“They put me in special ed when I started school. They thought I couldn’t learn, but it was because I didn’t speak English.”

During a conversation with a friend, he shared with me his experience 30+ years ago in kindergarten. During the first week of school, my friend was taken out of his regular class and placed in a separate, segregated class for students with special needs. As an ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher and a parent of bilingual children, I was shocked. And yet, upon research, I found that the tendency to over-identify students who speak a language besides English as having learning disabilities is more common than we’d like to think.

Misidentifying ELL students and placing them into the wrong class obviously can hinder our children from reaching their potential, but also diverts necessary resources from students with actual disabilities and needs. In my friend’s case: he was bored, didn’t understand his teacher or his classmates, and began misbehaving in class. The school spent a year labeling my friend as defiant and troubled, until finally a new teacher came in who recognized my friend’s strengths and worked with him to help improve his English.

On the flip side, there are true English language learners (ELLs), who do have learning differences that might need attention — whose needs are not met solely in the regular classroom. School sometimes overlook ELL students either because of lack of funding for special education programs, fear of litigation from parents, or lack of knowledge about bilingual students (especially in districts without a lot of ELL students).

From the time we first adopted my son from China at age 3 1/2, he had some difficulties in speech. Different well-meaning teachers, doctors and therapists have mentioned that “maybe” we would want to hold off on speaking Spanish to him until he got English (we didn’t stop) later, in elementary school, others have blamed his difficulties in reading on his ELL status.

Blaming his language background meant that some red flags — that would normally indicate reading issues — were overlooked. Despite my rumblings, my son was not tested for dyslexia or learning disabilities, and not accepted into a special reading program. I was told that his reading fluency (how quickly, accurately, automatically and expressively someone reads) was slow because he was still mastering English (and Spanish).

Fortunately, I am an ESL teacher (though normally my students are older). As his mom, I saw his struggles and recognized that these were not the common difficulties that ELL and bilingual learners experience. With a mother’s love and instinct, and a teacher’s nagging doubt, I pushed and insisted that there was something else going on besides his language learning history. Today, I am happy to report that my son is getting the resources and support he needs from the reading specialist, after assessments have finally indicated that his struggles with reading are not because he is an ELL student.

I have learned many lessons through my journey as both an ESL teacher and as a parent. The number one lesson for parents is to be your child’s number one advocate. You are reading with your children every night, you are helping them with their homework, and you observe if there are tears and impossible challenges in everyday work. If you feel in your gut that your child isn’t “getting” something that they should be able to master after practice — it is your right to request that he or she be tested and resources be made available (even if they are still in ELL classes!). Students from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds should receive the support and programs they need in order to be successful learners.

At the same time, if you feel that your child has been misidentified as learning disabled because of his bilingual background, ask how their native language was taken into account during the assessments; ask for a second opinion from a district specialist with experience assessing ELLs; ask for six more months of focused English help before they are tested for a learning disability. Bilingual students who are still working on English and are mistakenly placed in special education programs will have more limited access to rigorous curricula, have lower expectations for academic potential, and will not be spending sufficient time learning English as needed to become fully bilingual.

Disproportionate representation of ELL students in special needs categories is a huge problem and barrier to their success (whether because they are in special ed and shouldn’t be or because they are not getting the specialized services they need). While most schools are trying their best, it is our job as parents to advocate for the best possible learning experience for our kids. As a team, parents and teachers can work together to find the most effective program and environment for our bilingual children.

Do you have an experience being mislabeled or being denied services for yourself or your child due to your linguistic background? How did you over come the challenge?

{Photo courtesy of Becky Morales}

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