There is no doubt parental support is crucial to a child’s academic success. The obviousness of this truth, however, does not make it any easier to provide effective support for a child struggling with ADHD, learning disabilities, Asperger’s, ODD, or other complicating factors. Here are some basic strategies to implement that will allow you to construct a framework of meaningful support.
Understand your child’s unique needs. Observe your child in various settings. How does she act? How does she feel? How does she define herself? How does her behavior change between a setting where she thrives or is comfortable versus a more challenging environment? Are there behavioral or other complicating factors (low self-esteem, learning disabilities, hearing or vision problems, etc.)? The better you understand your child’s unique needs, the better situated you will be to help.
Know your child’s instructional level in core competencies. Do not assume your child is at grade level just because he progressed to the sixth grade. Progress in a traditional school relies more on seat time than mastery of concepts. Have a sense for whether your child is ready for fifth grade or algebra, etc. If he is behind, establish a plan for getting him up to speed. If he is ahead, establish an enrichment plan. Encourage awareness in your child so he becomes more cognizant of his own needs, strengths, and areas of difficulty. If the needs are complex, seek professional help from an educational consultant, neuropsychologist or other qualified professional.
Advocate for your child’s learning needs. Once you know your child’s needs and core levels, share them with her teachers so they can support her appropriately in the classroom. Good educators will welcome more information on your child’s needs as it will assist their efforts. Where possible, seek out teachers who understand unique needs and employ a variety of suitable teaching techniques. Work with the administration to ensure proper supports are in place. If the school does not provide for her needs, then assess whether her needs require supplemental help or another academic setting. Studies have shown that school culture and a student’s disposition to school are as crucial to success as solid teaching and basic skill acquisition. If your child does not feel respected or safe at school, then she will not thrive.
Encourage your child’s intellectual and personal interests. All children have an innate desire to learn and yet some children become disengaged from the formal learning process. This often happens because the instructional level or method is inappropriate to the student’s needs, but anxiety, depression, behavioral or social issues can also derail student progress. Not all students will have strong academic interests, but they generally will have some sort of interest such as athletics, music or a hobby. If a student is struggling with academics, then he needs an activity where he can succeed. Students who do not have a positive outlet might pursue negative behaviors instead. It is essential for students not only to learn how to solve algebraic equations and write five paragraph essays, but also to develop positive self-image and an ethos of lifelong learning and intellectual engagement.
Find a mentor for your child. Though it might seem unbelievable, your child (yes, even your refractory teenager) may listen to and respect a mature peer or adult role model in his life. Children, especially teenagers, tend to filter out parental input to a certain extent, but they often listen to a peer, favorite teacher, coach, therapist or other mentor. Encourage positive relationships between your child and people whom you trust and respect in your community.
Do not be afraid to ask for help. Sometimes the best way to maintain balance is to involve others. There are a lot of great individuals and organizations serving the Puget Sound region, including expert pediatricians, psychologists, psychiatrists, counselors, educational consultants and many other professionals as well as support groups and informational resources. One of the difficulties parents have is knowing where to start. The task is daunting but not impossible. Rather than reinventing the wheel, connect yourself to professionals and parents who have experience with your child’s needs. Start with your current network. Discuss your child’s needs with people you trust who can connect you to other services. A supportive educator, pediatrician or other professional who knows your child well is a good place to start. Organizations like Learning Disabilities Association of WA, ADD Resources, CHADD, and Northwest Autism Foundation all provide extensive resources free to the public and can help you become more aware of your local options. Dartmoor’s website has some excellent starting points for your own research: please visit www.dartmoorschool.org/resources for articles, links to organizations, and a bibliography of helpful books.
Maintain your perspective and sense of humor. Educating a child with special needs requires a lot of patience and many resources, but it also requires perspective and a sense of humor. Perspective reminds us what is important over the long term, that individuals require time and support to develop independence and skills, and that we all have different talents. Try not to take anything personally or allow your emotions to get the better of you. This is easier said than done, but a healthy sense of humor is perhaps the best strategy of all.