Diagnosing learning problems takes time, team approach
By Katie Wetherbee
When parents behold their precious newborn, they make quick calculations: Ten fingers, ten toes. They listen for the sweet sound of the first whimper, and anxiously await the official length and weight measurements. If they have questions, parents can simply push a call button to receive reassurance from a professional.
All too soon, the family goes home, without the security of a nearby nurse’s station. Suddenly, the responsibility of gauging development rests squarely on the parents. This task is made easier with the help of pediatricians, grandparents and friends. Still, when a parent suspects a child might have a disability that affects learning, finding answers and getting help can be frustrating and frightening. However, parents can equip themselves for this process by accessing resources and collecting information that can lead to solutions.
Drafting the “Team”
Concerned parents should seek help as soon as possible. This can be overwhelming as they try to determine who might be able to provide the help they need. Dr. Steven Grcevich, a child psychiatrist and President of The Family Center by the Falls, advises parents to begin with a trusted 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 widely different comfort levels in treating specific disabilities, but should be capable of referring parents to specialists when the problem is beyond their expertise.”
Parents should be aware of other professionals who can help. Pediatric neurologists and neuropsychologists can assess a child’s development and learning needs, and make recommendations for treatment. Speech, occupational, and physical therapists all provide assessment and services to assist children in their development of language and motor skills.
Finally, teachers are vital members of this team. Parents can approach a child’s teacher or contact their local school system and inquire about Child Find for information on assessment services. In addition, parents can contact agencies such as Help Me Grow and the Board of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities for assistance.
Get the facts
Whenever 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. Parents should monitor the child during different activities to gauge any patterns. Similarly, if a child struggles with severe temper tantrums, parents can keep a log of when the tantrums occur, what happens before the episodes, and how long they last. This kind of information will help teachers and doctors determine the most effective ways to help the family.
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 an informed parent and more importantly, that you are ready to be an informed partner in your child’s education.”
“Wait and See…and do something!”
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 not resolved. However, diagnosing a child’s needs can take time as the professionals involved gather information. Proceeding carefully 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 the time to understand what’s going on.”
When starting the assessment process, parents should be assertive and explain how long the child has been struggling. Next, a parent should ask what information the educational or medical team will be gathering, and how the team will support the child. Speech/Language Pathologist Becky Richards asserts, “‘wait and see’ by itself doesn’t work. We need to do something. We need to provide some intervention.” Parents should ask what kinds of interventions will be put in place to support the child and schedule a follow-up appointment to discuss progress.
Sometimes, parents are repeatedly told to “wait and see” and the professionals involved have no plan for follow-up. “This is a failure-based approach to intervention,” said Hamilton. “In this format you must wait until a child fails to show adequate progress before intervention takes place. Often by the time intervention services are put into place, the student is significantly behind peers. Self-esteem issues begin to arise. This approach would never be applied to a business strategy, so why do we apply it to education?” Parents should ask for a second opinion if the professionals involved are unwilling to support the child’s documented needs.
Stay the course
Parents with concerns about their children are often assaulted with daunting clichés. Among them: “All kids do that…When his dad was little he was exactly the same…She’ll grow out of it…That kid just needs a good spanking.” These statements can shake parents’ confidence. Carol Denzinger, special education coordinator for Aurora schools, explains, “Parents should always follow their instincts about their children. We have a much better understanding of child development now than we did many years ago. It is better to discuss concerns with professionals than to wait while a child in need falls behind.”
During this time, parents also need to be affirmed and reassured. Often, the best phrase for grandparents and other family members to use is a heartfelt, “What can I do to help you?” 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 just the encouragement I needed to face our situation.”
Eyes on the Prize: Your Child’s Strengths
As a result of focusing on a child’s problems, parents sometimes feel hopeless and worried about the child’s future. “When you find out your child might have a disability,” shares one mother, “(in your mind,) you immediately go from age three to age 30.” Parents wonder how their child will master academic and social skills or if the child will eventually be able to live and work independently. 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.” Parents should realize that test scores and diagnoses help in planning an educational program for their child. However, “there are many important characteristics that contribute to success,” Taylor continues. “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.”