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V.3 #5 Early Childhood - Race, Ethnicity and Learning Disability: A Holistic Perspective on African

In discussing learning disabilities (LD), one may frequently encounter the argument that African-American children, boys in particular, are disproportionately represented in the special education classroom—namely for various learning disabilities (Shealey & Lue, 2006). For example, Skiba, Simmons, Ritter, Gibb, and Rausch (2008) note that, while African American children only account for 17% of the entire student body nationwide, they comprise 33% of the students identified as learning disabled. Although the evidence substantiating this phenomenon has not always been strong (e.g., National Center for Educational Statistics, 2007), it appears fair to state that a learning disability classification is a highly relevant issue in understanding the educational experiences of children in the African American communities. Reflecting this concern, there has been some intervention research specifically targeting African American youths who are learning disabled (e.g., reading disorder; Paige, 2006). Since race in the United States tends to correlate with a wide array of elements, such as socioeconomic status, school characteristics, geographic settings, family and social experiences, and so on, it is useful to understand the LD-related issues within the context of race.

While research focusing on identifying and intervening with LD in the African American communities is clearly of crucial importance, there has been another line of inquiries frequently made by African American parents as well as educators of African American children with LD: What are the factors and characteristics associated with African American children with LD who have “made it” in the school system? In other words, they often wish to learn about what factors and processes contributed to African American children with LD beyond research-based, structured interventions. Interestingly, it does not appear as though there has been much research on identification of the facilitative factors on this population. Still, Murray and Naranjo (2008) interviewed 11 African-American high school seniors with LD classifications who were about to graduate, so as to describe, in a holistic way, what a “successful” student in this group may look like and provide a bigger picture of the intersection between LD and race. Murray and Naranjo obtained four major domains which appear to have supported the educational efforts of these students, as outlined below.

Parental involvement was a highly salient factor. Interestingly, it was not necessarily about what specifically the parents did to or with children; rather, the mere acts of:

  1. supervising the children (e.g., checking homework—not necessarily providing instruction)

  2. providing structure in their lives (e.g., when children can go out, with whom, etc.)

Peer relations also emerged as an important domain and the findings seem somewhat counterintuitive. Although being deprived of healthy peer relationships in school might typically be considered a risk factor, the children in Murray and Naranjo’s (2008) study overwhelmingly acknowledged that they did not actively associate with peers in school at all. Although the mechanics underlying this surprising finding is unclear, it can be argued that since the drop-out rates for students with LD are high, being “shielded” through social isolation from such peers may protect these children from the risk of dropping out.

Along with parents and peers, not surprisingly, teachers were also shown to exert a great deal of influence of these successful African-American students with LD. These children noted that teachers who openly welcomed them and actively sought to interact with their parents motivated them to persevere. In addition, the children noted the significance of having teachers who would show patience and present the materials in small pieces, which would allow them to process the information more effectively. These children were not looking for kind yet unchallenging teachers, according to Murray and Naranjo’s (2008) analyses. In fact, students noted that they would prefer teachers who were helpful and supportive yet establish strict and challenging expectations over those that are simply nice and easy. Frequently, educators are tempted to water down their instruction in teaching children with LD; however, the results here indicate that these children are well aware of the expectations placed on them, and that they wish to be challenged rather than “babied.”

The characteristics of the children with LD themselves also emerged as factors facilitating their successful pathways. Specifically, three themes were reported by Murray and Naranjo (2008):

  • valuation of education

  • self-determination

  • appropriate help seeking

The notion of self-determination relates to social isolation noted earlier, in that these children reportedly focused on doing things on their own without relying on teachers — or peers, for that matter. This was balanced with their help-seeking behavior, which suggests that, while these children value independence highly, they were willing to seek help when needed.

What Are the Implications For Parents and Educators of Children with LD?

Although these results are purely correlational and based on a very small sample of children, the following practices may help emulate the characteristics observed among successful African American children with LD.

Providing supervision and structure. Parents and other caretakers can ensure that they provide daily supervision, such as checking homework and other aspects of their children’s progress. Here, the importance appears to lie on the act of supervision rather than its content. In addition, provision of structure by these children’s parents was also noted. Setting rules concerning children’s daily routines (e.g., finishing homework before playing videogame) would be consistent with the home environment reported by the successful African-American students with LD in Murray and Naranjo’s (2008) study.

Challenge over compromise. When it comes to teacher characteristics, support was clearly an important quality these children sought. However, it is notable that children preferred supportive teachers who challenged them compared to their supportive yet unchallenging counterparts. In any case, Murray and Naranjo (2008) also suggest that children need to know that help is available if they need it, although superfluous help seeking would not be a recommended practice to optimize the academic outcomes.

Let children be—within reason. While supervision, structure, and challenge have been noted to be central features noted by successful students with LD in the study by Murray and Naranjo (2008), it should also be noted that solidarity and self-determination were also identified to be as prevalent. As such, adults should perhaps refrain from imposing peer relationships on African-American children with LD, since the study reviewed here provided no reason to indicate that these children would have benefited from having peer relationships. On the contrary, there might instead be a possibility that being associated with peers might prove to be less helpful in facilitating the academic efforts of these children.

Emphasis on education. Perhaps the most pervasive quality shared by the successful African-American students with LD was the value they placed on education. These children all reported high school completion to be an important foundation in life, although they stated, at the same time, that graduating high school will not guarantee success in life—especially without further training or education. They also expressed aversion against dropping out of school, citing the adverse occupational and personal consequences. It may therefore make sense for parents and educators to emphasize the importance of high school completion with African American students with LD, as they would with others, since this value was present in all of the participants in Murray and Naranjo’s (2008) study.


National Center for Educational Statistics. (2007). Demographic and school characteristics of students receiving special education in the elementary grades. [Fact Sheet]. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education.

Paige, D. D. (2006). Increasing Fluency in Disabled Middle School Readers: Repeated Reading Utilizing above Grade Level Reading Passages. Reading Horizons, 46(3), 167-181.

Shealey, M. W., & Lue, M.S. (2006). Why Are All the Black Kids Still in Special Education? Revisiting the Issue of Disproportionate Representation. Multicultural Perspectives, 8(2), 3-9.

Skiba, R.J., Simmons, A.B., Ritter, S., Gibb, A.C., Rausch, M.K., Cuadrado, J., & Chung, C. (2008). Achieving equity in special education: History, status, and current challenges. Exceptional Children, 74(3), 264-288.

Daisuke Akiba, Ph.D. is a tenured Assistant Professor (Educational Psychology) at Queens College and the Graduate Center of CUNY, where he teaches Child Development, Motivation, Cultural Psychology, and Research Methods. He has studied and written extensively on the developmental, educational, and family experiences of children who are non-normative in their cultural backgrounds and psychological characteristics.

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