In early March, Dr. Michael Pastor PhD, MFT was a guest speaker at PEN. The title of his talk was Family Dynamics in Families with Children with Learning Differences. Dr. Pastor has worked with children, adolescents and families in his psychotherapy practice in San Francisco for over twenty years. In addition, he is currently Upper School Counselor at San Francisco Day School.
At the outset Dr. Pastor said that the goal for a parent with a child who has a learning difference is to ensure that through the child’s young and adolescent years he/she feels loved, accepted, safe and understood. (I, Ann, the blog writer) think probably the latter, being understood, is the biggest challenge. For the child and most often the parents don’t know why the child is struggling. I know this was my parents biggest dilemma when I was a child.)
When a child is struggling Dr. Pastor re-enforced the importance that parents find ways to have fun with their child even though it may not be easy. Why? You want him or her to remember holidays and trips – maybe simply going to the beach. You don’t want your child to simply remember the struggle. He quoted Jane M. Healy, PhD whose book Different Learners as a good source on this topic. Remember: the family we grow up in is the most important environment for a child.
He moved on to some basic considerations for parents:
- If your child is having problems, don’t be one of those parents who just thinks that things will get better on their own. In most cases this is not the truth.
- Parents get shocked at the complexity and expense of the solutions and often decide to let go the step of an evaluation. This is not helping your child. You may find yourself, like other parents have, that you feel relief when learning the results of the tests. Finally there is a way to improve the situation.
- Some parents find it hard to hear the results – that their child has problems. And, now they have more to handle which might include the recommendation of medications, or a tutor, or possibly a psychologist. All of this costs money.
- Some parents feel guilty feeling they should have addressed this issue earlier. They might also sense it’s genetic and feel guilt for having passed it on. Dr. Pastor pointed out that if these feelings are buried and not expressed they will leak out in other ways – anger, fear, even rage.
- Some parents feel a deep sense of disappointment. Their vision of their child being successful in the way they had outlined doesn’t now seem possible. It’s important to admit this feeling so it doesn’t become toxic.
- Parents need to develop a new level of dialogue with each other. If this skill is not in place the service of a therapist may be wise.
- One of the first decisions parents will need to make is who will take the leadership in obtaining for the child what is required. Most often it’s the wife. And, down the road, anger can build up within the wife for carrying this load. And, it’s not uncommon that the dad’s point of view becomes: “If the child only tried harder.”Remember while parents may be disappointed, it is the child who has to deal with the learning challenge. The parents need to find a way to convince the child that they “aren’t lesser than”, especially in context of their peers. One of the new phraseologies “learning differences” can take the heat off the topic and an explanation that some people have different kinds of brains can give the child something to express to both themselves and others. Remember. the conditions of anxiety, depression and low self esteem are more prevalent with children with learning disabilities. Learning challenged kids come to expect that they will fail (That certainly was my expectation with French which being Canadian I had to take through school and university). So, there are both the neurological and psychological issues to handle with the child.
- Parents need to find a way to help the child not decide that life consists only of being forced to do what you don’t want to do.
- If there are siblings, they often find the learning challenged sibling a pain. The sibling deals with it by being a good child but harbors secret resentments.
- And, the learning challenged child will be jealous of the sibling because they seem to have a much easier life. Remember, children are like sponges, they absorb everything. They pick up what parents are believing and how they are behaving. One caution: Dr. Pastor recommends that you don’t tell the sibling not to tell others. That will backfire in ways unexpected.
- When things don’t make sense, parents look for help and discover that the process of identifying professionals is not easy. The person(s) chosen need to fit both the parent’s and the child’s requirements.
- Parents begin to see that they have to choose when to be firm and when to let an issue go. Sometimes letting it go makes sense because, above all else, you want to preserve your relationship with your child. While you are making the decision the parent needs to assess: is this behavior something unusual? If yes, letting go might make sense. The result could be the child might feel: finally my parent gets me. The fall out with siblings in that situation is resentment. The child with the learning difference gets more attention. The core solution in a family is good communication within the family. Each person listens to each other. Then, when a reaction happens it is more easy to talk to the child.
- Remember, Dr. Pastor cautioned, you can only talk to a child at their developmental level. If the child is three and misbehaving, you might say:
“I am going to try to help you stay out of being sent to your room” and then give them an explanation waiting to see what they have to say. Often the child feels better simply because “mummy” listens to me. Another suggestion Dr. Pastor gave was to say to the child: ” I need time to think over what you are asking.” However, the parent needs to respond not too much later or resentment will build up. Whatever decision you take the sibling will think it’s unfair. If this happens, be sure to talk to the sibling about it. And the reason is: the sibling might think your avoidance means there is something really wrong. They will hear “this is so bad it can’t be talked about.” And, it may have some truth for the parents because they are so ashamed which then means that the parents have a challenge of working out this shame between themselves.
In summary, Dr. Pastor feels the behaviors of the learning challenged child and siblings all starts with the parents behaviors. He stated that there are nearly twice as many divorces in families who have children with learning differences. He cautions: The parents are adults and have to adjust to their children. There is no question that raising healthy children is difficult. Some come out of the womb energetic and hyperactive, while others are quiet. It’s a matter of the parents adjusting to whatever is.
In early January, 2011, Parents Education Network (PEN) held their annual workshop featuring five PEN students with learning challenges who have been successful in gaining acceptance to different colleges and universities throughout the US. All of them have one or more learning challenges including dyslexia, ADD and audio processing. The event was chaired by Eli Kersh-Oliva, program director for PEN which includes coordination of the SAFE Program*. He posed questions and the following summarizes some of panel experiences.
Which colleges/universities are you attending?
- University of Southern California
- Mills College
- Walla Walla
- University of Iowa
- Community College
When did you decide you wanted to go to college?
- In Grade V11
- In Junior year in high school
- When I was a little kid
- When I knew what I wanted to study: fashion
- After a gap year
Things they considered when choosing a college.
- wanted a small school because I needed one to one attention. And, wanted a well rounded
liberal arts education.
- applied everywhere, was good advocate for myself, looked to see what fit me best, looked for a person who would invest time with me.
- looked for a small college and structured LD (learning difference) programs.
- took a gap year after high school and then chose a community college. I am not sure where I want to focus my education and need good learning support.
- I have a passion, fashion, and that propelled me to be interested in college.
When did you disclose you had a learning difference?
- Wrote about it in my application and then weeded out schools who weren’t interested.
Checked out LD resources and asked what accommodations they offer. During the application process I was worried about losing my parents support at home as I have to have everything read to me. I also use Kurtzweil, a speech reader software. I chose Whitman where the Dean told all my professors about my learning challenge.
- I wasn’t afraid of disclosing my learning difference. If they aren’t willing to both help me and give me accommodations then I knew it was not the right school for me.
- I went to a small school before Mills to gain confidence that I could be an advocate for myself. Then, I was ready to apply to Mills.
- At a community college you don’t have to jump through hoops for LD support. I also use
the Intel Reader.
- I mentioned my learning difference in my application. At Iowa State they are very helpful and take the extra step to be sure I am successful.
What special technology do you use and/or how did you build community at school?
- I use Kurtzweil, they gave me double time for an exam which I take in another room and am given a calculator.
- I have available through the college an I-Pod, Kindle, Intel Reader and Pens that record what is being taught.
- At college we created community: Learning Styles Coalition. We are involved in Project Eye to Eye, a national program developing a coalition of mentoring programs for students labeled with learning disabilities. Now, fifteen of us are mentoring in the Walla Walla Schools.
- I am in a large university (USC) and they have an extensive learning department. Every class has a note taker and their notes are put on-line. We have a silent commons where kids who have learning disabilities can go twenty-four hours a day. Right next to it is the Writing Center where there are TA (technical assistants) in many fields to help us. I get help with grammar from them.
- In my college there is no assistive technology so I work with TA’s and professors and have
extended time for exams.
- At Mills there is a large population with learning disabilities. I feel very comfortable talking about my issues.
- At my community college there is very little LD community. My friends who are LD and ADHD are my friends and we help each other.
- I get extra time and I take classes (like sewing) to balance the academic work. There isn’t much community, except with my friends.
What are the differences between high school and college?
- Time management is a big issue. In school we were in class from 8:15 to 4 pm. In college we may have only two classes a day. I had to find a place where I could study. And, I really learned to be a self advocate. My Mum did most of that in high school.
- At the beginning of each semester I offer to take my professors to coffee and tell them about my learning difference and what I need.
- In high school I had close relationships with my teachers. In college if you fail he won’t be there for you. It’s up to you in college. It’s very important to get the teacher in line with you. Make sure they know your name and that you are trying.
- In high school there was very little curriculum choice whereas in college you choose what you want to study. It’s very important to be passionate about what you choose to learn.
- In college you have to take the entire experience in your hands.
- Parents absence is a big change. Those struggles makes you stronger, a better advocate for yourself. A planner is essential. Write it all down.
- In college you are a face in the crowd. To achieve you need to know the things you are good at and vice versa. College can be a big change.
- I learned you have to go to office hours and talk about the test with the professors. You can raise your grade by keeping in close contact with your professor. And, be sure to get a reader if you need one.
- Communicating in college with your class mates is very important.
- Find people who study like you do.
Think back to your freshman year, what stands out as most important?
- Self Advocacy is most important. Parents, ask yourself, have you prepared your
child to be a self advocate?
- Take a light load in the 1st semester. It’s a lot just to start college.
- Make sure the professor cares about you.
What did your family do for you when you were in school?
- I started to do panels in grade 7.
- I did role playing with others to learn how to be a self advocate.
- My parents called a teacher to tell them that I was coming to ask for something and asked that they give me space and listen to my request.
- I learned to advocate for myself.
- I was the black sheep of the family. I never took my parents seriously. I learned by being in a LD community. Safe Voices, a project of PEN, taught me how to advocate.
- Self advocacy is the key.
- Check out who is the person in each class who sits in the front row. They are generally a “know it all”. Get into their study group. I don’t always disclose about my learning challenge at the outset with those groups. If there is a creative aspect I ask to do that.
- Professors can be creepy. They have brains but mostly no facial expressions. So get to know them. If they deny you what you need, go to the administration and ask for intervention. Before you go, send the professor an e-mail with the request. Once you have the denial written down, take it to the administration and ask for intervention. That ends that. Remember it’s your right to have accommodations.
- Parents: let your kids make mistakes.
- Students: have a good time at college, don ‘t study all the time. Don’t let parents affect your thinking so that you lose your perspective. Make friends with those who have similar study patterns.
- In high school I was lost and only thought about girls. In college I found my passion. Don’t worry about motivation, find the passion.
- Gap year is a good way to become re-invigorated.
*SAFE (Student Advisors for Education) is a student community that strives to educate, mentor,
and support students, parents and teachers regarding the challenges and strengths of LD and ADHD students. This unique group of teens is passionate about learning differently, pursuing
their fullest potential and spreading awareness of their capacity for academic and life success.
This blog is written by Ann Farris, a dyslexic/hyperlexic.
During EdRev at the Giants Baseball Park in April, 2011, Parents Education Network (PEN) invited two specialists in social learning, Dominique Baudry, MS.,ED and Jahna Pahl, MA to present a seminar. Their topic, The Art of Friendship, focused on tools a youngster, especially between the ages of 8 and 13, needs to embrace to be successful in building friendships.
These skills can be very challenging for kids with learning differences and ADHD especially those who are “hard-wired” for science. Because these kids aren’t wired to notice, accurately interpret and respond to the “soft stuff” (the social stuff) that happens between people they need to learn how to “play the social game. Effective social behavior involves thinking about another person when you are with them. It also requires paying attention to how your words and behaviors are causing the other person to respond to you. It might mean adjusting what you are doing to keep them comfortable with you while you are together.
One student defined a friend as someone who she sees every day. There was no mention or indication of interaction. Our seminar leaders provided this definition: A friend is someone you have shared interests with, you do things with, someone you spend time with outside of school building shared experiences. Friends care about each others’ feelings, don’t hurt each other on purpose, and work at fixing it if feelings do get hurt. There is a give and take in the friendship.
Kids who say: nobody talked to me at school today. Or, are the ones who read a book for recess are giving a message. They are challenged by the prospect of connecting with others. Our social learning specialists encourage these youngsters to see that it’s important to be near other people, and to check out what that group is doing. Most often friendships start out as an acquaintance – maybe in a workshop, or the school room. Moving to friendship takes time, repetition, and regularity.
Advice for teachers:
Be sure your student knows how to be an effective listener. Encourage them to watch the other’s body language and facial expressions while listening to the tone of voice. An effective listener speaks and responds to what the speaker is communicating through their words and through their non-verbal communication. This way the person who is speaking feels listened to.
Skills of conversing. The challenge for “rigid thinkers” is learning how to be a flexible thinker, someone who can bend and shift and change their ideas. This can mean letting go of being attached to your own idea. ‘Rigid thinkers” have few options, everything is black or white. They might even use the phrase, “that’s the rule”. Those are the kids who struggle the most and are the ones who tend to be “over reactors”. Teach them how to assess the importance of the issue is: is it a big one, or a small one? Who thinks it is big or small? Remind the student that no one really cares who wins or loses but others will remember who had the temper tantrum.
Skills of entering a group. Kids sometimes need to be taught the rules of how to come into a group and how to leave it. Point out that when everybody in the group is quiet and a noisy person joins them, the group will likely become annoyed. Encourage the student to take time before approaching a group. Figure out the group energy first. Then, help them learn how to match that energy before entering the group.
Staying connected with a group conversation if you are not really interested can be challenging for the student. Suggest they ask a question or make a comment. There are two kinds of questions which our speakers have named:
- World Wonder, such as “How tall was your hotel?” World Wonder questions ask for facts about the world or the things in it.
- Social Wonder, such as “Did you like the place you stayed on vacation? Or, Did you have fun? .In other words, Social Wonder questions ask about the thoughts, feelings and experience a person has.
Boredom: Teach the student how to handle boredom in a class by asking an interesting question. The key is learning how to fake it, to pretend interest. Remember, everyone experiences boring moments every day. Our kids need to learn how to tolerate them, how to make the most of them while staying connected to the other people they are with when the boredom occurs.
Finally, I found it interesting that several kids attending this seminar had no fear of asking questions as they shared their complex challenges of making friends.
For more information contact:
Dominique Baudry – http://www.socialskillgroupwork.com
Jahna Pahl – http://www.growingsocialskills.com
Thanks to Jahna Pahl who provided additional insight for this blog.