School or daycare can be equally stressful for kids and their parents. Your child’s school sends you more emails than your best friend does. Your son seems to fall apart over routine tasks that every other kid his age can handle. Your daughter brings you to tears when she claims she has no friends and, by the number of birthday parties that go by without an invite, you are inclined to agree with her. Homework time is a nightly battle that no one is winning.
You know there is something wrong, but you don’t know how to fix it. What do you do?
Consult the Teacher
Teachers see hundreds of same-age kids over the course of their careers. Your child’s teacher(s) most likely can really help you get to the bottom of what is going on. Make an appointment with the teacher outside of the regular parent-teacher conferences and ask for help. “Teachers don’t want your child to fail,” notes Alex Mirkowski, a middle school teacher at an international school in Israel. “Having a failing student takes up teacher time. A teacher would rather target that time by working with the parent as a team. They will welcome the opportunity to sit down and discuss what they can do as a teacher and what you can do as a parent.”
Public schools are required to respond to requests for testing to determine if an underlying developmental or educational disability is causing a student’s challenges at school. Following your meeting with the teacher, you should document your discussion in an email to the teacher, the school principal, and the special education coordinator, if there is one at the school. If it appears that further examination of the issue is warranted, you should add a request for an evaluation to see if educational testing is needed to help diagnose the problem. This will start the clock ticking on a process that will include evaluating to see if formal educational testing is needed, performing educational testing, and meeting to discuss the results of that testing.
Consult The Experts
Every jurisdiction is required to have a resource that evaluates children from birth to age three. In the District the service is called Strong Start. Parents can refer their own children for an evaluation which will include parent and caregiver checklists and in-person observation and testing.
Evaluations will most likely start with a discussion with the parents. Occupational Therapist Kristen Masci explains that parents “will be asked to provide as much information as possible about the child’s ability to function in daily life.” In addition to asking questions, “we educate the parent about what we do,” adds Masci. “Based on this conversation, we are able to decide how much the areas of difficulty are impacting function in everyday life.”
If the impact is significant, the evaluation will move on through written checklists completed by parents, other caregivers, and teachers to in-person testing of the child. At the end a written report will include diagnoses (if applicable) and the recommended course of treatment. This report should also include suggestions for further resources and activities for the parents as well as appropriate school placements, accommodations, and supports.
If your child is over three and thus not eligible for a Strong Start evaluation, and you want more assistance than the school is providing, there are professionals out there who can help. Janelle McDonald, Board Certified Applied Behavior Analyst, stresses that time is of the essence if you have concerns about skill deficits or challenging behaviors: “Immediately consult an expert for evaluation, as literature shows that early intervention services are correlated with higher efficacy of treatment.”
There are a multitude of professionals who evaluate and treat different childhood delays and disorders. Working with the right ones can help better facilitate efficient treatment. Colleen Buchanan, a learning specialist based on Capitol Hill, recommends that parents have all of their child’s foundational skills thoroughly assessed before seeking treatment. “Often a Speech and Language Therapist or Occupational Therapist is needed,” she says, “to build underlying skills along with a tutor carefully matched to student needs.”
Here are some specialists who can help you target treatment:
- Developmental Pediatricians are trained to detect bigger-picture situations such as cognitive delays, attention and hyperactivity issues, and autism.
- Neurologists can diagnose neurological issues such as ADHD as well as seizure disorders and a host of other complications including tic disorders/Tourette’s Syndrome and mental health problems such as anxiety.
- Educational Psychologists can test for and diagnose common childhood issues such as dyslexia, autism, and ADHD. They can be a helpful resource for what to do to intervene in the case of a diagnosis.
- Psychiatrists generally are more expensive and therefore most parents go to them for medication management rather than regular therapy sessions. They can also evaluate and diagnose.
- Psychologists and social workers provide talk therapy which can help support young people with a variety of different challenges such as anxiety and depression and also executive functioning. Most therapists for young children focus on play therapy, but they may use cognitive behavioral therapy and other approaches.
- Occupational Therapists (OT) work on the ability to perform tasks common to a child’s everyday life. These can include such skills as eating with utensils, riding a bike, handwriting, and kicking a ball. OTs also work with kids with sensory processing disorders, a common disorder found in kids with autism.
- Physical Therapists (PT) address a child’s physical skills such as sitting, standing, walking, running, and climbing steps.
- Speech and Language Therapists (SLP) work on a variety of language-related problems such as articulation and verbal processing and also on mouth-related issues such as feeding. There are also feeding specialists for children whose main struggle is in that area.
- Behavior Therapists help with a variety of different developmental concerns. They work to modify undesirable behaviors and teach replacement behaviors that are more developmentally and socially suitable. These domains range from engaging in peer-to-peer communication, improving emotional regulation, to going to school or holding a job.
- Learning Specialists can detect specific learning disabilities (LD) such as dyslexia and also attention issues, processing issues, and others that get in the way of a student’s learning.
- Tutors can run diagnostics on a student’s current level of academic function and develop academic interventions to assist.
- Executive Functioning Coaches focus on helping students overcome organizational issues that can impede their progress in school, especially when it comes to homework completion and organization of their school materials.
- Educational consultants work with families to determine what additional support they might need and to find a school setting that can work best for the child.
No parent has ever regretted finding out that there is nothing wrong with their child, or the ways to help them cope with issues that are holding them back in school or daily life. If you have concerns about your child’s social, emotional, or cognitive development, consult the experts as soon as possible.
With over 20 years experience in education in Washington, DC, E.V. Downey has been a school administrator, educational consultant, teacher, and behavior therapist. She is currently the Director of Admissions at Blyth-Templeton Academy, a micro high school located at the Hill Center on Capitol Hill.