Your Kid Needs Help, But Who You Gonna Call?

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Young father and mother helping sons study at living room.

There is a lot of help available for kids today who are facing social or academic issues. Some of it is good, even life-changing; but some of it is ineffective, or worse.

Parents want the best for their children, but don’t want to overreact. When should a parent seek help for their child, where can they get it, and how should they choose?

Capitol Hill learning specialist Colleen Buchanan, who has helped hundreds of children overcome academic obstacles, urges parents to not be afraid to take action.

“If the child’s level of confidence in her capacity to meet her learning challenges wavers, that’s a red flag,” warns Buchanan. “I often find that one parent has had a nagging suspicion [there was a problem] from early on and was shot down and minimized, with the outcome being the loss of critical time to build foundational skills.”

“Any time a teacher, another parent or even your spouse says, ‘Oh, it’s just…’, remind yourself that whatever follows the word “just” is a wholly unsubstantiated diagnosis by an unqualified practitioner. It’s better to know for sure by getting a thorough assessment by an experienced, impartial professional, so that you can chart a timely – and thus maximally effective – course of action.”

Consider the case of Eric (not his real name), a Stuart-Hobson middle school graduate, as shared anonymously by his parents:

“When our son was in first grade, he’d gotten into about his 12th or 15th disciplinary situation. Almost all of these situations centered on impulse control. We were walking out of the school, and I was deliberately trying not to pile on, trying to keep things calm, and he turned to me out of the blue and said: ‘Why can’t I be like other kids?’

Now you could read that as absorbing the judgment of the outside world. I felt like I was hearing his own unvarnished self, and I felt like he was asking for help. And I thought: Okay. Let’s find this kid some help. And we did. And seven years later, we’re still finding help because he needs it.”

Financial Cost of Help
Local educational consultant EV Downey, who is also a mom of a child with special needs, notes that testing doesn’t have to be expensive.

“You can call Child Find, you can talk to your school, you can request evaluations and testing, insurance covers a lot of that. There’s a lot of resources for families; there doesn’t necessarily have to be money involved,” Downey says. The DC Early Intervention Program (DC EIP) – Strong Start Child Find Program is a system to locate, identify and refer children birth through two years of age, who may have a disability or developmental delay in one or more of the following areas: speech, language, fine and/or gross motor skills, social/emotional skills, vision and hearing.

“Good testing will always give you recommendations for things you can think about or do, and that doesn’t necessarily mean therapy or interventions,” explained Downey. “It could be that you up the protein because your child is falling apart at 3 p.m. It could just be very simple things that you just might not think of.”

Quoting advice that she once received and now frequently passes on to her clients, Downey added, “You will never regret finding out that nothing’s wrong.”

Here’s Downey’s personal account of how parents can know when to seek help for their children, based on her experience raising her son, Charlie, 15, who now attends Kennedy Krieger School in Baltimore, paid for by DCPS:

“If parents feel like there’s something going on that’s more than what they’re seeing their peers go through, they’re usually right, especially if the problem is keeping your child and your family from being able to be happy and conduct your daily life.

If a 3-year-old throws himself at the ground at the playground and screams and cries, it’s disruptive, but you put them in the stroller and walk them home, and everybody gives you a sympathetic look.

 When your autistic 12-year-old throws himself on the ground, and you’re lying next him, giving him deep pressure, talking him down, telling him it’s OK, and gradually helping him to get out of the situation, no one looks at you sympathetically.

A friend of mine called him a “more” child. He’s more intelligent, more intense, more good-looking. Everything is more. He’s just a holy handful, God bless him.”

Capitol Hill psychologist Samantha Sweeney encourages parents to seek peace of mind when their students are struggling with emotional issues.

“If your gut is telling you that something is wrong, you need to consult with somebody. If your fears are confirmed, you’re being proactive and getting your child some help before they’re drowning halfway through the school year.”

Is Your Child Ready For Help
The struggles that Angie (not her real name), an 8th grader at a private school in Virginia, was having in school were ruining her life and that of her parents. She had ADHD and mild dyslexia, and was morbidly depressed. She was in therapy and on medication, but none of the school’s many academic interventions had worked. In March, the family’s school placement consultant recommended a local academic coach. By the end of the school year, this is what Angie’s mother had to say:

“The academic coach was a tremendous influence in our daughter’s academic and emotional world during the last 11 weeks of her 8th grade year. Our only wish is that he had been a part of our team earlier in the year.

He has the gift of getting a student motivated with his ability to connect with them, to gently guide them into realizing that they can and will succeed in their own unique way. We are grateful that our paths crossed and that he had such a strong impact!”

My guess is that Angie probably wasn’t ready to hear it until March. Everybody I know who’s in the helping business agrees: you can only help people who want to be helped.

Not everyone needs help, either, but that’s no reason to not seek an expert opinion.

“Even if a professional tells you that you don’t need to worry right now, then at least you’ve started a relationship with somebody that you feel comfortable talking to, who will give you good information going forward,” says Sweeney.

Capitol Hill therapist Laelia Gilborn summarized what’s most important when choosing a specific practitioner to help your child, be it a psychologist, therapist, learning skills counselor, or academic coach: “Whether it’s for an academic or emotional challenge, you really just want a good rapport between the kid and the person.”

Where To Find Help
Word of mouth and the MOTH listserv for Capitol Hill parents can be a great source for local recommendations. To marvel at the range of services offered in the DC area, start with WISER (wiserdc.org), the local organization for independent educational professionals serving students with learning differences.

You can find licensed psychologists, including ones who do comprehensive psychoeducational testing, and therapists, by searching the Psychology Today website (psychologytoday.com). Some of these folks are also in WISER.

When it comes to testing, the range of tests and quality of the final report are crucial. Reports should be comprehensive, but also give the school the information it needs in an easy-to-follow format. Ask people you trust which psychologists’ work they have evaluated and can recommend. The best reports I have seen have 20 honest hours of high-brainpower work behind them, not including testing time for a dozen or so tests.

For heavy-duty help with school placement or college planning, including for students with learning differences and emotional disorders, search the membership database of the Independent Education Consultants Association (iecaonline.com).

Finally, remember that the goal of most of this type of work is that it should end, whether due to the child learning new skills that will help her manage her situation, or simply outgrowing the challenging circumstances.

Paul Rivas is the director of Smith Rivas Study Skills & Academic Coaching (smithrivas.com) and can be reached at 202-615-7791 or paul@smithrivas.com. His new monthly study skills enrichment group at Hill Center for 9th-11th graders, Capitol Hill ACES (Academic Coaching for Empowered Students), is almost full for 2017-18.