Virtually every day, children struggling is what keeps me awake late at night. I wish all kids were succeeding in school and no parents faced the angst that comes with knowing that their child is not doing well. But enough for my holiday wishes... Not enough, however, for the rallying cry that I make when kids are "hitting the wall" in school. What's disturbing is that each academic year, I'm making the cry earlier and more frequently. Yes, it's true that while not every child does well in every class, every grade, and every year, many children are indeed struggling in every class, every grade, and every year. It's not the occasional struggle that's the problem, but rather, it's a pattern of struggling -- whether with academics, socially, or behaviorally -- that is the "call to arms" for parents to act.
For some kids, they hit the wall shortly after the school year begins. For others, it's after the novelty of a new school year has faded and the expectations for performance become the norm. And still for others, it's late winter/early spring when they can no longer compensate for the gaps that exist. But no matter when it happens, a child hitting the wall is tantamount to the worst scene in a movie any parent could imagine seeing.
At this time of year, after school has been underway for several months, many children and teens are indeed "hitting the wall"... and hard. Whether diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder, ADD/ADHD, or not diagnosed yet at all, grades are plummeting if they were decent to begin with, homework is not being completed, teachers are expressing concerns, and the child is suffering. So are the parents.
Trying to figure out what's happening and then what to do about it is truly overwhelming for most parents. And once some of these initial questions are answered, the tough part begins -- working to figure out how to secure whatever services and supports the child needs and then monitoring whether improvements are occurring once services and supports are in place. This is particularly hard for working parents when ongoing therapies, school meetings, and crisis calls fracture their work day.
So what should parents do when their child is either hitting the wall or has already hit it full force? First (and I know this does not relate to all parents), step out of denial mode and into mobilize mode. The longer you wait to figure out what's happening, the greater the likelihood that the interventions will be more extensive and longer in duration. There is a reason advocates push for early intervention services -- the sooner the supports are implemented, the greater the possibility for progress.
Next, secure evaluations. Whether through your school district or, ideally, privately, you must determine what is happening before any interventions can be put into place. A comprehensive psychoeducational or neuropsychological evaluation would give you data and information targeting your child's educational programming and would indicate whether further specialized testing (e.g. speech or occupational therapy) is warranted. The goal is to gather as much information as possible so you need to ignore the "I don't want my child labeled" trap and be ready and willing to take on whatever it is that the evaluation results show.
And a word about evaluations. If the numbers read like football scores or a foreign language, the clinician who conducted the evaluation must explain them to you so ask. Prepare yourself with questions; e.g. "What do the standard scores mean" or "Why is there a discrepancy between reading comprehension and word attack scores." Before you discuss the evaluation report either with the school psychologist or your independent clinician, a copy of that report should look like a Christmas tree -- plenty of red and green markings that indicate everything that is confusing or unclear to you.
Then, if your child does not already have an IEP or 504, you need to convene your school team to discuss eligibility (another topic to be discussed later). The key is after eligibility is confirmed, you want to develop an IEP that has measurable goals or a 504 that has accommodations that meet your child's specific needs. And after these documents are created, the work of ensuring that implementation occurs begins so you must ensure that you receive ongoing communication to gauge progress. None of this is easy but neither is watching your child in crisis.
No parent wants to know that their child is reading at a 4th Grade level when he/she is in 8th Grade. No parent wants to know that their child is unable to have a reciprocal conversation with a peer. No parent wants to know that their child spends more time in the nurse's office than in the classroom because he/she cannot sit still in class. Yet all parents want their children to be successful in school.
I know all too well what it feels like when your child hits the wall. It feels like a roller coaster ride that someone tossed you on when you weren't ready. But as parents, we have the ability to pull it together, mobilize, and get things done. When you were younger, didn't you think your parents could make anything happen? Well now it's your turn to whip out the wand and start making magic happen. It may not be a straight or simple path, but at least the twists and turns of that amusement ride will become a bit more familiar.