Heffner column: Helping children overcome disabilities, deficits

Dr. Elaine Heffner
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Telegram & Gazette

Columns share an author’s personal perspective.

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Attention was called this past week to a young boy at a political convention overcoming an obvious difficulty with stuttering to speak with pride about his ability to do so, thanks to the help, and understanding of his disability he had received. It was interesting to note in the days afterward the numerous commentators revealing that they had also struggled to overcome a similar disability and the feeling of identification they had with the young speaker.

At this juncture in the health crisis, a primary focus is on the question of whether schools will reopen and the kinds of plans and precautions that are needed to make that possible. Parents and teachers are concerned about the health implications for themselves and their families if children return to in-person teaching and classroom settings.

Within the larger question in education about the relative merits of classroom versus remote learning, another issue has been raised about those children whose ability to learn and progress depends on special kinds of intervention.

This is a question that many educators and parents of young children confront at the start of the school year when children are required to function within a group setting and to respond to unfamiliar adults in authority. It is a question that has arisen with greater frequency in recent years as children enter school and various preschool groups at younger and younger ages.

The problem arises because when children are in group settings, expectations for behavior begin to change even though development itself takes its usual course. Unrealistically, all children are expected to follow certain developmental norms at the same time. A degree of compliance is expected with little appreciation of individual differences. Not everyone is in the same place developmentally at the same time.

The problem is that in many situations it is difficult to determine if particular behavior in question signifies a developmental delay or deficit, or simply developmental unevenness in a given child. Unfortunately, the current situation will not allow for the early school experiences that not only enhance children’s learning but also enable learning about the children themselves. Serious problems are more readily identifiable, but variations in individual behavior remains confusing, requiring ongoing observation and evaluation.

Once again, parents are being called upon to function in a multiplicity of roles that may seem daunting or requiring special expertise. In this instance, however, a parent has the most important qualification, being the one who knows her own child best. This means, a parent is the one who can best understand her child’s mode of communication.

Having worked for many years with parents of children who had serious deficits, what stood out was the need to decode children’s often atypical means of communication, which often took the form of unacceptable behavior. It became necessary to think more about the context and therefore the meaning of the behavior for the child in order to know how to respond.

At times, what gets in a parent’s way is the anxiety caused when behavior deviates from what may seem “normal” or desirable. An example was a child who left his group to stand by his mother’s chair, unwilling or unable to say anything. Mom, worried that leaving his group was a discipline problem, ultimately understood that the child needed the bathroom but felt unable to tell the teacher.

Although the current situation makes classroom teaching problematic, children whose behavior leads to a question mark, are often best served in small groups of even three children. There may be homes in which such small group experiences could be possible.

A possibility worth exploration.

Elaine Heffner, LCSW, Ed.D., has written for Parents Magazine, Fox.com, Redbook, Disney online and PBS Parents, as well as other publications. She has appeared on PBS, ABC, Fox TV and other networks. Dr. Heffner is the author of “Goodenoughmothering: The Best of the Blog,” as well as “Mothering: The Emotional Experience of Motherhood after Freud and Feminism.” She is a psychotherapist and parent educator in private practice, as well as a senior lecturer of education in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. Dr. Heffner was a co-founder and served as director of the Nursery School Treatment Center at Payne Whitney Clinic, New York Hospital. And she blogs at goodenoughmothering.com.