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Suspected Learning Disability: What Steps to Take

The apple of your eye can name all her colors count to twenty, and string together words into complex sentences. You have sent your precocious son to the best preschool money can buy, and he has excelled beyond expectation. Yet, you received a call from your child’s second grade teacher requesting a conference to discuss declining academic performance. You immediately think, “Not my child!” When you attend the meeting, you find that the teacher has already drawn conclusions about his abilities or inabilities as evidenced by the tone of the conversation. A wide range of emotions befall you. Emotions get crowded out by the plethora of questions that bombard your mind. “Should I get him tested”? “Is this teacher just labeling my child”? “What should I do next”? You are not alone. Parents are often blindsided with news about their child’s academic performance. Knowing the proper steps to take will save you time, money, and stress.

Don’t Panic, Build a Team
Because you love your child, you want to do what’s best for her. Doing what’s best includes staying calm and asking the right questions. If your child’s teacher suggests testing or tutors, stop her in her tracks. According to Dr. Ajani Cross, Licensed Specialist in School Psychology, a team should be assembled that includes the teacher, an administrator, a counselor, and student support services/resource teachers. She also suggests that you should be actively involved in developing an action plan to address your child’s needs, and be sure to “not leave all of the decision-making to the school”. If you hear terms like “Child Study” or “Student Support” teams you’re moving in the right direction. This team is the foundation of a three-tiered approach to, as Dr. Cross explains it, “utilizing evidenced interventions (academic and behavioral disabilities) and documented progress monitoring.”

Change, Change, Change
A good scientist knows that changing more than one variable at a time will leave one wondering which variable affected the results. In the case of your child’s academic success, identify two or three short-term objectives that move you toward your goal. Changes at home such as limiting television, encouraging healthy eating habits and exercise, as well as playing board games as a family can yield some very noticeable results. Express home life changes during meetings with your Student Support Team. Ask for other ways you can reinforce lessons at home. Scan the Internet for crafts and activities that will encourage learning in ton and exciting ways. Changes should definitely be implemented during the school day during the beginning of the process “Accommodations, alternate teaching strategies (i.e. differentiation), and positive interventions and supports (PBIS) should be integral components of a school’s response to intervention process,” Dr. Cross admonishes. These first round of changes may prove to be successful, but for “non-responders,” students whose academic performance continues to deteriorate or does not improve, Tier 2 interventions are necessary. Tier 2 changes are “more focused and targeted interventions”, such as small groups instruction, social skills sessions with a school counselor, or private tutoring. Continue to ask questions along the process, because there are school professionals available to assist you with identifying beneficial resources.

Celebrate or Evaluate
No matter how small an improvement may be, celebrate your child’s progress. Dr. Cross states “reinforcement can go a long way toward building intrinsic motivation”, which is essential for lasting success and healthy self-esteem. Despite the fact that your child may experience marginal success with Tier 1 and Tier 2 changes or interventions, it may be necessary to have an evaluation conducted. This decision should be based upon regular progress monitoring findings and discussed as a team. Before you agree to having your child tested, you should ask yourself the following questions: Has my child’s academic performance improved since we made changes at home and school? Is my child’s mood or attitude toward school improving or worsening? Based upon the team’s expertise, is there evidence of a learning disability?

According to Dr. Cross “testing should be decided upon…[when] there is evidence to support strong suspicion of a disability or the student has made insufficient progress despite appropriate educational opportunity AND resistance to interventions implemented within a reasonable time frame AND with fidelity.” The right combination of factors must be in place in order to invest the time and money in testing your child. If all factors are not explicitly present, then further Tier 2 interventions should be employed until either positive strides are observed or the right combination of factors warrant testing.

Shop Around
When asked to detail the top four qualities to look for in a professional to administer educational testing, Dr. Cross stated, “certified/licensed, listens and answers questions appropriately, provides multiple options and/or recommendations, and uses your intuition and knowledge of yourself and your family”. You may have to shop around until you meet with a professional that just “feels right” or comes highly recommended by a friend or family member. Of course, your school will either have a licensed professional on staff or a list of licensed professionals in your community who can administer tests. As your child’s advocate, it is your call who should select the assessment battery, administer the assessments, and interpret your child’s test results Remember that “findings should include a determination of suspected or recommended disability (or not) and recommendations for intervention and treatment”. Dr. Cross further asserts that “districts are staffed with some of the best, most knowledgeable experts however, [her] opinion remains that no one really knows the individual student like the parent or guardian”. Whether the findings affirm or contradicts what the Student Support Team proposed, it is important that you make the best decisions for your child’s education.

Keeping your child spirited and cultivating his love of learning should be goals during the entire process Keeping a level head, asking questions, and being flexible are all any teacher could ask of a parent actively participating in his child’s education. A parent who remains engaged and in open communication with the Student Support Team will ultimately witness his child’s academic success no matter the Tier of intervention. Another suggestion that Dr. Cross offers is that “parents should be open to parenting classes counseling, support groups, and reputable online sites to keep themselves knowledgeable about ways to keep their children moving toward positive, esteem-building outcomes!” You will be grateful you made the necessary adjustments early in your child’s academic career when you see her in her cap and gown years down the road.