What to do when you suspect a student you teach may have undiagnosed learning difficulties?

This week’s question is from a teacher in Osaka:

Question: How and what do I say to parents when I am worried that their child may have some development/learning problems or delays?

Answer: This is a very sensitive subject and has to be handled rightly and with kid gloves in present day society. I understand your situation very well…you don’t want to be the one to ‘jump the gun’ and have ‘egg on your face’ BUT at the same time you don’t want to be the one to ignore problems that you think would be detrimental to the child’s future development.
First of all there are four pivotal parties involved in this: the troubled child, the parents, the teacher, and the school administration. To keep it simple I am going to outline a few things and methods that would help each party.

The School Administration and Teachers

The school should first of all have a system and method put into place which includes general assessment materials to help teaching staff deal with the responsibility of recognizing children with possible disability and problems. Your school could enlist the help of a SPED specialist for the same.

Teachers and Parents

Approaching family members to discuss a suspected behavior problem, especially of children who may be emotionally disturbed, autistic, or ADHD can be a touchy subject and the most important thing to do so, is to do it without alienating a parent or heightening their anxiety.

The manner in which the “informing” process with parents is handled is an important test of the integrity of the special educational program in your school. Ideally, staff are prepared and trained procedures are in place before anyone has to talk to parents. For the purposes of this article, I will focus on the teaching staff-parents communication when suspected delays and problems are identified.

The Parents Dilemma

Becoming a parent elicits a variety of needs and expectations, the most common of which is the desire to expand one’s circle of loved ones. Self-esteem and image, parental expectations, and dreams are threatened by the presence of a child’s impairment. The pain and disappointment that is generated, especially at the very first phase when parents have a beginning awareness of the possibility of disability, may precipitate a crisis. Keep in mind that families do not move with tranquility from one which includes well children to one which includes a child with a disability. Reacting to the “real” can be problematic. There is an internal and natural resistance to the unwelcome change of status. The staff’s appreciation of the parental fear of a label, or a classification, or even the suggestion of a disability will affect the nature of the dialogue. Confirmation of a disability has a significant impact on the family and requires adaptive change for all its members. This process can be slow and difficult.

The Teaching Staff Dilemma and Responsibility

From birth to age six, children’s brains are especially responsive to experiential influence. Research on the brain has produced impressive evidence that supports the value of an early start, especially for children with disabilities or for children at risk. Parents are likely to become distressed at a later date if early warning signs and risk factors are ignored, their children fail to make anticipated maturational gains, or when their children have not received entitlements. A growing public awareness and an understanding of the importance of early remediation and its potential provide compelling reasons for early care systems to get services started. There are six staff attributes necessary in order for them to be able to promote the ability of families to meet their needs. These are:

• effective communication
• honesty
• understanding of families’ concerns
• emphasis on solutions (not causes)
• actions
• confidentiality

A Beginning Approach

This proposed approach can be adapted to fit into the context of the work at your school.

It is useful and significant to distinguish between two types of initial contacts: One requested by a parent, and the other by the staff. In the first instance, it is probably best to be a good listener. Find a comfortable, private room where there will be no interruptions of any kind, not even for a minute or two, or for a phone call. Leave enough time, preferably an hour or two (if possible), for the discussion. After the informal greetings to help put someone at ease and get started, let them tell you what prompted their request. Parental concerns should be taken seriously; their observations are usually reliable and valid.

In the next scenario, the meeting initiated by the staff, the beginning can be somewhat different. In this instance, staff needs to state at the onset, in as neutral a way as possible, the purpose of the discussion. For example, “I asked you to come in so we can talk about (child’s name), and how he is doing at school and at home.” It would be best to stop after this introductory remark and give the parent a chance to respond. If this is not productive, an inquiry about parental perspectives may move the discussion along i.e., “How do you think (child’s name) is doing?” Again, try to be a good listener. Resist the temptation to introduce the problem too soon or to expand in detail. This could turn the session into a monologue and discourage the participation that is needed. Parents will usually have a great deal to tell us if we are ready to listen. Sometimes this is easier said than done.

Include Parents in Assessment and Therapy

Once everybody is on the same page i.e. parents, teachers and school administration and agree that the child has some problems that need addressing and support, then a comprehensive assessment of the child should be made. Including parents in the assessment process, increases the accuracy of the data collected and paves the way for involvement in their child’s education. It is also one of the best ways to get a good picture of the child’s performance in multiple settings.

Sharing responsibility for screening recognizes the usefulness and value of parental judgment, reaches for it and includes it in arriving at decisions. The process produces meaningful information, is consensus building, and will facilitate later decisions. This should be followed with an IEP that is done for the child for an initial period of at least 6 months and updated at least every three months. The IEP should not only spell out in detail all the therapies, techniques, timelines, behavioural expectations, monitoring and follow-up materials to be used for the child BUT also each of the responsibilities of the school administration, teaching staff and parents. Your school could enlist the help of a SPED specialist for the same.

Send your SPED questions directly to Cecil at [email protected] and the answers may be published here to help other parents/teachers with similar concerns. All personal details will be kept private and confidential.