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Awkward Conversation #247 at School

Awkward Conversation #247 at School

Dr. Rebecca Bell Branstetter

As a school psychologist, I get many little notes in my mailbox when I enter my school building. They are usually cryptic and anonymous:

Check in with Darius. He’s sad

Susana wrote in her journal that she wanted to hurt herself. Can you see her?

Not signed. No last names. Detective Branstetter is on the case.

One I got the a while back made me dread the day I had ahead:

Jim thinks he’s retarded. Can you tell him he’s not?”

Ug. The problem was, Jim was borderline mentally retarded, so he was kind of right. He is in that group of kids who are smart enough to know that they’re not as smart as other kids. Jim was a 9th grade student with an IQ of 72 (below 70 is the technical cutoff for mental retardation) and low daily living skills (how he uses his intelligence in the community, like getting around on public transit, communicating with store owners, using money, and having hobbies or leisure activities with friends). These are the kids who you don’t quite trust to go to the store by themselves. By all other accounts, they look like “normal” kids, but they have pretty slow processing and they don’t problem-solve well (academically or socially).

Right. How do I explain this one to Jim in language he can understand that won’t make him hopeless? Ladies and Gentlemen, I present to you, “Awkward Conversation #247”:

Dr. B: Hi Jim! Would you like to take a little break from class? You’re not in trouble.

Jim: Okay!

Dr. B: (small talk ensues) Then: Jim, I heard a teacher say that you had some worries about…erm….uh…[In my head: Don’t say retarded yet. Don’t say retarded yet]…that you had some concerns about how well you are doing in school.

Jim: Yeah, I’m retarded.

Dr. B: Who told you that you are retarded?

Jim: My brother tells me all the time. Kids call me “retard” in class.

Dr. B: Would you like me to explain what our testing said about your learning?

Jim: Okay. It will show I’m retarded.

Dr. B: [In head:Urg. It kind of will]. Let’s see!

At this point, I take out a big piece of butcher paper and lay it out on my desk. I draw a number line with numbers ranging from 0 to 100, representing IQ. Keep in mind, Jim got a 72. I make marks at 20, 50, 70, 85, and 100. At 100, I put “average” and explain that most kids without any learning problems get scores of 100.

Dr. B: Where do you think your score on how well you learn is?

Jim: Like here [points to 0]

Dr. B: Actually, it’s here [Points to 72]. Kids who are severely “retarded” and can’t take care of themselves or learn well have scores here [points to 0-70]. Kids who can learn but it takes more help from their teachers and parents are here [points to 70-85].

Jim: You mean I’m not retarded?

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Dr. B: [In head: Blerg. Borderline…should I even say it? What benefit would come from telling him he’s “almost retarded”? But I want to be honest and realistic…] No, you’re not “retarded” because your score was not in this range [points to below 70]. But your score is not as high as other kids in your class and that’s probably why you feel different.

Jim: Oh.

Dr. B: You can learn, but you were born with a brain that takes a little longer to learn new things. Once you learn them, you can do well. Can you think of something you know now that you didn’t know in middle school?

Jim: Nope.

Dr. B: Urm…er….what about in math? Did you learn anything new this year?

Jim: Uh, [longest awkward pause in the world] I guess fractions.

Dr. B: [In head: Thank God he thought of something] There you go. If you were retarded, you may never have been able to learn fractions.

Jim: I guess. Can I go back to class?

So there you have it! So awkward. Not sure if he totally got it.

Then, a few months later, his therapist came to me and said, “Thank you so much for talking to Jim. He came in a few weeks ago and drew me a number line and totally explained to me where he was, and was SO excited to show how he wasn’t down there in the 0-50 range.”

Huh. Who knew? It stuck. This is the job of a school psychologist. You plant a seed and hope it grows. You don’t often get “proof” your seed grew and actually helped the child very often. Every once in a while, you get some positive feedback like that, and it keeps you going.

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