6x3= 18: The Case of Linda

Background

Linda, seven, a second grader, had been experiencing mild difficulty in reading since first grade. She was achieving at an average level in other subjects. Tests by the reading specialist, school psychologist, pediatrician, and ophthalmologist showed no structural or ability problems. In addition, Linda read voluminously, fast, and with excellent comprehension at home. Linda's parents were high achievers themselves, very polite, otherwise appropriate, and very concerned about their daughter's academic problems. Her father was an architect and her mother was a teacher. Linda had one older brother, a fifth grader, who was functioning well thus far. Linda had no behavior problems, and, though shy, did have friends. Linda wore glasses and was not as much of a "star" as her older brother.

The school's response to Linda's problem had been to assign her to special in-school tutoring twice a week with the reading specialist. This plan had been in operation for two years and was in place at the time of the first collaboration session with the ecosystems consultant, which took place toward the end of the school year. Linda's parents had been increasingly frustrated and had met with the school psychologist of the elementary school. The school psychologist had suggested many times to the parents that the "reading" problem was motivational, not neurological, physical, or educational, but the parents were not convinced.

Assessment and Intervention

After a second year of school meetings with Linda's parents, and after several months of parent resistance to meeting with the ecosystems consultant, the first collaborative team intervention was held. It was attended by the parents, their two children, the teacher, the school psychologist, the principal, and the reading specialist. Within minutes, the dynamics began to unfold. The teacher revealed that she was not overly concerned about Linda's performance, that it was after all average, and that Linda was experiencing some lesser difficulty with math, as well. The teacher thought that Linda's achievement was acceptable, and that she might achieve at higher levels later in life as a result of developmental changes. The mother presented as a somewhat nervous person, overly protective of her daughter. The father was less protective and concerned, it seemed, but still motivated to find a solution. Both parents revealed that they were high achievers in school and wanted Linda to be well prepared for college. They also were concerned about her general level of happiness and adjustment. The reading specialist spoke about and to Linda in a childlike voice, no doubt designed to help Linda feel more comfortable, but which, from the consultant's viewpoint, contributed to Linda's lack of motivation and responsibility through its "infantilizing" tone. This reading consultant, who was also trying to help Linda in other subjects, indicated that she was mystified and concerned that despite hours of training in the task of multiplying six times three, Linda could never remember that the correct answer is eighteen. The consultant began to get the picture that the extra time with the specialist was really, in all probability, reinforcing Linda's perceptions of herself as special, helpless, and incapable.

The psychologist asked Linda what she thought about her ability and problem. She shrugged her shoulders and said she didn't know, a frequent initial response by children to early ecosystemic questioning. The consultant presented his diagnosis, motivational deficit disorder, and attributed the problem to confusion and differing perceptions and expectations among the adults, as well as overprotective, "special" adult treatment of Linda. He did his best to show appreciation for everyone's efforts, but recommended that the adults shift their thinking from intrapsychic to interactional, and that they ask Linda to do her work, since all professional tests had indicated she was capable. The consultant asked Linda what she thought of his ideas. She said she agreed. A two-week system of home consequences for school behavior was instituted. Immediately after the first session, the school psychologist revealed to the consultant that the reading specialist thought that Linda might be schizophrenic or psychotic in addition to learning disabled.

Results

The results of the intervention with Linda were impressive. Following the first session, she gradually began to pay more attention and to do more of her work. She acted and spoke more her age. At one point in the second session, the consultant spontaneously interrupted the adult conversation and said to Linda, "What's six times three?" Linda replied, "eighteen," without a second's hesitation. The reading specialist, unfortunately, had left the meeting and missed this vignette. It was also after this specialist's departure that the consultant recommended the discontinuance of special tutoring for Linda. The school psychologist processed this recommendation later with the specialist, and although the suggestion was not well received by the specialist, the school psychologist and the consultant hoped that an "interactional seed" would eventually take root and grow. After some further discussion, the family and school participants decided that they were on the right track and would continue the current approach until some problem developed. Linda continued to improve and even excel academically the rest of the school year and the following year. No follow-up family therapy or marital therapy were needed in this case.

Discussion

The circumstances of Linda's case are very common, unfortunately. Intrapsychic thinking pervades our culture, schools, and families. But a shift in that thinking and practice can have dramatically positive results. Such a shift can also be controversial and cause trouble. In this case, the school psychologist had to confront the reading specialist privately to recommend a different approach. Although the specialist had been given similar advice before, she continued to be resistant and to hold to her way of thinking. As is discussed elsewhere in this book, school personnel and other professionals and leaders sometimes have strong commitments to the intrapsychic model, often because of unresolved personal issues in their own families. Intrapsychic thinking and practice from such important people wreaks extensive devastation on our interpersonal, social, and cultural landscape. Great leadership defined as caring, vision, and courage - especially from school superintendents, principals, and other administrators, is required if children, families, and society are to be better served.

Reprinted with permission from "School-Based Collaboration With Families" by Dr. J.B. O'Callaghan, Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1993.

More case studies:

Greg | Melanie | Jared | Samantha | Jeremy | Marie | Linda | Michael | Jonathan

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