Both sides of the table…

also known as Which Hat are you Wearing?

How many times have you heard those infamous words “we need to talk” and what does it do to the pit of your stomach?

As an undergraduate communication disorders student I was required to take several psychology classes. First there was the class called psycho-pharmaceuticals…or at least that’s what I’m going to call it. It was all about various drugs, their half-life, their effect on the central nervous system, etc. Truthfully, the class itself ranged from incredibly boring to down-right fascinating. A second class I was required to take was Introduction to Counseling. I knew Counseling was important, but a class? Come on… At the time, I assumed I had to take the class for a couple of reasons. First, it fit in nicely with a minor in Psych (and who doesn’t want that?). Second, it was a three-credit course which was about $1500 for the university.

Over the years though, I’ve realized the true reason for taking the class and I am extremely grateful for the requirement. While I knew counseling was at least a part of my career choice (it is for anyone in SPED), little did I realize exactly how much I would utilize the lessons I learned. Nor did I realize that this class wasn’t a requirement for all SLPs. In fact, according to this document, 80% of the SLPs/Audiologists did not take any counseling courses prior to receiving their degree. Granted, it’s a fairly small sample of respondents, but probably fairly accurate. This saddens me a great deal…not because I had to take a class and others didn’t…but because I think everyone would benefit from it.

Let’s get back to the butterflies…

You’ve been at work for about 5 months (and have a 6 month probation period) and your boss calls you into the office unexpectedly…How quickly does your head spin and you try to figure out what could you have possibly done wrong? What does your stomach do on that long (Oh so long!) walk down the hallway?

Your significant other calls you and says, “we need to talk.” What is your stomach doing now? Is your heart dreading hearing those words “it’s not you, it’s me” or “it just won’t work out.”

Even just writing these things has my stomach in knots. I can put myself into those positions and I know exactly how I would feel. I know what it feels like to walk down that hallway wracking my brains trying to figure out what I could have possibly done wrong…will I have a job? Can I fix this problem? Will he leave me? What did I do?

Have you considered that every time a SPED teacher or SLP calls a parent to set up a meeting, it’s the same as saying “we need to talk.” Often the parent dreads those meetings…particularly if it’s an initial planning meeting or a meeting to get the results of testing. The parents’ stomachs are filled with that same dread, that same angst that we have all faced. Even when we know the meeting is coming (hello, annual performance reviews) the stomach starts to churn and the questions start.

I know how a parent feels because I’ve been on that side of the table. I’ve been the student that received services…and I’ve been the parent of the child receiving services. I know first hand that dread tinged with relief at hearing what’s wrong. Dread because there is something wrong with this beautiful loving child of mine…did I do it? Was I the cause? What could I have done differently? Relief because finally…finally…there’s a reason.  Sadly, the relief fades quickly while the dread tends to stay…every time progress reports were read, every time an IEP meeting was called, every time assessment was conducted the dread was there. Did she make her goals? What will I do if she’s dismissed? What will I do if she isn’t dismissed? Why isn’t she getting better? What did I DO?

A professor of mine once suggested that we place a picture of the client on the table when we call a meeting. Although I haven’t done this yet, I think this is truly a fantastic idea. Not only does it give us the visual reminder of which client we’re talking about (and for some of us with big caseloads, or the OT that’s only seen him a few times, I can imagine that would be necessary)…but it would remind us that we are dealing with a person. It’s not just a client…It’s not the kid I see on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 1:00-1:30…it’s not that “kid” from the resource room…you know, the one that is in the principal’s office daily…it’s not that lady from room 310 with the MBS yesterday…we are talking about somebody’s loved one…a son, a daughter…a mother or father.

I know not every SPED teacher, Audiologist, or SLP has had the privilege of sitting on the “other” side of the table but I, for one, am extremely grateful that I did. I am able to employ my powers of empathy and know what it feels like to hear that something is wrong with my child. Or that she didn’t achieve her goals (again). I’m extremely grateful that I was given the opportunity to show teachers and professionals the things that were right with my child. I realize now as a professional, how easy it is to lose sight of those things that are right.

Now, as a professional, I try to imagine myself on the other side of the table. I imagine myself hearing the news I’m going to give them and accord them with the same empathy I would hope a professional would have for me. I also try to remember to invite the parent/caregiver to share the wonderful things their loved one can do…the things that make them so special.

I try to be humane…or is that human…is there a difference? I try to care.

On which sides of the table have you sat? Were you required or did you take a counseling class in either undergraduate or graduate school? How do you (and I know you do) connect with your client’s loved ones? Please…drop me a line and let me know. I am truly interested.

Until then…Adventure on!


6 thoughts on “Both sides of the table…

  1. Excellent blog post, Mary! I had a portion of one post in grad school where we discussed & role played various counseling techniques (e.g., active listening, showing empathy) and different situations that we might find ourselves in (e.g., angry vs grieving parent). I don’t think we even remotely had enough training in this area & I think my current skill level is a product of my personality & what I’ve learned on my own. I have never seen a conference in this area that targeted such skills for SLPs/OTs/PTs, but I would welcome one!

  2. Excellent post! I too have sat on the “other side of the table” and my ability to empathize with my patients/clients is probably one of the greatest strengths I bring to my work. Introduction to Counseling was a mandatory course in my program, and I knew first-hand how very important it was going to be. I love the idea of the client’s picture on the table! Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts on this topic.

  3. When I was an undergrad, I noticed that our COMM DIS program had no counseling course, yet I knew counseling would be part of my job. I minored in Psych, but discovered that I had to be a major to take the Counseling course, so I put off my grad program for a year and took enough courses during that year to complete a dual major. I was so impressed with the counseling course, I made that my number one recommendation to the COMM DIS department upon graduation, and a couple of years later, they added that to the program. Being able to really listen to your communication partner and not be thinking of what you’re going to say next is a really important skill to have and that course taught me how to do that. The empathy piece is important, too, but being older and having had children and having worked in people-helping positions before really laid that foundation – it was the learning-to-listen skill that was so critical to learn.

  4. Excellent Blog topic, Mary! I have shared this with my sp ed team. It’s a great message as we start the new school year and are in our “professional mode”, to stop and think about the parent’s perspective!

  5. I was required to have a psychology class in undergrad, but most people fulfilled that with psych stats or something similar. I did a few psych classes, but they were all about development (child dev, adolescent dev, etc) and were not counseling-based. I actually do wish I had some formal training in this area. Thankfully (and it might sound weird to say thankfully), I have siblings with developmental and mental health disabilities, and I grew up watching my parents advocate for them. Recently, I’ve also started attending my younger siblings’ meetings to advocate for them. There are so many emotions involved in this from “the other side,” as you put it. As you mentioned, there’s the constant question of if services will be discontinued, approved, etc. In addition to all that, there’s the fear of “the system.” In my experience, it’s all about not knowing who you can trust. Can you trust the CSE chair’s recommendations, or are they trying to pull one over on you to save the system money? Can you trust the therapist or is she contracted by the system and therefore naturally biased? As someone who has gone into a meeting where a psychologist told my mom that “the numbers” (some 2-3 standard deviations below the mean) didn’t qualify my brother for services, I’ve witnessed firsthand how scary it is to be a family member who doesn’t know what agenda of each person in the room. If I hadn’t been there to know what those numbers meant, my brother would not have been approved for services. I can tell you that experience did nothing to increase my mom’s trust of the professionals in that situation! Anyway, long story long, I wish that my peers and I were required to take some sort of counseling class or to be involved non-professionally with a family of someone with a disability. I think it would have increased our empathy toward the plethora of emotions (including some very conflicting ones!) that a family experiences. Thanks for the great post and for increasing our self-awareness in this area!

  6. I discovered your blog today and have enjoyed reading your past ones. I sit on both sides of the table. I have a 26 year old son that has Cerebral Palsy. I have been through the educational system and currently deal with the State system. I definitely bring a different perspective to an IEP meeting or Evaluation meeting than my colleagues. I tend to explain the process and therapies in more details than the others and I feel that I have more empathy towards the families.

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