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Increasing Empathy for Children with Learning Problems

I have just returned from a trip to Europe that gave me a lot of insights as to how it must feel to be a child with learning difficulties.

Just as many children with learning difficulties have problems communicating in their native tongue because of understanding or expressing themselves with language, I had the same problems when attempting to speak to someone in French or Italian, as I do not speak their language.

Everyday social interactions become highly challenging and frustrating.  I almost gave up several times in attempting to ask for a certain meal or directions because I simply could not make myself understood to the person I was trying to communicate with, or I could not understand what they were trying to say to me.

In a similar way, our children and patients are often “speaking a different language” when they try to communicate with us.  They may say that something we think is very important is “boring,” for example.

I have learned over the years that the response “boring” can mean anything from “this is too difficult for me” to “I already know this stuff.”  It usually means something in the middle of those two extremes, and this gives you room to revise what you were attempting to cmmunicate and try again.

For example, the other night I was attempting to explain the “Externalizing” personality to one of my patients and their parents.  Externalizers tend to accept credit for things they do well and deny responsibility for wrongdoing.

My patient appeared bored and disinterested during the discussion of this topic while the four of us were in the room together, and I asked him later, in private, what he had thought about the information I had shared.

“It was boring,” he said.  Rather than being offended that he had not been dazzled by my wisdom, or mad at him for not showing more concern for my feelings in his response, I took his response as a sign of being engaged and asked him questions about his friends and acquaintances who display such patterns.

In the end, it turned out that one teacher with whom he was having a great deal of difficulty at school had a lot of the Externalizer traits, and we worked out a plan together to deal with this teacher more effectively.

Similarly, I somehow managed to get through Europe, eat, tour, and enjoy myself in spite of the communication problems and lack of understanding the language.  If we can remember that our children are often speaking a different subset of our native tongues than we are, it could lead to more understanding, patience, and, in the end, effective communication and problem-solving.

For more please see our articles on Learning Disabilities