How to Know When it's Time to Go Pro
"Does my child need help?" It's one of the most challenging questions we face in supporting our kids' development. We watch rising and falling grades, the roller coaster of emotion, peer relationships, shifting interests and activities, and so on, all in hopes of truly knowing our children and providing them with what they need. Still, our doubts nag us: Is he really doing okay? Is she truly happy? If we suspect all is not well, the question becomes: What can I do about it? It can be difficult to tell if a child needs more help than is being provided. Rare is the pre-adolescent who says to his dad over the breakfast cereal box, "I'd like to retain a learning specialist to guide me through the murky waters of my teenage years." This leaves parents to sift through the sometimes subtle, sometimes overt, clues in their children's behavior.
Stacey Goldberg of Star Educational Consulting points out, "A child's self-esteem is typically the first to go when a child is struggling in school (and the hardest to regain), so if your child is feeling down on him or herself, or like he or she can't keep up with peers, it might be time to call a professional."
Further, neuropsychologist Dr. Barbara Kenner guides us to "think holistically, since a presenting weakness may actually be secondary to an underlying problem . . . A child who is acting out, not doing his or her work, or appears to have low self-esteem may actually be struggling with an underlying learning disability. An evaluation will help clarify a child's strengths and weaknesses, as well as provide a guide for treatment possibilities."
Experts say the best rule of thumb is to keep loving your kid while staying attuned to cues from the educational professionals to whom you have entrusted your child at school. As Ms. Goldberg points out, "Whereas parents of a pre-school child should be somewhat vigilant about involving professionals when their child is not reaching early milestones, parents of school age children are not necessarily the best assessors of how their child is performing in school."
Since parents cannot always maintain an impartial viewpoint when it comes to the challenges their children meet in life, relying on the school for additional perspective is an important means of finding some counterbalance. Theresa Peduto, educational consultant and co-chair of SPINS (Student and Parents Information Network Support) indicates, "If parents feel that there are clear gaps in their child?s development, they should speak to the school to gain the school?s insight and seek an evaluation."
Many a NYC parent has encountered what can feel like a frenetic educational environment. Many children are receiving test preparation, enrichment tutoring and a plethora of supplemental activities, though designing unwarranted interventions can do more harm than good. Children read situations well, and sticking a learning specialist on your child without solicitation can read "I don't think you can handle your work on your own," points out Ms. Goldberg. Over-programming can lead to stress, while putting the right support in place can alleviate stress. A child that is expressing concern or shows symptoms of declining self-esteem should be monitored and communication with his or her teachers is warranted.
The partnership between parents and schools over the past few years has improved dramatically, with communication beginning to flow both ways. Ilene Rothschild, Learning Specialist at Horace Mann Upper School, states that "Parents know their kids best," and that as a parent you add depth to your knowledge when you "watch your child and get feedback from your pediatrician, counselor, teachers, and coaches about your child's development." In the same way, Ms. Rothschild indicates that "Schools more and more are consulting with parents before referring a child for an evaluation."
If the school and the parent share the view that the child is continuing to show significant signs of frustration, it's time to form a triangle with a third party support mechanism. Ms. Rothschild says, "Families should meet with schools to determine what steps can happen before an evaluation is recommended and to learn what resources are available both from the school and community. Parents should take advantage of these resources and give it a bit of time." It's possible that some simple academic support is all that's needed.
When preliminary actions still seem to lead to in-depth evaluation, Dr. Kenner's inductive approach remains crucial to arriving at the source of the problem and accessing the correct help. "It is important to determine whether this is a primary disorder, or secondary to, for example, a learning disability, speech and language issues, sensory processing weaknesses, or a mood disorder, each of which requires a different set of interventions.?
In sum, if you suspect your child is struggling, speak with the pros at his or her school whose job it is to know. With an effective partnership formed among parents, school, and support professionals, Ms. Peduto reminds us that "the students that have their learning issues clearly identified can address learning in a creative way and this will prevent frustration and allow for academic growth. These are kids that are often very creative and will succeed in life, but need alternatives to the status quo of learning."
After putting the right kind of support in place, parents can answer those nagging questions in the affirmative: "Yes, my child is happy. He's really doing okay."