Working together

Parents need to be on the same page regarding their child’s learning disabilities, experts say


As kids head back to school, some children with learning disabilities will have more weighing on them than a backpack and the worry of how to keep up with peers.


Decades of scientific research and expertise on dyslexia, dyscalculia and auditory processing disorder can still sometimes be met with skepticism from some parents. And when parents can’t agree on how to deal with their child’s learning accommodations that resistance can be as big a challenge for students as the disabilities themselves.


Whether it’s ex-spouses battling each other over custody, or just parents who don’t agree on the right course of action, the first hurdle is acceptance of the diagnosis.


“The biggest challenge is often the label itself,” said Olga Grigoriev, superintendent of learning support services at the Ottawa Carleton District School Board. “It’s a real misnomer.”

Linda Barbetta of the Learning Disabilities Association of Ottawa says her organization can help parents find support and information to help their children get the help they need to find success in school.

re they understand fully what their child is dealing with and that it isn’t going to go away, she said.


On rare occasions, the board sometimes has to involve its own lawyers, she said but the school prefers to deal with both parents in building a collaborative relationship. The focus is always on the needs of the child, she said. Usually parents can come to an agreement with that in mind. 


The approach at the Ottawa Catholic School Board is much the same.


“Whether the issue is the student’s learning needs or wellness support, we always work collaboratively with the decision-making parent or parents to ensure we are all doing what is in the best interest of the child,” said Mardi de Kemp, manager of communications for the Catholic board.


Grigoriev said an excellent resource for support and information about advocating for a child with learning disabilities is the Learning Disabilities Association of Ottawa (LDAO).


“Parents not being on the same page about learning disabilities is actually pretty typical,” said Linda Barbetta, a former executive director of the LDAO and now the group’s Sunshine Day Camp program coordinator. What typically happens is one parent advocates for help and support for the student, while the other, possibly in a state of denial, blames the poor performance on laziness, or feels the student will simply have to work harder.



Parents can feel very isolated and overwhelmed by a child’s diagnosis she said and there’s so much parents have to learn about disabilities themselves as well as how to navigate school bureaucracy and advocate for their child.

“I’m married to a man with a learning disability, so the learning curve was steep and straight up,” she said. 


That experience prepared her for when her kids were both diagnosed with learning disabilities. But some couples don’t have that same level of familiarity.


“It comes up a lot,” said Greg Hill, a psychotherapist with Family Therapy in Ottawa. Hill, who specializes in counselling youth and families dealing with learning disabilities and ADHD said how parents react depends on their prior experience and perception of what a learning disability might be. Some people are stuck with notions they grew up with.


“In the 1970s, any form of learning disability was considered to be a form of brain damage,” he said. “We’ve moved very far along since then.”


People with learning disabilities aren’t stupid, or lazy, he said. “If somebody had the ability to do well in school, why would they not? What’s happening is something is impeding the learning.”


Parents have to take themselves out of the equation if their kids are going to have a chance, he said. Even parents going through a divorce.

“Seek professional help instead of getting stuck in an ‘I’m right, you’re wrong,’ situation. Instead recognize there’s a problem. It’s not about who’s right and who’s wrong. It’s about what’s wrong and what works,” he said.