Parent-teacher conferences are coming. Are you prepared for what you might hear?
By Valle Dwight
When our son Tim was in second grade, my husband and I happily trotted off to meet with his teacher in October. We were confident that we’d hear the usual stuff we’d heard since preschool: “He’s a delightful kid. He’s smart, articulate, funny, and kind.” We were not in the least worried about him, and we loved this opportunity to revel in his successes.
So when his teacher started talking and was not in fact saying all those things, we were stunned. Tim is smart, funny, and delightful, yes, but guess what? He can’t read, she said. When the other kids were doing silent reading, Tim was right there with them, cuddled on the floor and holding a book upside-down.
“The fact that he’s so bright and can’t read is the sign of a learning disability,” she said.
I immediately burst into tears.
It really shouldn’t have come as such a shock: I had questioned his first-grade teacher about why he wasn’t reading, but she had assured us that it was all developmentally normal — he’d be fine. But we were caught off-guard nonetheless.
Before we could even catch our breath, the teacher was walking us down to the principal’s office, asking that our son be tested for a learning disability. And so began our journey into the world of learning disabilities. We had a lot to learn.
“When parents are thrust into the whirlwind of special education, it can be confusing and scary,” says Alison Greene, a special education advocate in Northampton, Mass. She encourages parents at this stage to get emotional support, ideally from another parent who has been through the process. “It can be a devastating time — parents are often frightened, confused, and sad. Sometimes they make bad choices when they’re in the throes of it. Reaching out to another parent can help steady the newcomer.”
Parents also need to find someone in the school system to explain the evaluation process their child will be going through, says Greene. She recommends starting with the school principal. “I find that many parents have never even talked to their child’s principal,” she says. “The principal knows how the system works.”
Realistically, no parent should expect to be an instant expert in evaluations, learning disabilities, and special education, adds Greene. Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t know which tests to ask for. It’s enough to say, “My child isn’t reading,” and the professionals should be able to start the process of testing.
We were lucky, in a way, because our son’s teacher was the one who noticed the problem, and she knew exactly what to do next. When we all paraded down to the principal’s office, we were handed a form to sign — the teacher checked off a couple of things they would test for, and we numbly signed. To be honest, we had no idea what we were agreeing to or what questions to ask.
“Parents shouldn’t be afraid to put a temporary halt on the process if they’re uncertain of what to do or if they haven’t found the support they need,” says Greene. “Take the time to do a little research about the disability as well as on [your child's] rights in special education.”