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LD Versus Bilingual
Q: It seems that children that come from non-English-speaking households (particularly Latinos) are more likely to be identified with a learning disability problem. Such is the case with my five-year-old son.
We've always spoken Spanish at home. When we moved to the U.S. in 1998, my son understood Spanish, but was barely starting to articulate the language. He doesn't have a good Spanish language foundation. A dual-language test confirmed that he has more verbal proficiency in English than in Spanish.
My son's teacher told us that he would have to repeat kindergarten because he had difficulty with letter/sound recognition and he was "immature" (most of his classmates are 8 to 16 months older). So, I enrolled my son in a private learning center and school officials tested him for LD. Although he's made a remarkable improvement since the beginning of the year, his teacher insists he should stay back. Her reasoning: He's too far behind the others.
My husband and I decided not to hold our son back and to continue with the private tutoring. However, I will be meeting with the school's principal, counselor, and LD specialists to discuss my son's speech problem and a confirmed learning disability. I have no qualms with the "label" because anything that will help him to attain a solid learning foundation is good. But what I find disturbing is that if I had accepted as fact that there was no other way of helping my child except to have him repeat kindergarten, more than likely, my son would still be struggling to learn the alphabet. Unfortunately, it seems much easier to "give up" on children whose main impediment is not a learning disability as such, but a language interference that becomes an obstacle in their academic achievement.
A: Your question brings up several important issues. In answer to your first question, it's very clear that many children from bilingual families are mislabeled as having a learning disability. One simple but tragic reason for this is that are not enough psychologists who are either fluent in non-English languages, or who have a sufficient understanding of the relationship between bilinguality and special needs.
In order to confirm a learning disability in a child who was brought up speaking two (or more) languages, two important things have to happen. First, the exact nature of the disability needs to be clearly identified. This is more than a global observation that a child is having difficulty. The fact that a young child is behind other kids -- especially when there's such a wide age range -- does not constitute a learning disability. The tutor you hired helped your son learn by intensifying his exposure to the curriculum and by using an individualized approach to teaching. The tutor may have also used techniques proven effective with learning-disabled children (often, this is exactly what works for all kids in a well taught, multi-sensory kindergarten curriculum).
At any rate, your boy learned. He may not have caught up with the other kids, but again that alone does not confirm a learning disability. He's younger than the others and at a time when human growth is occurring so rapidly, it's inappropriate to compare his performance to that of his classmates'. But it is reasonable for the teachers to worry about your son's chances for success in first grade. You can't rush human development, but you sure can enhance it. This is what happened in tutoring.
If your son had received the same intensive services in school, he might have grown there as well. But that's not the typical strategy in kindergartens, especially when a child is chronologically younger than his classmates. In that context, retention makes sense to a school. They say: "Let's just let this little one grow up a bit." Still, that doesn't constitute a learning disability.
The professionals at your school need to "prove" to you that your child has a learning disability vs. a problem that might stem from his early and inefficient use of two languages. That gets at the second thing that has to happen in order for a bilingual child to qualify as a learning-disabled student: the specific processing deficit that is thought to characterize the LD has to be present in both languages! Since your child does not have parallel skills in English and Spanish, that may be difficult to determine. But there should at least be evidence of the difficulty in both languages, even if the differences are uneven. This is why an assessment by a bilingual specialist (and this isn't a psychologist who spent a month in Cancun to learn the language) is so important.
A great book that deals with the assessment of bilingual or bicultural children is Whose Judgment Counts? Assessing Bilingual Children, K-3 by Evangeline Harris Stefanakis of Harvard University. This book is an invaluable resource for teachers and other professionals who need to understand assessment as both a sociocultural and linguistic process.
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Jerome (Jerry) Schultz is the founding clinical director of the Learning Lab @ Lesley University, a program that provides assessment, tutoring, and case management services for children with learning challenges. Schultz holds a Ph.D. from Boston College, and has completed postdoctoral fellowships in both clinical psychology and pediatric neuropsychology.