top of page

Learning Disabilities Impact Far More Than The Classroom.

A man with dark hair and glasses wearing a brown suit jacket and red tie presenting information

"What we're realizing is, and I am thinking the Parent Alliance will understand; this is something parents have been talking about for years - for decades. The field just hasn't caught up with the parents yet." said, Rick Lavoie. Lavoie is an internationally known expert on children with learning disabilities and has traveled the world speaking to educators and parents. He is also a best-selling author (It's So Much Work to Be Your Friend: Helping the Child with Learning Disabilities Find Social Success, F.A.T. City, The Motivation Breakthrough). He not only speaks and writes about children with learning disabilities but he has countless hours of hands-on experience educating these children. He served as the administrator at private boarding schools for children with special needs for over 30 years. He has been able to see firsthand the challenges that children with learning disabilities face both inside and outside of the classroom. He has dedicated his life's work to make sure that teachers and parents know how to best support these children.

It's not just in the classroom

"What some people ignore is the pervasive nature of the disability. If a kid has a memory problem in math class he brings that same problem with him to soccer practice. He's going to forget that when the coach blows the whistle he needs to stop talking. When he goes to grandmas house that weekend he's going to forget he isn't supposed to let the black cat out. It's pervasive - it isn't just a school problem. I think still after 50 years of research on this there are still some teachers who think a kid basically takes their learning disability off at the end of the day and hangs it on a hook, and the next morning they pick it back up. This is just not the case," said Lavoie.

"I came to realize this a long time ago. The average child in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania goes to school about 1,080 hours a year. That's less than 5% of their waking time. 95% of their time is spent in social environments like the bus, the cafeteria, and grandma's house," said Lavoie. "We are beginning to realize that as educators we all work so hard in the field to get kids with learning disabilities through high school and onto college. Then a very alarming number of them don't make it to Christmas of their freshman year before dropping out and coming home. This is of course life-shattering for them. Well over 80% of children with ADHD or other learning disabilities who fail in college that first year do not fail because of the workload. They can't handle the social aspect of college - they just don't understand.," said Lavoie.

Understanding the Hidden Curriculum

“It’s very important to understand that every home, school, business, and classroom has its own hidden curriculum. It’s kind of a culture that has not been written down. It’s unspoken. Kids know which teacher collects the homework, which teachers get mad at you for leaning back in your chair, and which teachers don’t care. They know that in order to get to the gym faster you take a shortcut through the cafeteria. It’s not written everywhere people just know it - but our kids don’t and they violate it without even knowing it. They then develop a reputation of being a loser and the bullying begins" said Lavoie.

Mental Health

As always we wanted to discuss the mental health challenges associated with learning disabilities. Lavoie reminded me that while he is not a doctor he has definitely noticed the impact a learning disability has on a child’s mental health. “If a teacher stands up in front of the class and says next Tuesday we are going to take a trip to the zoo a typical student would probably be excited. But a child with a learning disability and anxiety is sent into a rollercoaster of anxious thoughts. ‘Are we going to take the bus? Where will I sit? Do I need to bring money? If so, how much? If the teacher gets sick do we still go? Will I need a jacket?’ Are just some of the questions that would pop into their brain. In fact, when I was on the professional advisory board for The Learning Disabilities Association my one goal was to get the word anxiety added to the definition. I think it's so prevalent in our kids that I really think it should be part of the definition," said Lavoie.

“Something that helps an anxious child is to have the environment be as structured and as predictable as possible. Every Monday morning is spelling, every Tuesday is science and you can begin to create that very tight external structure for the child because he doesn't have an internal structure. People often misinterpret the word structure. They think of it as being militaristic and that's not the case it means predictability. You know a dad will come home and he's got 4 kids, 1 with special needs. He says 'Hey guys, guess what about tonight we are going out for pizza.' The other three kids think that's great but the kid with the learning challenges says; 'Wait! Wait! Friday is pizza night tonight is Tuesday!' there you are messing with their structure."

As for depression, Lavoie gave an example that really helped to paint the picture of how much a learning disability can impact a child's mental health. "I often say to teachers; how would you like a to go to work for 6 hours a day? Your supervisors don't understand you, your coworkers don't like you, and you fail about 70% of the things you're asked to do. That's not a very desirable job description but that is the job description for a lot of our kids. I would be surprised if it didn't impact their mental health because it's a pretty lousy hand they have been dealt."

Making friends

"After years of researching this, I have found that the biggest problem is that they just don't have any friends. Many kids with special needs simply don't have friends. My wife, Janet was the Admissions Director at the school we used to run and she was interviewing a little 4th-grade boy with his mom sitting in a chair behind him. My wife asked the boy; 'Do you have any friends?' and he said ' Yeah I have 7 friends.' Janet looked back at his mom who shook her head no. Then Janet asked 'Who are your 7 friends?' and he rattled off 7 names. Janet continued by asking 'What makes them your friend?' and he said 'They're the kids who don't pick on me.'

In other words, his definition of friendship is someone who doesn't pick on him or beat him up. Payton, I bet right now you could tell me your 4 closest friends in the 4th grade and I could tell you mine. Imagine not having those experiences. Many of our kids go their entire childhood without a real friend. Then when they do get a friend they often do what I call 'put out the flame'. They become so possessive of that friend and so demanding that that friend only talks to them that they basically self-destruct the relationship," said Lavoie.

Have you ever corrected your child or student for something only to find them doing something similar 3 days later? This is a problem that both parents and teachers of children with learning disabilities often face. When you tell your child or student who is throwing markers across the room to "Stop it!", it is clear to you that you mean stop throwing things. However that "it" to them is not always so obvious. Now, three days later you may find the same child throwing crayons. They didn't know that the issue was throwing things - they may have thought the issue was using the markers. One technique that you will take away from this webinar; The Social Autopsy, may help you alleviate some of that repetitive correction.

"If a child can't read we teach. If a child can't do math we teach. If they misbehave we punish them. You wouldn't punish a child for not being able to spell. We shouldn't punish a child for misbehaving. The strategy of the Social Autopsy will help parents and teachers take a look at the situation and discuss with the child what COULD have been done. Never should. This technique is so easy that you can teach babysitters, grandma and grandpa, and even older siblings to do it. It's not a scolding thing it's a 'let's figure out what happened here' thing, like a medical autopsy," said Lavoie.

Want to hear more of Rick's incredible insight? Become a FREE member of the Parent Alliance here and gain access to our webinar where we discuss these and many other topics with him entitled It's So Much Work to be Your Friend: Helping our Children Who Struggle Find Social Success featuring Rick Lavoie.

Related Posts

See All


bottom of page