02 03 Notes from the School Psychologist: Awkward Conversation #249: Telling a Parent Her Teenager Has Mental Retardation 04 05 15 16 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 31 32 33

Awkward Conversation #249: Telling a Parent Her Teenager Has Mental Retardation

It never really gets easier. I get better at my schpeal, but telling a parent their child tested in the retarded range is never easy. It can lead to some very awkward and emotional moments, especially when a parent is getting the news for the first time and the child is FOURTEEN years old. I present to you, Awkward Conversation #249 (get a fresh cup of coffee, it’s a long one...)

Scene: Parent’s home (this parent refused to come to a school meeting, as every school meeting for the past, oh 8 years, has been people telling her that her daughter is behind, acting out, and in trouble). Blaring in the background is Jerry Springer-esque show, where every other word is bleeped out. We’re not going to turn that down, just to add to the awkwardness of having to yell the words, “Mental Retardation.” Good times.

Me: Thank you for allowing us in your home today. I look forward to sharing how Julia learns best and developing a school program that works for her. Before we start, how do you think things are going at school for her? (Knowing full well things are NOT going well. She wanders around the class and yells at teachers every day and is currently suspended).

Mom: I think she just needs tutoring.

Me: Hm…okay, so you are concerned about her academics (BTW, she tested in at the 2nd grade level in reading, math, and writing and she’s a 7th grader).

Mom: Mmm.

Jerry Springer Guest (in background): You think my baby mama gonna BLEEEEP BLEEEP BLEEEP BLEEEEEEEEEP

Me: Right. So let’s have a look at some of the possible reasons why Julia may be struggling academically. I tested her on how she solves brand new problems. This is a test that she can’t study for, as it is a set of new problems, both verbal and visual. (Read: IQ test). I give her very little help in solving them, and it is a good way to measure her thinking skills.


Me: Okay. So here is a chart of where most students score. If she were just the same as her peers, she would fall here (points to average range). On both visual and verbal problem-solving, Julia scored here (points to 70—cut off for mental retardation). For example, when I asked her how a banana, apple and orange are alike, she said, “pear.” That’s not quite…erm…it’s related to what I said, but she misses the main point, that they are all fruits. Do you ever notice that sometimes she has difficulties expressing herself to you, or when telling you a story?

Mom: (Noncommittal grunt)

Me: Um. Okay. So you can imagine in the class, where she is currently learning about the Mayan empire, she might have a hard time making connections on her own without help. In head: Not to mention she can’t read the 7th grade text at all. She also might start to wander the class and get angry and yell, because most teenagers would rather look dumb than stupid.

Jerry Springer Guest (in background): BLEEEEPidy BLEEEPin’ BLEEEP!

Me: May I ask if this sounds like Julia? Am I describing her accurately?

Mom: (Stony silence).

Me: (In head: Is she getting this? Is it sinking in where I’m going with this?). I know this must be difficult to hear.

Mom: Not really.

Me: Um…erm..so what are your thoughts so far?

Mom: I think she needs tutoring. I’m not into labels. A student can get special education without being labeled.

Me: While tutoring is a good option, we also want to make sure that Julia’s teachers really understand her, and that she struggles so much with her thinking skills on her own. She can learn, but she requires a lot of support, repetition, and presentation of the material in simple ways. I don’t like labels either, but if they get her better services, then we should think about what is best for Julia. Without a label, you will continue to get calls every day and Julia will likely be misunderstood by her teachers and blamed for things she can’t help. Okay, self, time to just spit it out. She qualifies as mentally retarded. Here goes my “13 Doors Schpeal”.

Um, when we think about special education, we think of 13 “doors” into the program. Each “door” is a disability and with each disability there is a program. (To spare you all, I then go into the process of elimination of doors---not learning disability, not physical disability, not emotional disability—until we reach the “door” that in our district is called Mental Retardation)*


Ms. Parent, I’m going to use a term that is often kind of hard to hear, but I would be doing Julia a disservice if I didn’t use a term that we can all understand. Knowing what is causing her academic difficulties is the first step to giving her what she needs. The only “door” to services that is left is Mental Retardation. Now, there are several kinds of Mental Retardation. Julia is not in the severe range (points to bottom of chart), so we would not put her in a class with students who cannot take care of themselves, have physical challenges, or are learning only basic life skills. Julia has mild mental retardation (points to 70 on chart) and she has some typical life skills, so she would be in a class that would give her practical academic skills, like making change at the store, and reading and writing in the real world.**

Family Feud Guest (blaring in background): The Movies! Teenagers make out at the Movies! Buuuuuzzzzzz.

Mom: (Mumbles) Lover’s Lane.

Me: Excuse me? (Oh dear she is answering the Family Feud game). Right. So this must be difficult to hear that Julia has mild mental retardation, but the good news is we can find her a classroom where her needs can be met. Does this information surprise you? What are your thoughts?

Mom: I’m not surprised. Oh, and we’re probably moving out of the district next month.

End Scene

I don’t know how things will go for Julia in her new district. I know that I did my best to make it clear that Julia will not be able to keep up in a general education class, and that our meeting documents (the famous “IEP” which is an “Individualized Education Plan”) would carry over to anywhere in the country. I just hope she gets a seasoned teacher who understands that Julia's “defiance” is a largely a defensive avoidant behavior. I hope she gets to experience success. And I hope that there aren’t a bunch of “Julias” out there who could have been getting early intervention services for 8 years had there been a more concerted effort to have the school psychologist have a look at why she continually acted out.

We will return to our regularly scheduled Tomfoolery and funny stories next week. Promise.

*Some districts say “Cognitive Impairment” some “Developmental Disability” and some “Mental Retardation.” I don’t know if one term is better over another. The only benefit I can see of calling it Mental Retardation is that parents know what you are talking about. I have had parents who never really understand that Cognitive Impairment is really MR until their kid is in late middle or high school. Again, sometimes I get to break that news, and usually the reaction is, “Why didn’t someone tell me this earlier?” There is another school of thought that saying MR is not PC.

**And because of No Child Left Behind, some outrageous Algebra goal.

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