Becoming an Executive Parent for your LD Child

In this post, we describe a different approach to advocacy: becoming an executive parent for your LD child.

Here are some of the typical activities that LD parents go through:

  • Spending three-plus hours a night doing should-be-simple homework with a hysterical child.
  • Watching as a child simply cannot do something that seems so simple, such as memorize or write neatly.
  • Receiving graded papers filled with red markups and bad grades from our first or second grader, every day.
  • Holding a child as they sob their eyes out, saying that they’re stupid.
  • Standing over a child with poor social skills, and trying to help them at least trade a friendly glance with another child at the park
  • Supporting a child who is being bullied for their learning disability.

The experiences that LD children and parents have are not the norm  They’re not fair.  And they’re not you or your child’s fault. To help your child succeed, it’s time to be clear about your job and your role.

LD Parents have a job to do.

Constant failure is no way to raise a child.

We talk about relentless failure in this post about how to manage difficult teacher situations:

And your job is not just to help your child grow and succeed, but to manage your child’s way through childhood without trauma or damage.

Rule 1: Protect Your Child

1 in 5 children have brains that think differently, and a large number of those children have what’s called asynchronous development.  In other words, their brains develop in fits and bursts, some things taking a lot longer than others. If your child lacks foundational skills, then things like writing and reading and spelling are going to be excruciatingly difficult.

Traditionally, parents of LD children aren’t told much at the beginning.  They’re shocked and upset. They cry.  They are convinced that their children will never amount to anything, that failure in first or second grade means that … but imagination fails.  What DOES relentless failure mean for a child in first and second grade?

As an LD parent, I remain shocked at how little teachers are taught about learning disabilities.  And I’m also surprised to hear experienced teachers saying things like “we’ve never had a dyslexic child before.”  Of COURSE they have.  It’s one in five.

But here’s what happens.  If you’re the parent of one of these LD children, you decide to fight. And you put in hundreds of hours, learning, and helping your child.  Eventually, you realize some things:

  • Your child is actually pretty bright.
  • The teacher isn’t always right.
  • The wrong schoolwork can be terrible for your child.
  • There should be a better way.
  • And you learn to step forward, disagree when necessary, and protect your child.

Protect your child doesn’t mean preventing your child from failing. It means preventing school, coaches, or other people from putting your child into situations where they can ONLY FAIL.

Relentless failure is bad for children. So Protecting your Child means watching, educating, and stepping in at a high level to negotiate stakes, so that your child has one or more pathways to success whenever possible.

And it also means looking beyond your child’s spelling/writing/reading ability, and helping them develop the ability to think, to achieve, and to use tools that can help them succeed.

Here’s a post that talks about managing your teacher relationship, and here’s how you manage difficult teacher relationships.

Rule 2: Be as Hands-On As You Need to Be

As you watch other parents step away and let their children “fail on their own,” remember that you don’t have to do that.  For many children, their environment is set up to make them fail repeatedly, at everything from reading, writing, standing in line, getting yellow stars, and learning to spell. “Grit” means something different to a child who does nothing but fail, all day long.

If your child hasn’t developed the skills to succeed, or is in an environment where it’s impossible to succeed, it’s destructive to let them fail. And so, for every area where your child has a difference or disability, if it’s not a level playing ground, you go ahead and level it. Do what you need to do. Help clear a pathway to success.

Please take a minute to read this post, which describes the qualities in a successful LD person.  It turns out that what’s needed has nothing to do with academia.  So in addition to protecting your child, give them plenty of opportunities to achieve, and when they make normal errors, put your hands in your pockets and ask how they will fix them.

Hands on LD parenting is not helicopter parenting.

Rule 3: Be an Executive Parent

The term executive parent is the brainchild of Dr. Russell Barkley, an expert in ADHD and a respected speaker throughout the country.  Dr. Barkley’s advice initially was aimed at ADHD parents, but what he says makes sense for the parent of any LD child.

Barkley says that he runs into many ADHD parents who have been bullied by their child’s situations, teachers, or professionals.  Perhaps the parent is intimidated because the professionals have more degrees or more information. If you’re the parent of a young child with LD, especially if this is your first child, then you know the feeling that your child’s teacher is the EXPERT, and whatever she says goes.

As Barkley says, “Professionals come and go, and even when they stay put, they have other things on their agenda.”  Every professional who deals with your child has their own agenda.  But your agenda is simply your child.  That makes you your child’s number one advocate.

You are also an expert in your child.  And your child has more moving parts than you can count.  Emotional, cognitive, fine motor skills, self esteem, the ability to organize, to manage anxiety, to memorize… the list goes on and on.

Teachers are trained experts in teaching.  But they aren’t trained experts in all learning disabilities, or in all the parts of a child.  As a matter of fact, it’s common for parents to have to bring information in and diplomatically educate teacher and school about their child’s LD, about their child’s needs, and about how other people do this (also called “best practices.”)

Your child might need medication, special education, tutoring, and perhaps even therapy.  But you’re the person who selects the professionals, coordinates them, and reviews them.  If someone or a situation is harming your child, you can step in and make it stop.

Stop and think about that.  You’re your child’s life manager.  It’s a management position.

The executive parent mindset matters most in three areas.

First, be an executive parent when you deal with doctors or specialists.

You should listen and evaluate information, but if a professional bullies you or your child, then you are absolutely able to replace them.  Remember: It’s their job to explain themselves, the situation, and their services to you.  It’s their JOB. If you don’t understand something, stop everything and make them explain.  And if someone gives you a diagnosis, use our worksheets to sit down and understand what’s inside of it.

Being an executive parent means that you take control of your child’s life, and you retain that control. You’re the one who is there, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  You know your child best.

Second, be an executive parent when you deal with teachers.

Yes, of course you respect and work with teachers.  This post talks about some techniques for that.  But if you think that your child has learning problems, then go after support.  If your child is traumatized by what happens in the classroom, go ahead and step forward to change things.  And if your child is overworked by homework every night, set up a meeting with the teacher, and go renegotiate how she handles homework and your child.

Too many parents start acting like the child in situations where their child cannot do homework.  Remember, if your child can’t do the homework, it’s the responsibility of the teacher.  Experts say that teachers shouldn’t be sending home more than 15 minutes of homework for each year of school.  And a teacher should never send homework home that a child cannot do. If your child can’t do the homework, do NOT spend hours every night trying to fix things. Instead, push the homework right back to the teacher.

Third, be an executive parent and think powerfully and strategically about how to parent your child

The third situation in which to be an executive parent is with regard to goal setting.  Whenever possible, pull back and think about top-level goals.  What’s important? It’s too easy to spend time in ditches as an LD parent.  Watch how your child is doing, talk with others about alternatives, and push back.

Dr. Barkley’s biggest advice about being an executive parent is that you’re the decision maker for your child, and that you should act like an executive.  You should solicit advice and request information, ask questions if something is unclear, make your feelings and opinions known, and be an active participant in evaluating options and selecting among them.

Barkley maintains that the benefits from thinking in this fashion are extraordinary.  He says that just thinking in an executive frame of mind gives parents more of a sense of control.

Children sense mindset, and if you have more of a sense of control, you will convey that to your child.  Our children watch how we cope with situations and copy us. Showing, rather than telling will help your child develop coping strategies and methods to self-advocate.

Becoming an executive parent means that you are less emotional, more in control, and that you use your decision-making brain more than your emotional brain.

This is exactly what your child needs to see and emulate.

Dr. Barkley talks more about executive parenting in his book, Taking Charge of ADHD.

Alternative Approaches for Common Problems

If you’re in a meeting with a teacher who repeatedly talks about “learned helplessness,” Realize that this teacher’s approach is blaming the child, rather than adjusting the teaching method.  The solution is to get your child protected, preferably with an IEP but with a 504 if necessary.  Then you should educate the teacher on your child’s LD, typical challenges, and suggested approaches and solutions.  And third,  you can realize that this teacher’s approach lacks empathy, so you probably want to keep a close watch on your child’s treatment in the classroom.
If you are killing yourself trying to re-teach homework every night Get your child protection with an IEP or 504, and then start by meeting with the teacher.  It’s inappropriate for your child to have homework that they cannot do.  Period.  What is her solution? Push back with the teacher or the principal.  This is not your problem.
If your child has too much homework every night, and is spending hours doing it Get your child protection with an IEP or 504, and then meet with the teacher.  Talk about her goals with homework, and then talk about your child’s experience, and what they are learning.  Push back.  Suggest that she send homework that accomplishes one goal with your child, rather than four.
If your child is flunking spelling tests Make sure that your child is protected with IEP or 504, then meet with the teacher. First of all, children cannot spell until they can read.

Secondly, is your child being taught phonics and a phoneme-based spelling method?  Because if they have dyslexia, that’s the only method that will work.  Here are examples.

Third, push for a different spelling list.  Starting in third grade, spelling lists usually include words with all different types of spelling rules. But dyslexic students should work with a spelling list that has only ONE spelling rule (e.g. “ight”).

Work with the teacher for a spelling approach that will actually teach your child something, instead of simply being a gateway to failure every week.

If your child has occupational therapy or dyslexia tutoring, and also a lot of homework Get your child protection with an IEP or 504. Document the problems that the OT or dyslexia tutoring is solving and what your child is focusing on.  Meet with the teacher and push back. Your child needs to learn foundational skills with the OT, and basic dyslexia methods with the tutor.  At this time, it’s inappropriate for your child to do skills-based work. Think about what the teacher is trying to teach, and help come up with constructive ways to engage your child. Remove part of the homework load, and make sure that the teacher doesn’t grade your child down for it.  Perhaps your child can listen to an audiobook and dictate a summary about it.  Or your child can do something else.

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