By Gina Robuck, M.Ed.
Every August parents and kids alike eagerly await the start of a new school year. But, for parents who have a child with a learning disability (LD), Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (AD/HD), or any other disability, the anticipation usually creates feelings of anxiety, worry, and even dread.
One of the biggest worries for parents is whether this year's teacher will have any awareness or knowledge about their child's disability - how the child learns best, what she struggles with, and what she needs to be successful in the classroom. Why does it sometimes seem like parents know more than the teacher about how LD and/or AD/HD impact their children? If a child with a disability is to have a successful school year, parents are often put in the situation of having to educate their child's teacher about these issues.
There are some common reasons why general education teachers have very little knowledge about disabilities in general. First, teacher training programs devote little to no class hours to understanding challenges students with particular disabilities face and how to help them learn. Second, general education teachers typically don't sign up for continuing education classes that focus on effective ways to teach kids with learning disabilities or AD/HD. Last, most school districts do not provide ongoing in-service training for teachers about teaching kids with special needs.
In my experience as a consultant and psychologist in the schools, many general education teachers do their best to provide the appropriate support to the kids in their classrooms with disabilities. But to be effective in teaching these students, general education teachers need much more interaction with, and guidance and support from, their special education colleagues than most schools typically provide. This is a huge frustration for teachers as well as parents.
Parents also encounter a couple of prevailing teacher attitudes. Many teachers do not view parents as "experts" about their child's disability, how they learn, how they need to be instructed, their strengths and weaknesses, and what they need to make progress in the academic and social arenas. Another common teacher attitude is that kids with LD or AD/HD are "lazy," "not motivated," and "need to work harder." My all-time favorite is: "Your child can do the work when she wants to or chooses to."
What many teachers don't realize is that kids with LD and AD/HD have to work much harder than their peers to acquire, retain, and perform academic and social skills on a daily basis. This can cause overwhelming stress for kids who have limited coping resources. Very often this stress is translated into behaviors that are likely to be misinterpreted or not noticed by teachers who don't have a good understanding of LD or AD/HD. Kids may engage in work-avoidant behaviors, such as repeatedly getting out of their seat for various reasons, constantly asking to go to the bathroom, disturbing classmates during independent work time, or frequently getting up to sharpen pencils.
Kids can also develop anxiety-related symptoms including: not wanting to go to school, complaints of headaches or stomachaches, routinely asking to see the school nurse, or crying in school. Acting-out behaviors can result, as well, and may include: arguing with the teacher, being verbally or physically aggressive with peers, or noncompliance with teacher requests or directions.
In my experience, the solutions teachers offer to assist with these behavioral difficulties usually focus on the child, rather than themselves. Oftentimes, a teacher can successfully reduce or eliminate a child's difficult behavior with a simple change in the way she presents information, provides assistance, or alters the way the child can demonstrate performance of academic tasks.
As a personal example, after submitting my written request for a 504 Plan for my daughter, who is diagnosed with AD/HD, I had a conversation with the social worker at her school. Our conversation centered on my daughter not wanting to go to school because of feeling overwhelmed by all the work she had to do, the reasons for her tardiness, and the accommodations I thought would be appropriate. We spent 20 minutes chatting about behavioral plans for my daughter (this was before the social worker knew I was a learning consultant and school psychologist) and the social worker ended the conversation with this advice: "Well, Mrs. Robuck, we can put any behavior plan in place for your daughter here at school (to address her tardiness), but it is ultimately your responsibility to get her to school on time."
It was painfully clear that this social worker had limited knowledge and expertise about kids with AD/HD, since her solution was to address the symptom my daughter was manifesting - tardiness - rather than the underlying, school-based cause of anxiety resulting from too much written work. Fortunately, after my daughter's 504 Plan was in place and her teacher decreased her workload, her anxiety significantly decreased and she was tardy much less often.
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