Understanding the Role of the Special Needs Educational Consultant

Your 7-year-old son is hanging from the chandeliers, unable to sit still in school, and distracting other kids with his clowning around. His teacher, although no mental health professional, has diagnosed him with ADHD and wants you to seek medication to make everyone's lives easier. What's a parent to do?

Your 15-year-old son is a mess! A kid who was labeled as learning-disabled years earlier, he wants nothing to do with the frustration of school. What he IS really good at is smoking pot and procuring a panoply of drugs for his friends...and their friends. He is usually irritable, and sometimes aggressive, at home. Last weekend he stayed out til 3 a.m. one night and never came home the next night. What's a parent to do?

Your 17-year-old son has been diagnosed with Asperger's Disorder, placing him on the autism spectrum. He has no real friends, never has. He can't read social cues, so he doesn't know how to interact with peers. He misinterprets what others say and do, and takes things personally that aren't really personal. He's a black-and-white thinker--rigid about most things in life. He's really intelligent in some ways, but struggles academically in others. Since he's socially unsuccessful in real life and real time, he has become more and more engrossed with computer and video games. Recently he has begun staying up all night on the computer, making it impossible for him to wake up for school. There are days when he doesn't even take time away from his gaming addiction to eat. What's a parent to do?

Your 20-year-old daughter has hit the proverbial wall. As a child she was diagnosed with ADHD and learning differences. School has always been a struggle, but with lots of tutoring and counseling, she made it through high school and went on to university. Bound and determined finally to fit in, and to be "normal," she rejected academic support services at college. Without the organizational skills required to juggle the academic load, she hit the wall academically. She also got into some "sex, drugs and rock 'n roll." By Thanksgiving of freshman year, she had failed most of her exams and been advised by the college to take some time off. What's a parent to do?

Your 12-year-old daughter is anxious about everything. She's certain she's too fat, and she's eating less by the hour. She's lost 10 pounds, but still she looks in the mirror and sees flab. She doesn't want to go to school because her perfectionism leads to performance anxiety. As her grades fall, she refuses to get out of bed in the morning. What's a parent to do?

These snippets from the lives of kids with special needs are very real, and they are common in our culture. Every day, parents seek counsel from local pediatricians, psychologists, psychiatrists, neurologists, social workers, allied therapists and tutors--in a progressively higher and higher degree of frustration, fear and sometimes desperation to get help for their struggling children of all ages.

One solution, when the going gets rough, is to engage the services of an independent educational consultant--preferably one who specializes in working with kids and young adults with a broad range of special needs. Educational consultants, many of them members of the Independent Education Consultants Association (www.iecaonline.com), are professionals who help to identify local day schools, traditional boarding schools, boarding schools for students with learning challenges, colleges for traditional learners, and a range of schools, treatment programs and alternative post-secondary options for the special-needs population. For the purposes of this article, I will focus on consultants providing services to clients like those mentioned above.

Special-needs educational consultants generally have graduate degrees in a mental health or academic discipline. We often spend an average 30 to 40 percent of our time on the road visiting and re-visiting scores of therapeutic wilderness programs, residential treatment centers, emotional growth boarding schools, drug and alcohol recovery facilities, schools for the learning challenged, facilities for clients with neurological impediments, and inpatient facilities for those with severe psychiatric illnesses.

As the Internet has grown in depth and breadth, more and more of these programs have developed comprehensive and sometimes glitzy web sites. It is our job as consultants to assess each school or treatment program to determine--to the best of our ability--whether it is providing the level of service it claims to provide. Schools and treatment programs are located all over the country--and occasionally outside of the country. Many are in remote locations, while others are in more urban environments. Your chosen educational consultant will have accrued tens-of-thousands of frequent flyer miles, and a staggering car odometer reading, if she is doing her job.

Ed consultants working with special-needs clients generally engage in a comprehensive screening process, although emergency placements can be made in as little as 24-48 hour. I initially meet with parents for about two hours in order to collect information about their child and their family. I try to meet with the child at a later time, if doing so will not result in injurious or dangerous behavior by the youngster. I review psychological testing reports, and sometimes guide parents to local psychologists who can assess the child's intelligence, achievement, learning style and mental health status. I request permission to speak with local professionals who have had a working relationship with the youngster.

Then I begin my first school or program search, whether it be local or remote. I speak with school personnel to gauge goodness-of-fit, space availability and cost. In many cases, I choose therapists whose work I admire, and recommend the program in which they currently work. I provide parents with a list of good options for their child, and it then becomes the parents' job to select. It is important to note that an education consultant is a resource person who suggests placement options, not the person who makes the placement. It is the job of the parents to make decisions on behalf of their children; that is neither my role nor my responsibility.

Sometimes kids and young adults require more than one placement. For example, they might go first to a six-week diagnostic and assessment program, and then go directly to a longer-term therapeutic boarding school where they can solidify their gains. The job of the educational consultant is to serve as the child's advocate and as the parents' liaison with program staff. In my practice, I speak regularly with program therapists to determine the level of clinical sophistication and the quality of other services my client is receiving. I also make myself available to parents as often as they deem necessary.

Most educational consultants charge a flat fee when service begins, and consultants differ in what their service packages include.

Parenting a child with any sort of special needs--no matter what the age of the "child" or what the nature of the needs--is generally frustrating and painful for adults. It is a lonely, confusing journey that sometimes stresses marriages and family relationships to the breaking point. Engaging an ed consultant can help parents to reduce stress by dividing the leg work, and multiplying the number of viable--and SAFE--options. Being a part of a team which works together to benefit your child is a far better option than going it alone!