Putting Parents on Your Team

From the start, most parents want to know about and be involved in decisions on where, how, and what their children learn. Their problem usually is not knowing how to participate. Your task is giving them opportunities to get involved. Below are some suggestions on how you can make parents part of your treatment team.

  1. Identifying Problems. Before you pursue psycho-educational testing for a child, talk with his parents to get their perceptions on whether (a) their child is meeting his ability level and their expectation level; (b) they’ve noticed any problems at home in how he learns or his motivation to do activities; and (c) he is experiencing some stress in his life. Sometimes an informal discussion of this type can reveal a link to the child’s behavior which has nothing to do with school. It can also lead to some new ways of helping the child learn, which may circumvent the referral process altogether.

If it still seems that psycho-educational testing is the child’s best option, then parents must be advised. The sooner parents get involved, the more they have invested in the process, and the more likely they will follow through on your recommendations.

  1. Designing the Treatment Plan. Parents are the experts on their child’s behavior. They know parts of their child’s behavior and personality you never have seen, like what his favorite dessert is, what kinds of TV shows give him nightmares, and how old he was when he first started talking. I know this sounds like it does not have to be said, but it doesn’t hurt to remind ourselves of the irreplaceable role parents have in their children’s lives. Parents’ suggestions, anecdotes, and preferences should form a significant part of their child’s evaluation. Tailoring the treatment plan as much as possible to their lifestyles and needs is a powerful way of gaining their support.

It is sometimes beneficial to include children as well in devising treatment plans. Knowing their feelings and opinions are being heard, and allowing them to have a say in forming strategies, will increase children’s investment in decisions made, and their motivation to follow through.

Throughout this process attention must be given to how alternatives and test results are explained to parents. Try to present results in positive terms, at the same time being careful not to smooth over or delete information parents should know. An analogy I like to think of is the half-glass of water. The positive person sees it as half-full, while the negative person sees it as half-empty.

Consider these two examples: (a) “Stewart is in the bottom five per cent of his class in reading”; (b) “Stewart is within the average range in his reading ability.” Which would you rather know, if Stewart was your child? I would rather know Stewart is within the average range.

Another point to bear in mind is to avoid jargon. We seldom think of words like intelligence, ability, and deficit as jargon, specific to psychology and education, but they are–ask any accountant. For instance, the above example could also say, “Stewart can read one page from his reader without getting stuck on any words, but he has problems remembering what he reads.” This style boils down the information into simpler terms, and also describes to parents exactly what their child does. A good way of keeping your language comprehensible is to pretend you’re talking to a student in Grade 10. This way you won’t put some parents in the uncomfortable position of not knowing what you’re talking about, or having to dig to the bottom of what you’re trying to say.

  1. Implementing Treatment Plan. “What is `new math’?” “How do I help my child learn his three-times table?” “How can I stop her from seeing `b’s’ instead of `d’s’?” Many parents would like to help their child learn, but they’re not sure how to go about doing it. With some guidance from you, parents can learn effective ways of helping their child at home, feel good about being able to help their child, and let their child know that they care about him.

The danger is that parents may go overboard in burdening their child with too much homework, in the hopes of stamping out his learning problems. This can turn a fun cooperative learning experience into a painful nightmare for both parents and the child. Parents should ensure the time they spend helping their child with homework is reinforcing. Their child already thinks enough about his learning problems while he is at school. He doesn’t need his memory refreshed while he is at home. You can help by giving the child fun learning activities to take home, like puzzles and word games. Also, encourage parents to balance schoolwork with sports and fun activities they can enjoy with their child. Throwing a football around or teaching their child how to ride a bike can be just as, or even more, beneficial to their child’s development as doing homework.