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Designing a Dossier: An Instruction Book for Your Child

By: Rick Lavoie (2007)

A father of a special needs child once said to me, "You know, when you buy a new cell phone, computer, or lawn mower, you are given an instruction booklet to help you prevent and solve problems. It's too bad that kids don't come with instructions."

Well, maybe they should. If you are the parent of a child with learning problems, you realize that there are innumerable adults who pass through your child's life-babysitters, coaches, teachers, church personnel, bus drivers, school support staff, dentists, barbers, neighbors, and relatives. Most of these people are unfamiliar with learning disorders and, certainly, are not aware of your child's unique pattern of strengths, affinities, needs, and limitations. It is in the best interest of the child to provide those adults with some basic information that will help them better understand the child and his behavior. Further, this information can be used to generate techniques and strategies to monitor and improve the child's behavior and performance in a variety of settings. It also serves to shorten the amount of time that the adult will need to get to know your child.

President Ronald Reagan was governor of California for many years before entering the White House. As a result he had developed a number of very effective management strategies. He often cautioned his cabinet members and their subordinates: "Don't bring me problems… bring me solutions."

Instead of entering the Oval Office and announcing, "Mr. President, we have a problem with House Bill number 96-182," they would simultaneously identify the problem and present several possible solutions that could be applied to the situation. "Mr. President, we have a problem with House Bill number 96-182. We could withdraw the bill from consideration, attach the substance of the bill to House Bill number 96-189, or assist the House leadership in amending the bill and resubmitting it. Which solution do you think we should try?"

As parents of children with learning problems, you would be well advised to apply Reagan's problem-solving strategy when dealing with the many adults who cross your child's path. Rather than bombarding them with information related solely to the child's weaknesses and needs, also provide them with strategies and approaches that have been shown to be effective for your child. Believe me, this input will be welcomed and much appreciated.

One of the most effective ways to provide this information is to develop and distribute a dossier. This is similar to the packet of information that a newly arriving diplomat presents to the leaders of the government of his host country. This brief (one to three pages) document provides data on the child's disorder but also offers suggestions that the adult can use to enhance the child's progress and performance. This document may even be helpful for the teachers who deal with your child every day, because it provides useful information that may not appear in the child's school records.

A well-designed dossier consists of seven sections:

  • Introduction
  • Diagnostic data
  • Weaknesses
  • Strengths
  • Interests
  • Supplemental personal information
  • Suggested strategies

The introduction section should include some very basic data about your child and an expression of your appreciation and your willingness to assist the adult in any way. Include contact information and other basic data.

The diagnostic data should include a layman's overview of the child's diagnosis, with a brief explanation of the nature and needs of children with that particular problem. You will also want to address any common misconceptions that may exist regarding the disorder.

The section on weaknesses should list specific skills and activities that will present difficulty for the child. A brief explanation of the connection between the child's difficulty and her diagnosis may be helpful.

The section outlining strengths should emphasize the behavioral, social, and academic areas in which the child is successful. Be careful not to overstate her strengths, and remind the reader that these areas are "relative strengths" when compared and contrasted to her needs and areas of weakness.

In the section about the child's interests, outline the child's affinities and hobbies. This information enables the adult to view your child as multidimensional, and may enable him to use your child's interests in the activities that he conducts.

I refer to the supplemental personal information as the "You oughta know . . ." section. Every child has had positive or negative life experiences that may impact upon his day-to-day performance. In order for an adult to fully understand the child and her behavior, it is useful that he have this information that will enable him to view her behavior within a different context.

To help parents better understand the form and function of a dossier, I have designed one for a fictitious child.

The suggested strategies section should provide specific techniques that have been proven to be effective with the child in the past. The strategies should be explained in easy-to-understand language.

Introduction

Good day!
Drew is a ten-year-old student who has recently enrolled in your program. Although I am obviously biased, I feel that you will find him to be quite cooperative and eager to please. He is a diligent worker and is always willing to assist others whenever possible. His family and I greatly appreciate your working with him and are particularly grateful for your willingness to read this letter.

Diagnostic data

Drew has been diagnosed with nonverbal learning disabilities and auditory processing deficits. Although neither of these disorders affects his outward physical appearance, they will impact upon his ability to participate in your program, follow oral direction, and interact with others. In order to better understand and interpret Drew's behavior, it is important that you have some knowledge of these disorders.

A nonverbal learning disability can be a puzzling and complex disorder. The label is, as you will see when you meet Drew, a bit of a misnomer. Drew is highly verbal with a wide, expansive vocabulary. The disorder does not impact his ability to communicate verbally, but it will have a marked effect on his ability to function in your program. In fact, his ability to converse and discuss with adults often masks his confusion in social and academic settings. He has great difficulty with situations involving spatial skills, will often misjudge distances, and has a poor sense of direction.

The auditory processing disorder will also serve to complicate and compromise his involvement. It is important to recognize that Drew does not suffer from a hearing loss, per se. Rather, the message that enters his ears gets scrambled in some way, and as a result, there are subtle differences between what is said and what he actually hears. For example, he might hear the sentence "Matt and Drew went to town" as "Matt, Andrew went down." Of course, this makes it difficult for him to understand and follow verbal directions.

This disorder makes it difficult for Drew to process verbal language. In order to better explain Drew's difficulties, an analogy might be useful.

Have you ever gone into a restaurant or store where the waiter or clerk has a heavy foreign accent? As you attempt to converse with him, you frequently miss words that he says, and must interpret his meaning. You find this difficult, frustrating . . . and exhausting. This is very similar to the experience that Drew has with every conversation with his peers, family, and teachers.

Weaknesses

  • Moderate difficulty with balance and coordination
  • Difficulty understanding and following directions
  • Difficulty reading facial expressions, body language, and moods of others
  • Very naive; gullible; easily manipulated by peers
  • Works slowly and deliberately
  • Easily distracted by background noise
  • May have high startle response to loud or unexpected noise

Strengths

  • Excellent reader (but may not comprehend all that he reads)
  • Excellent rote memory (again, may have some difficulty understanding the material)
  • Rich, expansive vocabulary and verbal skills
  • Very kind and empathetic; generous
  • Eager to please adults

Interests

  • Major League Baseball (Red Sox)
  • Board games involving trivia and strategy
  • Music (his uncle plays keyboards in a seventies nostalgia band, and Drew has a particular interest in music from that era)
  • Collects sports memorabilia

Supplemental personal information

  • Drew was bullied and rejected at his previous school and is easily intimidated by others. He becomes very quiet and withdrawn when he is fearful.
  • His grandfather died suddenly last month. They were very close and Drew continues to have difficulty dealing with this. He may try to engage you in conversation about his grandfather.
  • Drew recently began horseback riding lessons and he is very proud of his progress in this area.
  • Drew is the youngest of three brothers. His siblings are very athletic and accomplished in sports. Drew feels very inferior in this area.

Suggested strategies

Drew responds well to a signal or a gesture as a cue to modify or adjust his behavior. For example, when he needs to lower the volume of his voice, I get his attention and wink at him. This signal tells him to lower his voice but is not embarrassing for him in front of others. You may want to arrange some signals to use with him if he begins to behave inappropriately or manifest an annoying behavior.

Drew has difficulty making transitions from one location to another, or even from one activity to another. He handles these transitions far more effectively if he is provided with a warning or a heads-up a few minutes before the transition is to occur. ("Drew, you have about five minutes to work on your project and then we are all going outside for a demonstration.") Because of past negative relationships with teachers, Drew is particularly sensitive to scolding or reprimanding and often shuts down when scolded in public. We find it helpful to emphasize that we are upset with his behavior-not upset with him. The behavior is bad-not Drew.

Drew has become quite adept at acting like he understands directions or instructions when, in actuality, he does not. He may make eye contact with you and nod knowingly. We find it useful to have Drew repeat the instruction back to us before he begins the task, in order to ensure that he truly understands.

Drew's verbal responses to others are often curt and can be interpreted as rude or dismissive. When he does this, please intervene and provide him with a more appropriate response.

Again, many thanks for your help. We greatly appreciate your assistance.

Best,
Drew's Dad

From THE MOTIVATION BREAKTHROUGH by Richard Lavoie. Copyright © 2007 by Richard Lavoie. Reprinted by permission of Touchstone, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc.