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Like all of us, people with learning difficulties or disabilities (LDD) can parent well. Although they may face specific challenges and have complex needs, there are lots of different ways early years workers can help and support them.

This guidance was produced in conjunction with parents who have a learning disability.

What exactly are ‘learning difficulties’ or ‘a learning disability’ (LDD)?

The terms are often used interchangeably and, according to Mencap, a learning disability will affect someone through their life. They describe it as, “A reduced intellectual ability and difficulty with everyday activities – for example household tasks, socialising or managing money”.

Mencap also advises that people with a learning disability “tend to take longer to learn, and may need support to develop new skills, understand complicated information and interact with other people.”

Other challenges that can be faced by parents with LDD

People with LDD often find themselves up against a range of difficulties. For instance, they are more likely to face structural barriers such as poverty and unemployment, poor housing, isolation, abuse, mental health difficulties, discrimination and a lack of information – all of which can get in the way of parenting and supporting child development.

Parents with LDD are also likely to experience stigma and negative attitudes from services and people they are in contact with. They are also at increased risk of having their children removed. Parents with LDD have often had negative experiences interacting with professionals, and can therefore be afraid to talk about problems they are facing.  They might also be scared of being judged or having their children removed. These fears may stop some parents from disclosing their learning difficulties or disability to early years workers.

Parents with LDD are entitled to equal access to services,  parenting support, and information services as other parents. Some services are actually required under the Equality Act 2010 to make “reasonable adjustments” to make their services accessible and suitable for people with learning disabilities.

But these parents may have particular practical support needs, and could require more help with learning about childcare. In many cases, they do not actually end up receiving all the support they require from the relevant services.

Supporting parents with learning difficulties/disability (LDD)

Like all parents, parents with learning disabilities need to hear the message that it is not unusual to require support with parenting, and that this support can be made available to them.

Much of the support for parents with LDD will be similar to the support you give to all parents, but there are some changes needed in delivery.

Things you can do to support parents with LDD

1. Encourage parents to attend groups

Parents with LDD may not feel welcome at general parenting or play groups. So make sure you invite and encourage parents with LDD to attend these groups, explaining how you can support them and their child to get involved.

2. Assess the parents’ strengths, and which areas need support, and consider the needs of the other family members

Make an assessment as to what the parents’ strengths are, and the areas in which they are doing well, and also explore which areas may require extra support. Then tailor the support you offer to both them and their children accordingly.

Also take a look at what their current sources of support are. Remember that it is important to support the whole family, including fathers, and also to  focus on the key things that matter for the child itself. Think about what exactly the family requires  to provide the child with the best environment for its development.As well as direct support involving parenting skills, this may also include support with other issues that are getting in the way of best parenting - for instance financial issues, lack of accessible information, or mental health difficulties.

3. Schedule in more time to work with parents with LDD

Be patient and allow yourself more time to work with a parent with LDD. It may take additional time to build trust, and also to enable effective communication and learning to take place. Also bare in mind that parents with LDD may also require ongoing long-term support, so do factor this in.

4. Take time to find out what other useful local services are available

Make sure you find out about local services which can help you and the parent – particularly your local learning disability services and independent advocacy services.

5. Communicate with other services

Other local services may be able to support with these issues, so do get in touch with your local learning disability and advocacy services. You can also communicate with any other professionals who are also involved with the family you’re working with. It is important that professionals work together to share information, and also that they are all delivering consistent messages and guidance.

6. Keep parents in the loop

Do also make sure to include the parents with LDD in these conversations – and let them know who you are talking to, what you are talking about, and why.

7. Try to teach parents’ skills at their home, and reiterate any guidance

Parents should be taught skills in their own home where possible. If learning takes place elsewhere, it should be related specifically to their own experience, and reiterated at their home if possible. Regular reiteration is important.

8. If you are working with their child separately, the parents know how they are getting on

Like all parents, those with LDD like to know what their child has been doing at nursery/groups. Talk to them about their child, and show them any items they may have created during their time with you, e.g. artwork or crafts.

How to communicate effectively and make information accessible

1. Talk face to face

Face to face communication is preferable. It is important to listen to the parents, taking the time to understand how the parent themselves communicates.

2. Use easy language and break things down

In any setting, professionals should communicate with parents with LDD in clear, slow, jargon-free language. It is better to give information in small amounts and break down complex tasks (e.g. bottle feeding, toilet training) into simpler parts.

3. Physically demonstrate how to do tasks

Parents have said that they like to be shown how to perform a task by a professional, and to be able to practice with them, such as bathing or feeding their infant, or playing particular games with their toddler.

4. Write things down

It is helpful to write down any advice that you are giving, as well as information about upcoming appointments/sessions. Write in large font  (at least 14pt type) and include pictures or use easy-read information. If a person can’t read, someone might be able to read it for them.

5. Get hold of the ‘easy to read’ versions of guidance and information

Information should be provided in formats that are suitable for people with learning disabilities. So do try and get hold of any available  ‘easy read’ versions of the leaflets and written information that you are supplying.

For example here is some easy to read guidance from CHANGE which covers safety, potty training, bathing, bedtime and learning through play:You and Your Little Child, 1-5

6. Explore written guidance together

Try to support parents in using and understanding written information, and take them through the guidance step by step in person.

7. Consider working with an advocacy service

Advocacy services (particularly those with specialist parenting advocacy for people with LDD) are valued by people with LDD, and they can help professionals and parents work together most effectively. An advocate will be able to ensure that you are communicating effectively with a parent with LDD, and they can support you to understand how best to work with the parent.

Parents with LDD can also find that having an advocate present can help them build a trusting relationship with a professional they aren’t familiar with.

Advocacy services are independent, and so may be able to provide more impartial support than a family member. Advocacy services aim to empower parents to learn and make decisions themselves. Always ask a parent if they would like an advocate or another person (e.g. a family member) present in any meetings.

With the right support, many parents with LDD can be great parents. It’s important to remember that there is no clear relationship between IQ and parenting, (apart from in situations when it is less than 60). As one father with LDD once stated, “A learning disability is not a loving disability.

Additional guidance and sign-posting

Some best practice guidance has been produced for working with parents with LDD (click here for the easy-read version).

See also: Choice Forum's Good Practice Guidance

We would like to say thank you to the Elfrida Society, and the parents and professionals involved in the creation of this guidance.

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