Breaking the Barrier of Blame

Copyright © 1997 – 1998 Janie Bowman
All Rights Reserved

In 1988, an article by Galen Alessi, a psychology professor at Western Michigan University, was quietly published in Professional School Psychology, 3(2), 145-151, “Diagnosis Diagnosed: A Systemic Reaction.” I say quietly because very few people paid attention to Alessi’s findings. If they had, the course of special education in this country would not remain disabled by a collision of values: parents and children charging head on with school administrators and professionals.

If you’re a parent of a child with special needs, you’re very familiar with the broken record that leads to this collision:

Our teachers are doing everything they can to help Robert. He’s just not motivated.

Suzy’s slow, that’s all.

Tim is so lazy! He doesn’t follow through on anything (said with a sigh).

Kathie refuses to finish her work!

Jim should try harder.

Chris refuses to stay in her seat.

Shawn’s got to learn to adjust.

As families struggle to provide a niche for their special children in mainstream public schools, they often sit exposed at the IEP table, ready to share their deepest concerns, faithfully trusting school experts who have the best interests of their students at heart.

Or do they?

For his informal survey, Alessi initially listed five areas that explain a child’s learning or behavior difficulties in school:

  • First, the child may be misplaced in the curriculum, or the curriculum may contain faulty teaching routines.
  • Second, the teacher may not be implementing effective teaching and/or behavior management practices
  • Third, the principal and other school administrators may not be implementing effective school management practices.
  • Fourth, the parents may not be providing the home-based support necessary for effective learning.
  • Fifth, and finally, the child may have physical and/or psychological problems that may be contributing to the learning problems.

Alessi then sent an informal survey to several groups encompassing around 50 psychologists each. They agreed the above five factors played a “primary role in school learning or behavior problems.”

Next, Alessi determined the psychologists had examined around 5,000 cases during the previous year, and tallied the number of reports the psychologists had written that coincided with each area listed above. The results of his survey will surprise you.

Out of 5,000 cases, these are the resulting numbers associated with the factors listed by Alessi:

  • Curriculum factors: Usually none
  • Inappropriate teaching practices: None
  • School administrative factors: None
  • Parent and home factors: 10-20%
  • Child factors: 100%

In other words, their schools provided the finest curricula, the best teachers in the country and the top administrators in the field. Though parents became suspect in 10-20% of the cases, Alessi’s survey discovered the real source of educational disarray in these public school districts: the children themselves. Using parody, Alessi summarizes the results of his survey: “If only these districts had better functioning children with a few more supportive parents, there would be no educational difficulties.”

The trail of honesty?

Why did the school psychologists focus on the child as the definitive source of learning problems? They may have stumbled into the fray innocently and honestly.

As an explanation, Alessi draws a “trail of honesty,” beginning with graduate training programs which focus on child-centered factors, which may spring from textbooks which devote up to 100% of their pages on child factors, resulting from the possible examination of child/home factors to the exclusion of school factors, which may have resulted from the probable reluctance of school officials to allow researchers access in order to study school factors.

However, though data on learning and school factors is growing, the dilemma faced by school psychologists remains, “Am I working for the child or the school district?”

As Alessi shows, there is no simple answer. When sharing his findings with the responding school psychologists, many protested “that all five areas are indeed responsible for problems in cases they have studied, but that informal school policy (or ‘school culture’) dictates that conclusions be restricted to child and family factors.” Additionally, many feared losing their jobs or facing uncomfortable professional lives.

Breaking the barrier

Has anything really changed since Alessi’s 1988 study? From the number of phone calls to advocacy, learning disability, and ADD support groups, the answer appears to be, “No.” What can parents do?

  • Create a new cycle of honesty with your children.
  • Learn how to navigate the system.
  • Don’t let “experts” fracture your family.
  • Become empowered.
  • Don’t yield to intimidation.

And what of school psychologists and other school professionals? Can we expect them to follow their values and jeopardize their paychecks, health insurance, retirement benefits and families?

A new trail of honesty

In reference to issues affecting children in school, a school principal once mentioned that, although “they” didn’t like it, some parents did talk with one another once in a while. Guess what? Now, even school personnel are making hushed calls from home to local support groups or contacting advocates through e-mail in search of information and support.

What would happen if parents and professionals really listened to each other and began to talk with one another in an open and honest exchange of ideas? Perhaps only then would neither side be intimidated into silence. Parents and professionals who reach out to each other are the ones who will ultimately disable this barrier of blame, leaving our children free of educational shackles foisted upon them by adults whose only vested interest seem to be money and power.

So perhaps sincere, truthful and open communication between school professionals and families is the only trail of honesty we should follow.

Is there anyone who’s brave enough to take the first step?

*Please contact the author for permission to reprint, including on the Internet and online forums.
Janie Bowman

An original version of this article appeared in the Spring 1997 edition of the “ADD Connection,” published by the Olympia Chapter, LDA of Washington. I am grateful to Pamela Darr Wright, LCSW for letting me know about Alessi’s survey and for sharing her article, The Blame Game! Are School Problems the Kids’ Fault?

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