Thought for the Month:

"What you believe in has to be bigger than what you are afraid of!"

(Thanks to Arlene Stewart
of North Carolina LDA)

Dear Rick,

I attended your recent session in New Mexico and really enjoyed it! As a Regular Education teacher, I truly try to stay abreast of the latest developments in Special Education. What a fast-moving field!

I am diligent about reviewing the assessment files of the mainstreamed students in my classes. At times, I find that reading these reports is akin to swimming in mud! Very confusing! One problem is the number of initials or acronyms that are used! IEP! OT! PT! LEA! LRE! Are all of these terms necessary?

I know that you are an important person in the field. Can't you convince your Special Education colleagues to eliminate this Alphabet Soup from their reports?

Santa Fe

Dear Annie,

Sorry. Not a chance! Special Ed-ers will never surrender their acronyms . . . you will have to "pry their cold, dead hands" from their beloved alphabet!

But . . . maybe I could help by providing a list of the most commonly-used acronyms that you may find in assessment reports. I have also provided definitions for the terms that are not self-explanatory -

ADA Americans with Disabilities Act
ADD Attention Deficit Disorder
AD/HD Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder
ADL Activities of Daily Living (daily tasks required for self-care; eating, dressing)
APE Adapted Physical Education
ARD Admission, Review and Dismissal Meeting (in some states)
AT Assistive Technology (any device or product that improves the functioning ability of a child)
CA Chronological Age
CF Cystic Fibrosis
CHI Closed Head Injury
CP Cerebral Palsy
DD Developmental Delay
ED Emotional Disorder
EI Early Intervention
ESY Extended School Year (extension of special services beyond the 180 day school year)
FAPE Free, appropriate public education (guaranteed by IDEA)
HI Hearing Impaired
HH Hard-of-Hearing
IDEA Individuals with Disabilities Education Act
IEP Individualized Educational Plan
IFSP Individual Family Service Plan (for children 0 - 3 years)
ISP Individual Service Plan
IPE Individual Plan for Employment
IL Intellectual Limitation
IQ Intelligence Quotient
LD Learning Disabled
LSS Local School System (formerly called LEA, Local Educational Agency)
MA Mental Age
MD Muscular Dystrophy
MR Mental Retardation
OCD Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
OH Orthopedic Handicap
OHI Other Health Impaired
OT Occupational Therapy
PDD Pervasive Developmental Disorder
PS Partially Sighted
PT Physical Therapy
SEA State Educational Agency
SED Serious Emotional Disorder
SLD Specific Learning Disability
SSI Supplemental Security Income
TBI Traumatic Brain Injury
TDD Telecommunication for the Deaf
TS Tourettes Syndrome
VI Visual Impairment

Hope this helps.


Dear Rick,

My son, Zack, is in the third grade and his teacher has suggested that he might have an Attention Deficit Disorder because he has trouble paying attention and is very distractible. It is hard for me to believe this because none of his brothers have ADD and Zack has never had trouble in school before.

My sister-in-law is a nurse and she told me that there are several medical conditions that have ADD-like symptoms and these are often misdiagnosed as ADD. Can you help?

Vancouver, BC

Dear Anna,

Your sister-in-law is right! There are several medical conditions that "mask" themselves as ADD. It is always a good idea to have your pediatrician examine your son to be sure that none of these conditions exist. Most experts in the field of Special Education concur that ADD is currently being over-diagnosed in many quarters. This is particularly troubling in situations wherein the child's behavior is misdiagnosed as ADD and he received treatment for this condition . . . when, in reality, the child has a significant medical condition that goes untreated.

Among most common "ADD masks" are:

ALLERGIES, ASTHMA - Breathing difficulties can interfere with the child's ability to concentrate and pay attention.

DIABETES/HYPOGLYCEMIA - Inconsistencies or sudden changes in blood sugar levels can cause difficulty with concentration and a sudden increase in activity levels.

HEARING or VISUAL PROBLEMS - A child who is unable to clearly see or hear what is going on in the classroom will often misbehave or become disruptive.

IRON DEFICIENCY ANEMIA - A lack of sufficient amounts of iron in a child's blood can cause attention and impulsivity problems.

MEDICATIONS - The side effects of certain medications can cause ADD-like symptoms.

NEUROLOGICAL CONDITIONS - Children who have repeated small seizures will often stare into space and will be unable to recall events.

PSYCHIATRIC PROBLEMS - The symptoms of stress, anxiety or depression are quite similar to ADD symptoms.

LEARNING PROBLEMS - Children with Learning Disabilities experience a daily cycle of frustration and failure that can cause disruptive behavior.

THYROID PROBLEMS - A misfunctioning thyroid gland can affect sleep, emotions and activity levels.


Dear Rick,

I hope that you can help me. I am furious at my school system. My second grade child, Bonnie, is having trouble in her reading class. She was one of the best readers in her first grade and her teacher told me that she was able to read some third grade words.

This year, she doesn't like her reading class and never reads her books at home anymore. I think that she has a Learning Disability and I want to call a lawyer to be sure that Bonnie's rights are protected. What do you suggest?

Portland, OR

Dear Linda,

I suggest that you switch to decaf!!

Seriously, Linda, it is much too early to secure the services of an attorney. You should try to work closely and cooperatively with your school system before you consider "taking the gloves off". Bonnie is protected by the law and the regulations are very specific. You should first speak to her teacher and possibly arrange for Bonnie to be assessed . . . but I see no reason to seek legal counsel at this stage.

Nancy Knisley, a Maryland educational consultant, suggests guidelines for parents who are considering hiring an attorney for a special education issue:


. . . this is your initial contact or meeting with school personnel regarding your child's academic problems. If your first action is to hire an attorney, you have created an adversarial relationship. Invest your initial energies in trying to create a cooperative partnership with your child's teachers.

. . . the school has not refused to do something that you intend to request. Don't ASSUME that they will refuse . . . give them a chance to say "yes". Try to work it out.

. . . you feel comfortable handling the process yourself. Most parents are able to negotiate the "special education maze WITHOUT the assistance of an attorney. But make sure that you understand your child's needs . . . and that you know your legal rights.

. . . you can secure the services of a mediator to assist with the dispute.


. . . the school refuses to evaluate your child or ignores your requests for assistance.

. . . the school refuses to convene an IEP meeting that you have requested.

. . . the school refuses to provide appropriate testings or recommends tests that you feel are inappropriate.

. . . the school refuses to consider or accept an independent evaluation that you have presented to them.

. . . the school determines that your child is not in need of special services and you disagree.

. . . the school takes action related to your child's disability without your knowledge or consent.

. . . you disagree significantly about the educational programs and related services that the school has offered.

. . . the school refuses to make a modification in the child's program or they insist on making adjustments with which you disagree.

. . . the school fails to provide the services outlined in the IEP.

. . . the school often sends your child home because of disability-related behaviors instead of appropriately addressing those behaviors by providing positive behavioral supports or interventions.

. . . your child is expelled or suspended for more than ten days for disability-related behaviors.

. . . the school has decided to discontinue special education services, and you disagree.

. . . you are not allowed to review your child's records.

. . . you believe that information in your child's school records is inaccurate and the school refuses to correct the information.


. . . you feel that the school is acting in a way that you believe is immediately dangerous to your child's physical, mental or emotional well-being.

. . . the school is discriminating against your child because of his disabilities and they refuse to take action to end this discrimination.

. . . you or the school have requested a due process hearing.

If you do decide to seek counsel, I advise that you contact an attorney who has background and experience in Education Law. This is a complex and specialized area of the profession.

Unfortunately, parents and school systems often invest significant monies in litigation and legal skirmishes. It is always in the CHILD'S best interest that the parents and schools work cooperatively with one another in the design and implementation of a student's program. It is so important that we all "try to get along".

In the Conference Room at Riverview, we hung a sign that states an ancient African Proverb.

"When elephants fight, it's the grass that gets trampled."

In other words, when the adults in a child's life are in conflict . . . it is the CHILD who is ultimately hurt.

Due Process is a legal procedure and you may need professional counsel to traverse this road. But - first - try to settle matters with cooperation and collaboration.

Good luck to you . . . and Bonnie.



Thought for the Month:

I once knew a family from Long Island. This particularly close-knit group consisted of Mom, Dad and three boys. Tim and Terry were twins and their brother Stephen was five years their junior.

The year 1973 found this family happy and prosperous. Dad's business was doing well and the family enjoyed plentiful resources. Mom found the house to be quite lonely as the twins were sophomores at Holy Cross and Northwestern and Steve was attending a "special education" school in Massachusetts. Steve had a severe learning disability and his neighborhood school wasn't able to provide an adequate program. Although he missed his family, he was delighted to leave behind the frustration and anxiety that he experienced daily in his local school. The specialized boarding school was able to meet his unique needs.

Unfortunately, the year 1974 was not kind to the family. Dad's business experienced major unforeseen difficulties and he was forced to sell the company at a great financial loss. The family had to give up many of the comforts and luxuries that they had enjoyed. The parents knew that they would be unable to afford the tuition bills that were looming in the fall. After much discussion between themselves, Mom and Dad agreed not to interrupt the twins' college education. Rather they would withdraw Steve from the Massachusetts program and return him to the local school.

They elected not to discuss this with their sons and made the announcement in August, a few weeks before the beginning of school. The twins were confused by the decision, but left on Labor Day for their respective colleges. Meanwhile, the parents tried to assist a disappointed Steve as he made a difficult transition to his old school.

On a mid-September Saturday morning, Dad answered an unexpected knock at the front door. There on the porch stood Tim and Terry, suitcases in hand. They had been conducting lengthy, long-distance conversations together and they had figured out the scenario. Each of the boys went to his college advisor and applied for a one-year leave of absence. They returned home with plans to work for a year and apply their salaries to Steve's tuition at the Massachusetts program. Through years of exposure to the true definition and implementation of "fairness," they were able to apply it in a most meaningful way.


Dear Rick,

My eight year old, Trevor, was recently diagnosed with a Learning Disability. Although we were upset by the diagnosis, we finally understand the reasons for his failure in school and his anxiety. We are now working to get him the academic help he needs.

Interestingly, my question for you does not pertain to our son but to our 13 year old daughter, Brooke. She is very successful in school and has never had a particularly good relationship with her younger brother. However, his diagnosis seems to be very upsetting for her and she continually talks about it and asks questions. In order to protect her brother's privacy, we have told her that it is "none of her business". Were we right?

Venice, CA

Dear Brenda,

NOPE! Brooke needs information about her brother's condition and you should provide it. One of my most popular seminars is entitled, "LIFE ON THE WATERBED: The Learning Disabled Child at Home and in the Family". I use the waterbed analogy thusly:

"A family of five is like five people lying side-by-side on a waterbed . . . when ONE person moves, EVERYONE feels the ripple."

If one member of the family is experiencing significant difficulty in his/her life, ALL family members are directly or indirectly effected. You don't just have a special needs child; you now have a special needs FAMILY.

As a Mom, you often become frustrated with the behavior or actions of your Learning Disabled child. This frustration and anger, unfortunately, occasionally manifests itself in yelling, pouting, crying or withdrawing. However, if Brooke reacts to Trevor this way, she may well be punished or scolded. This response is unfair and it only serves to rock that waterbed!

Larry Silver's classic work, THE MISUNDERSTOOD CHILD, outlines some of the reactions that parents might see from siblings of kids with special needs. Those reactions include:

ANXIETY: Children often become unnerved and anxious when the parents fail to share information about their sibling's condition. They know that Mom and Dad are worried about their brother and that they are visiting doctors for help. The sibling begins to imagine myriad diseases and conditions that might afflict their sibling . . . and these imaginings are generally worse than the reality. Of course, they also worry about how this "mystery disease" will effect THEM.

You can avoid all this by providing the sibling with clear, understandable, age-appropriate information about his sibling's problem.

ANGER: The sibling may have difficulty understanding the seeming "double standard" that exists in your family and he may resent it. He may not understand - or accept - why his brother has modified chores or receives significant parental help with homework. This resentment often manifests itself in anger or jealousy. The child simply cannot understand the disproportionate amount of time, energy and resources that the Learning Disabled sibling receives.

Anger may also be a by-product of the inevitable teasing and hassling that the nondisabled sibling receives by schoolmates. Siblings of special needs kids are often embarrassed by the behaviors of their sibs. Parents often exacerbate this situation by insisting that the disabled child accompany the sibling to neighborhood and school activities.

GUILT: This anger often morphs into guilt. The nondisabled sibling may feel guilty that he is unable to establish a relationship with his brother. He may also feel guilty that learning is so easy for him - and so challenging for his sibling.

ACTING OUT: The nondisabled sibling may provoke or tease the Learning Disabled child or use him as a scapegoat. The sibling is frustrated and angry about his brother's condition and he is continually told that he cannot show his feelings . . . so he seeks "revenge" in this way. He begins to take a degree of satisfaction in the turmoil that he can cause by provoking his brother.

COVERING UP SUCCESS: This interesting sibling reaction is quite common. The nondisabled sibling may feel guilty about his success in school and may actually cover it up. I spoke to a young lady once who told me that she did not attend her Senior Prom because her disabled brother - two years older than she - did not attend his prom ... and she did not want to pass that milestone before he did. That is an admirable - but troubling - reaction.

Oftentimes, parents will minimize the academic successes of the nondisabled child in order to spare the feelings of the Learning Disabled sibling. This is a mistake. ALL kids deserve and require encouragement and praise for the accomplishments. And the child with a Learning Disability must learn to cope with the reality of this.

None of the above feelings can be avoided. They are natural childhood reactions. But the impact and severity of the reaction can be minimized by providing Brooke with factual explanations about the nature and needs of Trevor's problem. You may want to refer to the October, 1999 ASK RICK column (via Archives) for some tips on explaining Learning Disabilities to kids at various ages.

However, the ultimate success of a special needs family is dependent upon their ability to understand and embrace the concept of FAIRNESS. Read the next question/answer for more information.


Dear Rick,

As the parent of a boy with a severe Learning Disability, I constantly deal with accusations from his brothers that I am "unfair" because of the extra attention that he gets. I also find myself arguing with teachers who say that they can't modify their expectations for Sean because "it's not fair to the other kids". On your video, HOW DIFFICULT CAN THIS BE?, you address the concept of FAIRNESS. Could you give me more information on this?

Tacoma, WA

Dear Jacqueline,

Gladly! The juggling of "fairness" and "equality" presents a never-ending conundrum for parents and few of us realize that these concepts are not synonymous . . . in fact they often are total opposites.

The classic work in moral development conducted by Laurence Kohlberg at Harvard University indicates that children, in the initial stages of moral development, define "fairness" thusly: Fairness means that everyone gets the same. Unfortunately, in many households, children have convinced their parents that the above definition is the true and accurate one.

Consider: How many fathers would return from a business trip bearing a gift for only one child? How often do you resist the temptation to purchase a special gift for one child because you fear the wrath of the siblings who receive nothing? At Christmas do you carefully compute and monitor each child's gift list to ensure that all receive the identical number of gifts? If this sounds familiar, you should understand that you are applying the concept of "fairness" at the level of a seven- or eight-year-old child.

In actuality, the definition of fairness has little to do with treating people in an identical manner. The true definition of fairness is: Fairness means that everyone gets what he or she needs.

Consider the following analogy: The readership of this column is 9,500 families. Suppose a magnanimous philanthropist were to give the editors a grant of $9.5 million and ask that the funds be distributed equally to the readership. Each family would receive a check for $1000. That's easy. However, if he were to request that the funds be divided fairly among the readership, that would require a far more complex and diverse distribution. The editors would be bound to consider the financial needs of each member family. Suppose one family with a chronically-ill child and limited financial resources were postponing much-needed therapy for the youngster. Fairness would dictate that the family would receive a disproportionate amount of the donated funds. Fairness and equality are not synonymous.

What impact does all of this have upon parenting? Parents must realize that, in order to be fair to their children, each child must be treated differently. We must recognize their unique patterns of strengths and needs. In the life of a family, there will be times when the needs of one family member become paramount. In order to be fair, the parent must react to those needs by investing a disproportionate amount of time, energy and resources in that child. Parents should not become guilt-ridden about this situation, but allot their energies based upon the children's needs. Parents should feel secure in the fact that the "offended" siblings will, at some time in the future, also require some extra effort in order to meet their unique needs.

In order for this "fairness doctrine" to work effectively, the parent must also understand the difference between "need" and "want". Stephen Glenn, noted author and parenting expert, helps us understand this delineation in the following dialogue between a mother and her 14-year-old daughter:

D: Mom, I need a pair of stone-washed Guess How designer jeans. I need $55.

M: Nope, I have checked your closet and I agree that you NEED a pair of jeans. However, you WANT a pair of designer jeans. I will gladly provide you with what you NEED. Please accept this check for $35 which will buy you the jeans that you NEED. If you WANT the designer jeans badly enough, I am sure that you will find some way to add $20 to my $35.

In summary, parents who go to great lengths to see that they give each of their children the identical amount of energy, time and resources are probably being unfair to all of them. Let us celebrate the unique strengths, goals, needs and personalities of each of our children.

Dear Rick,

I heard you speak in Texas last month and I really enjoyed your presentation. During your talk you stated your opposition to the Total Inclusion Movement. I agree.

The other day, our school's principal began using a new term . . . RESPONSIBLE INCLUSION. What does that mean and how does this differ from the Total Inclusion Model?

Joanne in El Paso

Dear Joanne,

The two concepts are significantly different! The term "Responsible Inclusion" is not really new. Sharon Vaughn from the University of Miami has been using the term - and promoting the concept - since 1995.

"Responsible Inclusion" is a concept that arose from the perceived failure of Total Inclusion. The Responsible Inclusion movement has drawn from the laudatory goals of Total Inclusion and the "best practices" of the Mainstream movement. This hybrid provides - I feel - the maximum success for kids with Learning Disabilities.

The differences between Responsible Inclusion and Total Inclusion are significant. Unlike Total Inclusion, a Responsible Inclusion program meets the following criteria:

a. The program is STUDENT-CENTERED - Ongoing assessment and monitoring ensures that the student's program meets his individual social and academic needs. Placement in inclusive classrooms is recommended or continued ONLY if the child is experiencing success in that setting. If evaluations indicate that the child is not learning in the regular classroom, alternative placements are made.

b. Participation of regular educators is VOLUNTARY. Teachers are not mandated to participate. This is a controversial aspect of Responsible Inclusion but it is fundamental to the program's success. Many regular education teachers do not feel that they have the knowledge, skills or temperament to deal effectively with special needs kids. Other teachers are eager and willing to work with these students and pursue the training that they need to be more effective.

c. Adequate RESOURCES are provided. The Responsible Inclusion model requires all members of the school community to recognize that additional resources (time, energy, money, personnel) are required to ensure the program's success. Decision-makers must recognize that Inclusion is not designed to "save money".

d. The Responsible Inclusion program is TAILORED to meet the needs and uniqueness of the school community. One size does NOT fit all. Each Responsible Inclusion program is designed mindful of the fact that each school has its own "culture" and the Responsible Inclusion program must be responsive to it.

e. A CONTINUUM OF SERVICES is maintained wherein students with varying needs will have access to program formats that meet their unique needs (including pull-outs, consultation, collaboration and co-teaching).

f. THE SERVICE DELIVERY model is constantly evaluated. The model is adjusted often in order to respond to the needs and growth of the individual. If a format is not working, the MODEL (not the TEACHER or the STUDENT) is blamed.

g. Ongoing PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT is provided. Management guru, Tom Peters, once said, "There are three solutions to most institutional problems: Training, Training and Training". In Responsible Inclusion, key personnel receive ongoing, innovative training in methods and materials. On site training is promoted and off-site development is encouraged.

h. Inclusion is viewed as an OPPORTUNITY to improve instruction for ALL students. When a school truly embraces the concept of Responsible Inclusion, instructional practices for ALL kids naturally improve. Teachers do not view Inclusion as Intrusion.

Responsible Inclusion has been successful in schools nationwide and it has improved the lot of thousands of special learners.

I once had an argument with a rabid Total Inclusionist. She growled, "I hate the term Responsible Inclusion. It implies that people with my belief are IRresponsible."

She said it . . . not me!



Thought for the Month:

"Students don't care how much you know until they know how much you care."

After reviewing the letters that I have been receiving over the past several weeks, I decided to depart from our usual question-and-answer format in this month's column. The overwhelming majority of questions that I have received recently have been sent from teachers who are anxious about the opening of the school year. Their requests centered on strategies to get the year off to the best possible start in their classrooms.

Those of your who are familiar with my work - particularly the How Difficult Can This Be? workshop and video - know that I believe in the importance of relating to and understanding the children we serve. This is no easy task.

You see, there exists a great and significant irony in the field of Special Education. That is: "Most of us who teach every day, ENJOYED going to school when we were kids . . . and most of us did pretty well there."

Consider. Common sense would dictate that few adults would choose to make a living in an environment that s/he feared or abhorred. Most teachers enjoyed their school experience and found the classroom to be a haven for learning, sharing and friendships.

Most special education students view "A Place Called School" very differently. Their past experiences have taught them that the classroom is a place of failure and frustration; the school bus represents a daily ritual of rejection and bullying; and the playground is haunted with memories of rejection and isolation. As you read this, many of your incoming students are experiencing great dread and anxiety as they anticipate those first days in a new classroom. They know, through bitter experience, that their academic skills and social competence will be sorely tested . . . and often they will not be equal to the challenge. Thus, the 180 day cycle of failure begins once again . . .

As teachers, we must understand and accommodate for the significant anxiety that our students face as they enter the school year. Here at Riverview, we have hung a sign in the Teachers' Coffee Area to serve as a daily reminder of the role that teachers can play in the lives of their students. It reads:

"Coming to school every day can become a hopeless task for some children unless they succeed at what they do. We teachers are sentries against that hopelessness."

Below are some strategies, techniques, procedures and inspirations that may help in getting your school year off to a constructive and supportive start:

  • "Nobody ever plans to fail; but they do fail to plan."
  • If you are the "new teacher in the building", take active steps to get to know the school ... and to let the school know you. Acquaint yourself with the philosophy, policies, procedures and personnel. Read the Faculty Handbook. Walk the hallways. Introduce yourself. Meet the custodian, nurse, librarian and food service folks.

Don't wait until they come to you. Communication is an ACTIVE - not a PASSIVE - process.

  • Traditional (row-on-row) seating plans usually work best at the beginning of the year. Save the more creative arrangement until you know the kids better.
  • REMEMBER: The first day of school sets the tone for the year. "Getting Acquainted" activities are great . . . and appropriate. But the majority of the time during the First Day should be spent on academically-oriented school work. If Day One is a Play Day . . . Day Two may well be a disaster. ("We have to do WORK??!? I thought you LIKED us!")
  • When arranging your seating plan, allow for ample traffic flow. Countless classroom skirmishes are caused by the jostling and bumping that occur when rows are too tight!
  • Your three main goals for Opening Day are:
    a. Get to know them.
    b. Establish expectations.
    c. Stimulate enthusiasm.

Sometimes we get so focused on (a) and (b) that we forget about (c).

  • Once your classroom is all prepared and decorated . . . walk around the room on your knees and get a "kid's eye view". You might find yourself making some changes once you have seen the room from their perspective.
  • When planning your room, avoid creating "dead spaces" . . . every inch of the room should be functional!
  • Some teachers are reluctant to assign specific seats to students because it "violates the child's right to autonomy". GET OVER IT! Assign 'em! Let them know that the seating plan will be temporary, however.
  • Decide on your policy regarding your desk. Some teachers proclaim their desk as "HANDS OFF - PRIVATE PROPERTY". Others have an "OPEN DESK" policy wherein kids are free to borrow materials and supplies.
  • DECORATE! Your classroom is your "home" for eight hours a day . . . it should reflect your personality and your interests. Posters! Signs! Banners! Souvenirs!
  • Take a moment to send a welcoming postcard to every student in your class before school begins. Believe me, they will be magnetted to refrigerators all over the neighborhood.
  • Create a welcoming classroom environment with each kid's name prominently displayed on bulletin boards, desks, folders and charts. This sends the comforting message, "Come on in; I was expecting you and I have prepared for your arrival. Welcome!"
  • GREET EACH CHILD! Your goal should be to say something personal and individual to each and every child on the first day.

"Good morning, Anna. I have a niece named Anna and she even looks like you!"
"Welcome, Mike. I understand that you live near the new Mall. I will bet that the construction was pretty loud all summer."
Hello, Freddie. I guess your Dad is Freddie Pringle who owns the plumbing company with those flashy silver vans. Do you ever help him in the summer? My Dad was a plumber."
Good morning, Sean. I like that Red Sox T-shirt. Did you get up to Fenway this summer? I was at the game when Nomar hit two grand slams . . . "

You will be the topic of conversation at many dinner tables that evening. ("I like my new teacher. She talked to me today.") Kids feel so anonymous in school. This technique recognizes their individuality and worth. What a great first impression!

  • "What we anticipate seldom occurs; what we lease expect generally happens."
    B. Disraeli
  • Share yourself. When you introduce yourself to the class, tell a bit about your family life, background, hobbies, pets, etc. When I was a kid, I thought that my teachers went into their big oak closets at the end of the class day . . . and emerged the next morning. I remember my shock with I saw my first grade teacher in the supermarket ("They EAT?!?!?!?!")
  • Be enthusiastic and warm. Teachers used to say, "Never smile until December." They were wrong.
  • Review each child's cumulative folder BEFORE schools begins. Note each student's special interest and talents . . . not merely their test scores! I disagree strongly with those who believe that you should not review files before the year begins because you will develop "preconceived notions" about the child. Ridiculous. Wouldn't you want your doctor to review your medical history prior to treatment?

However, give every kid a chance to "wipe the slate clean" and start each school year off fresh. I was a bad boy in fourth grade. I remember entering my fifth grade classroom on the first day of school and being met by my scowling new teacher . . . "I've heard about you, Richard. If you think that you are going to get away with misbehavior in my class, you have another think coming . . . BLAH, BLAH, BLAH!"

What a motivating way to begin the year! She thought that she was preventing future problems. WRONG! She just threw down the gauntlet. My fifth grade year was worse than my fourth!

  • Your first few days should be meticulously planned. Again, this sets the tone for the year!
  • Post your short, simple classroom rules. Some samples:
  • Respect material, equipment . . . and each other.
  • Raise your hand for permission to speak or leave your seat.
  • Use "indoor voice" when speaking in class.
  • Be on time.
  • One person talks at a time.

NOTE: All classroom rules should be stated positively ("Respect each other"), not negatively ("No Swearing"). Tell 'em what you want 'em to do, not what you don't want 'em to do.

  • DON'T TAKE ROLL CALL! What an impersonal way to begin a relationship! Take Polaroid shots instead and post them.
  • If you must take roll . . . at least make it fun (e.g., "When I call your name, don't say "here". Instead respond by telling me your favorite Brittney Speare's song; your favorite TV show; who you think will win the presidential election, etc., etc.)
  • Send a note home during the first week to let parents know when you are available for conferences (e.g., before school? over lunch? Tuesdays and Thursdays only?)
  • Learn kid's nicknames. But don't assume that every William is a "Bill" and every James is a "Jim". Ask them.
  • Use the first week to explain, demonstrate and reinforce your classroom rules, routines and regulations. Also discuss emergency procedures and your grading policies, when appropriate.
  • Kids feel very comforted and secure when you give them an idea of what a "typical day" will be like. ALWAYS post the day's agenda on the wall before each class. REMEMBER: Kids with learning problems generally do not like surprises! They take great comfort in the structure that you provide.
  • Let your sense of humor show . . . particularly when problems occur. Laugh WITH - never AT - your students.
  • Make the students feel welcomed and valued in your classroom. Many special needs kids feel that school is a depersonalizing and irrelevant institution. It is a sad commentary that kids' self-esteem often increases markedly immediately after they drop out of school. Sad.
  • Enforce your rules consistently. To do otherwise erodes students' trust and respect.
  • Communicate - consistently - your belief in your students and your faith that they WILL succeed, grow and progress. PRODUCTION SELDOM EXCEEDS EXPECTATION!
  • Reject the child's behavior . . . but never reject the child.
  • Recognize, encourage and reinforce positive behaviors and achievements. Never take cooperative and helpful behaviors for granted. Behavior which is reinforced is repeated.
  • In the first week, establish a classroom environment that values COOPERATION over COMPETITION. Remember: Competition is motivating only to the individual who thinks he has a chance of winning!
  • Catch 'em being good.
  • Praise publicly, criticize privately.
  • I believe strongly in Strand Objectives. After the first few weeks of school, find a quiet place to sit and reflect upon each individual kid in your caseload. Develop one long-term, significant goal for each student.

The goal may be subject-related:
"Billy will learn the multiplication facts."
"Janet will learn the rules of capitalization."
"Jeanne will learn how to make change."

OR, the goal might be social or behavioral:
"Steve will use appropriate tone and volume when speaking in class."
"Mike will consistently and appropriately use please and thank you in conversational speech."
"Jim will volunteer more often in class discussions."

Record these goals in the back of your Plan Book. Re-visit them once a month and ask yourself if you have done anything to meet these goals. This procedure keeps you focused on the unique needs of each student.


To paraphrase my friend and mentor, Dr. Larry Lieberman:

"Teaching has an advantage that few other occupations have. When you are angered and frustrated with your unresponsive principal, the inedible cafeteria lunches, the demanding and unreasonable parents, the ever-decreasing budgets, the chronically malfunctioning photocopy machine, the inevitably tardy book order and the overwhelming paperwork . . . you can always go into your classroom, close the door behind you and BE WITH THE KIDS!!"

Commit to yourself that you will focus your energies, attention, time and resources on the kids this year. That's why we're there!




Thought for the Month:

"A Mom recently told me that - in previous summers - her Learning Disabled son spent hours of wasted time parked in front of the TV. Now she is delighted because he spends those hours at the computer. H-m-m-m-m. Which is worse, a COUCH POTATO or a MOUSE POTATO? Is there really a difference?

Think about it!"


Dear Rick,

Our school recently appointed a new Principal. He has instituted many changes in policy. I agree with some of his modifications. However, some of his ideas are a bit "off the wall".

He continually talks about the use of "Authentic Assessment" as a substitute for the traditional standardized testing that we currently administer. He will be making this change in September.

As a Special Education teacher, I am concerned about what effect Authentic Assessment will have on my students. What should I do about this?

Sandra in Indiana

Dear Sandra,

My advice? TAKE YOUR PRINCIPAL OUT TO LUNCH! Authentic Assessment will be a tremendous advantage for your students with Learning Disabilities! This approach will allow and encourage your kids to demonstrate their knowledge and skills in a variety of ways . . . as opposed to the traditional paper-and-pencil assessments! Bravo!

Consider. Suppose you were applying for a teaching job in another town. Which of the following would you want the personnel director to consider during your application process?

A. Your college transcript, a resume and the scores you achieved on your state's competency test.

- OR -

B. A portfolio containing all of the above PLUS

  • a videotape of the play that you did with your current class.
  • a copy your Masters Thesis.
  • representative letters that you have sent to and received from parents of your students.
  • photographs of the "store" that you constructed in your classroom to teach your kids consumer skills.
  • clippings from newspapers detailing the food drive your class conducted in 1998.
  • photocopies of the Citizenship Award presented to you by your local Rotary.
  • an audiotape of a radio interview with you when your class raised funds for the local homeless.
  • etc., etc., etc.

I think you could agree that "B" provides a more accurate and positive assessment of your true competence as a teacher!

Authentic Assessment allows the student to demonstrate his competencies in myriad ways. Consider the following when comparing Traditional Assessment to Authentic Assessment:

  • Traditional Assessment generally measures MEMORY, not LEARNING.
  • Standardized Testing is notoriously unreliable for students with Learning Disabilities.
  • Effective teaching and productive learning are not dependent upon evaluation.
  • A stimulating, meaningful and responsive curriculum is more motivating that "working for a good grade".
  • Learners should not be graded DURING THE LEARNING PROCESS (via quizzes, etc..
  • Grades are seldom effective incentives . . . and NEVER effective punishments.
  • Reporting grades as an average is inherently unfair.
  • Any assessment procedure which compares one child to another is unsound Special Education practice!
  • Traditional Assessment encourages competition . . . Authentic Assessment encourages cooperation.
  • The traditional use of "effort grades" is inappropriately judgmental. (How do you REALLY know how hard a kid is trying?)
  • Authentic Assessment provides students with an opportunity to receive credit for IMPROVEMENT . . not just ACHIEVEMENT.

In my opinion, many of the pedagogical practices in the School Reform Movement are bogus. But the Authentic Assessment approach is a child-centered, positive and educationally sound practice.

Enjoy your lunch!

Dear Rick,

I hope you can help! My son, Todd, is entering Kindergarten. We (and his pediatrician) have long suspected that he has attentional problems. His two older brothers, his Dad and several cousins have been diagnosed with Learning Disabilities so I have been advised to closely monitor Todd so he can be placed in special services if he requires it.

I have seen several lists of "symptoms" and "developmental milestones". But I need a listing of academic skills that a child should master by the end of Kindergarten so I can evaluate his readiness for first grade.

Can you help?

Mom in Alaska

Dear Amanda,

I once saw a bumper sticker that said, "Raising kids is like being pecked to death by a duck." That's rather a sardonic view, but parenting can get pretty rough in the summertime! Without the structure and expectations of school, kids with learning and attentional problems can have considerable difficulty.

Each June at Riverview, I conduct a seminar to help parents prepare for the summer months. Some highlights:

  • Discuss "drug holidays" with your child's pediatrician. Increasingly, doctors are recommending against discontinuing the use of psychotropic medications over the summer. After all, the child's neurological system has not changed. Perhaps he needs the medication's effect over the summer, as well.

Rule of Thumb:

Continue medication use if, a) he is driving, b) he is attending camp or summer school, c) if external controls are lessened (e.g., he will be home alone a lot), d) behavioral improvements allow the family to function better, and, e) the medication controls impulsivity, anger or frustration.

You may want to discontinue medication if, a) you are concerned about growth/weight, b) the child has a strong desire to discontinue, or c) the pediatrician recommends it.

  • Encourage the child to "keep the summer alive" by maintaining ongoing projects like diaries, videos, audiotapes, photographs, treasure box or collages.
  • Maintain a family calendar with important events and dates (e.g., swim practice, Grandma's Birthday, Uncle Dan's cookout, etc.) Remember . . . kids with learning problems generally do not like surprises!
  • Kids don't need to attend major league ballgames, Broadway plays or star-studded concerts. They get equal enjoyment from watching Little League games, community theatre and high school band concerts! Expose them to such activities often . . . don't wait for the annual family trip to the stadium.
  • Encourage them to "find something to do". Don't tolerate boredom. (One of my favorite Dad Lines is, "If you can't find something to do . . . I will find something for you to do!" Watch 'em scatter!)
  • Encourage problem solving . . . avoid your tendency to rescue them.
  • Assign him chores and require him to complete them. Design a consistent "reminder system" with predictable rewards and consequences. Charts and checklists help.


"The ability to work as a child surpasses all other childhood variables in predicting adult mental health, success and interpersonal relationships."

  • Require her to "care for" pets, plants, her own "stuff", etc.
  • Use regular summer activities to reinforce specific areas of weakness:
  • If your child has difficulty with SEQUENCING, try these:
    setting table
    planning meals
    retell events from movie or TV
    using a calendar
    summarizing sporting events
    preparing a shopping list
  • If your child has difficulty with ORGANIZATION, try these:
    sorting laundry
    keeping a diary or log
    chores (feed pet, clean room)
    write letters
    keep a scrapbook
    make maps (of house, neighborhood, mall)
    help with shopping
  • If your child has difficulty with DECISION MAKING, try these:
    select movies, TV shows, activities
    check newspaper ads prior to shopping
    play card games and board games
    teach comparison shopping
    visit the library

Good luck . . . only two months until the school bells ring!!

Thought for the Month:

"What's done to children, they will do to society."

Karl Menninger

Dear Rick,

My family and I go to the seashore for a week each summer. I always bring two "trash novels" and one professional book with me. Is there a book that you could recommend? I work with adolescents and young adults with special needs.

Ellen R.
Rochester, NY

Dear Ellen,

Have a nice vacation! I can't help you much with selecting a trashy novel, but I have a new favorite professional book that I am recommending to my colleagues. It is Learning to Listen: Positive Approaches and People with Difficult Behaviors by Herbert Lovett (Paul H. Brookes Publishing). Dr. Lovett reminds us of the importance of listening . . . REALLY listening . . . to our students and clients. I learned much from this entertaining and stimulating book and I recommend it highly

Oftentimes, a child's behavior will appear to be totally irrational and unproductive. But if you ask him to explain the reasons for his behavior - and you really listen to his explanation - the behavior may actually be quite rational and productive. Just last week, a student was sent to my office for disobeying a teacher's instructions. He had asked permission to use the bathroom but left the building instead. Initially, it appeared that he was deliberately deceptive. But after I listened . . . really listened . . . to his explanation, it became obvious that his seeming irrational, unproductive behavior was actually quite rational and productive. "I'm sorry, Mr. Lavoie," he explained, "but I don't know how to use the lock on the toilet stall in Clear Hall . . . but the one in the Helmsman Center is easy. So I go there to use the bathroom."

I learned an important lesson about the value of listening several years ago while I was working in a summer program. Three times each summer we took the campers to an amusement park to enjoy a day of rides and cotton candy. On the morning of the third trip, the van keys mysteriously disappeared. Despite a ninety minute search, the keys could not be located and the excursion to the amusement park was reluctantly canceled.

Later in the day, the missing keys were found hidden in Scott's room. Scott was a seventeen year old camper. Scott had an unusual syndrome which gave him distinctive facial features, a very short and stocky stature and a speech impediment. He was generally a well-behaved and compliant kid. He was popular with the other students. This type of behavior was very, very uncommon for him.

I called Scott into my office and told him how disappointed I was in his actions. I reminded him that, by hiding the keys, he had spoiled a much-anticipated outing for his friends. I confronted him with a barrage of guilt and disappointment. Only after this onslaught, I finally asked him WHY he had stolen and hidden the keys. He cast his eyes downward and said, "I had to, Mr. Lavoie. I am the oldest kid at camp . . . and the shortest. Every time we go to the amusement park, the lady doesn't let me go on the rides because I'm not tall enough. Some of the ten year old girls are allowed on the rides . . . but I'm always told 'no'. It's so embarrassing. I just couldn't go through that again. So I hid the keys. I'm sorry."

I learned much that day. I learned to listen. Scott's behavior seemed to be purposeless and unproductive. From his perspective, the behavior had a real purpose and was both productive and successful.

As parents and caregivers, we simply don't listen well to kids. The less we listen, the more kids rebel. It is widely known that repressive organizational or political systems lead to aggression and revolution. People want to he heard. They want to be listened to. If they feel that their concerns and opinions are not heard, they will rebel.

Below are some tips on listening . . . really listening . . . to kids:

  • Initially, accept what the child says WITHOUT judging the content.

Child: "I don't want to go the Grandma's."
Bad: "No way! You're going to Grandma's if I have to drag you, etc.,
Good: "You would rather stay home than go to Grandma's?"

  • Listen for the feelings behind the words:

Child: "All Grandma ever does is talk about how well my cousins are
doing in sports."
Bad: "If you really loved your Grandma, you would be willing to go, etc.,
Good: "It sounds like you're a little embarrassed that you don't play sports.
Maybe you could tell her about your coin collection."

  • Reflect back what you hear the child saying and feeling:

Child: "Sometimes I think that Grandma likes my cousins better than she
likes me."
Bad: "That's ridiculous! What an awful thing to say! She bought you a
puppy in 1994, etc., etc."
Good: "It sounds like you'd like to have a better relationship with
Grandma... ."

  • When talking with kids, avoid the following pitfalls:

Non-reinforcing body language: When you fail to make direct eye contact with the speaker or you continue to conduct another activity while "listening", you send the message that the speaker's message is not important.

"Kitchen Sinking": This occurs when a parent cites numerous past incidents or conflicts when discussing an issue (e.g., "This is just like the time in 1998 when you borrowed my favorite tie and . . . and I'll never forget when you borrowed my drill and lost all the bits . . . and . . . etc., etc.)

"Sparring": This ineffective technique consists of a verbal fist fight wherein an exchange of "blows" occurs.

Parent: "You never return what you borrow."
Child: "Well, you borrowed my fishing pole once and broke it!"
Parent: "That pole was worth $25.00. The tools you lost cost over
Child: "Well, you never replaced the pole; why should I replace the
Parent: "Well, I bought you a new stereo . . . "

And on, and on, and on.

It is important to listen to our kids. They have much to say and listening may be the only means by which we can gain valuable information about their needs, opinions, values and feelings. Learn to listen . . . and listen to learn.

Dear Rick,

My son is seven years old and has been diagnosed as LD/ADD. His teacher uses Time Out - a lot - to change Mikey's behavior but it doesn't seem to be working. What do you think of this procedure?

Jane L.
Eau Claire, WI

Dear Jane,

I am not a big fan of traditional Time Out procedures and I think that this strategy is overused and abused in classrooms. It can be effective with SOME kids, SOME of the time . . . but this powerful tool must be used cautiously and sparingly.

Firstly, think of the underlying message that you send to a child when you place him in Time Out. You are clearly communicating CONDITIONAL (as opposed to UNconditional) love. Your message is "I want to spend time with you ONLY when you are compliant and responsive. When you are not . . . I don't want you around." This is a powerful message to send. And one that we use exclusively with kids. How long would your marriage last if you sent your spouse into "exile" each time his behavior offended or upset you?

Some thoughts on this common strategy:

  • I have used Time Out in the past . . . but only as a last resort. Whenever I do use this strategy I view it as a failure on my part. Basically, I say to myself, "You have no tools or methods left to use with this kid. Your only choice is to send this kid away."
  • Time Out is very often used as a punishment. That was never the intention of this method. Time Out, when used correctly, is designed to take a child who is receiving positive reinforcement for a negative behavior and placing him in a situation wherein he is receiving NO reinforcement for negative behavior.


Meghan is kicking the other kids under the Reading Table (negative behavior) and the kids are laughing about it (positive reinforcement). You send Meghan to "the corner" ... not as a punishment but merely to remove the reinforcement she is receiving for her disruptive behavior. Get it?

  • I often hear teachers or parents tell a child, "Go to the Time Out corner and you can return when you are ready to cooperate and behave." NOT!! It is highly unlikely that the child will make a wise decision in this situation. The adult - not the child - should decide when the child returns to the activity! The "exile" should be enforced for a specific length of time (e.g., "Sammy, I want you to go sit over there for five minutes. I will tell you when you can return.")

Follow the lead of the National Hockey League:

"That's high sticking, Pierre! In the Penalty Box for five minutes."


"That's high sticking, Pierre! In the Penalty Box . . . you can come out when you think that you're ready to be a good little defenseman!"

  • I recommend a Three-Step Approach to Time Out.

STEP ONE - Observation

"Bill, your behavior is really distracting the others. I want you to come sit in this chair for three minutes. You can OBSERVE the class activity . . . but you can't participate."

STEP TWO - Isolation

"Bill, I clearly told you that you could not participate and you continue to call out answers. I want you to turn your chair to the wall for three minutes. You can no longer observe the activity."

STEP THREE - Ejection

"Sorry, Bill. I told you to face the wall and you are not doing so. I need to have you go to Mr. Perron's office now."

This approach provides the child with three specific opportunities to comply. If he does comply, welcome him warmly back into the group and praise him for making a sound decision.

I suggest that you view this three-step process as sequential. That is, follow the sequence when EJECTING a child and also upon his return (e.g., "I am glad you have returned from seeing Mr. Perron. Let's have you sit over there for a few minutes. We will slowly move you back into the activity."

  • Time Out should have a specific location and a specific duration ("Billy, I want you to sit in this chair for four minutes.")
  • In most cases, a Time Out should be three to five minutes in duration. A kid once told me that his teacher "timed me out for a day." That's not a Time Out . . . that's an in-house suspension!
  • Remain calm when sending a child to Time Out. Do not "spar" with him verbally during the Time Out.

In summary, I am not a big proponent of Time Out. I think that we should use more humane and more effective approaches. For many ADD kids, four minutes is an eternity! Time Out may not meet the Supreme Court's definition of "cruel and unusual punishment . . . but it's close!

A teacher once told me, "I timed-out this kid three times a day for a month and his behavior still didn't change!"

Circle the Slow Learner in this picture!

Dear Rick,

I recently attended your presentation in British Columbia and enjoyed every minute of it! You have inspired me to become a professional speaker as well.

I have lots of good ideas and philosophies that I would like to share with my colleagues. How do I break into the speakers circuit?

Edward G.
Vancouver, BC

Dear Edward,

Thanks for the kind words. The audience in Surrey, British Columbia was a very responsive one and I truly enjoyed myself in your beautiful province. Plus, you can buy Coffee Crip candy bars in Canada . . . they are unavailable in the United States! I always return from the provinces with a case of them! Un grand format friandise!

I am a strong believer in the power of "ripple effect". When I was a classroom teacher, I was able to reach thirty kids each year. That's great! There is no more noble way to make a living!

But I soon realized that I had some philosophies and ideas that I wanted to share. I had great faith in these concepts and I thought that they would benefit my colleagues and their students. So I started speaking at schools. This has become one of the great pleasures of my life and career.

I will sometimes fly into a town on a Friday night exhausted from a long week here at Riverview. I often doubt that I will find the energy to address the audience of 500 for several hours on Saturday. But when you step onto the stage and look out over the sea of faces . . . colleagues and parents who have surrendered valuable weekend time in order to learn more about the battles that their kids face daily, you suddenly get a burst of energy and off you go.

As I look out over a crowd, I remind myself that each member of the audience represents thirty kids whom they work with daily. Therefore, my efforts that day could potentially impact the lives of 15,000 kids whom I will never meet. A good feeling!

Any professional (or parent) who is interested in advocating for kids should consider doing seminars or workshops.

Below are some suggestions that may be helpful to you if you want to "spread the word":

  • Let people know that you are willing and able to make presentations. Ask your principal or supervisor if you could deliver a workshop or seminar to your colleagues.
  • Your can reduce your anxiety a bit by initially co-presenting. Deliver a workshop with a colleague.
  • In your early workshops, ask for letters of testimonial from the audience members or the administrator who sponsored you. Use these letters to convince others that your message is effective and timely.
  • Peruse the journals to find regional, state or national conferences that are requesting proposals for workshops (often referred to as "Calls for Papers".)
  • Teachers enjoy workshops that are practical and pragmatic. They get the THEORY in Graduate School . . . when they go to workshops, they want specific suggestions.
  • "Adult Education" and "Child Education" are very different concepts. Your audience will feel insulted if they feel that you are "talking down" to them. Intersperse some activities, questions-and-answers, etc.
  • Remember the old adage: Tell 'em what you're gonna tell 'em; Tell 'em; Then tell 'em what you told 'em.
  • Each presentation should consist of three parts:
    • Introduction/Outline
    • Presentation
    • Summary
  • Never begin with an apology, excuse or explanation ("I'm sorry that the handouts are blurry but . . . "). Nobody cares about your problems. Never let 'em see you sweat!
  • Very few audiences are hostile. They empathize with you and they want you to succeed. Relax. You're among friends.
  • You always want to match your WORKSHOP FORMAT with your goal!

If you want to enhance the audience's KNOWLEDGE, use:
Illustrated Lecture

If you want to change the audience's ATTITUDE, use:
Round Robin discussions
Group Discussion
Group Problem Solving
Buzz Sessions
Fish Bowling

If you wish to change their BEHAVIOR, use:
Role Playing
Skill Practice
Guided Practice

Good luck!


Thought for the Month:

I have a very wise and affable friend named Ed Moore. We worked together for many years and I often benefited from his pithy wisdom and insight.

One morning, I was very frustrated by an unusual number of glitches and problems. I passed Ed in the hallway and he sensed my angst. He stopped me to inquire.

"Oh, I'm all right," I responded, "Today's just a lousy day."

"Ah, my friend," he parried, "A piece of sage advice . . . NEVER JUDGE A DAY UNTIL THE EVENING!"

I was both impressed and comforted by his advice and did all in my power to improve my circumstances during the balance of the day.

A few days later, eleven-year-old Andrew was sent to my office at midmorning for classroom misbehavior. He looked harried and frustrated and told me that he was having an "awful day."

Seizing the opportunity to use my newfound wisdom, I put my hand gently on his should and said in a comforting voice, "Andrew, my boy . . . NEVER JUDGE A DAY UNTIL THE EVENING." With that, I sent him on his way.

At ten o'clock that evening, my phone rang at home. The voice on the other end said, "Mr. Lavoie, this is Andrew. It's evening now. I'm going to bed. And today STUNK!!"

Can't win 'em all!!

Dear Rick,

I have seen the F.A.T. City video several times in my graduate classes. I finally bought a copy of my own, which I lend to parents of my students. The response is always positive.

A friend of mine heard you speak in Arizona and told me that you shared the story of the "history" of F.A.T. City but she couldn't remember the details. Would you share the story with me?

Thanks. Keep up the good work

Emily P.
San Francisco, California

Interesting question, Nancy.

The success of F.A.T. City has been both overwhelming and humbling for me. When we produced the video in 1988, we never anticipated that it would enjoy the international success that it has! The video has received numerous awards and tens of thousands have been distributed throughout the United States, Canada, Europe and Australia. It is humbling for me to realize that - as you read this sentence - someone, somewhere is watching the video and learning from it.

The germ of the idea for the Workshop came in 1973. I was a first-year teacher at a small, residential school for kids with Learning Disabilities in Central Massachusetts. The ink was not-yet-dry on my diploma when I found myself assigned to teach the illusive Language Arts to groups of kids with significant learning problems.

Among my students was a thirteen year old boy named Craig. He was a bright kid but his severe dyslexia prevented him from learning to read and write effectively. He was assigned to me for forty minutes daily as a one-to-one tutorial. It was my job to teach him how to read, write and spell. No small task for a twenty-one year old neophyte!

At the conclusion of our class one day, I gave Craig a blank sheet of composition paper. His assignment was to write a 200 word composition about his beloved dog. Craig dutifully took the paper to his dormitory room that evening and completed the assignment. He returned the composition to me the next day. I placed it in my briefcase and took it to my apartment that night for correction.

After dinner that evening, I removed Craig's composition from my briefcase and began my correction ritual. I scrutinized Craig's writings for any and all punctuation, capitalization or grammatical errors. Every error was then highlighted with my red pencil! (I destroyed all my red pencils in 1975 . . . and I suggest that you do the same!) By the time I was finished, there were more red marks on the paper than there were blue.

I walked into class the next day and was pleasantly surprised to see Craig sitting there awaiting my arrival. This was unprecedented! Craig was generally on time for class . . . but never early! He rushed to me excitedly:

"Did you read my composition last night, Mr. Lavoie? Did you like it? How did I do?"

"Sure, I liked it Craig." I responded. "You used some of your new vocabulary words and your margins were GREAT... but we need to talk about some of the mistakes that you made . . . "

With that, I removed Craig's composition from my briefcase . . . now he is seeing it for the first time since I had gotten my hand on it! I could see the tears of disappointment welling up in his eyes. I asked him what was wrong.

"I know that those are real mistakes on the paper, Mr. Lavoie. And I know it's your job to correct them. But last night I spent an extra half-hour just proofreading that composition. I read it and re-read it . . . and I thought that it was PERFECT . . . and look at all the mistakes that I missed. It's just so frustrating."

With that, I put my hand on his shoulder, looked into his eyes and said the dumbest thing that I have ever said to a special needs kid and I have never said it since. I said, "Craig, I know how you feel . . ."

He immediately bristled, pushed my hand away and glared at me. "The hell you do!" he bellowed. "Don't you dare tell me that you know how I feel because you don't have ANY IDEA how I feel . . ." He stormed out of my classroom . . . hurt, bewildered and very angry.

A great insight came to me that day. I came to realize that there is a great and significant irony in the field of education. One that we must confront and understand. Namely:
"Those of us who teach in the classroom everyday probably had little difficulty when we were sitting on the other side of the desk as students. Most people who teach are folks who did well in school . . . and enjoyed the experience of going to school. Why else would we choose an occupation that puts us into a school setting? The kid that we can least relate to is the one who needs us the most."
At that moment, I began my plan to design a simulation workshop that would permit/allow/force nondisabled learners to actually experience a learning disability . . . try one on for size.

I delivered the workshop to regional schools for years as an inservice presentation. One session was attended by Jayne and Bud Schiff. They were parents of two children with learning disabilities, and were touched and moved by the workshop. Bud, an insurance executive who doesn't know the meaning of the word "impossible," decided that the workshop must be videotaped in order to spread the message to a wider audience. He found corporate sponsors, an Emmy Award winning director . . . and the rest is - as they say - history.

How Difficult has been screened at the White House and has become a staple in teacher training programs throughout North America. Thanks to Bud's tenacity and Jayne's sensitivity, the video has made a difference!

Dear Rick,

My 10 year old son, Gregory, has significant learning disabilities, but he is also Gifted and Talented. He has all the characteristics for both classifications. There are six other families with similar kids in our school.

The principal will not allow my son (or the others) to join the G.A.T. classes because of the learning disability. I think this is unfair and I am considering a lawsuit.

I love your videos and I even visited Riverview School on Cape Cod once. I respect your opinion and I need your advice. HELP!

Paulette H.
Watertown, Ohio

Dear Paulette,

Thanks for your kind words about my work. I hope you still like me after you have read my response . . . but you might not. You see, I am not a big believer in the label of "Gifted and Talented Learning Disabled". I have been in the field for nearly thirty years and have met only a handful (six? seven?) kids who TRULY meet the criteria for this label. Interestingly, I received twelve letters this month alone from parents who are "sure" that their kid is GAT/LD.

I am reminded of Lake Woebegon where, "The women are beautiful, the men are strong and all of the children are above average!" H-m-m-m

As I said earlier, GAT/LD kids DO exist . . . but they are rare. My bias regarding this issue is, as follows:

Are there a lot of BRIGHT kids with Learning Disabilities? Yes

Are there a lot of Learning Disabled kids with unique talents (i.e., athletics, music, art, etc.)? Yes

Are there a lot of Learning Disabled kids with hidden talents that are obscured by their Learning Disorder? Yes

Are there a lot of GAT/LD kids? No

You see, in order to meet the TRUE criteria of Giftedness, THREE characteristics must be simultaneously present:

I HIGH IQ - average or above average on valid measures (Genius Category is not required!)

II CREATIVITY - a readily-observable ability to think (and act!) creatively and divergently.

III TASK COMMITMENT - an ability and a willingness to work inexhaustibly on a task until it is completed and all possible outcomes have been explored.

Many, many kids with Learning Disabilities manifest Trait I. Lots of kids with Learning Disabilities clearly demonstrate Trait II. But . . . very, very few kids with Learning Disabilities consistently manifest Trait III! Their impulsivity, distractibility and lack of impulse control often derail their ability to maintain purposeful focus for extended periods.

Therefore, most kids with Learning Disabilities would not benefit from traditional Gifted programming . . . in fact, they would find it quite frustrating. It is not uncommon for GAT programs to expect kids to work for hours on one problem, project or task. Are you really acting in the child's best interests to "shoehorn" him into a program where he really doesn't fit?

All that being said, what CAN we do for the Learning Disabled child who also possesses special talents or advanced intellect? Some thoughts:

  • Recognize that reading ability is not necessarily an indicator of intelligence! GAT kids are generally first identified by advanced reading skills in the early grades. A child with perceptual problems may be unable to master the reading process DESPITE his advanced intelligence.
  • Traits to be "on the lookout for" include:
    • extensive, unusual vocabulary.
    • problem solving skills.
    • excellent memory.
    • creativity/curiosity.
    • independence.

All of these are indicative of advanced intellect.

  • The child's understandable reaction to his Learning Disorder may "mask" his intelligence and creativity. Reactive behaviors may include low frustration tolerance, stress, performance inconsistency, social immaturity, poor coordination and tantruming.
  • Where is the best placement for his child? In a TAG class wherein special attention is paid to the learning problem? Or in a Learning Disabilities class wherein opportunities for advanced, creative projects are presented?
  • Be cautious! Don't allow his weaknesses to overshadow his strengths.
  • When providing work in strength areas (i.e., Science, History, Current Events) utilize by-pass strategies to circumvent the weakness area (i.e., Writing, Reading, Spelling, etc.).
  • Ironically, many Learning Disabled students who have superior intelligence are under served in our schools and never reach their full potential. They use their intellect to compensate for their learning problems and are - often - mislabeled as "average students". They achieve at grade level and this "smoke screen" hides their hidden talent and potential.
  • These kids are full of contradictions! They have tremendous strengths (i.e., reasoning abilities, problem solving, extensive vocabularies, etc.) and equally obvious weaknesses (i.e., following directions, time management, processing speed). This presents a very complex diagnostic picture for professionals.

Bright students with Learning Disabilities often have difficulty with organizational skills, self esteem, reaction time and frustration tolerance.

  • Provide Gregory with a school and home environment which is structured and flexible. This sounds like a contradiction . . . but it's not. He should be told - clearly - what your expectations are . . . but he should be given a degree of flexibility regarding the ways and means by which he accomplishes these tasks. For example, provide him with a specific due date for a composition but allow him to select the topic. They appreciate this degree of responsiveness.
  • Below is a list of techniques and strategies that I have found successful with Learning Disabled students who have superior intellect:
    • small group work with students who have similar profiles.
    • teach via the preferred modality.
    • give clear, concise directions and instructions.
    • encourage problem-solving . . . academic AND social.
    • strike an effective balance between ENRICHMENT and MEDIATION.
    • use mentors and "study buddies".
    • avoid timed, pressure-filled activities.
    • use charts, graphs, checklists, assignment sheets to assist with organization skills.
    • work on self-esteem by providing the child with as much success as possible.
    • use brainstorming techniques often.

Again, Paulette, I am not denying the existence of GAT/LD kids. They do exist. I've seen some. But there just aren't that many of them.

Encourage your school to group bright Learning Disabled kids together. They often learn much from each other.

Best of luck to Gregory. He is lucky to have you in his corner.

Dear Rick,

I am a Special Education teacher in the town where we live. My husband is a police officer who specializes in juvenile crime. He feels that many of the youthful offenders that cross his path have learning disabilities.

He has used your videos (How Difficult Can This Be? and When the Chips are Down) with his colleagues and the films have been very useful. Thanks.

Could you give us some practical advice on dealing with kids with learning disabilities in law enforcement situations?

Joan W.
Ontario, Canada

Dear Joan,

An unusual question . . . but a valuable one. As you know, the link between learning disabilities and juvenile delinquency is undeniable. The venerable Dorothy Crawford of the Learning Disabilities Association had published pioneering work in this area several decades ago. It is critically important that all members of the law enforcement community (i.e., judges, prosecutors, police, etc.) gain an understanding of the significant impact that learning disorders can have upon young people and their interactions with the judicial system.

Juvenile crime is a STRIKE ONE . . . STRIKE TWO . . . STRIKE THREE concept for youths with learning disorders:

STRIKE ONE: Kids with learning disabilities are more likely to become involved in crime (due to the inability to secure meaningful employment, dropout rates, poor judgment, etc.).

STRIKE TWO: They are more likely than their nondisabled peers to get caught when they commit a crime (due to poor planning, etc.).

STRIKE THREE: They are likely to receive stiffer sentences than their nondisabled peers for the same offense (due to their inability to deal effectively with the language and comprehension demands of the judicial process).

Needless to say, having a learning or cognitive disorder does not excuse criminal behavior. However, it is in everyone's best interest that law enforcement officials and criminal justice representatives are able to recognize, communicate with and better understand youths who have the "Hidden Handicap." This is particularly important for the police officer who is in the "front line" of the process.

When dealing with a person with a learning disorder (LD, Developmental Disabilities, Autism, etc.), the police officer should be mindful of the following:

  • The person may be unable to communicate or understand the concepts involved in the situation. Vocabulary terms (i.e. "rights," "waiving") may be unfamiliar to him and he may not have sufficient understanding of these concepts to provide informed consent or comprehend the proceedings-at-hand.
  • The person may be unable to follow commands. Multiple or complex commands may be incomprehensible for the person.
  • The person's disability could serve to impair his judgment and compromise his ability to understand how his behaviors are being perceived by others. He may be easily manipulated by others and may copy the behavior of others in order to gain acceptance and friendship.
  • The person's receptive and expressive language may be affected. That is, he may have difficulty understanding language which is written or spoken . . . he may also have difficulty reading or writing.
  • Some people with developmental disabilities may have a neurologically-based unsteady gait or struggled, garbled speech. These symptoms may increase during periods of stress and can be misinterpreted as intoxication.
  • The person may be very compliant and have a strong desire to please the person in authority. In order to gain the officer's approval, the person may give a response which - he feels - will please the officer . . . even if the answer is inaccurate.
  • The persons affect (i.e., facial expressions, gestures, posture) may not be an accurate reflection of his actual feelings. For example, he may smile despite feelings of remorse.
  • If the person has a word processing problem, he will generally select the last item in a sequence if he is given a list of options. For example:
    Officer: "Was the other car a Chevy, a Ford, or a Volkswagen."
    Automatic Response: "A Volkswagen."
  • The person may have a short attention span and be unable to focus his thoughts for any length of time. This will impact upon his ability to understand what is occurring.
  • The person may become easily exhausted due to sensory overload. Stressful situations may require a tremendous amount of energy from the person in order to compensate for his disabilities. This overload can make the person become fatigued, aggravated or hostile. Little can be accomplished at that time. Take a break!
  • The person may have memory and temporal (time-related) deficits that will make it extraordinarily difficult to restate or reconstruct an incident. The memory deficits may impact short-term or long-term memory.
  • When giving instructions, use simple, direct language. Avoid multi-step directions. Speak slowly and distinctly. If the direction is not understood DON'T repeat it . . . rephrase it!

I hope this helps. Readers . . . you may want to share this information with your favorite police officer. It might be helpful to one of your kids someday!

Note: Some of this material was obtained via the Developmental Disabilities Area Board in Escondido, California.


Thought for the Month:

"In the time since I wrote my February column, I have had speaking engagements in California, North Carolina, New Jersey and Nevada. Everywhere I have visited, parents and professionals have been discussing the troubling governmental report that demonstrated a 300% increase in the use of Ritalin for three and four year olds. Even the First Lady weighed in on the controversy!

This situation is troubling. BUT who is to blame? Over-ambitious parents? Impatient Day Care workers? Quick draw pediatricians? All of the above? Ritalin is a very effective - but powerful - medication and its administration should not be taken lightly.

I feel that the "Kiddie Ritalin" crisis is one of our own making and it, largely, is caused by the unrealistic and developmentally-inappropriate expectations that we hold for our preschool children.

Consider. When you and I were four years old, what was our life like? We hung around the house with a sibling or two and our Mom. We played, took walks, watched some TV and had the run of our house. No rules. No regulations. No structure. No expectations. Our job description was, simply, "Being a Kid".

Today's four-year-old has a very different daily existence. Day care or Preschool requires kids to sit still, color, sing, dance and play "on command". Their days are structured and regimented. Compliance is expected. Responsiveness is demanded. Are these kids developmentally prepared for such an environment at 48 months old? I think not.

We place unrealistic demands on our little ones . . . and then medicate them so they can comply. Whose needs are we meeting? Theirs or ours?

America's preschools have become inappropriately demanding and competitive. If we refuse to be mindful of what our developmental psychologists have taught us . . . let's at least remember the sage words of Shel Silverstein:

Hug O'War

I will not play at Tug O'War.
I'd rather play at Hug O'War
Where everyone hugs
Instead of tugs
And everyone giggles and rolls on the rug
And everyone tickles and everyone grins
And everyone's happy and everyone wins.

Dear Rick,

I have a seventeen year old daughter in a residential placement. Throughout her school years she has performed much better both academically and socially in test situations than she can produce in real life situations.

For example, now in her social skills classes, she can "read" social situations, is very intuitive and functions very well, yet there is not much carry over into real life situations. She has been faced with, "You did it in therapy, so I know you can do it, you are choosing not to." all her life. While this school specializes in kids with these problems, I still see some of this, "You are choosing not to do it." attitude.

Do you have any suggestions to help with carry over of skills learned in therapeutic situations into everyday life?

Chazy, NY

Dear Cathy,


Trying to learn social skills "in the classroom" is akin to trying to learn tennis "in the classroom". There are certainly some tennis skills that you can learn in a sterile classroom environment . . . but you will never truly master tennis until you get our on the court and hit that yellow ball around. So it is with social skills!

Our kids have tremendous difficulty generalizing and utilizing the skills (academic OR social) that they learn in isolation. You can review "bus conduct rules" in the classroom all day long and the kids will demonstrate their mastery of these skills. But there is no guarantee that they will utilize these skills when they board that school bus for the trip home.

It is for this reason that I feel so strongly in the use of Social Skill Autopsies. This strategy is outlined and demonstrated in my second PBS/WETA video, Last One Picked, First One Picked On: The Social Implications of Learning Disabilities. This approach encourages the child to analyze actual social incidents that have actually occurred and determine responses that would be appropriate for that situation. This "hands on" approach has been very successful with kids and is being utilized by parents and professionals throughout North America, Europe and Australia. It works!

Some of the best approaches to generalizing Social Skills have been done by Arnold P. Goldstein, Ph.D. He encourages adults to create a social setting that closely replicates the environment where the target skill will be utilized. If you want to teach "dining out skills" . . . conduct the lesson in a restaurant. If you are teaching appropriate assembly behavior . . . conduct the lesson in the auditorium!

Goldstein also emphasizes the importance of reinforcement systems in the generalization process. It is critically important that the developing social skills be continually recognized and reinforced. Remember the sage adage: "Behavior that is reinforced is repeated!"

When providing social skill instruction or guidance, you can improve the chances of successful generalization by utilizing Instructed Generalization. This method requires the adult to describe specific social situations when the targeted skill will be used (e.g., "Now we are going to discuss the proper way to wait in line. This skill can be used in the cafeteria and even at the movie theater on weekends . . . ")

Goldstein suggests using "homework" to assist students in generalizing target social skills. When you are focusing on a specific skill (e.g., not interrupting) discuss with the child various outside-of-school situations where this skill may be useful (e.g., at the breakfast table, in the car, when Dad is on the phone, etc.) Ask him to be very mindful of using this skill in those settings and require him to "report back" to you in a day or so and tell you about his use of that skill in those settings.

It would be timely to discuss the concept of "focused corrections" in relation to social skill instruction. The "focused correction" strategy has been effectively used for years by Language Arts teachers. Basically, the instructor focuses on one sub-skill of an assignment and you inform the student that you will focus on that skill when the assignment is evaluated (e.g., "Taylor, I want you to write a 200 word composition about your favorite pet. I want you to really pay attention to your use of capital letters as you write. When I correct your paper with you, we will focus on that specific skill.") In this way, the child focuses his energy on that sub-skill. This strategy has been very helpful for teachers attempting to improve specific language concepts.

I recommend the use of this technique when teaching social skills, as well. I recall overhearing the conversation between an ADD child and his mother once at a family restaurant. Ninety-percent of their exchanges were corrective! The kid received a barrage of instructions, corrections and mini-scoldings ("Sit up straight; close your mouth when you chew; wrong spoon; cut that before you eat it; pick up the napkin, etc., etc., etc.) Sound familiar?!?

Try this instead: "Bill, it's time to sit down for supper. Tonight let's focus on the volume of your voice. Try real hard to keep your voice at an appropriate level. I will call it to your attention when you get too loud."

During the meal, virtually ignore the other social errors (e.g., the napkin, mouth open when chewing, etc.) Just focus on the volume. You will be pleasantly surprised at how effective this strategy is. Interestingly, all the social skills improve because the child is focusing his attention on being appropriate. Be sure to reinforce and praise him at the end of the meal. This procedure works . . . and it surely beats an hour of non-stop nagging!

Good luck, Cathy!


A few years ago I learned about the "Poker Chip Theory". I now teach at the local university and cannot remember the theory in its entirety. Could you refresh my memory? Thanks.


Dear Dawn,

The "Poker Chip Concept" is not actually a "theory". It's simply an analogy that I have used for years to illustrate how self-concept develops. A full explanation is featured in the conclusion of my PBS/WETA video, "When the Chips are Down".

I had long-struggled to find an analogy to help adults understand self-concept. We have all attended workshops wherein the speaker explains the consequences of low self-concept and then instructs us to "go thee forward and increase the self-concept of your children".

Great. But how do you do that? How do you make a kid feel good about himself?

The "Poker Chip Analogy" might be helpful. Basically, I compare Adult Life to a giant poker game. In order to play in this "game", you must enter adulthood with many piles of "poker chips" (self-concept). Without these chips, you are unable to take risks, bet or even ante-up in the "game of life". Adults with a lot of poker chips have a great self-concept. Those with a poor self-concept have a meager pile of chips.

Now, how did these folks get their chips? They got them during childhood and adolescence. Basically, when good things happen to you (e.g., success, victory, praise . . . ) you RECEIVE poker chips. When bad things happen to you (failure, frustration, criticism), you LOSE chips. Simple.

Try to imagine that each interaction between you and a child is, actually, an exchange of poker chips. For example,

"Daniel, you did a great job cleaning out that back pack. I am very pleased!"
"Here you go, Daniel. Add these 35 poke chips to your collection!"

Sean, I can't believe how loud you were at the supermarket. Do you enjoy embarrassing me? Don't ever ask to come with me again."
"Sean, give me 50 of the poker chips from your pile. I will just throw them away."

See how it works?


And how do you do that? Praise a lot. Reinforce a lot. Recognize a lot. Reward a lot. Scold seldom. Embarrass seldom. Punish seldom. Reject never.

We need to be ever mindful of this ongoing exchange of chips. I remember hearing this conversation between a 10 year old Learning Disabled child and his Mom when he returned, excitedly, from school one day:

Bobby: "Mom, Mom, Guess what?!? The teacher told me that I have the best manners in the class!"

Mom: "Well it would be nice to see some of those manners around here once in awhile!"

Wow, Mom. Your son just showed you the 250 brand new poker chips that he had earned . . . and you took every one of the away.

Keep the Poker Chip Concept in mind. I try to. As I walk across the School's campus and see a kid on his way to class, I often think, "When was the last time I gave him a few chips?" So I catch up with him and walk to class by his side while asking him about his soccer exploits or his dog at home. "Here's a hundred chips. Spend them in good health."

Also be mindful of the Exchange of Chips when you punish a child. Punishment is both inevitable and necessary . . . but always view it as an exchange of chips. Try to balance the severity of the "crime" with the number of "chips" that you take away.

For example, suppose Josh spills his milk at the dinner table. How many chips is that worth?

"Josh, the milk spilled. Please go get a sponge and clean it up." = Net loss of chips = 0

"Josh, why can't you be more careful? That's the fifth spill this week. Clean up the mess you made NOW!" = Net loss of chips = 50

"Josh, you make me nuts! Can't we get through one meal without you spoiling it for everyone? Go to your room and I don't want to see you until the morning!" = Net loss of chips = 1000

I have been using the Poker Chip analogy for years to help adults understand the role they can and do play in the development of a child's self-concept. One parent told me that he glued a chip to his bathroom mirror to constantly remind him of this. As a favor to a Superintendent friend of mine in New York, I had worked extensively with his staff on this concept. When he retired, the staff gifted him with a sliver-plated poker chip. Nice.

But my favorite application of this analogy happens here at Riverview School on Cape Cod. We constantly remind our staff of the importance of distributing "poker chips" to our kids. On Graduation Sunday, each departing Senior is given a small velvet bag filled with poker chips emblazoned with their initials. At the reception following the ceremony, the students circulate among the staff, parents and friends and hand poker chips to those who have helped them through the years. These are truly Kodak moments! You will be having an animated conversation with someone at the reception and suddenly a student in cap and gown will approach you and silently hand you a chip. It doesn't get any better than that!

If self-esteem is a particular interest of yours, I would recommend highly the work of my colleague and cherished friend, Dr. Bob Brooks. His book, The Self Esteem Teacher is an invaluable resource. Bob also has a terrific video available via this website ("Look What You've Done").

Dear Rick,

My son is doing well in all subjects but Reading and Math. He does not have behavioral problems and he has a good social life with the other children. He is in second grade and he likes school generally but he is struggling. I am trying to get the school to do more testing. My son has a stuttering problem and has had it since he was 3 years old. He has been seeing a speech pathologist and he has improved but his stuttering is still very evident. He struggles with reading and often tires of trying to read. He struggles with math and gets very frustrated when he needs to complete it.

I work with my son every day after I get off work, he completes 95-100% of all his homework and can follow the directions of the teachers. I am very concerned that my son will get left behind because of his reading and math problems.

What do I do to make sure he does not get looked over or tossed to the side by the school board?


Dear La'Shawn,

You son is, indeed, fortunate to have you in his corner. You seem to be very insightful about his problems and his potential. I would advise you to keep the positive dialogue going between you and his teachers and be certain that there is ongoing communication among his teachers and the speech pathologist. Her intervention will not be effective unless it is reinforced in your son's class every day.

Your concern that he will be "tossed aside by the school board" is one that I commonly hear from parents. Be assured that this is unlikely to happen IF your child is protected by an I.E.P. (Individual Educational Plan). This document memorializes the child's specific needs and outlines the school's specific programs/procedures designed to meet those needs. The I.E.P. is akin to a contract which must be upheld by all parties. Be sure that the I.E.P. is updated and that School staff are adhering to all the procedures listed in the document. If the prescribed activities are not being carried out . . . go to the School and find out why. Be assertive, but not aggressive. Assume that School personnel have your son's best interests at heart . . . they generally do. If the School is unresponsive, you may have to kick up your heels a bit. You need to advocate for your son . . . until he can advocate for himself. Many parents are hesitant to do this. There is an old saying ... "Never rock the boat in which your child is sitting." I never believed in that! (For advice on effective Parent/Teacher conferences, see my December column.)

La'Shawn, your question (and many others that I have received in recent weeks) mentioned the issue of HOMEWORK. The "homework battle" is fought nightly at kitchen tables all over America! You are to be commended for your willingness to assist your son with his homework . . . but be aware of the common Homework Traps that parents can stumble into.

Some thoughts on this important subject:

  • If your child needs a great deal of help from you in order to complete his homework THE ASSIGNMENT IS INAPPROPRIATE. By definition, homework assignments are supposed to be a review and reinforcement of that day's school work. It should be prepared at the child's "mastery level" and the student should be able to complete the assignment independently.
  • As a parent, you need to understand the "message" that you are sending to the teacher when you provide the child with extensive assistance with his homework. Suppose you spend two hours - complete with blood, sweat and tears - dragging your child through a difficult homework assignment. After this battle, the assignment is completed neatly and thoroughly. The child submits the completed assignment to the teacher the next day. The teacher reviews the assignment and - understandably - assumes that the well-done assignment is well within the child's academic capabilities . . . so she assigns a similar assignment that evening. And you wrestle your child through THAT assignment . . . and on . . . and on . . . and on.

If your child has tremendous difficulty completing an assignment, LET THE TEACHER KNOW (via a note or phone call).

  • Teachers need to remain mindful of the "3 R's of Homework". Home study assignments should be:
    • REVIEW . . . new concepts should never be introduced as homework.
    • REINFORCEMENT . . . the assignment should be directly related to that day's lesson.
    • REALISTIC . . . the teachers must remember that the homework will be completed in a non-academic environment with multiple distractions. Plus, the child will likely be tired and unfocused as he works on homework.

I recommend that you use a "3 to 1 Formula" . . . an assignment that takes a child 20 minutes to complete in your classroom, will take 60 minutes to complete at home.

  • As much as possible, establish a Homework Schedule wherein the child does her homework at the same TIME and PLACE each evening. Allow the child input into this schedule . . . but once the schedule is set, stick to it.
  • Assist the child in prioritizing or ranking assignments. Oftentimes, a student will waste a significant amount of study time trying to decide which assignment to do first! Preview his assignments and agree on an order that they will be completed.
  • Provide "Hurdle Help" by assisting them in getting started ("OK, Danny, let's do the first multiplication problem together and then you are on your own!")
  • Be a homework resource . . . not a partner. Don't sit next to her as she completes her homework. Go about your activities and have her call for you or come to you if she needs help.
  • When checking the child's homework . . . accentuate the positive. ("Megan, these eight spelling words are perfect and very neat. But I think you will want to take another look at these two . . . ")
  • Homework should not take all evening! The child needs some time to rest and recreate, as well. If the assignment takes all night . . . notify the teacher.
  • Discuss the study questions with the child BEFORE she reads the chapter. In that way, she is better able to comprehend material.
  • CHECK IN CHUNKS . . . "Kitt, when you get five math problems completed, bring the paper to me to be checked." In this way, you will be able to provide help, if he is doing the assignment incorrectly.
  • Check the child's homework at the end of the evening. He will approach the next day far more confidently if he has been reassured that his homework is accurate, complete and acceptable.

For additional advice on the Homework Dilemma, I would recommend the new book by Drs. Sam Goldstein and Sydney Zentall entitled "Seven Steps to Homework Success: A Family Guide for Solving Common Homework Problems" (Specialty Press, Inc.; Plantation, FL). It's a wonderful resource for parents and professionals.


Thought for the Month:

By Noreen Boyle

Again tonight I hear my brother's voice carrying out a conversation - sometimes playing the part of two people, at other times, just one.

When we were younger - the same setting - he in his bedroom and me in mine - I would hear him through my bedroom wall and would yell out, "Who's in there with you?" And he would stop his talking and yell back, "Nobody."

"Then stop talking to yourself." For a few minutes there would be quiet. But gradually and inexorably, I'd hear his voice again, at first muffled by his pillow, but as his conversation would grow more intense, the volume would slowly increase.

Eventually, I began to realize that this was his way of getting through his days and gathering up the courage to face tomorrow. He was rewriting a script in which he didn't like the way his character was portrayed. This way his character could fight back against the bully, charm the heroine or score the winning run.

And every night I'd listen to him rewriting and then rehearsing the revised script. But on the following day, never did he win the battle, the girl or the game. Too many of the cast of his daytime play were ignorant and insensitive actors. But for a few minutes in his darkened bedroom, he held the spotlight and had his chance to shine.

Again tonight I hear this voice through the walls. But tonight I don't interrupt - I let him change the ending of his daily nightmare if only for a few minutes so that he can face the sun the following morning.

Noreen Boyle is a registered nurse. This piece was written when she was leaving high school and he was just entering.

Dear Rick,

I enjoy reading your column every month and have found the material to be very useful. I hope that you can help with my specific problem. I am a Special Education teacher and only recently graduated from college. The regular education teachers are now looking at me as being "the expert" and I am feeling pretty inadequate. I want to help them to adjust their lessons in order to meet the needs of the students with Learning Disabilities but I am not sure how to go about this. My undergraduate training simply did not adequately prepare me. HELP!

Cindy in Arizona

Dear Cindy,

Your concern is a very common one. I feel that we must carefully examine the curricula in our Special Education undergraduate programs. I have visited many "teacher training" programs and find that they have two major flaws:

a) the majority of the undergraduate's course work focuses on abnormal or subnormal development. Very little instruction is provided regarding normal development. How can one understand ABNORMAL BEHAVIOR and DEVELOPMENT until one understands NORMAL BEHAVIOR and DEVELOPMENT?

b) Undergraduate special education students are bombarded with course work related to the nature and needs of Special Education students . . . but little guidance or instruction is provided related to dealing with other adults (e.g., parents, colleagues, administrators). Once the "rookie" special educator enters the real world of the classroom, she finds that she spends much of her time consulting and collaborating with others . . . and she often feels ill-equipped to deal with this.

Cindy, there are many suggestions and recommendations that you can offer to your regular education colleagues as they endeavor to assist the special needs students in their classes.

Firstly, you must come to understand the difference between ACCOMMODATIONS and MODIFICATIONS . . . these concepts are NOT interchangeable or synonymous. ACCOMMODATIONS require a student to complete the same assignment/test as the other students but with adjustments in time, format, setting and/or presentation.

On the other hand, MODIFICATIONS are adjustments in the actual requirements of an assignment or a test. For example, requiring a student to complete only the odd numbered problems on a math quiz or substituting a multiple choice exam for an essay exam.

Below are some suggested modifications and adjustments that you may want to suggest to your regular education colleagues:

  • provide alternative textbooks with similar concepts but at an easier reading level.
  • provide audio-tapes or chapter summaries.
  • use peer readers.
  • photocopy the pages for the Learning Disabled student and allow/encourage him to highlight.
  • provide the student with two sets of text books . . . one for school and one for home.
  • provide the student with a list of discussion questions before she reads the material (this enables the student to better focus and comprehend).
  • provide page numbers to assist the student in finding the answers.
  • decrease the length of assignments and lists in order to focus on the key concepts.
  • allow for "alternative assignments" that permit the child to demonstrate his mastery of the concepts via art, posters, collections, panoramas.
  • on an unmodified test, adjust the criteria for passing.
  • provide the student with a specific list of your requirements for a passing grade and review it regularly with him.
  • keep student workplaces as distraction-free as possible by reducing visual and auditory stimulation.
  • avoid use of crosswords and word-finds (a difficult and pointless task for kids with perceptual problems!)
  • provide simultaneous oral and written directions when giving instructions.
  • carefully number and sequence the steps in a multi-step procedure or instruction.
  • ask the child to repeat the instruction back to you before beginning a task.
  • always give "fair warning" prior to a transition ("Billy, we need to leave for recess in five minutes, so let's begin to finish your drawing and store your supplies.")
  • provide a print outline for videotapes.
  • use a tape recorder in lieu of an essay answer.
  • modify your grading procedures by:
  • weighing class work heavier than tests.
  • mark only the correct answers.
  • allow students to re-do failed sections of a test for partial credit.
  • use pass/fail.
  • allow student to retake exam until he passes it.
  • modify your testing procedures by:
    • giving oral directions prior to test.
    • teach test taking skills.
    • provide vocabulary/definition lists.
    • permit extra time and/or alternative settings.
    • divide test into smaller sections.
    • substitute true/false, multiple choice, matching and fill-ins for essay exams.
    • grade spelling separately on tests.
    • allow open book or take-home tests.
    • provide possible answers for fill-ins or provide the first letter of the missing word.
  • modify your math instruction by:
    • allowing calculator use
    • grouping similar math problems together on tests
    • use graph paper to assist with alignment
    • provide tables with math facts
    • break lengthy, long-term assignments into manageable chunks.
    • arrange for "check-in" time at the beginning of the day to assist with organization.
    • increase the frequency and immediacy of reinforcement.

Many of these modifications are drawn from material prepared by the PACER CENTER in Minneapolis (pacer@pacer.org)

Dear Rick,

My husband and I have taken my son to a psychiatrist to evaluate if he has ADD. We had a session alone with the Doctor, then brought our 10 1/2 year old son to speak to him (we left the room after a bit). Then we had a second session with the Doctor. On the basis of what we had to say, plus the fact that my husband was diagnosed as ADD, the conclusion was that our son also has ADD.

He is a bright little boy who has always had trouble with transitions and controlling his emotions. I want desperately to help him but I don't want to jump at easy conclusions such as medicating him with Ritalin. Am I being too cautious? We need to do something since his grades are falling and he is driving us, his family, a bit crazy. His twin sister shows the most patience with him, but it's wearing thin. How can I be sure that medication is part of the answer?

Tel-Aviv, Israel

Dear J.

You are facing a difficult - but common - dilemma. There is currently much promising research being done which is aimed at developing a valid and definitive medical test to diagnose ADD. Until such a procedure is perfected, we need to rely upon our power of OBSERVATION in order to recognize ADD in our kids.

The Center for Applied Research in Education cites the following behaviors that may be symptomatic of Attention Deficits in school-aged children:

1. INATTENTION (at least two of the following)

  • fails to finish tasks s/he starts
  • doesn't seem to listen
  • easily distracted
  • difficulty concentrating on tasks requiring sustained attention (play or school)

2. IMPULSIVITY (at least three of the following)

  • acts before thinking
  • shifts excessively from one task to another
  • difficulty organizing his work or environment
  • needs constant supervision
  • calls out in class
  • has difficulty waiting or taking turns

3. HYPERACTIVITY (at least two of the following)

  • runs about or climbs on things excessively
  • difficulty sitting still; fidgets excessively
  • moves excessively during sleep
  • always "on the go".




If your son has several of the above-listed symptoms, he could well be ADD. (You don't HAVE ADD . . .you ARE ADD!). Check with others to see if these behaviors exist in all settings (e.g., school, home, activities). If the behaviors are generalized, you may want to consider medication. Your doctor or a neurologist may be able to assist you with this difficult - and highly personal - decision.

The use of psychotrophic medications (e.g., Ritalin) has increased astronomically in recent years. The reason for this increase is simple ... Ritalin works! It makes a significant and positive change in the behavior/performance of approximately 75% of the children who take it. But we must remain ever-mindful that Ritalin is a PILL . . . not a SKILL! The medication alone will not make a lasting change in the performance of your child. You must continue to use specialized techniques and approaches at home and at school.

If you decide to administer Ritalin, below are some tips that you may find helpful:

  • Some kids have a diminished appetite while on this medication. Encourage him to eat large meals at the times when the medication's effects are wearing off. Provide nutritious foods throughout the day.
  • Resist the temptation to increase the dosage when the child is having a "bad day". Follow Doctor's orders!
  • Talk to you physician about "drug holidays" (skipping medication on weekends or vacations). This strategy is a source of much debate among professionals.
  • Establish a dosage schedule mindful of the fact that the most noticeable effects of the medication occur within the first two hours of taking the drug.
  • Avoid starting the medication simultaneously with a major life change (e.g., a move, family crisis or new school year).
  • William Sears, M.D. recommends the following:
    • usual dosage ranges from.3 to .8 milligrams per kilogram of body weight.
    • most doctors begin the dosage at .3 mg/kg and then lowers or increases the dosage based upon parental and school reports of behavior change.
    • begin the medication on a Saturday to allow you to observe your son's response first-hand.
    • the first morning dose is most effective when given AFTER breakfast.
    • if sleep disturbances occur, ask your doctor about decreasing or eliminating the late afternoon dose.

I hope this helped!

Dear Rick,

I am a school counselor at a public school. I am responsible for administering tests and composing reports on the assessments that I conduct.

On the forms that I must complete, I am required to analyze and record the student's "testing behavior". What sort of behaviors should I look for during a testing session?

Mike B.
Regina, Saskatchewan

Dear Mike,

Good question, Mike. Testing sessions can cause great anxiety for students with Learning Disorders. It is important that the examiner observes and records the student's behavior in the testing report. This enables the reader of the report to analyze the student's performance within the context of the child's attitude and behavior during the testing session. For example, if the child was very nervous and anxious during the testing, the assessment results may be a bit depressed.

In the report, you will want to record the following behaviors:

  • What was the child's initial reaction to the session? Did his behavior improve or deteriorate during the session?
  • How did the child react to the examiner?
  • Were there observable signs of anxiety or tension?
  • Was eye contact made and maintained?
  • Was there inappropriate fidgeting or nervous actions?
  • Did the child seem comfortable (e.g., remove his coat, sat willingly)?
  • How was the student's reaction time?
  • Did his responses seem delayed, blocked or inconsistent?
  • Was the student negative?
  • How did he handle himself when he answered questions correctly? Incorrectly?
  • Did his responses seem impulsive or well-thought-out?
  • Impulsive answers often indicate high levels of anxiety.
  • Negative responses ("I'm so stupid . . . I should know this stuff!") can be indicative of low self-esteem.
  • Blocked or delayed responses can indicate a lack of knowledge and/or lack of confidence.
  • Are responses nonsensical or immature?
  • Does the student often ask to have items or directions repeated?
  • Is the child critical of his own responses?
  • A student who asks to have items repeated may have a hearing or a processing problem.
  • Are his verbalizations verbose?
  • Are there any peculiarities in his speech?
  • Are her responses spontaneous?
  • Excessive verbalizations can indicate high anxiety and an attempt to delay or derail the testing process.
  • Is the child's language hesitant?
  • Students with organizational difficulties may appear to be handling the testing session well initially, but the performance deteriorates greatly as the session continues.
  • Does the student respond negatively in a timed situation?
  • How does the student make the transition from one test to the next?
  • Does the child's interest in the session wane over time?
  • Is the student motivated? Cooperative? Easily frustrated?
  • How does the child separate from his parents?
  • Did you need to divide the session into shorter mini-sessions? Did the student often get off task?
  • Was the child tangential or distracted?
  • Did the student often ask for confirmation of feedback about her performance?
  • Did the examiner know the child previous to the session?
  • Did the child ask to stop the session at any time?

Remember, Mike . . . all behavior sends a message! The student's reaction to the examiner provides clues to the child's attitude, learning style and problem areas.

Dear Rick,

I have heard you speak several times and I love your videos. I am a Special Education teacher and a part-time Graduate Student, majoring in Administration. I would like to ask your opinion on the movement to change the term "Learning Disabilities" to "Learning Different". Wouldn't that be a more sensitive term to use?

Paula B., San Diego

I'm afraid I can't agree, Paula. The "Learning Difference" movement is - in my opinion - well-intentioned but a bit misguided. You see, America's culture today DEMANDS that any productive citizen be able to deal effectively with language. If you are unable to do so . . . you have a disability.

I believe that - by calling this a "difference" - you belie the complexity and severity of this problem which impacts on millions of American children and their families. Frankly, we are having difficulty getting legislators and political decision makers to respond to Learning DISABILITIES . . . by changing the name to DIFFERENCE, the problem seems minimized and our support will wane ever further!

That being said, I agree strongly with the "People First" movement which encourages us to refer to folks with special needs in a more sensitive manner. For example, they encourage us to refer to students as "children with Learning Disabilities" rather than "Learning Disabled children". Makes sense!

Like most people, I tire of the new trend toward political correctness! People have become so overly-sensitive that we all constantly find ourselves "on guard" so that we don't offend anyone. I recently saw a bumpersticker which said "Political Correctness means always having to say you are sorry." The "PC Movement" has gotten out of hand! I was recently told that I shouldn't consider myself short but - rather - "vertically challenged!" Wow!

Yes, the PC Movement has gone too far. HOWEVER, we must remain mindful that the roots of this movement were well-intentioned. Historically, the lexicon of Americans were filled with words that were hurtful to minorities or . . . particularly . . . to the disabled. The old adage that "sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never hurt me" is simply untrue. Words do hurt. Words can harm people. The sensitive and caring individual should be aware of the tremendous impact that words can have on others.

One of my favorite poems - which I often use with children - is entitled "Baltimore". It was written by African-American poet Countee Cullen when he was in his late thirties:

Once riding through old Baltimore
Heart-filled, head-filled with glee,
I saw a Baltimorean
Keep looking straight at me

Now I was eight and very small
And he was not bigger
And so I smiled but he poked out
His tongue and called me "Nigger".

I saw the whole of Baltimore
From May until December
But of all things that happened there
That's all that I remember.

It is important to be sensitive when speaking to or about people with disabilities. We must be sure that our language or our words do not impact the dignity of the disabled person. Below are some thoughts on this important issue:

  • The word "disabled" is more acceptable than "handicapped."
  • The following words and phrases are generally viewed as insensitive and inappropriate:
    • restricted to/confined to a wheel chair ("uses a wheelchair" is better)
    • normal (use "non-disabled")
    • birth defect (use "disabled since birth")
    • fits (use "seizures")
    • deformed
    • suffer from . . .
  • When talking to a person who has a disability, speak directly to the person, not through a companion.
  • When planning public social events, consider handicapped accessibility when selecting a location. You wouldn't think of holding an event where other minorities could not attend, so don't exclude people with disabilities.
  • Most people who use a wheelchair come to view it as part of their "body space." Therefore, don't lean on the chair when you speak to them.
  • If a disability is not germane to the topic or the conversation, don't mention it! (e.g., blind pianist, the computer programmer with the wheelchair, etc.)
  • The phrase "physically challenged" is falling out of favor. A colleague mine who has permanent paralysis in both legs told me, "I hate the phrase! 'Challenged' implies that the obstacle can be overcome if I just try hard enough. That's not reality! I am not challenged . . . I am disabled!"

As people with disabilities become increasingly integrated into our society we must recognize our responsibilities to create "user friendly" environments wherein they receive the acceptance and sensitivity that they deserve.

A friend of mine recently told me, "I used to say that my son had a birth defect. But then I realized that there are no birth defects. My son was made exactly the way God wanted him to be."

Dear Rick,

I am a high school Special Education teacher. One of my students is a 14 year old girl with a severe learning problem. She is basically a nice kid and motivated to learn but she continually gets involved in "power struggles" with me and my aide. I know that power struggles are common among adolescents. But Annie seems to have more than her share. Any suggestions?

Nancy M., Waterville, OH 

Dear Nancy,

Of course, I don't know Annie . . . but I'll bet that she is a kid who has very little power in her life outside of school. We all need some power and control in our lives. Kids from troubled families or kids who live in dangerous areas often feel very powerless . . . so they try to gain some power in the school environment. Thus . . . power struggles with staff.

Annie needs power. It makes little sense to withdraw all power from her when she needs it so badly. The solution? GIVE her some power . . .under controlled circumstances.

Some suggestions:

  • Let her win a power struggle on occasion. Avoid modeling stubbornness by refusing to "give in" once-in-a-while.
  • Always provide Annie with clear expectations and limits. This will reduce her claims of "unfair".
  • Give her input into activities and curriculum. ("Annie, next week we are going to begin studying Hawaii. I will be doing research over the weekend. Is there anything about Hawaii that you are curious about? I'll look the information up and make it part of the unit.") This is a real "rush" for a power-hungry kid.
  • Seek her advice and opinions . . . and then act on them. ("Annie, where do you think would be the best place to store the art supplies?")
  • Teach her leadership skills and give her genuine responsibility. Recognize, reinforce and reward her when she handles the responsibility well.
  • Develop a secret signal (e.g., tug on your earlobe) when a power struggle has gone too far.
  • Power hungry kids love deadlines. ("Annie, how long do you think it will take to finish this workbook page? Five minutes? OK, I'll set the timer. See if you can beat YOUR deadline!")
  • Don't attempt to use peer pressure to motivate or control her. Doesn't work!
  • Don't bear grudges. After a confrontation, be sure to wipe the slate clean.
  • Use Minor Choice Technique! For example, you want her to write a 200 word composition about her dog. You KNOW that the assignment will result in an argument and power struggle ("I don't want to write about my dog . . .why can't I write about my boat . . . etc., etc.") So . . . give her some power by providing her with a minor choice that she can make (e.g., "Annie, I want you to write a 200 word composition about your dog . . . would you rather use white paper or yellow paper.") In this way, she has some power . . . but your objective still gets met. It works!

This technique can be utilized and modified to avoid innumerable power struggles (e.g., "Annie, it's your turn to clean the Art area. Do you want to do it now or after lunch?" or "Annie, I want you to do half of the math problems on page 19. Would YOU prefer to do the odds or evens?")

Let us know how she does!


Dear Rick,

Early in October, I am scheduled to have a meeting with my child's teacher. I am seldom pleased with the results of these meetings and - despite the best efforts of me and the teacher - the meetings are rarely successful. What can I do to ensure that the next meeting will be more productive?

Nancy M., Sandusky, Ohio

Teacher/parent meetings can be frustrating for all parties involved! They often do not produce the desired results. My experience has been that you can greatly increase the success of these Conferences if you conceptualize the session as a process, having three distinct sections: BEFORE the Conference, DURING the Conference and AFTER the Conference.

Below are lists of activities that you can conduct in order to increase the effectiveness of the Parent/Teacher Conference.

BEFORE the Conference

  • Make a mutually convenient appointment: Unscheduled "Drop in" meetings are rarely successful. The teacher is unable to prepare for the session and interruptions (and resultant misunderstandings!) are inevitable.
  • Talk to your child: Tell your child that you will be meeting with his teacher. Ask him how things are going. Bring his perspective, concerns and questions to the meeting.
  • Review the child's file: Be aware of the child's current levels, needs and program.
  • Make a list: Write a list of the topics that you wish to discuss. This prevents the meeting from becoming overly tangential.
  • Develop a "vision": How do you want the meeting to end? What are you asking for? (e.g., "By the end of the meeting, I hope that Mrs. Pacheco will agree to give Billy some extra spelling help and that she will stop deducting points from compositions for misspellings."
  • Develop a script: Parent/Teacher Conferences can be intimidating and anxiety producing. Don't hesitate to prepare (and practice!) a script in order to ensure that you are clearly understood.
  • Be on time: Punctuality reflects your concern for your child . . . and your respect for the professional.

DURING the Conference

  • Take someone with you: If you feel that it would be helpful, bring someone (e.g., spouse, friend, etc.) with you to the Conference. It is always a good idea to let the teacher know that you will be accompanied by someone.
  • Begin the Conference on a positive note: A kind and generous comment at the beginning of the session will set a positive tone for the meeting.
  • Don't just bring problems . . . bring solutions: Be prepared with some suggestions to offer and some solutions to your concerns. This will be appreciated by the teacher! (e.g., "Bill is afraid of Michael. Would it be possible to move their seats and place them in different Reading and Recess groups?")
  • LISTEN: Be an active listener! Focus on the teachers comments and be responsive to them. A good listener is like a good dancer . . . respond, react and reflect upon your "partner's" movements.
  • Take and use notes: Don't hesitate to take notes during the session or to use notes that you have taken as you prepared for the Conference. You will be discussing important and complex matters and you shouldn't depend solely on your memory. Explain to the teacher that you require this memory aid.
  • Be assertive . . . not aggressive: Let your feelings, opinions and concerns be known. Don't be bullied . . . but don't BE a bully either!
  • Avoid ANGER, DEFENSIVENESS and APOLOGIES: You and the teacher are adults who both have the child's best interests at heart. Conduct the meeting in the spirit of cooperation, trust and mutual respect.
  • End the Conference on a positive note: Even if there was a degree of conflict or disagreement during the Conference, try to end the session positively by thanking the teacher and discussing some area of common agreement.

AFTER the Conference

  • Discuss the Conference with the child: Ask for his perception of the issues that you discussed. Be supportive of the teacher. Avoid "bushwhacking" the child! For example:

Mom: "Have you been doing your homework in Mr. Middleton's class?"
Child: "Yes, Mom, I have!"
Mom: "NO YOU HAVEN'T!! He told me today that you have missed six Math assignments and seven Language Arts essays and BLAH, BLAH, BLAH."

If you have information . . . share it with the child! Bushwhacking only serves to decrease the child's trust in you!

Try this:

Mom: "Danny, Mr. Middleton told me today that you have missed several Math and Language Arts homework assignments. Do you have an explanation for this?"

  • Act quickly upon the teacher's suggestions or recommendations: For example, if the teacher recommends a hearing exam, set up an appointment as soon as possible. This demonstrates your responsiveness and willingness to cooperate.
  • Send a note: Drop the teacher a note and thank her for her input and assistance. It is always appreciated to send a copy of the note to the Principal!

The Parent/Teacher Conference provides the adults in a child's life with an invaluable opportunity to work cooperatively in the child's best interests! Use that time wisely and productively! Avoid allowing egos, pettiness, mistrust or territoriality to sabotage this process. It is crucial that parents and school work cooperatively together in a spirit of mutual respect and trust. The child's ultimate success depends upon it!

Remember the sage African proverb:

"When elephants fight, it's the grass that gets trampled!"


Thought for the Month:

"If you have to tell a kid the same thing 1,000 times
and that kid STILL doesn't understand,
it's not just the kid who hasn't learned."

Dear Rick,

I am an elementary resource teacher of students with Learning Disabilities. I pull children to give them help with reading, math and writing. I feel that I am doing a good job with reading and math. With writing, I feel that I need ideas. What materials would you suggest? I am currently using SRA Reasoning and Writing. Is there something out there that is better than this? I have students in grades 1-6. Please shed some light on writing instruction. Thank you in advance.

S. Reed

Dear S. Reed,

I agree! The Writing Process is, undoubtedly, the most difficult of the Language Arts . . . particularly for kids with Learning Disorders. The act of writing is an INTEGRATIVE PROCESS which requires students to synchronize all "developmental functions", including:

Attention Cognition
Processing Motor Skills
Production Social Ability
Memory Language

In addition to the obvious challenges that this presents, the student must also focus on accuracy, speed, sophistication and automaticity. It is easy to understand why writing presents such a challenge to the young child.

Students often have difficulty generating stories or thoughts in writing. Here at Riverview School, we utilize a writing technique known as the Kerrigan Method. It is an extraordinarily effective and productive approach and the kids love it! Students who have never been able to produce a composition, suddenly find themselves composing lengthy and detailed essays. Try it! It works!

This teaching method was developed by William I. Kerrigan (1974). This method has been used successfully to teach junior high through college students how to write compositions. It has been used with both remedial and regular students, and it combines many of the aspects of the content and craft. This procedure contains factors that are relevant to the needs of the LD adolescent. Specifically, it is a highly structured program; it approaches writing in a step-by-step fashion; and it allows students to interject their own creative ideas and experiences in the writing act.

The goal of the method is to produce well-written themes characterized by the use of (1) a theme sentence that announces its point at once; (2) a topic sentence for each paragraph that is clearly and directly related to the theme sentence; (3) paragraphs that are clearly and directly related to their topic sentences and are well developed; (4) specific examples, and (5) the use of a transitional phrase in the second and third topic sentences to link them tot he paragraphs preceding them.


Write a short, simple, declarative sentence that makes one statement. While it is legitimate to write any sentence, it is best if they choose a sentence about which something else can be written. For example, "My name is Joe Schumk." is not a very good sentence to choose. "Coal is being used less and less." would be a better sentence because more could be written about that sentence.

Kerrigan suggests that for this program the initial sentence (call it sentence X) should not be a sentence that is descriptive (tells how something looks) or narrative (tells what happened or introduces a process; tells how to make or do something). Since his program is designed to teach students how to write about relationships of ideas, sentences about ideas should be used. Step One seems very simple, but the advantage of this method for LD students is that it helps them build compositions in steps and gain skills and confidence along the way.


Write three sentences about the sentence in Step One that are clearly and directly about the whole of that sentence, not just something in it. A brief explanation of the key words in this step will clarify its intent.

First, each of the three sentences must be written about the whole of sentence X, not just a part of it. Students commonly choose one word or phrase in sentence X about which to write all three statements. This does not deal with the whole idea of the sentence.

Secondly, the three sentences must clearly and directly speak about sentence X. The reader wants to know how each sentence is related to the topic sentence. This must be clear to the reader at once. To write sentences in Step Two, Kerrigan suggests that students decide what kinds of questions a reader might naturally ask after reading sentence X.


Write four or five sentences about each of the three sentences in Step Two. The four to five sentences written for each of the sentences in Step Two are to be about the whole of each sentence and relate directly and clearly to that sentence, just as the first three sentences were to relate to sentence X.

X. I dislike winter.
1. I dislike the winter cold.
2. I dislike having to wear the heavy winter clothing that cold weather requires.
3. I dislike the colds that, despite heavy clothing, I always get in the winter.

X. I dislike winter.
1. I dislike the winter cold. It makes me shiver. It chaps my lips. It can even freeze my ears.
2. I dislike having to wear the heavy winter clothing that cold weather requires. I have to wear earmuffs. I have to wear galoshes. I have to wear a heavy coat. I have to wear long underwear.
3. I dislike the colds that, despite heavy clothing, I always get in the winter. They stop up my nose. They give me a cough. They give me a fever. They make me miss school.

This format is to be used throughout the program as it helps students see the relationships of the sentences to each other.


Work with the student to design Transitions between the sentences to make it "read more smoothly" but - VIOLA - the composition virtually writes itself! A big rush for kids who have never been able to write a composition before.

Dear Rick,

At what age should you tell your child about their learning disability and how do you do that, given the exact problem is not so clear to the parent (i.e., clearly there are language processing problems, but no exact "label" or diagnosis)?


Dear Friend,

I am a big believer in Mel Levine's concept of DE-MYSTIFICATION. As parents and professionals, we should speak frankly and directly to kids about their strengths, weaknesses and needs.

A parent once said to me, "Don't tell my son that he has a learning disability. He doesn't know it yet." Sure he does. He knows it. He LIVES it! By giving him accurate information about the "dragon that he fights daily", he will come to better understand his problems and is far less likely to view himself as "dumb" or "stupid". Information is power!

Of course, you want to consider the developmental age of your child when you share this information with him or her. You should use language that is readily understandable lest you overwhelm or confuse the child.

I offer this analogy whenever a parent talks to a child about an important or sensitive topic (e.g., sex, racism, divorce, death, etc.) Think of your child as an empty drinking glass . . . no information in it. Think of yourself as a full water pitcher . . . brimming with information about the topic. Now, slowly pour some of your information into the glass . . . but be sure to STOP when the glass is full. It would be foolish to attempt to pour the entire pitcher of information into the much smaller glass.

Fill the glass . . . then put the pitcher down . . . refill the glass slowly as it empties. Sometimes we try to give all of the information at the same time. The kid simply can't hold it!

Martha Benoff, a Philadelphia psychologist, has developed a set of invaluable guidelines to assist parents in explaining Disabilities in a developmentally-appropriate manner:


  • Stress the positive.
  • Explain that the child will learn, but needs to learn differently.
  • In describing the learning process, use the analogy of a race in which everybody finishes, but some of us take longer than others.
  • Help the child feel that all the significant adults in his world - parents, grandparents, teachers - are on his side and will help him find the "keys" to learning more easily.
  • If you had similar difficulties as a child, use yourself as an example to emphasize how problems can be overcome.


  • Use language she'll understand: "It's not easy for you to perk up your ears" (or some other phrase for good listening that the child hears all the time.)
  • Talk in terms of "things you need to work on a little more."
  • Describe the academic help she'll be getting in a concrete, upbeat way that sounds like a team effort: "Your teacher, Daddy, and I know some games we can play to work on your ABCs."
  • Whenever possible, demonstrate your child's situation. If you're talking about the importance of looking at her teacher, for example, stoop down close to the child and gently put her face in your hands so that you are looking directly into each other's eyes.
  • Pay attention to your child's signals and don't overload her. If she puts her hands over her ears, she's heard enough for now.


  • Use language he'll understand. "It's not your fault that some things are harder for you to learn than others. Your brain is like a radio with too much noise. We have to tune in the way you learn, just like we tune in the music clearly."
  • Follow his lead, including any problems he mentions, and help come up with remedial strategies: "Instead of telling you three or four things to do when you go upstairs, I'll try telling you just one thing at a time so you can remember it more easily."
  • Describe the academic help he'll be getting in upbeat terms: "You'll be going to the resource room because Mrs. Jones knows some tricks for turning kids into better readers."
  • Give him some coping skills for being "different". For example, you might role-play what to say if a classmate teases him: "I'm good at math but I need Mrs. Jones to help me with reading."

10 TO 12 YEARS

  • Use language she'll understand: "It's not your fault that you have weakness in the way you learn. It's like some wires got crossed, and they were plugged into the wrong holes."
  • Help reassure her about her feelings: "We know that you're really smart. Different things are just harder for different people."
  • Don't be surprised if the child talks about classmates who have already been tested and diagnosed (many kids this age are aware that peers are "LD", without necessarily understanding it).
  • Elicit her help in cataloging her strengths and weaknesses: "You know you're really good at . . . but you need some help with . . . "

Dear Rick,

My son is an eight year old dyslexic in third grade. They will be learning cursive this year and I've been thinking about insisting that he not focus on that. My intuitive feelings are that if he spends the time working on printing letters, it will help him. Also, since I hope he will be able to use a laptop next year, I'd rather have him devote the time to keyboarding. Finally, I keep searching for a real good reason as to why script is important to master.

Any thoughts or suggestions? Many thanks for all your help.

Phyllis B., Branchburg, NJ

Dear Phyllis,

Your instincts are sound! I have come to have great respect for the instincts of parents! Parents have proved me wrong too many times.

Many students with learning problems are able to learn cursive . . . and there are advantages to this. There is a natural momentum and rhythm to cursive that often enables kids to produce neater and more consistent handwriting. The cursive alphabet is also less vulnerable to reversals because letters (e.g., b,p,q,d) do not look similar in cursive.

Cursive writing also allows kids to see words as "whole units". There is an attractive consistency to cursive letter formations (e.g., spacing and alignment is improved because all letters are joined; all lower case letters begin at the baseline, etc.)

However, other kids have great difficulty learning cursive and - in my opinion - I don't think that this is a "battle" worth fighting. Many, many adults (70-80% in a recent informal survey) actually use MANUSCRIPT rather than CURSIVE when they write. Why, then, is it necessary to learn how to write in cursive when most adults abandon this technique in later life? Good question.

I generally do not require kids to learn cursive if they prefer to print. HOWEVER, students who have never learned how to WRITE in cursive often have difficulty READING cursive. If you choose to allow kids to print, make sure that your provide instruction in READING cursive. As adults, you are seldom required to WRITE in cursive . . .but often required to READ cursive!

Dear Rick,

How will you deal with a teacher who is a yeller? And it happens she is a special education teacher.

Faye A., Waldorf, MD

Dear Faye,

Old Yeller, huh? What an ineffective way to deal with kids! Numerous research studies indicate that - when you yell at a kid - he doesn't hear the message - he only hears the yelling.

Whenever I am asked to consult with a school that has a "yeller", I take him/her aside and ask one question: "Think about the most recent time in your life when someone yelled at YOU! How did this make you feel? Did the yeller get the message across? Was it an effective way to communicate?

Most "yellers" acknowledge that yelling is an ineffective and intimidating way to communicate. It is abusive. Don't do it!


Thought for the Month:

On the fallacy of grades and grading . . .

"A grade is an inadequate report of an inaccurate judgment by a
biased and variable judge of the extent to which a student has
attained an undefined level of mastery of an unknown
proportion of an indefinite amount of material."

Dr. T. Roger Taylor

Dear Rick,

I am a parent support/child advocacy worker for my local LDA Chapter and find an increasing number of parents have decided not to provide the school with specific assessment material from the children's private psycho-educational assessments. The reason, they say, is revealing the diagnosis (they call it a label) will cause school personnel to lower their expectations for their child. I feel providing this information is key to appropriate services and teaching. Can you provide your position on this issue and why?

BC, Canada

Dear Clair,

I agree wholeheartedly with you! As you may know, I spend much of my time addressing groups of teachers. So often they complain that they are simply not provided with sufficient diagnostic information to design and implement programs for their students with special needs. Therefore, it would be - I think - counter-productive for parents to withhold this valuable information from teachers.

Here's an analogy: What if you were diagnosed with diabetes or a seizure disorder that could cause you to have sudden and unpredictable episodes. Would you refuse to wear a Medic Alert bracelet because others might "lower their expectations" of you? I think not.

I guess that my frustration is showing a bit. For the past quarter century, many of us have worked very hard to establish and maintain the rights of the disabled to "free, public and appropriate education:. It is frustrating to hear about folks who refuse to access and utilize these rights because of some misconception.

It has been my experience that teachers need this diagnostic information in order to design effective programs for their students. No one (including me!) enjoys "labeling" or "classifying" kids! But . . . without a LABEL there are no rights or services.

Encourage these parents to be open, forthcoming and frank with the educators in their child's life! Their kids' progress and growth depends on it.

Dear Rick,

I had seen the F.A.T. City workshop tape several years ago and thought it was great. I recently showed it to my son's high school principal because my son is still having difficulties in school. She thought it was great and wants all her staff to see it. Personally, I think it should be required viewing for every teacher and parent! Thank you for producing that work.

Now for my questions.

Is it just laziness and a lack of motivation or a form of learning disability? My son has a great deal of trouble actually sitting down, getting organized and doing his homework. Almost everyone else gets their homework done and turned in on time. When he does do the work he gets good grades generally. This year he was told he would be off the football team and wouldn't be allowed to continue driving if his grades suffered. He loves football and was always eager to drive. Now, he's off the team and we won't let him drive (two D's and an F). It seems to us he had plenty to motivate him but none of it was effective. What motivates the other kids doesn't seem to have much effect on him.

So how can I tell if this is just laziness or lack of the right motivator or if there is some form of real learning disability? Or is "laziness" a form of learning disability itself?

John M.

Dear John,

Thanks for your kind words about the F.A.T. City video. The success of the film is very humbling for me. We made the video over a decade ago and never anticipated its success! Tens of thousands of copies are in distribution and it is very popular in Europe, Australia and South America. I recently received a fax from a gentleman in New Zealand who uses the video to train fire investigators! WOW!

Your letter raises several important and probing issues. Candidly, I am not surprised that the imposition of restrictions and punishment have not helped to motivate your son. Punishment seldom improves a kid's performance.

Punishment has very limited effectiveness and it doesn't appear to be effective in this case, does it? Of course, in some instances, punishment (consequences) are necessary, but always remember the following:

  • Punishment does not eliminate misbehavior, it merely represses or suppresses it.
  • Punishment does not provide a model for the desired, acceptable behavior . . . it doesn't show them what to do, it only shows them what not to do.
  • Punishment models aggression!
  • Punishment often merely results in fear, anxiety, tension, stress and anger . . . the REAL message isn't sent or received.
  • In the mind of the child, the punishment is often associated with the PUNISHER, not the undesirable behavior!
  • Punishment seldom generalizes to other settings.
  • Punishment is only effective as long as the threat of punishment exists. (Note how you resume your speed once you pass the patrol car parked by the side of the highway??)

I always caution parents and teachers from labeling kids as "lazy". Very often the child is mislabled as "lazy" and "unmotivated" when - in actuality - the child suffers from LEARNED HELPLESSNESS.

Learned Helplessness occurs when a child confronts repeated failure and frustration. After a while, the child comes to believe that failure is inevitable and unavoidable. Their response is, therefore, to simply stop trying. What sense does it make to put forth effort if you feel that failure is pre-ordained? A kid in this situation needs guidance, remediation, assistance, support and encouragement . . . not punishment.

I am sure that your son's lack of progress is troubling for you. Your attempt to motivate him by punishing him appears to be ineffective. Maybe it's time to try another avenue. I would suggest that you contact his school to discuss this issue with his teachers and counselors.


Thought for the Month:

"In regular education, the SYSTEM dictates the curriculum. In special education, the CHILD dictates the curriculum."

Laurence Lieberman

Dear Rick,

My eight year old son is doing much better in school now that he is receiving the remedial help he needs. His teachers report that he is making real progress in all academic areas. However, he continues to have difficulty making and keeping friends. What can I do to help?

Sarah P.
Lubbock, TX

Dear Sarah,

Learning to play with age-mates is a natural process for most children. However, children with social skill deficits often find this process to be a puzzling one filled with pitfalls and pain. These children need guidance and instruction in order to recognize the behaviors that peers find appealing and those that result in rejection. Even when the troubling behavior is identified and isolated, the child may be unable to control it due to his impulsive nature.

In order to improve the child's social skills, he must have a wide variety of play experiences . . . inside and outside the family unit. Use board games and card games as a "laboratory" to demonstrate and remediate social competence sub-skills. By mastering the rules of these games, the child is also better able to participate in similar activities with peers at school. The child should be taught to be equally gracious in victory and defeat.

Parents can also assist older children in "recruiting" a companion. Plan an attractive activity and have your child invite a companion to participate. Avoid selecting an activity that is totally passive and will allow the two children to ignore one another (e.g. baseball game, movie, etc.). Rather, select an activity that will allow for some interaction and sharing (e.g., miniature golf, model building, bowling, etc.). Again, the parent should initially plan to monitor the situation carefully and assist in maintaining the flow of conversation.

In order to select a potential companion for your child, you may want to contact the teacher for advice and counsel. Perhaps the child has established a relationship with a classmate of which you are unaware. Students with social deficits may have established a negative "reputation" among age-appropriate peers in the neighborhood or town in which he resides. These reputations, once firmly established, are exceedingly difficult to change. The parent may want to consider the drastic step of enrolling the child in an activity group (e.g., Scouts) in a neighboring town. This strategy presents transportation difficulties . . . but allows the student to enjoy a "fresh start" with a group of peers with no preconceived notions about him or his behavior."

This recommendation of "arranged friendships" may seem like a throwback to the days of "arranged marriages" but they provide the child with the assistance that they require in order to initiate a peer relationship. The parent may wish to explore the possibility of formalizing this process by establishing a social group of students with special needs wherein the group participates in structured and monitored activities. This will also provide the child with a new "pool" of potential friends. Also explore volunteer work, church groups and other community-based activities for possible participation for the child.

Dear Rick,

I am a single mom with three kids. My middle child, Tommy, is ten years old and has learning and attentional problems. I am able to communicate effectively with my other kids but I have great difficulty conversing with Tommy. I can't get him to talk about school . . . or much else for that matter. Are there some tips that would help me to communicate more effectively with him?

Kathleen O.
Ocala, FL

Dear Kathleen,

In order to be an effective advocate for the child, the parent must establish an open and candid line of communication. The child must view the parent as a trustworthy and nonjudgmental source of advice, counsel and wisdom. Parents must be aware of the appropriate TIME and MANNER when attempting to discuss sensitive issues with the child. Oftentimes the parent will attempt to initiate a conversation with the child immediately upon his arrival home from school. The child - who would prefer to involve himself in a recreational activity rather than in a parental discussion - generally responds to the questions in monosyllables. Try talking to the child at bedtime . . . you will often find that he is far more eager to involve himself in a lengthy conversation with you because the competing activity (going to bed) is far less appealing.

When having a discussion or conversation with a learning disabled child, be mindful of the difficulty that these children have when attempting to process and comprehend spoken language. Consider. If you ask an adult an open-ended question (e.g., "What did you think of the recent election?"), you receive a lengthy, detailed response (e.g., "Well, there were several issues that, I feel, the electorate totally ignored. For example, the issue of . . . ") Conversely, if you ask a specific question (e.g., "Who did you vote for?"), you receive a short, specific response (e.g., "The Democrat.").

The opposite is true for the child with a language disorder. If you ask an open-ended question, you receive a brief answer (e.g., "How was school?"; "Good."). However, if you ask a specific question, you receive a detailed, lengthy response (e.g., "How was Science class today?"; "It was neat! Mr. Grinsell brought in this cool frog and he showed us how . . . ").

By asking specific questions, you provide the child with the structure he needs in order to develop a detailed response. It is also helpful to ask leading questions in order to keep the flow of the conversation going (e.g., "What happened first? Next? etc.").

Dear Rick,

I attended your recent speech in Oxnard, California. I really enjoyed it and plan to utilize many of your suggestions for my son. However, one of your recommendations was to involve the child in local community activities in order to foster social skills.

Two years ago, Benny joined the Little League but he had great difficulty being accepted by his teammates. It was very painful for him - and for his Mom and I. We are all gun-shy to have him get involved in another similar activity. Any suggestions?

Benjamin J.
St. Paul, MN

Dear Benjamin,

All parents are forced - at one time or another - to observe their child facing pain, frustration or difficulty. This is always troubling for parents. If a child has chronic social deficits, the parents observe firsthand the rejection and isolation that the child experiences. As a result, these parents often become overprotective and unwilling to risk placing the child in new or threatening social situations (e.g., joining scouts, Little League, church groups, etc.).

Parents must be mindful of this tendency and should do all that is possible to avoid this behavior pattern which only serves to further isolate the isolated child. Parents should encourage children to become more involved in such structured social settings. In order to prevent these situations from becoming problematic, it is important to remain mindful of the fact that, the parent has two major responsibilities whenever the child is entering a new or unique social situation:


For example, suppose your son is interested in joining a local Scout troop. Prepare the child for this experience by taking him to the meeting hall on the evening PRIOR to the initial meeting. Acquaint him with the setting and explain the "off-limits" areas to him. Let him explore the room, find the bathrooms and examine the various aspects of the environment. In this way, he will be familiar with the setting when he attends the initial meeting the following night. This increases the chances of his behaving appropriately at the all-important first session.

It is equally important that the parent prepare the SITUATION for the CHILD. Call the adult group leader prior to the child's enrollment in the program. Clearly communicate your child's social needs and limitations. Inform the leader about any specific needs or concerns that the child may have. Parents are often reluctant to do this because they feel that it is meddling and will be resented by the group leader. In most cases, the opposite is true. This pro-active approach is generally appreciated by the leader who is able to modify and adjust his plans to accommodate the child's needs.

The parents' goals should be two-fold for the child who is rejected by peers and - as a result - spends a good deal of time alone. The first goal is to decrease that isolated time by assisting the child in establishing relationships with neighborhood children or classmates. Invite potential friends to come to your home for structured, monitored activities. Initially, the parent should serve as a proctor for these activities but this involvement should lessen on subsequent visits. It is suggested that only one friend be invited at a time. The learning disabled child is often over-stimulated by the presence of small groups.

The second objective for the isolated child is to assist him in developing hobbies or interests that will enable him to spend his solitary time in productive and rewarding pursuits. Encourage the child's interest in music, arts and crafts, puzzles, gardening or collecting (baseball cards, coins, stamps). Although these individual pursuits are not replacements for social interactions, they are far preferable to the child's spending hours in depressed, brooding solitude.

Parents can play a role in the fostering of social competence at a very young age. Toddlers and pre-school children seldom become involved in genuine play. Rather, they spend hours in "parallel play" wherein two children play separately but within inches or feet of one another. This phenomenon can be readily observed at a beach or nursery school playroom. Dozens of children play independently without talking, sharing or acknowledging one another. They seldom speak to one another although they may subvocalize a running dialogue about their own actions (e.g., "Now I am going to build a tower and put the green car on top of it.").

Children with distractibility or attentional problems may have difficulty participating in parallel play. They often intrude on the "space" of their classmates or impulsively grab an attractive toy or plaything from another. When such a problem occurs, gently remove the child from the situation and engage him in a quiet game or activity. Require him to participate in group play for brief periods and gradually increase the length of the sessions.

It is important for parents to observe their child in a variety of social interactions in order to recognize and identify the social strengths and needs. This will give you an opportunity to pinpoint the social problems that the child is experiencing and provide remedial assistance and guidance. Socially inept children are often unaware of the behaviors (impulsivity, hyperactivity, perseveration, distractibility) that cause their rejection by peers. By observing the child and providing post-activity autopsies, the troubling behaviors can be identified and eliminated.

Good luck. Hope this helps.


Thought for the Month:

"More-and-more our field becomes reliant upon measurable data when examining the behavior of troubled kids . . . checklists, inventories, etc. This is an unfortunate trend because it diminishes our reliance on intuition. You must trust that you understand more about a child than you can prove you know. When I review a teacher's Rating Scale on a kid, I often learn more about the teacher than the student!"

My child does not make friends well in school. She wants friends but does not have any. What can I do to help?

S. Williams

Dear Friend,

Social Skill Development is one of the greatest challenges that parents of Special Needs children face. The social competence of a child will determine his self-esteem, friendships and adjustment to school life. But perhaps most importantly, social competence will determine his ultimate success and adjustment in the Adult World. The research clearly indicates that the Quality of Life for adults with Learning Disabilities is determined primarily by their social skills . . . not their academic skills.

Below are some suggestions from the print material that accompanies my video "Last One Picked ... First One Picked On: The Social Implications of Learning Disabilities".

  • Observe your child in a wide variety of social situations (e.g., classroom, scout meetings, free play). This will enable you to gain a deeper understanding of his social strengths and weaknesses.
  • Design an unobtrusive "signal system" with the child to use in social situations. For example, if the child tends to perseverate (talking about only one topic which often is not of interest to the listener) design a signal (touch your nose with your finger, cross your arms) that tells him to change the topic or cease the discussion. In this way, you can halt troubling behaviors without causing undue embarrassment or conflict.
  • Establish reward systems to reinforce and recognize appropriate social behavior. Be willing to recognize and reinforce even the smallest signs of progress and growth.
  • Enroll the child in group activities and pursuits. When selecting these activities, consider the child's interest and abilities. If you are fearful that the child may be rejected by others because of his negative reputation, enroll him in activities in another neighborhood or town. Thereby, he can begin with a "clean slate".
  • Continually reinforce social information. Many social skill deficits are caused by a lack of basic social information (e.g., all odd numbered houses are on one side of the street; mayonnaise must be refrigerated; mail deliveries are made only once daily). Never miss an opportunity to teach this invaluable information to a child. View every car ride or trip to the store as a "classroom" for social information.
  • Make transitions easier for the child. Students with social skill deficits often have difficulty "changing gears" from one activity to another. This is particularly true when going from an enjoyable activity (e.g., a game) to a less pleasurable one (e.g., math drills). In order to ensure a smoother transition, be certain to "wind down" the enjoyable activity by providing a warning signal several minutes prior to the end of the activity. As each minute passes, inform the child of how much time remains before the activity will conclude.
  • Work on one behavior or social skill at a time. By focusing the child's attention and efforts on a single skill for a period of time, he is less confused and more responsive to your intervention.
  • Utilize "real life" or television shows to teach valuable social skills. Discuss the behaviors of significant, high status people (e.g., "On that TV show, how did the policeman make the frightened woman feel more comfortable and at ease?")
  • Provide the child with choices whenever possible (e.g., "I want you to clean your room now. Do you want to pick up your toys or make up your bed first?"). This approach fosters independence and problem solving skills. It also increases the child's ownership of the task or activity.
  • Provide the child with a positive model of appropriate social skills. Be certain that your behavior mirrors the skills that you are teaching your students (e.g., temper control, courteous listening).
  • Don't necessarily discourage the child from establishing relationships with students who are a year or two younger than he is. He may be seeking his developmentally appropriate level. By befriending younger students, he may enjoy a degree of status and acceptance that he does not experience among his peers.
  • Don't scold or reprimand the child when he tells you about social confrontations or difficulties that he has experienced. He will respond by refusing to share these incidents with you. Rather, thank him for sharing the experience with you and discuss optional strategies that he could have used.
  • Avoid attempting to teach social skills at times of high stress. Rather approach the child at a time when he is relaxed and receptive (e.g., "Meghan, next week you will be going to Jilly's birthday party. Let's practice how you will hand her your gift and what you will say when she opens it and thanks you.").

Dear Rick,

I look forward to reading your column every month. I am a Special Education teacher at a public elementary school and I have a problem. However, my difficulty is not with a kid; it's with a colleague!

My special education colleague in the adjoining room is basically a good person and a pretty good teacher. But I often see and hear her doing things with kids that really trouble me. She yells a lot and embarrasses the kids for petty infractions. She brags that her students behave well for her . . . but it is because they are afraid of her. And, frankly, their positive behaviors don't generalize to other settings (her kids are the terrors of daily recess).

I feel guilty not confronting her about this. But how do I do it?

Katie in Missouri

Dear Katie,

I commend you for your willingness to confront this difficult issue. As a professional, it is imply unethical to "sit idly by" while kids are being mistreated. Your role as a child advocate requires you to react. But it ain't easy to confront a peer.

Some suggestions:

  • Reflect for a moment on the concept of the Johari Window. That concept holds that there is often information about ourselves that is obvious to others but less obvious to us. Perhaps your colleague is unaware of the nature and the impact of her behavior. For example, suppose you are supervising a group of students in an activity and you are accompanied by a colleague. Suppose you feel that the other staff person is being unnecessarily and unfairly critical of one particular child. You may be surprised to note that - if you bring this to her attention - she may be unaware of her behavior. Sometimes (oftentimes!) criticism is merely the act of making someone aware of her behavior at a time that she may not have this particular insight. You will often find that your "criticism", therefore, is very well accepted by your colleague.
  • Remember the old adage, "Praise in public, criticize in private." It is never appropriate to criticize a colleague in front of colleagues or kids. This type of input should always be delivered in private.
  • Make sure that the receiver of the criticism is paying attention and is emotionally ready to listen. It is never a good idea to offer criticisms or suggestions in an emotionally-charged environment. Wait until things calm down a bit.
  • Avoid criticizing someone when you are angry. If you offer valid criticism while you are angry, it is quite easy for the receiver of the criticism to feel that they are not at fault ... but merely that you are in a bad mood. Wait until you have calmed down before your discuss a delicate topic with a colleague.
  • Always reject the behavior ... not the person. Focus on your colleagues behavior and discuss the incident and your colleagues role in it. Avoid criticizing the person ... only criticize the behavior.
  • Your criticism or suggestion should be clear and specific. Use actual examples. In other words, it is ineffective to say, "You really have been hard on Jeffrey lately." Instead, it is more effective to say, "I have been concerned about the fact that you have not allowed Jeffrey to make an extra phone call this week although you allow the other kids to do so. I also felt that you were overly-demanding regarding the neatness of his locker yesterday."
  • Productive and constructive suggestions are best made immediately after the offending act. Do not wait for several days before you discuss the issue. Take the first opportunity after the situation has "calmed down" to discuss the incident with your colleague.
  • Try to show empathy when offering criticism. For example, it is helpful to say, "Sally, I know that you have been under a great deal of pressure lately because of reports but I am concerned about the way that you have been ..."
  • Avoid communicating superiority in knowledge, power or insight. If you communicate the idea that "you are better than your colleague", the message is generally not received.
  • It is never enough to simply criticize the behavior. You must also suggest corrective action. Tell the person what needs to be done.
  • After you have provided the criticism, it is best to walk away. If you begin to discuss another subject immediately after the criticism, the suggestions are often forgotten or ignored.
  • It is critically important to remember the words of Mark Twain (I think!). He once said, "No man has the right to take away the self-esteem of another." When you offer criticism, always make sure that you leave the person intact. Describe how you value the person and inform him that you will do all that you can to assist him as he attempts to change the troubling behavior.
  • It is very important to be certain that the information upon which you base the criticism is accurate. If you have not witnessed the infraction, ask your colleague for his or her perceptions of the incident. Tell them clearly the information that you have ... ask them if it is accurate. Always avoid criticizing someone unless you are certain that you have the facts straight.

If it helps, you might to try to think of it this way; suppose you see a colleague who is berating or embarrassing a child. Should you let that behavior continue? Consider this. What if you were accompanying that same child on a field trip and a stranger began treating the child in a disparaging or embarrassing way. Would you intervene? Undoubtedly, you would. You must, then, take similar action with a colleague.

Dear Rick,

I have recently been told that my son suffers from "Dysgraphia". He is nine years old and is having a lot of trouble in school. He excels in math and reading it just seems that he can't apply himself. Any suggestions?

- Michael's Mom

Dear Michael's Mom,

Dysgraphia is getting a good deal of attention in our field, and rightfully so! Many school-aged kids find that their academic progress is greatly compromised by their inability to deal effectively with the writing process. Dysgraphia ("dys" = inability to; "graphia" = write) is a very common problem among kids with special needs.

Some thoughts and facts:

  • Dysgraphia appears nearly four times as often in boys than in girls.
  • It is a neurologically-based difficulty that seldom occurs in isolation. Reading, spelling and other language problems generally occur concurrently.
  • The problem generally surfaces at the latter part of second grade . . . at the point where the curriculum's writing demands increase markedly.
  • These kids tend to:
    • be inattentive to detail
    • perform tasks at a significantly slower rate than their classmates
    • be clumsy and have delayed speech
    • be hesitant to try new things . . . are very cautious
    • have difficulty mastering concepts related to time and space
    • have difficulty with basic daily motor tasks (e.g., cutting, buttoning, tying shoes, etc.)
    • fatigue easily during written tasks; appearance of work deteriorates markedly
    • inconsistent letter formation
    • have rich vocabularies and can be perfectionists
    • have difficulty making decisions and may become hostile toward authority figures in response to the tremendous frustration and confusion that they experience daily.

Some strategies and techniques that might help:

  • Allow extra time to complete motor-related tasks; avoid highly-charged competitive motor activity.
  • Reinforce correct pencil grip, paper placement and writing posture.
  • Provide simple, single-concept instructions and directions.
  • Develop motor skills by requiring (and assisting!) him to complete basic household chores (table setting, mopping, raking).
  • On writing assignments, reinforce and praise his EFFORT, not necessarily the FINISHED PRODUCT.
  • Primary sized pencils or pencil grips might help.

I remember observing a class once when a child said to the teacher, "How do you make a lower case g?". The teacher responded by showing him a flashcard with a "g" on it.

The kid said, in frustration, "I KNOW what one looks like . . . BUT HOW DO YOU MAKE IT?". This exchange went on for several minutes. The teacher never got it. Circle the slow learner in this picture.


Thought for the Month:

FALSE: If he'd only TRY harder, he would DO better.
TRUE: If he only DID better, he would TRY harder.

Happy Holidays! The response to this column has been both gratifying and overwhelming. We have received questions from all corners of the globe . . . I only wish that I could respond personally to every e-mail! As I read the questions, I recognize how far our field has come since the 1970's . . . and how far we have yet to go! I have been so impressed by the motivation of my special education colleagues and the insightful knowledge of parents. By working together, we will be able to improve the lives (and the futures!) of this generation of special needs kids. Onward and upward!

Many of the recent questions from parents were related to the "controversial therapies" that currently abound in our field. An unfortunate cottage industry of "quick fixes" is currently being promoted. Parents are being solicited by a wide range of "instant cures" for Learning Disabilities. These therapies - including computer software, one-size-fits-all reading programs, restricted diets, special glasses, etc., etc. - must be viewed with extraordinary caution and cynicism. Caveat emptor!

Please know that the supporters of these therapies are very convincing and they tend to use effective and appealing marketing techniques. Below are some Warning Signals that parents should remain mindful of when considering any of these therapeutic approaches:

1. Promises of a "cure" or promises of specific amounts of progress/growth by utilizing the technique.

The only thing more difficult than a DIAGNOSIS for a Learning Disabled child is a PROGNOSIS. You should be immediately suspicious of anyone who promises that the disability will "go away" or who commits to a specific, measurable amount of progress during a specific amount of time (e.g., "Your child is guaranteed to make one year's progress in the first six months.")

2. Use of manipulative "propaganda" techniques to market their products/approaches.

Name Calling - being highly critical of other approaches (e.g., "Whole Language is a plot to weaken the minds of our young . . . therefore, buy Speared by Phonics TODAY!"

Glittering Generalities - associating the approach with something good (e.g., "Buy VITA-READ, the anti-dyslexia food supplement, and be a REALLY good parent.")

Guilt - using guilt to motivate or persuade the consumer (e.g., "If you really loved your child, you would put him on the sugar-free LDiet TODAY!")

Bandwagon - using the "power of numbers" to lend credibility (e.g., "Over 100 school systems have adopted DyslexiCure Reading Program . . . .")

3. Use of case histories and/or testimonials as the sole evidence of the technique's effectiveness.

True scientists will present validated research to demonstrate the effectiveness of their approach (e.g., "We used this approach with 200 kids in Detroit, 420 kids in Boston, 195 kids in Honolulu and 220 kids in Baltimore. The results of our research was . . . etc., etc.")

The Controversial Therapies have little independent research to support their theories. Therefore, they attempt to dazzle you with Case Histories (e.g., "Jenn Reichert of East Overshoe, KS made ten years progress in twenty minutes by using our software!") or Testimonials ("Mrs. Amanda B. Recondwith, Teacher of the Year in Wickedcold, Alaska, says 'Phoolproof Phonics is the BEST'!") Remember ... Case Histories cannot be replicated and therefore are of limited value and reliability.

4. Misrepresentation of Cause-and-Effect.

These therapies want 100% of the "credit" for any progress that the child makes during the period of the therapy. For example, "Billy Jones made two years growth in reading in the six months that he listened to his Roughhouse Reading Tapes." Perhaps the progress was related to other factors which occurred during those six months (e.g., new teacher? increased motivation? maturity? cumulative effect of previous reading approaches? etc.) What is the cause-and-effect?

5. Claims of medical and/or educational conspiracy.

These Controversial Therapies will often claim that the Medical/Educational "Establishment" is attempting to discredit their breakthrough therapy because they fear the competition. Does this really make sense? If there were a simple answer to Learning Disabilities, wouldn't the Education Field welcome and embrace it? Parents and professionals MUST become knowledgeable consumers regarding appropriate and effective approaches for our kids. Simple answers simply don't work! Remember the sage advice:

"For every complex problem, there is a simple solution which is convenient, basic, succinct, direct, brief . . . and wrong!"

The solution to dealing effectively with a child's learning problem? A lot of hard work ... by the parents, the teachers AND the kid!

Dear Rick,

I am a veteran LD teacher of twenty years. I have helped train many student teachers and general education teachers at in-service workshops in my district using your F.A.T. City video, which I love. Recently I have come across a "new" term for a learning problem and I am not sure exactly what is being described. Can you help me? The term is "sensory integration disorder". Thank you for your help if you can provide it. Sincerely.

Andrea M.

Dear Andrea,

Thanks for your kind letter. I am pleased to hear that my videos have been useful for you as you train your colleagues. It is gratifying to think that - at this very moment - someone, somewhere is watching the videos! Nice feeling!

Sensory Integration Disorder is, actually, not a "new term". It is actually a well-documented disorder that has been around for several decades.

Sensory Integration Disorder is an umbrella term describing a group of sensory input difficulties. Many SI kids have extreme tactile defensiveness. They cannot distinguish between a light touch or intense pressure. From birth, they may be resistant to being touched and - as children - they are overly sensitive to even the slightest tactile stimulus (e.g., tag on the back of a T-shirt, tightness of belts or clothing). They develop defensive personality styles designed to keep people away from them. Interestingly, some kids compensate for this by touching everything (and everyone!) in their environment constantly. Of course, this is socially unacceptable and can result in social isolation or rejection.

Dr. Larry Silver of Georgetown University finds that SI kids have difficulty orienting themselves in space and easily lose their balance. Simple gross motor activities (skipping, running, jumping) can be very difficult for them. Ineffective motor planning skills can impact upon the child's ability to button, tie, use scissors, etc. Clumsiness is common due to poor coordination. Some new research indicates that SI may even impact upon the senses of taste and smell.

Among the other characteristics of SI kids are:

  • poor organizational skills.
  • fear reaction to activities requiring movement (swings, etc.) Some SI children seek out these activities!
  • abnormal activity level (hyper or hypo active).
  • speech, language, motor delays.
  • poor self-concept.
  • coordination problems.

For additional information on this disorder, you may want to explore the work of A. Jean Ayres. Dr. Ayres is credited with the pioneer work done in this area decades ago. The SID diagnosis is a controversial one and some professionals doubt the validity of the syndrome . . . but it is difficult to deny the patterns of symptomology that Dr. Ayres describes. Many of these kids benefit greatly from the intervention of an Occupational Therapist who understands this unusual disorder.

Dear Rick,

My son is eleven years old and is perceptually impaired. His reading skills are very poor especially his oral reading skills. He is currently in 6th grade and he is more afraid now than ever to read out loud in front of his peers. He fears being laughed at and made fun of. Currently my son will not attend school when he has to give an oral presentation. Can you please advise me the best way to handle this very traumatic situation?

Trenton, NJ

Dear Toni,

It sounds like school is a pretty scary place for your son. Sometimes I wonder how these kids face school on a daily basis. These kids are true heroes. They arise every day knowing that they will be asked to do the one thing that they don't do well . . . deal with language. What courage that requires!

So many of our kids have true and genuine COURAGE and they demonstrate it daily. As Lou Gerhig once said, "Courage does not mean the absence of fear. Rather courage means BEING AFRAID . . . and going on anyway."

All that being said, let me approach your son's problem from a purely pedagogical standpoint: Why in heck is the teacher doing extensive oral reading with sixth graders anyway? It is an ineffective, over-used and often counter-productive classroom strategy!

Consider. For decades, teachers have required one kid to "read aloud while the others follow along". This timeworn practice is a very questionable one. Among the disadvantages of this strategy are:

  • it assumes that the reading vocabulary (particularly the new words) are within the child's auditory vocabulary.
  • it emphasizes word calling at the expense of comprehension.
  • it assumes that the teacher hears, records and analyzes the reader's errors in order to improve instruction and remediation.
  • it requires children to "follow along" with other readers who may read faster or slower than they do ("follow-along oral reading" may actually TEACH young readers the faulty reading patterns of other kids).
  • it promotes boredom and inattention among students and does not effectively teach listening skills.
  • it emphasizes oral sight reading without rehearsal (this is an unrealistic and seldom-used skill . . . when was the last time that YOU read aloud? Reading is a silent - not an oral - skill!)
  • it provides little practice in individual or group communication situations.
  • it offers a threatening, anxiety producing experience for poor readers or kids with speech deficits (do ANY kids REALLY enjoy it?).
  • it assumes (wrongly!) that oral reading and silent reading are similar processes and are mutually supporting.

S-o-o-o-o . . . oral reading is only beneficial when a teacher is using the activity to identify and diagnose specific reading problems. Other uses for this strategy are highly questionable . . . so why do we continue to do it?

Regarding traditional "oral reports" . . . it is important to foster students' development regarding oral expressive language and oral presentation skills. But this must be done with a great deal of sensitivity to the anxiety related to this activity.

In a recent survey of adults, "Public Speaking" was listed as the NUMBER ONE adult fear or phobia . . . it even surpassed "Fear of Death" in the survey. (Theoretically, this means that - at a funeral - given a choice of delivering a eulogy OR being the deceased guest-of-honor . . . most people would prefer the latter!) Public Speaking simply TERRIFIES most people.

Try these strategies:

  • Allow the child to tape record his speech alone . . . and then play it for the class.
  • Initially, require kids to deliver oral talks before small groups (two or three classmates). As her confidence increases, increase the size of the audience.
  • ALWAYS allow a "dry run" or rehearsal prior to the delivery of a talk before a group.
  • Try several non-threatening activities to promote oral expressive language. These may include:
    • conversations interviewing
    • discussions story telling
    • show-and-tell jokes, riddles
    • drama role playing
    • puppetry "unfinished stories"

The bottom line is this, Toni, your son is afraid to go to school because he is required to READ ORALLY and deliver ORAL REPORTS . . . and neither activity is a useful or effective one. It's time for Mom to talk to the Teacher!

© Richard Lavoie, 2002