Navigating Learning Disabilities With My Mentee

Diego* is nearly eight years old. I’ve been mentoring him for about three years at the request of his older brother -- my former mentee who joined the Navy after graduating high school. Recently, Diego and his family learned that like millions of other children, he faces obstacles due to a learning disability.

From time to time, and especially early on in school, Diego has experienced difficulties managing his emotions and frustrations in response to his learning style. He is a bright boy, and knowing his friends have begun to read without issue has, at times, been discouraging to him. As his mentor, my goal has been to, first listen, then talk, while encouraging his growth. Working alongside his teachers and familial supports, I have continued to help guide him toward appropriate ways to communicate his feelings and frustrations with learning.

Like many boys, Diego is very active and sitting still in class can be difficult for him. His specific learning disability was diagnosed six months ago through a series of standard assessments. Although he encounters struggles when memorizing and decoding symbols of the alphabet, ongoing work and encouragement for each small victory has been key to his reading success. Lately, he has made huge strides and his grades have improved, helping to bolster his self-esteem. His goal for the year is to learn to read and write all the letters of the alphabet and to work on his subtraction skills.

Despite having a learning disability, Diego often surprises me with knowledge that at age seven I didn’t possess. A couple of weeks ago, he told me about the Civil War. He’s also discussed with me information from his science classes, including mitochondria, the functions of red and white blood cells, and the fact that cells have a nucleus. For the past two semesters, Diego received all A’s and B’s, and his behavior in school also improved.

I’ve begun studying the emotional lives of boys. I’ve learned that as a society, we can sometimes ignore trying to teach boys words to explain their feelings and they may act out simply because they don’t have the words to express their frustrations with homework or other things in life.

I continue to be a resource for Diego − and as a mentor I want to improve my own skills in articulating, listening, validating and supporting him. Using a recent example, over Mother’s Day weekend, he became angry and started crying when the Pokémon game he was playing didn’t save where he left off. I agreed his situation was frustrating, and sympathized with how he felt. I tried to use several words to explain how he must feel. Then I taught him how to save his computer game. He played for a while and exclaimed joyfully that he was glad he had to start over because two of his Pokémon characters had evolved right away.

Two thirds of children with learning disabilities are boys. Mentoring youth with learning disabilities should be approached with patience and understanding, knowing that each young person can benefit from the support and guidance a mentor can provide. I look forward to seeing how Diego continues to grow, and will continue to be by his side throughout his journey. In the end, I am certain he will conquer his obstacles and find success using the same interest and determination he shows playing Pokémon and learning about the Civil War and the biology of cells.

*Not his real name



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