Martha Sibley, M.Ed., Dyslexia Coordinator
Luke Waites Child Development Center
Texas Scottish Rite Hospital For Children
Dallas, Texas

Parents can be their child’s best advocates in overcoming a learning or language disability.

A child whose learning problems are misunderstood may suffer needlessly during the school years. This often can be prevented, if someone acts as an advocate for the child.

Sarah Hafer, age 10, and her mother, Sue, visit with Martha Sibley, Dyslexia Coordinator, at the Texas Scottish Rite Hospital for Children in Dallas, Texas.

An advocate becomes necessary when an individual is vulnerable and must have assistance interpreting a need. When problems occur because the requirements of school become overwhelming to a child, adults are presented with the obligation of providing advocacy.

All the adults who touch the life of a child with a learning disability have a responsibility to be well-informed and to include in their decision-making the child whose fate is being discussed. The latter expresses respect and acceptance of the child as a capable person rather than simply the embodiment of a disability. A bonus result may be that the child will be a more willing participant in a plan which he or she has helped to design.

It is important that adults approach the learning problem with a realistic, accepting, and positive attitude. Acknowledging a problem is usually the first step toward finding a solution. Their demeanor should be open, honest, and sensitive without overtones of pity or futility. Also spending time talking about the child’s strengths and achievements will help put any difficulties into perspective without denying them.

It is essential that family members and professionals obtain basic information about learning problems. Many terms for learning disabilities are used interchangeably by schools and other agencies. Properly applied terminology helps us understand and describe a child’s specific learning problem. Discrepancies in terms, however, should not be major factors in determining appropriate educational services. It is more important to reach an understanding of the child’s unique blend of strengths and weaknesses, and the resulting educational needs, than to focus on the various diagnostic terms involved.

Parents can play a vital role in helping to understand their child’s learning problem. The knowledge that parents have gained by experience raising their child is valuable information, and it should be shared with educators for everyone’s benefit. Unless parents communicate on a consistent basis with the schools, teachers may not know the child needs a different learning approach.

When the involved parties share information, express ideas, discuss different viewpoints, and seek to agree on solutions to problems, they are participating in collaborative communication. This type of team approach is a process rather than a single event. It requires time, patience, planning, flexibility, and emphasizes several distinctive qualities.

Collaborative Attitude And Atmosphere
Parents and educators who interact with an assertive, positive attitude encourage teamwork. Setting realistic education goals for the child, building a knowledge base, learning communication skills, and maintaining frequent contact are some ways to estab- lish an atmosphere of collaboration.

Comprehensive Perspective
Develop a broad perspective of all concerns, decide upon the major purpose for the meeting, state a goal to be accomplished, and maintain focus on the “big picture.” After specific behaviors, performances and events have been considered, the problem may be redefined, or the main purpose for communication may be adjusted.

Consideration Of The Future
Before deciding upon any action, advocates will want to consider all possible outcomes, the effect on other adults involved, and whether the process will take too long to help the child. If the goal cannot realistically be reached, or if there are possible results that are unacceptable, alternatives may need to be considered before launching into a major process.

Carefully Planned Statements And Actions
There is no substitute for deliberate choices of words and careful planning of actions. Keep the discussion based upon facts without exaggeration or judgmental opinions. Describing the problem, stating facts, avoiding repetition, and listening are some of the ways to prevent the discussion from escalating into an argument.

Conversation With Reciprocal Participation
Collaborative communication needs two types of participants: advocates who are factual and teachers who are sensitive. Open, honest, straight-forward remarks are refreshing and productive. When a parent or teacher says, “I need your help!” and then is objective in the comments that follow, the stage has been set for reciprocal conversation and positive response.

It is reasonable for each person to expect respect, courtesy, and a professional demeanor. In addition, everyone should come to the team with enough knowledge to be part of a productive discussion. This may require research, consulting with experts, and documentation of behaviors, performances, and areas of concern to be discussed.

Although parents must often assume this vital advocacy role, the very best thing parents can do for learning disabled children is to be good parents! The support and nurturing that only parents can provide are essential for protecting the self-esteem and assisting the child’s development in areas of interest and strength.

Home can be an oasis in a lonely desert for a child who is constantly under pressure during the school day. This does not mean that home should be a place of complete freedom. Quite the contrary. Organization and structure at home lend security when in an atmosphere free of tension.

Parents can be their child’s best advocates if they heed the warning signs, learn about the appropriate teaching methods, interact positively with educators, make requests in an assertive but collaborative manner, and create the best home environment possible.

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