How Operation Little Learners Helped My Family Identify & Celebrate Our Son’s Learning Differences

Written by Jeanine Rickman


As a parent, I am always looking for fun and engaging learning opportunities for my three children. So, I was very excited when I saw a flyer in our neighborhood advertising free parent participation classes through the Armed Services YMCA (ASYMCA). I began counting down the days until my son was old enough to join.

Operation Little Learners was exactly what I hoped. It’s a fantastic early education and childhood development program for military children 2-5 years old. In a few areas, like San Diego, little ones can start as early as 18 months. The curriculum is as fun as it is enriching, and encourages imagination and curiosity.


Discovering How My Child Learns Through Play

Operation Little Learners teaches parents how to play to learn. The teachers really guided the parents as much as the children. Knowing that there are many different ways to learn something and that even the simplest play can be a learning experience, changed many parents’ perspectives.

The program showed parents how we could reuse household items, like many of the pantry items we received from the ASYMCA San Diego Neighborhood Exchange Food Distribution, to make sensory toys. I made sensory bins using dried beans and rice, along with small kitchen tools, and soothing sensory bottles using cooking oil, water, and food coloring in a recycled jar — it’s still one of my son’s favorite activities. The ability to make educational toys for our child at little to no cost was a huge financial relief for our family.

We used playtime to teach as well as explore how our children learned best. Through playing together, my son and I discovered that he was a visual and kinetic learner. Telling him something over and over got zero results. Pictures helped. Playing games worked wonders. Physically moving objects and acting out scenarios always gave us amazing results.


That Feeling That Your Child is Different

Like so many parents, I knew I shouldn’t compare my son to his older siblings or other children. Still, there was a nagging feeling that something was different. As we participated in Operation Little Learners classes, I noticed my son wasn’t meeting the same milestones as his peers. Between two and three years old, he was barely talking and didn’t engage in many of the activities. I felt shame and guilt at thinking that I was judging my own child.

When I brought up my concerns to his teachers, they took the time to listen, responding with reassurance and encouragement. Even knowing that each child learns differently, they agreed that there appeared to be a need for my son to be evaluated by professionals; that it was understandable for me to be worried and ask for help. I didn’t know then that the process to uncover my son’s learning differences would take years, but with the teachers’ support, I had the confidence to face the challenge.


Learning to be My Child’s Advocate

Beyond our Operation Little Learners class, so many of my concerns were dismissed. I was constantly met with comments like, “He isn’t that far behind” and “All kids are struggling because of the pandemic.” I was even told his milestone delays could be because his father was overseas for a year. It was a very emotional time. I almost wanted to give up.

Instead, I wrote a long letter to the school district outlining all of my son’s struggles, but I also included everything he excelled in and what our strategies were at home. I made sure to tell them about our experiences in Operation Little Learners and the specific learning goals we were working on since he was 18 months old. This tipped the balance because I could show how hard we had worked. I felt HEARD! My concerns were addressed, first with specific interventions, then with evaluations by specialists. It really was the breakthrough we had been hoping for.


Understanding My Son’s Learning Differences is a Blessing

It was only a few months ago that we received our son’s diagnosis. He has an audio processing disorder and memory recall difficulties. Was I surprised? Not at all. I cried with relief because I knew my son would now get the education plan and services that would best help him succeed in school and meet his personal goals. Even knowing there are more evaluations to come, this is something to celebrate.

My son knows he learns differently, but he also knows that it is okay, and it helps him tremendously. He is only seven years old, but already using strategies on his own. He avoids distractions. He knows to ask for visual reminders. He’s already becoming his own advocate. The difference in how he learns and acts at school is amazing.


The Armed Services YMCA Proudly Supports Early Education

Programs like Operation Little Learners at the ASYMCA improve access to early education and childhood development. The ASYMCA understands meeting educational goals during the early years is very important, but it’s often more challenging for military families to obtain due to frequent moves, military spouse unemployment and financial hardships. When you support the ASYMCA, you help foster a love for learning that can lead to brighter futures for military youth.


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