10 Tips for Talking with Parents about Student Reading Difficulties

Richard Selznick

Richard Selznick

Cooper University Health CareAn educator’s delivery of information that a student might have a reading difficulty can be unsettling to that student’s parents or guardians. They often don’t know what to do for their child next, as they might have heard or read a variety of conflicting advice. To help keep communication open and clear, below are some tips from Richard Selznick, a psychologist, nationally certified school psychologist and the director of Cooper Learning Center, a child-learning program affiliated with the Children’s Regional Hospital at Cooper University Health Care with pediatric offices throughout Southern New Jersey.

1. Identify and State the Child’s Strengths.

“Because talking about a student’s reading difficulty can be unsettling, parents are comforted to hear about their child’s strengths, not just the weaknesses,” says Selznick. “To that end, I sometimes refer to the eight intelligences,” a theory developed by Harvard Professor Howard Gardner that identifies eight different learning styles: visual-spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal, intrapersonal, linguistic, and logical-mathematical. “It’s important to talk about the child’s strengths. Parents need to understand that a child might be strong in some areas and weaker in others.”

2. Talk in honest, but plain language.

“We have concerns about how he is developing with reading. He is not responding to our normal day-to-day curriculum as we expected, and we’re concerned he’s getting further and further behind.”

Avoid blaming language – or the hint of it. “We parents have a natural tendency to get defensive – moms, in particular – thinking there was something that we did or did not do that could have changed the situation,” said Selznick. “Avoid statements like, ‘You just need to read to him more.’ Many parents have done so many of the ‘right things,’ yet their children are still struggling.”

Break the issues down if a child needs to be tested: “In order to get your child extra help or targeted instruction, we need to evaluate a child to see if he shows enough of a problem or weakness to justify it.”

3. Use Imagery. Sports imagery can be especially useful.

Imagery can help make a complex, scary problem more understandable. Use images to convey the information you need parents to have. For example:

“Reading is a skill, and like any other skill – like hitting in baseball or shooting in basketball — you can target parts of it and practice it to get better.”


“It’s like a child starting out learning how to swim: We wouldn’t put him in the five-foot water; instead we’d put him in the shallow water and work with him there before moving to deeper water.”

4. Avoid the word ‘disability’ and other loaded words and phrases.

“If I could get away with not saying ‘disability,’ I would do it,” says Selznick. “I think the word ‘disability’ doesn’t translate well to children. Children might interpret the word ‘disability’ as ‘defectiveness.’”

Also avoid making statements about a child’s “brain working differently” from his or her peers.’ “Kids don’t want to be told that, even when it’s well intended,” Selznick said. “Furthermore, parents frequently miscommunicate that type of information to their children.”

Also, be careful with loaded medical terms. “The word ‘dyslexia’ conjures up all sorts of misinformation and, for some parents, confusion,” said Selznick.

5. Understand the trust issues at play.

Special education can “conjure up for some parents, a sense of mistrust,” he explained. “Parents might fear that their child might be put into a class or situation that might not be in the child’s best interest. There may be an underlying concern: ‘What is the system going to do to my child now?’”

Some parents might fear the school’s recommendations about the child will be determined by how much they cost and whether the school can afford it. Selznick says, “Parents want to know: Is your action/recommendation in the best interest for my child or do you have other motives?”

Much of the parents’ response – or level of trust – will depend on the relationship that they already have with school and or teacher.

Child Reading

6. Stay Positive and Proactive.

Parents do want to be guided what to do, but don’t overwhelm them with too much information at one time. Keep in mind that that they are not education or reading development professionals.

“We want to give him as much targeted help that we can. The earlier we get on this, the better.”

7. Keep any instructions simple.

If you have instructions for parents, avoid education jargon and detailed, long-term action plans. Stay focused on short-term goals, for example: “We are working with your child to learn very common sight words right now.” Handwritten notes written on a 3×5 card can help parents remember specific instructions about what they can do at home.

Offer reassurance. Says Selznick, “Parents feel reassured when you say things like, ‘We’ll watch him closely.’ Or ‘We’ll keep an eye on him.’

8. Ask parents for information.

What are you seeing at home? Do you feel he’s getting better with homework?” – Open up a little back-and-forth conversation – to gain possibly useful information and build a partnership with the parents.

9. Allow parents to talk about their fears.

“Getting parents to talk about some of their fears or concerns has to be done delicately, with all the sensibilities,” says Selznick. “People may have different views on learning disabilities. You have to balance those sensibilities and acknowledge there’s a trust factor. Ask parents, ‘How do you feel about this information and our proposed plan for your child?’ Eliciting information about how parents perceive the information and recommendations help make them feel like they are respected members of the team and process.”

10. Start the conversation early and keep it going.

Schools in general want to be positive and optimistic that the student’s learning will ‘kick in,” but if you are tuned into red flags about the student’s reading or learning, start talking about it with the parents early: “We’re not diagnosing or presuming that your child has a learning disability, but we think he’s struggling a little bit. We’re going to track and monitor him, and give him more attention in class, and we’ll meet throughout the year to update you on your child’s progress.”

Keep close tabs on the student and communicate your observations and plans to the parents. This ongoing communication will help make the dialogue easier if and when you have to ask them to have the child evaluated by a special education team.

Richard Selznick is a psychologist, nationally certified school psychologist and the director of Cooper Learning Center, a child-learning program affiliated with the Children’s Regional Hospital at Cooper University Health Care. He is the author of “The Shut-Down Learner: Helping Your Academically Discouraged Child” and “School Struggles: A Guide to Your Shut Down Learner’s Success” and blogs about school struggles and learning disabilities at www.drselz.com.

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