Becoming an Advocate for Your Special Needs Child

A conversation with Dr. Odey Raviv, leading educational therapist and learning specialist.

Jessica Good June 22, 2015
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When we started looking into adoption from foster care, we had several people gently discourage us.

“Oh, so many of the kids have issues,” they would say quietly. “You’d be better off with a private adoption. Or you can try international.”

Remembering this is upsetting, of course. Every child, regardless of their abilities or challenges, deserves a loving and safe home.

But the truth is, due to the circumstances leading to removal in the first place, many children in foster care do struggle with learning differences. Trauma, neglect, and abuse leave marks. Unreliable authority figures early on make it hard to trust even those with the best of intentions later, including parents and teachers. I was nervous about whether I would be able to address the special needs of a hurting child effectively.

I am a rule follower by nature, and have never been comfortable as a squeaky wheel. In our foster parent training classes, the word “advocate” somehow made me feel small and ill-equipped. How could I possibly advocate for a child if they were breaking rules, or be the mom who got up and demanded the services needed after being denied?

Despite all of my fears about how I would help a child through their challenges, I also had the thought that, if I were placed with a child who struggled in school academically or behaviorally, rather than assume the potentially conspicuous role of advocate, I would simply reason with them. Tell them how it had to be and move on, with my children following obediently behind. Problem solved.

I realize that many of you are now laughing at pre-children me.

I know. Me, too.

Obviously, I quickly learned that children are not easily reasoned with. Moreover, I learned that it is impossible to reason away the damaging effects of childhood abuse, neglect, and trauma.

And, I realized that to help my children effectively, to be their advocate, I would need to research. To learn what my children need and what is available to them. To be that squeaky wheel when necessary so that my child could thrive—emotionally, behaviorally, and academically.

I would need to seek out help. Experts. Therapists and specialist who weren’t afraid to boldly advocate for children, and who could teach me how.

One such person is Dr. Odey Raviv, a learning specialist with over 30 years of experience working for children with learning differences. I had the chance to speak with Dr. Raviv recently, and soon into our conversation, I almost forgot I was speaking with him for an article, instead wishing there were several thousand fewer miles between my family and his office. As a mother who spends so much time explaining why, how, and with what my children struggle, it was undeniably refreshing to talk to someone who not only genuinely understood, but had endless expertise to share.

I found myself furiously taking notes as we got into practical suggestions on easing homework anxiety and finding time for extra study and review. “Strategies have to be individualized,” he explained, “and the most important thing is to know your child. Know what assignments are more challenging, what assignments are easier. Sometimes it’s important to try to get the most difficult assignment out of the way, and it may not be the minute they get home from school. I’m a big believer in speaking with your kids and deciding what needs to be accomplished. The kids who succeed down the road are the kids who are willing to put in the extra time, even a little bit over the weekend. There are so many hours between Friday at 3 and Sunday at bedtime. I like to print out hourly charts to show them, look, even if we work for an hour and a half, there are still nine, ten, eleven hours that are yours! It really helps to see it in black and white on paper.”

Possibly the most powerful advice I took away from my conversation with Dr. Raviv is the importance of promoting self-esteem. In my experience, when a child is struggling with something, it can be easy to want to hone in on that struggle and ignore other areas. There’s so little time, and as busy parents, we want to give our attention where we feel it’s most needed. But Dr. Raviv helped put into words something that I began to realize with my own children. “There’s so much rigor and so much expectation of kids in school now,” he said. “Teachers and administrators are so focused on kids learning their skills—learning the reading, writing and math—that becomes the focus. That environment in the classroom is set up in a way that it lessens the chances for kids to find areas that they feel good about and succeed at.

“Many times in my experience, I see kids who have been in special education and do struggle in reading, writing and math—they could be stronger in one thing or another of course—but I find that if they have the opportunity to have music, and art, and sports, and they find something which they’re good at, it can really build their self-esteem and give them the willingness and ability to see the possibilities.

“It’s so important to not only address the emotional experiences, in terms of attention issues or aggressiveness, and try to mitigate those areas, but always be trying to broaden the curriculum and find things that the kids are good at. If it’s not happening in school, the parents need to make a point to find something outside of school, something in the community—dance, karate, soccer, chess—whatever it is. It’s so important for the kids to have a feeling of success even if they may be struggling in school. And if they’re successful at something else, and they see other kids struggle, all of the sudden there’s a lesson learned. Not everything comes easy.”

I went into my conversation with Dr. Raviv expecting a check list for advocating for a child with learning differences, but I came away with a renewed sense of optimism and purpose in advocating for my children’s learning needs.

Of course, we have a long way to go in the school career of my first graders. But looking beyond academics for ways to help our children with academics really struck a chord with me.

“Not everything comes easy.” It’s as true for parents as it is for children.

Trauma, neglect, and abuse leave marks. But patient, loving care helps them fade.

Dr. Raviv may be reached at odeyraviv@aol.com for private consultations, or on his facebook page (link: https://www.facebook.com/drodeyraviv). 

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Jessica Good

Jess is married to a man also named Jess, which usually makes for some hilarity when reserving a table or signing up for cable. Together they have adopted four gorgeous children through foster care and are learning to let go of perfect and embrace the chaos. You can read more about their journey through infertility, foster care, and adoption on her blog.


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