"Your son is reading disabled."
"Your daughter has attention deficit disorder."
These words can alter the parents' view of their child and his academic, social, and emotional future. These words can make parents feel fearful, anxious, and helpless. Once spoken, these words can change the family's dynamic as parents expend their energy on helping their child cope.
Once spoken, these words can force parents to devote ever-increasing amounts of time to their child's learning problems. They may, for example, feel forced to ignore the needs of their other children so they can get tutoring and counseling for their child with learning disabilities, so they can give him extra help with homework. Other children in the family may feel resentful.
So, how can teachers and other school personnel help? They can understand the situation, offer timely advice, and suggest needed services. Above all, they can listen, help families gain perspective, and help them problem solve.
How School Personnel Can Help
As parents adjust their lives to meet the new demands of learning problems—meetings with experts, conferences with Child Study Teams, tutoring sessions, counseling sessions—they usually feel time pressured and financially strained. School personnel can do five simple things to help parents deal with these pressures.
First, they can make sure that the child is given work at his level—work that he can succeed at, if he makes a moderate effort. They can tell parents what topics are scheduled for study, what books they might read to their child, what DVD's they might watch together and discuss, what words they might use in conversation. They can reduce the amount and difficulty of homework so the child will likely be successful in less than 30 minutes.
Second, they can encourage parents to keep a calendar of appointments, family activities, after school activities, and the like. This prevents double booking and helps parents to plan. They can also suggest that the calendar list family members' responsibilities: who will pick up Ryan from his after school choral group, who will meet with Diane's tutor, who will check Jason's homework.
Third, they can suggest that parents set aside time to spend with their other children. This will help their other children feel important and valued. One parent with three children did this by driving one of them to school every day; on the way, they would stop at a diner and eat breakfast. Each child had his or her special attention.
Fourth, they should encourage parents to learn about their child's educational rights under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004 and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Rather than creating legal problems, this often reduces them, as it shows parents that school personnel are sensitive to the rights of parents and children and want to act in legal and transparent ways. This builds trust.
Finally, they can encourage parents to search the internet, view message boards, and participate in online groups for information, resources, and support. They can encourage parents to join groups that bring together professionals and parents, and disseminate important information, like Learning Disabilities Worldwide (http://www.ldworldwide.org).
How Counselors Can Help
Parents often experience feelings of loss and grief when they learn of their child's learning disability. As they gear up to helping their child, they often lack the opportunity of exploring their loss and grief. If they can discuss their feelings and reactions with a therapist, for even a few sessions, they're more likely to relax and effectively plan how to help their child. Parents must learn to do two things simultaneously: focus on their child's learning needs while maintaining a balance for their family. It is easy to become overwhelmed.
Because of their unique training and ability to schedule their time, private counselors or counselors who work for social service agencies (e.g., Catholic Charities, Jewish Family Services) are in a unique position to provide timely help.
Counselors should "begin where the family is" by focusing on the impacted areas of the family's functioning. This might include exploring the family's dynamics, planning the allotment of time, accepting new roles, changing expectations. Some families will rise to the challenges they and their child face and approach their child's needs with a go-forward mindset, making adjustments as needed. Others will need to first accept and feel the impact of having a child with a learning disability. For these families, the counselor's first step is to hear, recognize, and acknowledge the feelings of the family members; the second step is to validate the legitimacy of their feelings. It's comforting for parents to know that other parents have felt the same way and that they can learn to build a rhythm for their family that will help them and their child adjust to the changes.
Ideally, the counselor should be knowledgeable about the child's specific learning disability. Counselors can explain the challenges facing the child and his teachers and suggest readings to help the parents understand their child's learning issues and his immediate potential, academically, socially, emotionally, and recreationally. Like school personnel, counselors can also link parents to groups and organizations that can provide information critical to the child's success.
Counseling offers practical problem solving. Counselors can help the family restructure its after school hours to help the child study or complete homework. Counselors can help parents learn how to solve conflicts with their children, especially conflicts over school work. Counseling can help the parents develop meaningful ways to spend time with siblings, so that siblings know they're important and loved. Counselors can also help parents develop ways to strengthen their relationship.
A Common Thread
In addition to being practical and focusing on immediate problems, both school personnel and counselors can continuously foster the belief that a child with learning disabilities is far more than a list of problems and deficits. Both can promote the belief that all children have the potential to succeed: some academically, some artistically, some interpersonally, some in other ways. Both can help parents to focus on the possibilities rather than anguishing and focusing solely on deficits.
Ila A. Keiner, M.Ed., JD, MSW, LCSW has a private clinical practice in Linwood, N.J. As part of her practice, she counsels children and families, consults to schools and attorneys, prepares forensic reviews, conducts Parent Satisfaction Surveys for public and private schools, helps parents prepare for IEP meetings, and assesses compliance with the specifics of IEPs. In addition, she frequently helps schools and parents resolve conflicts.