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Hard Conversations


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Hard Conversations

Alice Mangan, Ph.D.

When we recognize that a student is struggling with some aspect of learning, we know that we are facing a complicated road ahead.  Given the high numbers of children and adolescents diagnosed with learning disabilities, many psychologists, school personnel and other service providers currently do or inevitably will treat and/or evaluate such children and their parents.

Beyond questions of assessment, differentiation, modifications and accommodations, the conversations we must have with the parents of these students is arguably the more difficult to do well and the more anxiety-provoking.  In the context of a struggling student, the parent/teacher and home/school relationship and dynamic is undeniably taxed, and requires even more effort on our part as people in the business of helping children learn.  

When we strive to understand and respond to parents in empathic, supportive and constructive ways—even in the context of tremendous struggle—they are, in turn, generally better able to respond sensitively to their child.  Conversely, adversarial relationships and interactions with professionals become yet another source of stress for parents, diminishing the reserve of emotional energy necessary to adequately mobilize in the face of their child’s LD.  Investing in the relationships we have with the parents of the students with whom we work is essential to actually serving the child. 

In their efforts to build strong and sustainable collaborations with parents of children with LDs,

School Communities:

•       Intentionally foster a sense of connection among parents, teachers, administrators and students.

•       Thoughtfully increase community awareness of and sensitivity toward the diverse range and manifestations of LDs, and the influences of LDs on family systems. Further, they attend to the range of culturally influenced meanings families give to LDs.

•       Invest in ongoing professional development and resources that support all teachers in identifying and meeting the needs of the range of learners in their care.



•       Prioritize the health of the relationship with parents above all and view the relationship as a continuous and ever-evolving process.

•       Nurture empathic, validating, transparent and accessible relationships with parents, knowing that these elements breed trust and confidence and lead to greater chance of success for the child. In moments of conflict, engage a reflective stance and focus on repair.

•       View parents as experts on their child and as partners in the process of supporting the child.

•       Represent the child’s strengths and vulnerabilities in an authentic and sensitive manner, supplying carefully chosen examples of the child’s profile. 

•       Take care not to undermine the strategies that parents may employ to cope with their feelings and with their child’s struggles.

•       Over time introduce new skills and strategies while reinforcing existing adaptive approaches employed by parents.

•       Feel confident in their knowledge and skills, while ever-mindful of the areas that they are continuing to develop as educators. 

•       Reach out to colleagues and supervisors for support in developing their craft.  Recognize when they don’t know how to address an issue, and seek support. 


The centrality of the educator and school community in the lives of parents of children with learning disabilities cannot be overstated.  As such, we who work with these families must strive to create, nurture and sustain relationships that buoy an arguably vulnerable group.  We must keep in mind that these kinds of connections and relationships serve as sources of strength and respite throughout the years of ups and downs in the lives of these families.