Family Dynamics: in Families with Children with Learning Differences


In early March 2012, 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.


Dr. John Medina: Brain Rules for Parents

Brain Rules for Parents

Dr. John Medina, a developmental molecular biologist and author of the New York Times bestseller, Brain Rules was a guest speaker on Thursday evening, January 20th at PEN. (  He is also an affiliate Professor of Bioengineering at the University of Washington, School of Medicine and the director of the Brain Center for Applied Learning Research at Seattle Pacific University. 

This evening his topic was Brain Rules for Parents. Dr. Medina is an energetic man with a robust physique and voice. His approach to lecturing involves stories that prove his points, facts quickly offered and a point of view that stops the listener in his or her tracks. He has much to share that is cogent and exciting. He envisions how it could be in the future implementing the information that he and other brain scientists know for sure about the brain.   

At the outset of the evening he kept reiterating that the brain’s unified performance envelope is designed to solve problems, related to surviving, in an outdoor setting and to do so in constant motion. In other words, the brain isn’t interested in learning, it’s primary concern is surviving. 

With this fact in mind he moved to the topic was stress. Stressed brains don’t learn in the same way as normal brains. He suggested to parents that if your child is stressed see what they are running from. The trigger points are the problem. The more out of control the child (or adult) is feeling, the more the learning, including short and long term memory is affected. 

Dr. Medina then turned his attention to the “home” stating that the single predictor of academic success is the emotional stability at home. Marital conflict causes stress not only for the couple but also their children. If there is marital conflict when the baby is in utero and the partners work on their relationship during this time both the baby and the relationship benefit. In other words when adults are able to control themselves both individually and in partnership, they change the nervous system of their kids. He said that if the woman is feeling she is being heard by the man, the marriage works. An important key to being heard is that the woman is able to communicate her psychological behavior in the way a man can understand it. He can then respond by examining his behavior.  

 A stable home environment is particularly important for kids with learning disabilities. There are some kids who are hyper active because they don’t feel safe.

There is good news around what improves the stressed conditions. Aerobic Exercise:  Aerobic exercise affects something in the brain that assists the memory process. It has been proven that memory can change as a result of this type of exercising. The caveat is that the exercise program must be continuous (30 minutes of aerobics 3 times a week). Scientists are now researching the value of exercise for both ADD and ADHD conditions.  Reason: exercise affects the brain chemistry. The more an individual saturates the blood with oxygen, the less there is depression (merely increasing the amount of oxygen without aerobic exercise did not have the same effect.) He emphatically stated: PE, physical education, is the most important hour in a kid’s academic life! 

There is more information on Dr. John Medina’s lectures for PEN.  See blog Brain Rules for Teachers. Dr. Medina’s website is: His books are: Brain Rules and Brain Rules for Baby.

Tips for parents with children who learn differently.

Summary of talk by Claudia Koocheck,  Head of School at Charles Armstrong, in Belmont, CA, Friday, September 24th, 2010.

The first speaker of the 2010-11 PEN ( Speaker Series in San Francisco, Claudia Koocheck, focused most of her remarks on the role of parents whose children are learning challenged. She speaks from first-hand experience as Head of School at Charles Armstrong, a much respected Northern California independent elementary and middle school for students with learning challenges. One facet of her responsibilities is meeting with parents on a continuous basis giving them support while challenging them to move into new paradigms to support their children through the schooling process.

Parent’s reactions after learning a child has a learning challenge.

Ms. Koocheck talked about parent’s shock after discovering that their child has learning differences. It’s a hard fact to absorb and especially true when parents have specific goals for their children emanating from the time of their offspring’s birth. The child they pictured is turning out not to exist.Parents become confused and upset. Ms. Koocheck understands as she helps them walk a new and unexplored path.

Need for parents to change and grow as they help their children

One of the first steps in this journey is encouraging parents to think beyond themselves and their needs.  Now is the time to accept their children as they are and to put emphasis in collaborating with the teachers to achieve the best results for them.

Most parents want an academic path for their child. This step may be achievable but not in the traditional way. A learning challenged child’s brain learns differently which can mean some kids don’t test well.

Often parents lay the fault with the academic environment mostly because they don’t know how to help their child. Sometimes parents resort to hiring a tutor or a coach hoping these steps will solve everything. It does, in some cases, but not the total answer.

Fixed Mindset versus Growth Mindset

A Fixed Mindset from a parent or child derails progress. This behavior can be best expressed when a parent is focused on how good their child is academically or more tragically, when a child thinks he or she is stupid because they can’t master the traditional schooling process.

The goal for parents and learning challenged children is to develop a Growth Mindset, one that opens doors to new approaches. It is much more important for the child to learn something in a class than to get the best grades.  This means focusing on the process, not the results. It’s about effort, not about the outcome. The child wants and needs to enjoy learning. It may come from an unexpected way like a child drawing pictures to understand what they are learning. So be it.

Hints for parents:

  • Don’t ask “how was school?  Broad questions are difficult. Instead start with something small like “what did you learn in music today?”
  • Invest effort in helping the child discover and move from some skill they are good at. Movement, music, art can be an effective tool to help a learning challenged youngster learn.
  • Learning challenged children read information in a different way: through tone of voice, body language, etc rather than intellectual information. Ms. Koocheck gave an example of a child coming home from school, feeling sad and not having the words to say what is wrong. It may be that at school they realized as a result of the teacher’s behavior, not words, that they are different from everyone else. They are perplexed because but don’t know why.
  • Keep reminding your child that he or she is smart by asking, “how did you do that?” This question gives the child a chance to digest what he or she accomplished while experiencing the joy of sharing the success.  Note: the phrase, “great job” doesn’t have the same affect. In fact, it may have the reverse. It may not be a “great job” in the traditional way of mastery and learning challenged children know that!
  • Kids don’t know what they need until you show them. Give them options.
  • Children have a challenge asking for what they want.  To make her point, Ms. Koochek used the analogy of an adult deciding he or she will ask for raise and all the fears and hesitancies that come with that decision.  The same is for the child.  Be sure to provide a safe environment for the child to open up. Then ask: “what do you want to say to me?” Remember: it is the parent’s responsibility to teach their child how to address another and to ask for what they need.
  • After providing a safe environment consider these three possible communication tools to help a child share how they are feeling.
  1. Sticky notes: one with a thumbs up and one with a thumbs down.
  2. Face charts with many different emotional looks along with a description of each is each useful. Ask the child to point at the face on the chart that best describes how they are feeling at that moment.
  3. Ask questions.  Ask the child to raise their hand when the response is correct.

The goal is to get to the point where the child develops a sense of ownership. It will only happen in a safe environment.  Remember the learning challenged child comes from a sensorial point of view.  They read body language and tone of view before anything else.

  • Don’t correct the children’s homework.  If you do the teacher will never know where the child is struggling.

Dyslexic Simulation Process

As part of Ms. Koochek’s presentation she suggested parents learn what it feels like to be a dyslexic.  The Northern California Association of the International Dyslexic Association offers a dyslexic simulation process where parents can demystify themselves. The next simulation is Saturday, Oct. 16, 2010, 9:00 am-12:00 pm at the San Francisco Day School, 350 Masonic Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94118.  For more information go to


Ms. Koochek had much more to say.  In summary, she encouraged teachers and parents to foster resilience in the child. The desire end results are 1) self motivation, 2) self direction, 3) self advocacy, 4) emotional well-being, 5) social connections and skills, 6) self awareness 7) Self control.

And, parents, remember, applaud teachers and their efforts. They want your kids learning and you happy.

Recommended books

Ms. Koocheck gave high marks to two books:

  1. Mindset, The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck, (2006), Random House Publishing Group, New York.   It describes how kids perceive themselves.
  2. Brooks, Robert and Goldstein, Sam (2003), The Power of Resilience: Achieving Balance, Confidence and Personal Strength in Your Life.  New York Contemporary Books/McGraw Hill.