning differences can look like laziness, disobedience, or “just don’t care” mindset. More often than not, students start to believe they are not as capable as their peers, and feel misunderstood and frustrated, and many are even bullied by peers.

All of the dyslexic students say they feel relieved when I explain how their brain is wired differently and when they learn that it is the inefficient “reading pathway” in their brain that slows them down, not their IQ or not working hard enough. When I break down the scores on their evaluation and explain to my clients how working memory and processing speed affect learning, they start to understand their struggles more.

The demystification process also includes discussions of the student’s strengths. I always point out high scores on my client’s evaluation report. For example, a student with high verbal memory scores has great strengths in memorizing and retrieving meaningful verbal information. These strengths can be used to compensate for the visual challenges. We look up famous people with learning challenges. Most of my students are surprised that Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of all time, and Charles Robert Schwab, the founder and chairman of the Charles Schwab Corporation, have ADHD. Learning about positive examples instills optimism in students.

Self Awareness is the Foundation of Self Advocacy

My ultimate goal as an educational therapist is to put myself out of business, which means that a client has become an independent learner and no longer needs me. An independent learner knows how to speak up for themselves, where to go to seek support, and how to reach out to others when they need help.

Only when students have a deep understanding of their strengths and struggles, are they able to speak up for themselves and communicate their needs to others.

During Educational Therapy sessions, we not only discuss the student’s weaknesses, but also brainstorm and try out different strategies. Students develop their own list of strategies for overcoming specific challenges. Internalizing these strategies takes time and support from the whole educational team. When a student tells their teacher they need more space between the problems on the math worksheet, when a student asks for check-ins with teachers, when a student voices their opinions at their own IEP meeting, those are my proudest moments. I know very well that these moments do not come without students’ knowledge of their learning profiles.

Demystification Is Not Disabling But Empowering

Talking to students about their diagnosis is not telling them that they are disabled, but helping them understand their unique strengths and challenges and truly “own” them. What’s more empowering than being able to understand yourself more and make decisions for yourself with confidence?

With parents’ consent, I am always happy to talk about their diagnosis with my clients because my hope is that they carry on with self-awareness, confidence, and self advocacy skills to high school, college, and their careers. Building these skills takes years and practice, but in the end an empowered individual has no limitations.

Parents, do not shy away from talking to your child about learning and learning differences. Here are some resources that might be helpful: