When a Disability Affects Learning Accessing Resources and Collecting Information Can Lead to Solutions
By Katie Wetherbee
All children face challenges as they grow and mature. Potty training, riding a two-wheeler and learning to drive are among the typical milestones in a child’s life. Some children, however, experience difficulties that may signal a disability that affects learning. When a parent suspects this, finding answers and facing the situation can be frustrating and frightening. Parents can equip themselves by accessing resources and collecting information that can lead to solutions.
Drafting the Team
Concerned parents should not delay seeking help. This can be overwhelming as they try to determine who might be able to provide the help they need. Dr. Stephen Grcevich, a child psychiatrist, advises parents to begin with a pediatrician. “Parents who suspect their child may be suffering from a disability will likely benefit from approaching their child's pediatrician for guidance” he said. “Pediatricians will have different comfort levels in treating specific disabilities, but should be capable of referring parents to specialists when the problem is beyond their expertise.”
In addition to pediatricians, pediatric neurologists and neuropsychologists can make recommendations for treatment. Speech, occupational, and physical therapists all provide assessment and services to assist children’s development of language and motor skills.
Finally, teachers are vital members of this team. Parents can approach a child’s teacher or their local school system to inquire about Child Find. In addition, agencies such as Help Me Grow and the Board of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities can provide assistance.
What are the facts?
When possible, parents should collect data on their child. For example, if parents are concerned about a child’s attention span, they might try to record how long the child can stay on a task. Similarly, if a child struggles with temper tantrums, parents can keep a log describing the frequency and intensity of the episodes. This kind of information will help professionals determine the most effective ways to help.
When meeting with schools or doctors, parents should take all of their information to the appointments. Doug Hamilton, Dean of Admission at The Lawrence School, advises, “This sends the message that you are ready to be an informed partner in your child’s education.”
The “wait and see” approach
Once parents begin this process, they feel frustrated when they are told by professionals to “wait and see.” Often by the time a parent requests help from a school or doctor, the parent has, indeed waited and observed, but the problems have persisted. However, diagnosing a child’s needs can take time as the professionals involved gather information. Proceeding cautiously can protect the child from an inappropriate diagnosis. Dr. Grcevich cautions, “As a parent, I'd be concerned if professionals started jumping to conclusions about my child without taking time to understand what's going on.”
With this in mind, parents can still garner support for their child. Speech/Language Pathologist Becky Richards asserts, “‘wait and see’ by itself doesn’t work. We need to provide some intervention.” Parents should ask what kind of support will given to their child and schedule a follow-up appointment to discuss progress.
Sometimes, parents are repeatedly told to “wait and see.” “This is a failure-based approach to intervention,” said Hamilton. “In this format you must wait until a child fails to show adequate progressbefore intervention takes place. Often by the time services are put into place, the student is significantly behind.” Parents should seek a second opinion if the professionals involved are unwilling to support the child’s documented needs.
Follow your instincts
Parents with concerns about their children often hear daunting clichés. Among them: “All kids do that…She’ll grow out of it…That kid just needs a spanking.” These statements can shake parents’ confidence. Carol Denzinger, Aurora Schools Special Education Coordinator explains, “Parents should follow their instincts about their children. It is better to discuss concerns with professionals than to wait while a child falls behind.”
During this time, parents also need to be reassured. Family members should refrain from giving opinions and offer support instead. One mother relates, “During my daughter’s long diagnostic process, my parents often said, ‘your child is so lucky to have you as a mom.’ That was the encouragement I needed to face our situation.”
As a result of focusing on a child’s problems, parents sometimes feel hopeless about their child’s future and worried that the child may not master necessary academic and social skills. It becomes extremely important to consider a child’s strengths.
Pediatric Neuropsychologist Gerry Taylor explains, “Tests are best at assessing what children have learned. They can also help to determine the sorts of difficulties that children may face and their needs. But tests can’t really assess children’s potential. There are many important characteristics that contribute to success. What children will actually be able to accomplish depends on how they learn along the way and respond to challenges, the supports they receive, and their ability to compensate for any weaknesses and maximize their strengths.”