First,let me preface this list by saying that it is not scientifically based. I am not forming this list from a series of studies, or even one study. Rather it is based on my own experience raising two LD kids and being LD myself. I have in no way reached a guaranteed, 100% success rate with motivating my boys, and this continues to be a learning process for me. But I have found certain things to be indispensable, and here they are:
1. Understand that your child has a built-in shut down defense mechanism for when the going gets tough. I cannot stress the importance of this enough, it is the one piece of information that is simply indispensable to raising a child with LD. When you are frustrated because you see your child giving up too soon, or throwing out answers to your questions without even processing your questions, or dropping his pencil in disgust while telling you it’s not important whether he completes his homework, this is a defense mechanism. Even when your child knows the answer, he may shut down because it simply feels so overwhelming to them to keep moving forward. This is particularly difficult to work through as a parent because your child is shutting down instinctively, not because he’s given his situation considered thought and he believes shutting down is the best solution. He may not even realize he does this.
2. Use this understanding to gently but firmly walk your child through the shut down process to reach the other side, which is successful completion of his or her homework. This may take more fortitude than you ever believed you had, but if you react negatively, it will only fuel your child’s defense mechanism to shut down. Tutors are a great way to alleviate some of the tension between you and your child if you can afford it and can find someone you feel is qualified. If you cannot access a tutor, take a break for a few minutes. Change your child’s focus and help her relax by thinking about something she enjoys. When the break is over, offer positive feedback by reminding her that you understand this is difficult but that anything is possible with a little patience and perseverance. As the Brits say, keep calm and carry on.
3. Be willing to hold your child accountable if they aren’t willing to do the hard work. I know, this sounds contradictory to number 2. But all kids are lazy sometimes, and for kids with LD, there is even more incentive to be lazy because they have to work so much harder than other kids do. Sometimes when your child tells you that other people make fun of him, or when he says he can’t do something, you just have to give some tough love. Use your inner parenting thermometer to judge when to indulge them with nurturing patience and when to say “I know it’s tough, but we’ve entered a no excuses zone….” Arm yourself with anecdotes about successful people who have overcome LD to hold up as role models to your child. You can find these lists on many websites including or by searching for celebrities/politicians/business people/etc. with learning disabilities through a search engine.
4. Don’t forget to praise your child, and that praise includes letting them know that you understand how much harder they had to work for their success than non-LD kids. Your child knows he’s different. He sees it every day in the classroom as he watches his peers. His peers probably know he is different, despite your child’s best efforts to hide his differences. He knows he has to work harder. Acknowledging this difference is part of the process to show your child that being LD is okay. Failing to acknowledge your child’s efforts won’t insulate him from the knowledge that he is different. It will only make him think that being different is bad because you don’t talk about it.
5. Be consistent and honest. Sometimes your child with LD will be really, really angry with you for making her do the hard work. Remember that she needs somewhere to release all the anger and frustration of dealing with her challenges, and you are the safe place for that. You are the person who will still love her no matter how much she acts out those frustrations. It is the most painful part of being the parent of an LD kid, with the exception of seeing them sometimes not reach their potential because of their LD. You may need to give her some space to pout or scream, but when she’s in a calmer place, talk to her rationally. Be honest about her disability. Ask questions about how it makes her feel if she’ll talk about it. But let her know that your expectations are still high and that you believe she can achieve them. And stick to your guns when it comes to requiring them to work with the support you have in place, whether that is extra time with their teachers, meeting with tutors, taking summer classes, etc.
6. Understand that most specific LDs and behavioral disabilities come with developmental delays. For example, my son with a profound global executive functioning disability is developmentally delayed in several areas of maturity. Most boys will begin to understand in ninth grade that their performance in high school is important enough that they will begin to buckle down to maximize achievement and by the end of tenth grade, as one of my son’s teachers told me, “the maturity fairy has come.” But as I have been advised by a special education director, for LD kids, this realization is often delayed and may not kick in until eleventh grade or beyond. As a parent, there is nothing more frustrating than seeing your child, capable of so much more, unable to maximize success because he just doesn’t have the maturity yet to apply himself regularly and thoroughly. You can support your child with the tools of LD support (educational plans, teacher involvement, tutors, assistive technologies, etc.) but you cannot make your child understand a developmental concept that his brain is not physically ready to understand.
These are my top tips for dealing with the motivational aspects of LD. You may find it helpful to tie your child’s efforts to rewards, but not all children are well motivated by reward systems. Give your child options to control their development when you can (you can take this class or you can meet with a tutor one-on-one over the summer; or you can let me help you study your vocabulary or you can meet with your teacher at such and such time, etc.) Experience is a great teacher and you never know who might have the perfect solution for your situation in their toolbox. Don’t be afraid to seek professional help through a cognitive behavioral specialist (licensed psychologists who understand LD issues) or from an organizational “coach.” Every state has an office of support for parents of LD children, funded through the Americans with Disabilities Act, that you can access to get information on these types of services, or you can check with the National Center for Learning Disabilities.
What are your top tips for increasing motivation in an LD child?