Written By: Tony Ryff
December 9, 2021
After Blake’s session, his mom stayed behind to talk with his educational therapist. Her eyes looked wearisome, and she sighed deeply as she moved from the observer’s chair to the chair that Blake had occupied just a couple of minutes earlier. Blake was an energetic fourth grader in his first year of NILD therapy, and mom needed counsel, encouragement, and direction.
“Is he ever going to calm down and stop trying to get out of his work? I know that he is a bright boy…too bright for his own britches, and, well… he just wears me out!” The words fell out of mom’s mouth abruptly as tears welled up in her eyes. For a moment, the room fell silent as Blake’s educational therapist, Mrs. Taylor, asked God to give her wisdom and insight on how to respond. She knew that Blake’s mom needed mentoring on how to parent a child with learning differences, and Mrs. Taylor was thankful for the opportunity to pour into her life.
I know that there are many factors about Blake’s life that you don’t know from this brief scenario, but what should Mrs. Taylor say? How can she minister truth and grace to Blake’s mom for the long journey in equipping him to become an active, independent learner? How can Mrs. Taylor impart genuine hope that a day will come where Blake will demonstrate a keen sense of fulfilling his responsibilities as a growing young man?
If you are a first-year educational therapist or if you have been giving educational therapy for decades, you already know that situations like this are commonplace in our world. You also know that helping parents rear their child was not in your teaching contract. In our few minutes together, let’s discuss how you can effectively partner with parents, as they are a critical part of the “threefold cord” of parents, educational therapist, and classroom teachers working together. This partnership is the powerhouse that moves the student along the journey towards his God-given potential. There are many great books that you can read on parenting, discipleship, and shepherding the hearts and minds of children, and today, I will center on three key principles that you can use in your own teaching ministry and that you can share with the parents of your students.
Exercise Active Listening
God gave us two ears and only one mouth, so He must want us to listen twice as much as we talk (smile intended). Parents need to know that we are here and that we want to listen to what they have to say. But just listening is not enough. You need to actively listen. Active listening means that you are fully engaged to hear all that the person is saying. It includes listening and looking for both verbal and non-verbal clues that allow you to step into the situation that they are expressing, to understand their heart, and to provide them godly direction and counsel at the right moment.
Many of our parents have the same learning challenges and deficits as their children. The parent may have negative memories/emotions about school. The parent may be overcoming their own childhood trauma. And now, they have finally found someone (you) who understands their pain, someone who really knows their child’s strengths and weaknesses, and someone who truly appreciates the dreams they have for their children. I know that the role of the educational therapist is not as counselor, but you are able to share love, empathy, and hope with parents, and as needed, encourage them to pursue professional services.
Parents need to understand and then use active listening with their children. Fostering (or rebuilding) an environment of trust between parent and child takes time and begins by being actively engaged in hearing the child’s heart. Active listening is at the foundation of strong relationships, which allows the parent to say the hard things that must be said as a young person matures and assumes ownership of his own life.
Be Bold and Speak Truth
It is by God’s providence that you have the students with whom you work. That means that you have a God-given opportunity to pour into the lives of the parents of your students from time to time. Being a parent doesn’t come with “boots on the ground” experience, so we all must learn and grow in our skills to become effective parents. All parents make mistakes, and you may have teachable moments with the parents of your students as you assist them on the parenting journey.
With that being said, you need to prepare yourself to be bold and to speak the truth with parents, even if it stings. The cultural mandate is to pave the way for children by removing all obstacles in their path. This crippling mindset avoids conflict by allowing the child to play video games for hours on end. It makes excuses for why the child can’t have chores, do his schoolwork, push himself, or not give up when the going gets rough. You must speak the truth that anything worth having or becoming takes tenacity and perseverance. Parents must allow their child to work through the struggle, to persevere, to overcome. The learner’s immaturity (think executive functioning skills) necessitates active and intentional support and guidance on the part of all the child’s “stakeholders” in speaking the truth to their heart. Low expectations are the enemy of success, and skirting responsibility fosters failure.
The truth is that no student can overcome a learning difference without sheer hard work. Giving up is not an option if he wants to experience success in his life. The truth is that fulfilling responsibility and experiencing natural consequences are tools that mold and shape us for future citizenship. Frederick Douglass is credited with saying, “It is better to build strong children than repair broken men.” Building strong children means maintaining consistent boundaries, having high expectations, and fostering a growth mindset that you can become someone greater than you are today.
Parents need this kind of counsel. They need to be encouraged to not become weary in well doing (Galatians 6:9), for in due season, they will reap if they do not give up.Ask God to give you the courage to say the needed hard things when your student comes back with his homework undone or when he makes excuses for why he can’t do the work that you or other teachers give him. Be bold, because you envision the student as the finished product – a successful, productive individual who positively contributes to society. You must be bold and speak the truth to get him to that wonderful place in his life.
Employ a Team Approach
Educational therapists spend more one-on-one time with students than any other educator during the school day. It makes sense that a high level of trust quickly develops between the parent and the educational therapist. While this relationship provides the ability to speak truth and to encourage parents, it can also (and unfortunately often does) make the educational therapist the “go to person” for all school issues. It is important to emphasize to parents that you are not the point person in the education of their children. While educational therapists have a very important role in providing efficacious intervention, the classroom teachers must be seen as an indispensable member of the partnership team. The educational therapist is part of that strong team, but he/she is not the team captain. That job is reserved for the parents, and they are ultimately responsible for the outcome.
Parents must stay actively involved in every aspect of their child’s education. They need to communicate directly with classroom teachers on issues that relate to the classroom. They need to learn how to advocate for their children. Assisting parents in learning how to have meaningful dialogue with classroom teachers is something that educational therapists can and often do, but you should wean yourself away from that by saying to the parent, “You will need to go and talk to John’s teacher about that, and I encourage you to do that today.” Make sure that you, as the educational therapist, stay in your lane and don’t develop a co-dependent relationship with the parents on behalf of your students. If you exercise active listening, and if you have developed the art of boldly speaking truth in teachable moments, then you are positioned well to direct the parent to the classroom teacher for issues that do not directly relate to educational therapy.
The same is true when working with middle and high school students. They need to learn to advocate for themselves with their own teachers. You may choose to go with the student to assist in the development of self-advocacy skills, but you should always be mindful that you need to (quickly) work yourself out of that role. There is a day coming where your investment in the student will be completed, and you want the student to be confident in his own ability and skill to advocate for himself. That is what being an independent learner is all about.
Wrapping It All Up
Dealing with people is messy business, and it always will be. Serving as an educational therapist lands you right in the middle of dealing with all kinds of people. God wants us to live out the Fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) as we love others well. Love means actively listening to the heart and responding in wisdom and prudence. Love means courageously saying important and often hard things that move the student to the edge of the nest so he can fly on his own. Love means working harmoniously with each other as we focus on the success of each student.
So, what should Mrs. Taylor say to Blake’s mom? Mrs. Taylor should grasp the hand of Blake’s mom and say to her, “Love Blake unconditionally despite how he is behaving or performing today. Ask God every day to give you the strength to patiently guide him with consistent boundaries and high expectations. See Blake as a man after God’s own heart and push him with all that you have to prepare him for that day. Work tirelessly with every teacher along the journey, as each one has a part in shaping Blake’s character and work ethic. Above all, never give up, because God has a plan for that young man!” Be Mrs. Taylor to your parents, peers, and students. Let Grace Mutzabaugh’s words punctuate my admonition, “Expect God to act!”
Tony Ryff, PhD, PCET