Dear Dr. Debbie,
I feel raw. My just-turned eight-year-old was labeled “Intellectually Disabled” from the results of an IQ test at his new school. The school psychologist said it’s highly unlikely he will graduate with a diploma, but could learn Life Skills and earn a certificate. She said IQ doesn’t change much. I don’t think it’s right to limit expectations for his potential based on one test. At home he’s chatty and holds his own in an argument. He struggles with homework, but eventually we get it all done. Unfortunately he’s had a lot of stress and family transitions in his life, but we have reached a point of stability for the foreseeable future. Does he have a chance at completing high school and beyond?
Stunned At a Label
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Yes. Given the circumstances, I’m surprised at such a prediction. A re-test after six months or more of family stability might show a much higher score. Many factors go into a person’s intellectual potential. Chronic stress, as you surmise, can lower the brain’s ability to focus and solve problems.
William Stixrud, Ph.D. specializes in neuropsychological assessments for learning, attentional/executive, and/or emotional disorders. Beyond his private practice, he is affiliated with Children’s National Medical Center and the Department of Psychiatry, George Washington University School of Medicine. Dr. Stixrud concurs that stress lowers a child’s ability to take in new information and to perform mental tasks. He says, “The optimal mental state for learning is relaxed alertness.”
Now that your son’s situation has changed for the better, it is reasonable to expect that his abilities to handle schoolwork will improve. As Stixrud has observed, “brains work most efficiently when they feel safe—not just physically, but also emotionally.”
Use Dr. Stixrud’s recommendations keep your son’s stress level at bay:
- Be a “non-anxious presence” while you enjoy your time with him.
- Keep consistent daily routines to give him predictability and a sense of control.
- Avoid overscheduling. Allow ample time for him to play and to be with his family.
- Prioritize sleep with a regularly enforced bedtime ritual that is calming and peaceful.
- Maintain regular one-on-one time with him to share the ins and outs of his day.
- Allow opportunities for him to have choice, within your limits, about what he can wear, eat, and do with his free time.
- Shield him from excessive academic pressure. Homework should be a brief review of work covered in class. Stixrud says, “There is no scientific evidence to support hours and hours of homework.”
- Develop a de-stressing routine of about 30 minutes after school: quiet play in his room, looking at books, or watching a video that is not highly stimulating. If he’s had a long ride home, physical exercise is a good de-stressor.
- Enlist the help of a “developmental-behavioral” pediatrician or mental health professional to deal with continued anxiety.
A supportive and stable family life is sure to have a positive effect on your son’s long-term educational attainment.
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What do you think? Email your comments or questions to Dr. Debbie at editor[at]chesapeakefamily.com.