Ways in which parents can empower their children this school year
Brian and Daniel raced down the hallway, scribbling on anyone they could ambush with permanent markers. By the time they got hauled into the main office, they were covered in ink.
The principal let them have it, then paused to answer his phone. That was when Brian noticed the stamp. By the time the call was over, Brian had branded Daniel’s forehead with the words, “From the Desk of Principal Brent.”
Brian had been impulsive in primary school, but sixth grade brought bigger challenges. He buckled under the pressure of multiple classes and no recess.
A psychologist diagnosed him with attention-deficit disorder, and his school gave him a plan.
His formal accommodations, which included frequent breaks and preferential seating, helped him meet the increased demands of school.
As a school counsellor, I often hear from parents whose children are struggling academically or behaviourally. They have questions that vary from the logistical to the personal. Should they consult a professional or give it time? How can they know if their expectations are realistic? Would a diagnosis kill their child’s self-esteem?
Bob Cunningham, head of a private school in New York, advises parents to trust their instincts and take action when their children’s grades decline, their behaviour changes, they resist going to school or their friends start ditching them.
“Don’t let small slips add up to big problems,” he says.
Research shows that identifying problems early can improve a child’s outcome, adds Howard Bennett, a paediatrician and author of The Fantastic Body.
As parents embark on the journey to identify and address learning or attention issues, here are nine ways they can support and empower their child.
– Treat kids as experts in their lives but partner with others
“Most questions delivered to kids are really accusations with a question mark at the end,” says Ned Johnson, president of PrepMatters and co-author of The Self-Driven Child: The Science and Sense Behind Giving Kids More Control of Their Lives. “Ask: ‘Do you think this is harder for you than other kids? Are you the last one done on a test?’ “
Keep a log and talk to counsellors, teachers and other adults in your child’s life to identify patterns. Parents might discover that symptoms change depending on the classroom setup, the skills required in a specific class, the teacher’s behaviour management skills or their relationship with the child, says Melanie Auerbach, the director of student support at a private school in the District of Columbia.
“If the teacher is highly distractable and the student likes to rap his desk with his knuckles, that’s not going to be a good combination,” she says. “Testing makes sense when there’s been a persistent and chronic issue across settings, as opposed to situational behaviour.”
– Partner with the school
Provide the school with work samples, the historical record and any diagnostic information, says Amanda Morin, author of The Everything Parent’s Guide to Special Education and an expert for Understood, an organisation that supports parents of children who have learning and attention issues. Be specific. Parents can say, “My child isn’t reading at grade level,” or “English causes more outbursts than math.”
Be deliberate in how you communicate. Don’t fire off accusations or present a list of demands. Ann Dolin, founder of Educational Connections Tutoring, suggests that parents use the words “I’ve noticed” instead of “you.” As in, “I’ve noticed that even with my help, Jimmy is spending two hours on Spanish homework.”
Principal Chris Nardi tells parents and educators to pick up the phone or meet in person whenever an email exceeds a paragraph. He recently emailed his son’s teacher with a concern. When her response was terse, he knew there was a disconnect. “I said, ‘Can we go offline and talk, because I think we’re misinterpreting our tones?’ “
Everyone wants to do what’s best for your child, Nardi says. “Call a teacher or counsellor, share your concerns and ask them to help you understand.”
Gather data from other sources, too. Know the special education process and your rights.
– Identify the right issues
Kids with specific learning disabilities can have attention issues, and children with attention issues can have anxiety. The root of the problem isn’t always obvious. Parents might think their child is anxious because math is a struggle, but math may be hard because of their anxiety.
Ella Tager, a seventh-grader who was diagnosed with dyslexia in first grade, notes that she has symptoms that are typical of someone with attention-deficit disorder.
“Sometimes I need to move to process the frustration of not knowing what’s going on,” she explains. “It gives me time to get unstuck.” The right strategies and interventions will vary by child and change over time.
– Don’t ignore the social sphere
“If your child has poor impulse control and says whatever is on his mind, it doesn’t take much to imagine the social implications,” Cunningham says. If he’s late or disruptive, a teacher may punish the entire class. If he doesn’t pull his weight on a group project, his social standing will take a hit. Parents can role-play scenarios at home, such as forgetting to meet a friend. “Help her say, ‘Jenny, I know that was a problem for you when I was late. I didn’t mean to be disrespectful to you – that’s something I’m working on,’ ” he says.
Professionals often emphasise the importance of having one or two close friends, but that may be a mistake for kids with social difficulties.
“Deep friendship can be hard for the target friend,” Cunningham says. “A lot of kids with social issues will have significantly improved lives if the goal is more comfortable interactions with a broader range of classmates or teammates.”
– Change what you do first
Parents need to think about what they can do to provide a better situation for their children who are struggling. “If your child isn’t getting to school on time, you might have to get up earlier, or check that your child is in the shower before you start making lunches,” Cunningham says. “Your expectation is still that your child is going to get to school on time, but you need to offer more scaffolding.”
Cunningham tells parents to try one new strategy at a time and stick with it for three weeks. Maybe your child has a separate alarm that reminds them it’s time to pack up, or uses lists to help prioritise their “must do’s,” “should do’s” and “could do’s.”
– Capitalise on kids’ strengths and interests
Make sure teachers know where your child excels. If your kid is strong socially but has weak literacy skills, group work might be a good choice. Schools can offer children leadership roles that highlight their skills, build their confidence and influence the way others view them. Challenges often come with built-in strengths, says educator Laurel Blackmon, the founder of LCB Consulting. “Kids with dyslexia can make connections across big ideas, and kids with ADHD bring energy and dynamism to a classroom,” she says. When teachers draw on kids’ interests, they build their capacity to sustain attention.
– Model self-advocacy skills
Miriam Tager, Ella’s mother and an assistant professor of early-childhood education, says her daughter knew how to ask teachers whether they had read her Individualised Education Programme (IEP) by the time she was in fifth grade.
“My parents were constantly advocating for me, so I figured out how to use teacherly language,” Ella says. “Teachers take you more seriously when they see you understand and want to learn.”
By sixth grade, she was implementing her own strategies. “I watched a video on evolution and cells, so when they came up in the text, the visual popped into my head.”
– Take the ‘I do, we do, you do’ approach
Supports should be removed as kids learn skills. “Is your goal to make sure they’re getting everything right, or to teach them how to do it independently next time?” asks Donna Volpitta, founder of the Centre for Resilient Leadership in New York. Parents can contact the school for their child, then guide their children as they write their teacher an email, then step back when they can do it on their own.
Morin tells parents not to overcompensate: “I know I’m doing too much when I’m making three trips to the school to bring sneakers and a textbook, and it’s interfering with the rest of the family’s functioning.”
– Be direct but sensitive
A professional can help children understand how they learn without judgment, Auerbach, of the Sheridan School, says. “They can say: ‘Know why it’s so easy for you to memorise those math facts? Because you have really good long-term memory. It’s harder for you to remember six plus seven when you’re solving a word problem because your working memory is not as strong.’ “
Parents may need to work out their own issues so that they can be calm and empathetic.
“Your child is exquisitely sensitive to your reaction,” says Rachel Simmons, author of “Enough As She Is.”
“We have to check ourselves and make sure our disappointment about a limitation in our child is not about an unresolved wound or an over-identification with our child’s success.”
Mary, whose seventh-grader Zoe has attention-deficit disorder, sought therapy because she had trouble coming to terms with her daughter’s diagnosis. Her psychologist helped her understand that Zoe will be consistently inconsistent. “She’s like a 9-year-old who has no filter and doesn’t recognise the boundaries of privacy,” says Mary, who wanted to use only her first name to protect her daughter’s privacy. “It was liberating to let go of expectations that were setting us both up for failure.”
It’s not always easy to take the long view, but Ella hopes parents will embrace her attitude. “Disability stands for something you can’t do,” she says. “I can read and learn, just differently. When I grow up, I plan to be a rocket scientist or an astrophysicist.”
Fagell is the counsellor at Sheridan School in the District of Columbia and a therapist at the Chrysalis Group in Bethesda, Maryland. She tweets @pfagell and blogs at phyllisfagell.com. This article appeared in The Washington Post