Spina Bifida Family Support
"Families Helping Families"
Cheryl G. Tuttle and Penny Paquette
NATIONAL CENTER FOR LEARNING DISABILITIES
Their World Magazine
Parents of children with learning disabilities are tired. In addition to the normal stresses of family life, they are continually working on their child's behalf. They mediate, advocate, intervene, referee, preplan, negotiate, and adapt until they are exhausted. In the meantime, they provide emotional support for their learning disabled child, while trying to balance the attention given him with the attention given the other members of the family. No wonder they are worn out.
Activities that cause normal stress in most homes cause an extraordinary level of stress in homes of children with learning disabilities. Homework is a stressful issue in most families, but when your child is learning disabled, the simplest assignment can become a nightmare. Most children with learning disabilities work extra hard in school just to keep up with their classmates. Then, when they get home, teachers expect them to sit down with their parents to work some more. They are already tired, and their parents are tired, too.
Organization and structure can help. A specific time and place should be set aside for homework assignments, and let your child know you are going to stick to the plan. Sometimes your child's best time for doing assignments is not your best time to work with him. Whenever possible, work during your child's best time. If he is less frustrated, it is likely you will be less frustrated as well.
Tools can be especially helpful for children with a learning disability. A typewriter or word processor can end the constant frustration of a child who has trouble with his penmanship. A word processor with a spell checker can make life a lot more pleasant for a child with spelling disabilities. A calculator can be a source of joy to a child with math problems.
Assign your child a place to keep his schoolrelated materials-his books, his homework, school notices, lunch money, supplies, etc. Mornings will run more smoothly if all his things are kept in one place.
FATHERS MUST BE RESPONSIBLE TOO
When a child has a learning disability, the entire family is affected. Mothers are often the most involved in the daytoday issues. They are usually the ones who meet with the teachers, drive to the doctors, and consult with the specialists. Most often it is mothers who listen when the child is hurt, who intervene when there are social problems, and who act as referees among the other family members.
It might be difficult for fathers to acknowledge their child has a problem because many children have two behavior patterns-one for when his mother is around, and another for when his father is there. Lots of times children are really horrendous to the parent who is with them all day. Dads tend to see them for much shorter periods of time.
When fathers become directly involved in the process, they get a better understanding of the issues involved in educating a child with special needs.
Try to schedule team meetings at times when both parents can attend. When both parents attend meetings, there are four ears instead of two absorbing all the information the team has to offer. Make sure fathers are involved whenever the child sees a specialist. When he can't be there, be sure he has a chance to see copies of all reports. When families face these issues together, parents can offer each other comfort and support. Everyone ends up feeling better about the possibilities for success.
Fathers should be encouraged to attend parent support group meetings. Support group organizers would do well to address the needs of the fathers by holding special fathers' evenings or inviting speakers to address issues of particular interest to dads.
THE NEEDS OF THE SIBLINGS MUST BE CONSIDERED
It is also difficult for the it brother or sister of the child with the learning disability. They just don't understand why parents have to spend so much time with one child. Often they are jealous.
Occasionally they are embarrassed. Sometimes they must explain to friends why their brother or sister has such a hard time learning. Sometimes they are frightened it could happen to them.
Most of these emotions find their way out- usually in negative ways. The name calling, fighting, and tattling, common in most homes, gets magnified in the homes of learning disabled children. There are only 24 hours in a day, and many times the learning disabled child consumes most of them.
Sometimes brothers and sisters who do not have learning disabilities find they have to spend much of their time helping a sibling with a learning disability. Occasionally a child can lose his own childhood caring for another.
Parents can help alleviate some of these difficulties by carefully explaining the difficulties to all the children. You are not being disloyal by telling the children their brother or sister has learning problems. It helps them understand what is happening in your home.
It's hard for siblings of a learning disabled child, but it is even harder for the child with the learning disability. Imagine struggling all day to write a report. Then, a younger brother or sister comes home and whips off an essay on Christopher Columbus without even opening the dictionary. It can be very frustrating.
Report card days are especially unpleasant for learning disabled children. Comparisons are not unusual, and the child with a learning disability does not usually come out on top. It's easy to understand the resentment many of these children feel toward their brothers and sisters.
Don't drive yourself crazy trying to do everything for everyone. It's just not possible. When children complain you are not being fair, try to remember the true meaning of the word. Fair is when everyone gets what he or she needs, not necessarily what he or she wants. Learning disabled children have greater needs. It's really that simple.
The best you can do is to encourage your children to be open and honest about how they feel. When those feelings are suppressed, they often escape in anger. If your learning disabled child sees a counselor or therapist, be sure to include your other children in some of those meetings.
Brothers and sisters aren't the only ones to react in a family with a learning disabled child. Though grandparents can be most supportive of young children, when learning disabilities are involved they frequently do not understand the problems enough to be of help. They do not always have enough information and do not understand. Sometimes, they actually make matters worse.
Grandparents often believe grandchildren should be raised the way their children were raised. They don't understand learning disabilities, especially the behavior problems often associated with ADD, and they can be very critical.
It might be helpful to include a grandparent in team meetings. This is especially helpful if grandparents are frequently caregivers or babysitters. Team meetings will help them understand the complexity of a learning disability and help them understand some of the issues you face each day.
Just as your child has exceptional learning needs, you will find you have exceptional obligations when it comes to disciplining.
Whatever problems you have with regular kids, they are compounded with learning disabled children. Learning disabled children need structure, structure, structure. They need to know not just what the rules are, but how to follow them as well. Don't just tell them what not to do. Tell them and show them how you want them to behave.
HOLD YOUR GROUND
Once you have established your expectations, discipline must be highly organized. You have to hold your ground. Flexibility and compromise are not sensible approaches when dealing with learning disabled children.
Spend some time focusing on what goes well. So often we get consumed by all the things that need to be corrected and forget to stop and congratulate ourselves or our children when we do something especially well. If you make an effort to catch your child doing something well, you may not need to do so much disciplining.
Many children with learning disabilities need extra time to follow directions. They sometimes get angry when they are expected to respond immediately. Don't expect them to jump the moment you ask them to clean up or get ready.
Children with learning disabilities are usually not very good at planning ahead. You can help them by giving them ample warning when you want them to do something.
Organization helps everyone involved with the special education process. Children with learning disabilities function best when their lives are structured and their parents' responses are predictable. Family members respond most positively when they understand the effects of learning disabilities and can anticipate the learning disabled child's reactions and behaviors. A structured, cooperative environment can make home a safe, nurturing, and noncompetitive place for a learning disabled child and that environment can have a positive effect on the entire family.
Cheryl Tuttle is a special education coordinator for the Winthrop, MA, Public Schools, and Penny Parquette is the librarian for the Marblehead, MA, Middle School.
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