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How “The Talk” changes with disability and learning differences

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Black parents and families of color know about “The Talk”: the conversation they must have with their kids about the dangers posed by racism and injustice in society. But how does this conversation change when learning differences and disability are part of the picture? 

This week, The Opportunity Gap tackles how to talk with your child about learning and thinking differences and why this is a critical conversation to have for kids of all ages. Hosts Julian Saavedra and Marissa Wallace discuss how to avoid shame around differences and disability, and what words you can use. Listen for tips and advice on how to prepare for the conversation.

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Episode transcript

Julian: Welcome to "The Opportunity Gap," a podcast for families of kids of color who learn and think differently. We explore issues of privilege, race, and identity. And our goal is to help you advocate for your child. I'm Julian Saavedra.

Marissa: And I'm Marissa Wallace. Julian and I worked together for years as teachers in a public charter school in Philadelphia, where we saw opportunity gaps firsthand.

Julian: And we're both parents of kids of color. So this is personal to us.

Welcome back to the podcast. What's going on, Marissa?

Marissa: Hey, Julian.

Julian: We've been on a great run of having some amazing guests, but I think today will be nice to just have a conversation with the two of us about something that is pretty important and, you know, the work that we've focused on is so many different topics, like so many different themes, so many different ideas and perspectives. But we haven't really dug deep into how to actually talk to the kids. How do we talk to the kids about learning and thinking differences?

Marissa: Good point.

Julian: Because it's fascinating, because it's such an impactful thing to start this conversation really early. You know, not necessarily just for the kids themselves, but also for everybody that they interact with, whether it's their classmates, whether it's their brothers or sisters, whether it's the friends that they're around, making sure that we're starting this conversation as early as possible so that our students and our children are really feeling like they're supported. Because the more that we talk about learning and thinking differences, the stigma starts to go away.

Marissa: An important conversation for everyone, right? When we think of inclusivity and that goal that we have, how impactful can it be it to, like you said, start the conversations young, whether you have a child who has learning and thinking differences or not, it's beneficial for all families to have these conversations, because the more that we are investing in our young ones, our future, the more they can carry that with them to destigmatize the idea and to instead embrace it.

Julian: To me, it's important for us to just start having more dialogue around the conversation. What do you have to mentally do to prepare yourself to even have a talk about something as profound as learning and thinking differences and, you know, how do you start having that conversation with everybody else?

Marissa: Yeah. For me, I always pull back or get concerned when I walk into a conversation with a student's family. And that family has like, you know, pretty clearly expressed that they have not had conversations with their children, right? And I deal mostly with middle school kids and high school kids. It's like a red flag, right? Because then I'm like, oh, my goodness, there's so many missed opportunities that this child hasn't been able to experience who they are, why they are the way they are, and how it's OK.

Julian: So let's say I have a daughter, and my child is starting to show that there might be signs of learning and thinking differences. I've started to have conversations with parents that I interact with. I've started to talk to different teachers. I've started to formally investigate whether or not evaluations need to start happening. And I'm going down this road, you know, my child might start having testings happening. What do I do to sit down and prepare myself to talk about this with my child?

Marissa: Yeah, that's a loaded question. How do you prepare yourself for the conversation? And I think that oftentimes the easy way is to not, right? So I think that happens often. I was like, "Oh, I'm just, I'm not going to address this, or rely on the school to do it." And I think that that is a misstep in a lot of families when that happens.

And I know you mentioned because I think the first part in preparation is preparing yourself. Gather your information, talk to people that you trust to just, you know, ask the questions at the school level too, like, what is this evaluation going to include? What types of testing will happen? What's the outcome? You know, what are my rights as a parent, as a guardian? Once you get those questions answered, that's like, step one of the preparation. And then step two of the preparation is then taking all of that and knowing that you're not, especially a 6-year-old — you're not going to say everything that you know to your 6-year-old. So then it's the next piece is like going through, and what is the key parts that are important for you to discuss with your child so that they're not scared too? 'Cause that's the other piece of it. You know, kids are smarter than we give them credit for a lot of times.

Julian: That's the truth. That is the truth.

Marissa: If you don't acknowledge those things or give, shed some light and describe what they are, then it's only going to create a fear, and it's only going to create an uncertainty in them, and that's not OK.

Julian: And it makes me think about, that's a lot of mental preparation for the parent to accept the fact that there might be a long road ahead. That's something that is not going to happen overnight. You know, you obviously — it's really important to learn about what formal steps are going to happen at the school and to understand what kinds of support might be put in place, but overall, that's your child. And this is the baby that you've brought up now potentially struggling in school.

And so I also think about the preparation that goes into being empathetic to the child and empathetic for yourself, right? Like really not taking a blame or guilt mentality into this. Like, you know, you didn't do anything wrong as a parent. And that's one thing to say, you know, to hear some people on a podcast talk about it, but it really is the truth. Like that's something that parents have to accept, that this is not something that I've done wrong. This is not something that I've caused. This is not something that is going to mean my child is not going to thrive in school. This is more about me figuring out how to best support my child. And, you know, so opening up the conversation with that mentality I think is also incredibly important.

Marissa: Yeah. That's a really valid point and a really important one because I think it also, in that preparation piece, then encourages our families to take a moment to process that as, like you said, as the person who's like getting that and understanding that this is going to have an impact on your child. It's going to change what you thought their educational experience was going to be like. So sit with it, allow yourself to feel, allow yourself to process, so that you can come to terms with it before all that emotion comes out when you have that conversation, I think is, is a really important part too.

Julian: Yeah. I remember, um, there's been a number of children in my own kids' classes that have learning and thinking differences. One of the children had some pretty intensive needs and he had a one-on-one or a one-to-one aide. And I remember talking to the dad about, what is that like, how do you manage that? How did you approach the conversation with your son? And he said that he just asked his son lots of questions, like, how do you feel about school or how are things going? What's going well, what are you struggling with? And, you know, he said the son, when he got a chance to just open up about what was going on, Dad really listened. It seems like a lot of stuff came out: "You know, Dad, it's hard sometimes for me to stay focused or it's hard to sit in my seat, um, and so having some help would really be good for me."

And it just made me think about, as parents, sometimes we do a lot of talking and we might not do a lot of listening. And it's really important, no matter what age the child is, to make sure that we ask the right questions so that some of that information starts coming out. And so I'm thinking also like just preparing yourself to have lots of questions, open, and allow that space to be safe for your child is really, really important too.

Marissa: It's such an oversight sometimes, like you said it perfectly, like I had to laugh when you're like, "Sometimes as parents, we do all the talking." We do, you know? And I'm like, ah man, like it made me like self-reflect in the moment, even with my son, like, oh, like, how often am I talking at him? And I think that's thing to add into this is like, this is a wonderful way to have that conversation. How do you start the conversation by asking your kids questions? What do they know already? What have they noticed? How are they experiencing, like trying to figure out what is their day-to-day in the classroom like? What emotions, what thoughts do they have? What actions do they, you know, can they describe throughout their school day that helps them to learn or makes it challenging for them to learn? I love that. I love that idea of asking questions.

Julian: But at the same time, let's keep it real. How many times have we asked our kids, "How was school? What'd you do at school today?" "I don't know." And that doesn't matter what age the child is, you know, there's a lot of things that are left out. So understand that's also going to happen.

Marissa: You're there for eight hours, right? You did nothing? What did you learn? Nothing.

Julian: I paid all these taxes? And this tuition?

Marissa: "You're telling me nothing?" So that's right. So I think, you know, again, it was like, as a pair, we prepare, we process, and then we go in with some guiding questions and some things we want to talk about because, yeah, we need, we need those as prompts to expand the conversation.

Julian: Again, I go back to the example of my son and just thinking about my own classroom over the years, how there have been so many different students who have had special education services, right? And in some cases, kids know, and the other kids know, and in some cases, the kids don't know. But thinking about both ends, it's just something that we have to make sure that we're being crystal clear about how we're creating a space for either your children and/or in, a classroom setting, everybody feeling like they can be themselves.

And that it's not just a thing we say. It's really modeling how do we interact with each other? It's modeling for children what we hope they will do as they grow older into adults and how they're going to treat others with difference. We have an opportunity when kids are really young to shape how they interact with others that do learn differently.

Right. And you know, the stigma that we always talk about, we have the power to take that away and make sure that they don't even think twice about. "Oh, you, you have somebody that is with you every day in class — that's cool," or, "Oh, you need to have a little bit of a different seating arrangement in class? Wow. Tell me more about that. That's interesting." Making sure that our kids are understanding that there's nothing wrong with it. Everybody has different ways that they do it and, you know, making sure that the children understand that it's just difference. And there's a strength and a beauty in diversity, and in diversity of thoughts and a diversity of doing things is, is something that, you know, as parents, we have such a role to play in developing that with the kids.

So it changes as kids get older, you know, the stakes get a lot higher, right? Where with younger kids, Mom and Dad have a lot more influence than when they're older and when the social interactions start happening independently. That's really where it could get kind of sticky. Right? Think about how many times kids would be made to feel a certain type of way because they were different.

And when you're going through puberty, the last thing that a kid wants to be is different from anybody else. What is it like when they're not under the direct influence of their parents all the time? And they start interacting with each other and, you know, the interactions of high school kids and middle school kids, the stakes get a lot higher, and they don't necessarily want to be completely different from everybody else, right? So how, how do we help kids of that age navigate dealing with being around people who do think differently and you know, what do they do? How do you deal with the kids who do have learning differences at that age? And how do you deal with the kids who do not, but still supporting them socially.

Marissa: And I do often wonder about what role do parents play, and at that point of middle school or high school, how do we engage families, too, in those conversations, because it has to come, like you said, like it has to start at a certain age and it has to continue. It can't just stop. Like, "Oh, I did my part when they were in kindergarten and first grade, they're good."

You know, like it's not that simple and it evolves and it looks different and it changes. And I think that, yes, our goal is that we try to plant that seed as young as possible. So they become these young adults or these teenagers that go into it with open minds and with a very inclusive mindset, but that's not always the case.

And so I'm hopeful and optimistic that we have a lot of listeners, a lot of families that have older children, high school kids, even, you know, it doesn't matter. The conversation shouldn't stop, yes, is what I'm getting at. So how do we encourage, and what does that look like? 

And then I think it's important, too, to like bring in addition to the learning and thinking differences, but how is this intersectionality between learning and thinking differences, race, class, gender, how does all of that impact? 'Cause that's going to change some of that dialogue as well. So like, does that look like in the homes, how can we support and encourage our families and our, and everyone, to embrace those conversations also, because we know there's so much intersectionality there?

Julian: It's a lot, and I don't necessarily have an easy answer to that. You know, I think it is coming back to making sure that you're just having real talk with your kids, right? Like at the end of the day, it's making sure that conversations are happening in the home some way, some form, and it's being real with them, as in you're using language that resonates with you. You're asking questions and modeling how to ask some of these deep questions that don't necessarily have easy answers, and opening up a place for the dialogue to happen.

And for younger kids, that's going to be different than for preteens or teenagers, but hopefully, you know, you're working to establish a relationship with your children where you can talk about things that are deeper than surface-level stuff, right? Like in the idea of race and class and gender and how those identities really impact the child. It's a whole other layer. 

I think about my own children and how both of our children are biracial, and — multiracial — being really crystal clear about what that means for them. And, you know, my daughter is already asking questions about like, "How come these dolls don't have the same skin color I do?" "Why are all these authors boys? Where's the girls at?" "How come we don't have girl presidents?" And she's 6 and she's asking these questions, and I love the fact that she's open enough to start asking us. But then she's questioning these bigger societal things, and if a baby like that can see it, then you know it's real, right?

You know, thinking about that, add the layer of learning and thinking differences, and it really becomes like a double-edged struggle and a challenge. Like how do you marry the two, like how do you have these conversations about both and not necessarily make your child feel like it's hopeless, but also being crystal clear about, especially for our kids of color, there's going to be some challenges ahead?

It's going to be difficult. And you having these learning and thinking differences are really going to make things a little bit more difficult.

Marissa: We're not going to answer all these questions or have like pretty little bows tied on to any of the conversation today, because it is, as you mentioned, those so many societal parts that are intertwined.

And I think it's fair to be honest and transparent with our children as much as we can, right? Like, I think that's a piece of it that I think is always like a fine line that, as parents and caretakers, we don't know sometimes what's oversharing or what's not enough. I do think though, when it comes to learning and thinking differences and race and class and gender and all the different pieces, it's important to develop a sense of identity with your children so that they can embrace who they are and be proud of who they are. I think that's where we start overall. Right? Like, no matter what.

Julian: Proud, be proud of who you are. Be proud of everything you're coming to the table with.

Marissa: "Oh, it's hard for you to sit down for eight hours a day. That's OK. That's part of who you are. You have a lot of energy, right?" You know, there's things that are become so quickly seen as negative, right? That we just have to think about ways to have a different spin on it. And then to also figure out let's look at those strengths and elevate. But then the things that you are struggling with or are finding some challenges with, there are ways to work through that, no matter what. So I think it's a balancing act for sure.

Julian: Yeah. I was thinking about switching to my current role. And, you know, I work with a lot of students that are Black and brown kids from neighborhoods that are underserved, right? Like, they don't have all of the services that they need, and poverty and institutional racism really play a big role in their day-to-day experience.

They know that. They understand it, and they live it every day. But some of the deeper conversations that are starting to happen with them, especially with my students that have ADHD or some of our students who have or require emotional support. Some of my students who have undergone traumatic events, and are coupled with, or the way they learn or think is different.

Like it's adding those layers on to them and helping them understand that despite the fact that you might get a whole bunch of support in school, when you step out of school, none of that is going to be made apparent, you know, and especially for my young men. Yes, you might have a lot of people that know who you are and know that you need X, Y, and Z in school, and you get that.

But when you walk out of this building, things are going to be different. The world might not understand or know for everybody that interacts with you, that you do have learning and thinking differences. So how are you going to prepare yourself to be out in the world where I hate to say it, but you're just another young Black man that for many people becomes a threat.

And it doesn't matter that you have all these other things going on, and it doesn't matter that, you know, the law states that you're supposed to have this sort of support and you're getting it in this comfortable space inside of the building of a school and inside of your home. But society might not see you that way.

And that to me is where, especially for our children that are coming from marginalized communities, that are coming from oppressed groups, those conversations need to be happening at home too. And they are in many ways, but adding the nuance of your learning and thinking differences are part of who you are, but everybody's not going to recognize that. And everybody's not going to know that, and they're not going to treat you any differently. And you have to be ready.

Marissa: And that's like a downfall, I think, about us as humans in general is that we are obviously very quick to judge on visual perception where we can see. So the color of someone's skin, it's like a snap judgment, and then we have all these thoughts of what that person's expected to be able to do or not do.

And so I think there's, again, a lot of advocacy that we have to encourage within our children, in all of those areas, to be authentically themselves and to love who they are and to also know how they operate. And how they are seen in society, but also how they can participate in society and then encouraging and exploring and learning. Everyone should be doing that, no matter how old you are, right? These conversations should continue. And I'm even thinking, you know, I've been fortunate and blessed to work in higher education for the last few years, and just knowing what schools are capable of providing. So encouraging our young people, that — don't be afraid to live out whatever your best life looks like.

Julian: You know, as parents, thinking about the transition from being an advocate to being a support is a hard thing. And I'm not looking forward to it when it's my time. You know, my babies are still young, so I have some time, but at some point, you know, we start to fade into the background a little bit. And I think that for all of our parents out there, thinking about how can you help your child embrace who they are and embrace their strengths is really one of the most blessed gifts you can give a child going out into the world. Like really, truly helping them have self-worth, and building up their esteem for themselves, and having that clear understanding of their identity as they enter into the world on their own, is something that is crucial.

Marissa: Yeah. That encouragement is everything, right? And that doesn't stop. Like that doesn't, it doesn't matter as an adult. Like, you know, none of us want to show up for our jobs and our days of work, our long, grueling days of work, and not hear that we've done something well. There's pieces of just natural human nature that encourage us to keep doing those things and to see ourselves in a certain way.

And I think that for our children, let them explore, too. Like be open to what their  — 'cause I think that's a piece of it, too, is, you know, we have to kind of challenge and push ourselves to be embracing of their interests, and they might hate it. They might even — Lincoln's really into art. He's now in like his eighth week of art class, and he's kind of over it. But he did it and I said, I'm like, "Hey, like you got two more weeks and then guess what, if you don't ever want to take an art class again, that's fine. But you tried it out. You explored it. You got to see if it was something that you want to do." So I think it's important, too, to just allow kids to, and just try things out. 'Cause I think that's where we see them find their strengths. And then also not narrow it down to strengths only being academic-based or only being artistic-based. Like there are so many, there's the strength of being able to be a good conversationalist, right?

Julian: And there is executive functioning involved with that. So there's a lot of skills and nuanced skills that go into that. Like you said, finding the strengths of the child by asking lots of questions. And that we help them understand that even though they might be getting tons of support and they might be receiving a lot of people that are in their corner in school and at home, that the world might not be doing that outside of those walls and that they have to be ready and prepared to experience that. And at the end of the day, you're the ones that are going to offer the most support for them. 

Thank you so much for joining us tonight. If you have any questions about how you can have more of these conversations with your children or with people who are out there, please check out

There's so many resources there for you as a parent of children of color. And as a teacher and educator, I've used so much of it. I know I work with them, but I also have used so much of the information on the site to help guide my own conversations with my own kids and conversations with my own classrooms. So please take a moment and check it out.

And if you would like to share more of your story and how you've had conversations with children in your own lives, please reach out.

Julian: This has been "The Opportunity Gap," a part of the Understood Podcast Network. You can listen and subscribe to "The Opportunity Gap" on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Marissa: If you found what you heard today valuable, please share the podcast. "The Opportunity Gap" is for you. We want to hear your voice.

Go to gap to find resources from every episode. That's the letter U as in Understood, dot O R G, slash opportunity gap.

Julian: Do you have something you'd like to say about the issues we discussed on this podcast? Email us at We'd love to share and react to your thoughts about "The Opportunity Gap."

Marissa: As a nonprofit and social impact organization, Understood relies on the help of listeners like you to create podcasts like this one to reach and support more people in more places.

We have an ambitious mission to shape the world for difference. And we welcome you to join us in achieving our goals. Learn more at "The Opportunity Gap" is produced by Andrew Lee, Cinthia Pimentel, and Justin D. Wright, who also wrote our theme song. Laura Key is our editorial director at Understood. Scott Cocchiere is our creative director. Seth Melnick and Briana Berry are our production directors.

Julian: Thanks again for listening.



  • Julian Saavedra, MA

    is a school administrator who has spent 15 years teaching in urban settings, focusing on social-emotional awareness, cultural and ethnic diversity, and experiential learning.

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