Finding Resources for Your Child with Learning Differences

We sat down nervously across the table from her, wondering just exactly what was recorded about our daughter in the file she had opened before her. Before beginning she paused, peered over her glasses at me and said,

“It must be exhausting trying to teach this child.”

The words startled me, and at the same time I felt tears gather in my eyes and an intense wave of relief flood through my body.

It wasn’t just me!

I wasn’t crazy!

The daily struggles were real and measureable and diagnosable.

Every special needs parent knows this intense feeling of relief to sit with a professional and have them validate all the layers of complexity you walk through on a daily basis.

While there is no easy formula or three step plan for finding the right educational route for a child with learning differences, I do feel like I’ve learned a few things along the way during the past 7 years of parenting children with exceptional learning styles and challenges. Maybe these tips will help you, too.

  1. Trust your instincts. Ultimately, you know your child better than anybody else, and that’s important. If you feel like something is out of sync, you are probably right.
  2. Think outside the box. One of the first things you need to do is start viewing your child’s learning differences as just that…learning differences. This means they learn differently, not more than or less than their peers. It means that their brains process things differently than others and may need things presented to them in unique ways. Don’t try to fit them inside the mold of average. Be a student of your child’s unique, inquisitive, wonderfully complex mind. Study the way they see the world. Take the time to listen to their ideas, the way they describe their experiences and the things that interest them. Once you understand the way your child thinks, feels and experiences the world around them, you will be much better prepared to brainstorm what might assist them in learning and growing. Be warned, however, that you just may fall in love with the way your child views the world and decide you don’t want to fit them into a typical environment. This may prompt you to lead your child on an educational journey that looks very different than what you had previously pictured as success. For example, you may decide homeschooling, outdoor learning programs, a special needs classroom, online education or part time schooling is a better fit for your child than the typical structure.
  3. Do the research. While labels are not always necessary, I have found it is helpful to know exactly what it is that you are dealing with and sharing that information with others so that they can access the appropriate resources, funding, etc that may be eligible for your child. The label is less about diagnosing and more about finding an education path for your child. Don’t be afraid of the labels. They can help. Know the information needed well enough that you can summarize, elaborate and present it in multiple forms to anyone who needs to hear it and understand it. Be the expert on your child.
  4. Find an ally. Whether it’s a teacher, principal, pediatrician, educational assistant, therapist, social worker or special education coordinator, it’s helpful to find a professional who understands your child and is willing to advocate alongside you and hear your concerns. This person can often guide you in the right direction when it comes to finding solutions as well.
  5. Listen. Ask for input from your child’s current and past educators. Give them space to express their concerns, share the observations they have made and the ways they have attempted to intervene. Make sure you know what is working and what is not working, what alternatives have been tried or implemented and why. This is the part where you listen, not criticize or offer your ideas of solutions. Be humble enough to sit and learn without putting up your defenses.
  6. Be willing to give it a try. Most likely after you follow through on number 5, you are going to have some ideas and opinions shared with you that don’t quite match your own expectations or observations. Unless you absolutely know an idea is not going to work and have proof of that, be willing to give things a fair shot. It’s just as important to allow the system to attempt interventions as it is to find that long term plan. Each intervention is building the case for your child’s unique needs, strengths and weaknesses. They will be documented, observed and tweaked in accordance with the level of success they bring. This means finding help for your child involves a lot of patience, trial and error and frustration for both you, your child and their educators.
  7. Honesty. Be willing to be transparent about your concerns and goals. The more honest you are, the more likely it will be that teachers will find you approachable and caring. Admit when you don’t know what to do or where to find answers. Let them know when something just doesn’t feel right. Most of your child’s teachers are parents themselves, and you may be surprised at the journeys they themselves have walked with their own children or past students.
  8. Take ownership and be the advocate. I’d like to be able to tell you that you will find that one person who will do all this for you, or that you can do these things once and then it will be smooth sailing from there on out but that’s just not true. Ultimately, you are your child’s sole advocate and you need to own that and be ready to settle in for the long haul. There will be seasons where the intensity will lessen and you may be able to sit back and relax a bit, having found your child that sweet spot in their education journey where they are thriving or being carefully monitored by a gifted educator. But most of the time, you are the one who will need to monitor the interventions, strategies and progress of your child. Accepting that this is your position will give you confidence and courage to stay involved and positive on your child’s educational journey. It will help you to make the best decisions possible for your child, even if that means going against the advice of the professionals around you. They will come and go over the years, but you are the constant in your child’s life. Take that position with authority and think in perspective of that.
  9. Grieve. If all this just looks overwhelming and completely unattainable, maybe you need to take the time to just grieve. Grieve the loss of your expectations, hopes, dreams and misconceptions. Grieve the loss of innocence your child may have encountered as they struggled to fit in, be heard and seen. Grieve that life may not look the way you had planned. This does not make you a bad mom. In fact, this may be the key to really unlocking success for your child. No matter how hard you work to ensure your child is seen, heard, understood and thriving…children who do not fall into the category of “average” will at some point find themselves in a situation where their differences set them apart and make things more challenging. This can be painful and isolating, and if your child thinks you don’t understand their challenges or differences, they will not see you as their support when those difficulties arise. Your child wants to know that you are equipped both mentally and emotionally to understand their unique hard-wiring. So be real with them. Don’t sugarcoat the truth about their differences and don’t make all your decisions without their input. Let them know you understand that they are different and that you recognize how hard that is at times.
  10. Celebrate your child’s unique abilities and characteristics. Once you have grieved what might have been and acknowledged the ways that your child struggles, intentionally move on and start looking for the gifts, talents and characteristics they possess. Ironically, our strengths are usually merely the flip side of our weaknesses. For example, your child may struggle with impulsivity but it’s likely that same child is brave, curious and uninhibited by worry or fear. Perhaps your child struggles socially but is very accepting of those who cannot relate in typical ways. Take time to intentionally set aside the standard ways we evaluate success in children and look past those to the strengths your child possesses that may not show up on a report card or skills evaluation. Are they gentle, gifted with animals, intuitive to others’ needs, creative, athletic, resilient, dramatic? Your child may not end up at an Ivy League school but perhaps they will make an indelible impression on the lives around them through the unique gifts and talents they are equipped with. Let them know you see these abilities they possess and that they are just as important as literacy and numeracy skills. Create space for them to exercise their talents and encourage them to pursue their interests. Every child wants to be seen, delighted in and loved for who they are, aside from their abilities. This applies to your child, no matter what struggles they may face academically. So make this your number one priority. Before the daily reading, flashcards, fine motor exercises, speech therapy or phys-coeducational evaluations take the time to stop and just love the child in front of you. Their quirks, their flaws, their strengths, their beautiful individuality.

~AF

Pro Life Meets Grace

I wrote a post a few days ago entitled “Every Life Matters.”

In it I shared my passion for the pro life movement and my firm belief that life begins at conception.

I believe everything I said but it left me with an unsettled feeling that I couldn’t shake. Something just didn’t sit well in my heart.

Was it fear of how others would label me? Discomfort at placing myself so entirely in an unpopular camp? The Spirit’s promptings of the airs of self righteousness that trickled through my words?

Those things for sure, but there was more.

I finally realized, it felt unfinished and unsettling because it was.

This was only half of the story.

I firmly believe that life begins at conception and that from the very first second that life should be protected, advocated for and fought for.

But I also believe that being pro life means advocating for, protecting and fighting for the lives of women, not just babies.

It means not ignoring the stories of the women who feel abortion is their only option, and allowing those stories to drive us to hard questions.

It means advocating for real, viable solutions and accessible support for women struggling with mental health issues.

It means supporting local pregnancy centers in their goal to give women support emotionally, physically and spiritually whether or not they choose to carry out their pregnancy to term.

It means crossing social, economic and racial barriers to reach the hearts of women living out realities I don’t understand or cannot identify with personally.

It means fighting for laws that will offer protection and healing for vulnerable women.

It means grieving with them.

It means listening to their stories and not offering unsolicited advice or uneducated options.

It means offering truth, grace and support to women who have chosen abortion in the past or are choosing abortion now.

It means choosing words and actions that bestow dignity and value on women who are considering abortion.

It means raising young men of integrity who will treat the women in their lives with respect, dignity and honor.

It means surrounding our daughters with both men and women who will protect, empower and validate them to live out their fullest potential.

It means supporting struggling mothers, getting involved in foster care, providing permanency for children who need to leave their first families.

It means grace.

Grace that humbly admits I have few answers to the difficult situations women find themselves in leading up to this decision.

Grace that acknowledges we live in an imperfect, marred world where sin and darkness berate, abuse and destroy.

Grace that sees my own brokenness, fragility and sin.

Grace that covers, forgives and redeems.

Pro Life meets Grace when Jesus enters the scene.

Jesus offers us life abundant, regardless of the wreckage of our lives.

He infuses hope, courage, resiliency and beauty into our mess.

As a Jesus follower, and a pro life advocate, this is the message I want to carry.

~AF

Working With Educators to Support Your Child

School has just begun, and for many of you this means a return to familiar routines and schedules.

For some of you, this means overwhelmed, overstimulated kids who come home exhausted with piles of homework or daily notes scrawled by a frustrated teacher at the end of the day.

Educating our kids is both our responsibility and a gift we’ve been given.  Many children all over the world are unable to attend school due to extreme poverty.  If your children are able to attend school regularly or receive formal instruction, take a minute to contemplate that they are blessed!  While education may be a “right” in our Western culture, make no mistake.  Your children are privileged to have access to education and to learn important skills that will give them opportunities to sustain and provide for themselves as adults.

For a long time, parents were fed the lie that they were not equipped to be their children’s educators.  They were not expected to be the ones to know their child best, have the skills needed to guide their future and certainly not to teach them.

However, a movement of ordinary moms and dads are rising up to show themselves as not only worthy but exceptionally equipped to be the best teachers for their children.

Not only do you, as a parent, know your child better than any teacher…you have skills, intuition, knowledge and invaluable life experience to share with your child.

Many parents do not want to take on the demands and responsibility of providing their children’s education, and this I understand very well.  However, do not assume this means you have withdrawn the right to speak into your child’s educational experience.

While teachers have long been viewed as the experts and authority on children’s education, I believe many children suffer academically because parents have been detached from their children’s educational experience.

Parents and teachers both have expertise, knowledge and insight that are important to a child’s education.

The beauty of a school environment is that it gives opportunity for both the specialized training of a professional educator and the intuition and practical insight of parents to combine for the benefit of the child.

So how do you work alongside professional educators to combine their expertise with your intuition?

1. The first rule is to give respect and then expect it in return.

Your child’s teachers spends hours pouring over lesson plans, academic research, curriculum expectations and learning strategies.  By placing your child under their supervision you are giving them the responsibility to educate your child in the best way they know how.  They have specific training and knowledge that will be very valuable to both you and your child, but you need to take the time to listen respectfully to their professional opinions and follow the procedures put in place.  Nothing positive will be accomplished by bullying or criticizing.

However, I would also say that it’s important to require that respect in return.  If there is something you know about your child that is not being taken into consideration, you need to make that clear.  Don’t ever underestimate your insight as a parent.  You know your child best and what may sound great in theory may not work practically for your child.  Don’t allow a professional educator to intimidate you.  A good educator will know this and ask for your input.  Every relationship needs boundary lines, and this one is no exception.

2. Never undermine your child’s teacher in front of them.

Every parent knows the feeling of their child coming home with a story about their teacher that makes you wonder what they were thinking…but I cannot stress enough…be the adult and don’t say it out loud!  There is a very high chance your child’s version of the story is not accurate or is missing some pertinent information.  If you have concerns, by all means contact the teacher, but don’t allow your child to hear you speaking disrespectfully about the adult they are supposed to respect.  They will carry that comment to school with them in their mind every day and it will lead to them finding it very difficult to respect that teacher.  Always try to help your child see what the teacher’s perspective might be and remind them that their job is to be respectful and polite, even when differences arise.  Teaching our kids the skill of disagreeing respectfully with someone is a valuable life skill, so if there is an issue that needs addressing, walk through the steps of resolving that issue with both dignity and respect.

3. Communicate.

If you begin to see problems arising with your child academically, socially or behaviourally or you are concerned about some aspect of the curriculum or classroom procedures…speak up.

Contact your child’s teacher and request a meeting where you can express your concerns and ask questions.

Use the teacher, not your child, as your first source of information.

Listen respectfully and make sure you’ve taken the time to get accurate information and can express your concerns clearly.

Make sure you know how your child’s teacher prefers to communicate, whether it be through text, email, a daily agenda or in person.

Most problems at school between parents and teachers arise from miscommunication or lack of communication.

Let your child’s teacher know that you want to be involved and ask questions regularly, as they will likely forget at the end of their busy days to fill you in on things you might want to know.

4. Give grace.

Your child’s teachers are not perfect.  They are flawed humans, similar to your child’s parents 😉

They will make mistakes.

Give them some grace and remind yourself, and your kids, that you will probably need it in return at some point!

You will never regret establishing healthy, respectful relationships with your child’s educators.

5. Do not assume your child’s teacher knows your child as well as you do.

I am speaking particularly to parents of children with learning disabilities, behavioural challenges and social struggles on this one.

While your child’s exceptionalities may seem obvious to you, don’t expect your child’s teacher to understand why your child may behave or react the way they do.  You have a context for this child’s experiences that is helpful in decoding their struggles or successes.  Don’t be afraid to share this information with your child’s teacher as needed.  If your child has a formal diagnoses of some kind, make sure your child’s teacher knows this and is given a brief but clear summary of the best ways to navigate those extra layers successfully.

I have found it helpful to create a personal learning profile for one of my children in particular outlining her ideal learning environment and style, what her needs are and what aspects are challenging for her.  I give this to my child’s teacher as early in the year as possible and let them know to contact me if they have any questions or concerns.

Don’t forget to include any information that may seem “obvious” or has been discussed multiple times with other teachers or professionals within the school.  It is very easy for information to get misplaced or lost in the transition from year to year.  Assume your child’s teacher knows nothing about your child and go from there.

6. Lastly but most importantly pray for your child’s teacher.

Teachers are important and play a large role in our children’s lives.  Their jobs are not easy and the system they are working within places high demands on their time and energy.  Many teachers feel overwhelmed and unappreciated by their students, fellow staff and parents.  Make sure your child’s teacher this year knows that you see what they are doing and that you are grateful for the time they spend helping your child learn and grow!  Pray for wisdom, patience, energy and creativity.  Pray for their hearts to be drawn toward Christ.  Pray for opportunities to serve them and let them know you are grateful for them.

It is beautiful to be able to partner with others to educate your children.  You will be amazed watching your child learn and grow, and having others to celebrate those milestones with makes it even sweeter.

I hope this school year is the best yet for you and your children!

~AF