Monday, April 05, 2010

Helicopter Parents Revisited - LD Students in College and Graduate School

From TR Miles' Dyslexia at College: "From our discussions with dyslexic students we have noticed that many of them have had at least one person as a 'prop' during their school career. This 'prop' is often a parent or other relative...Such a person will have guided them in a variety of ways, for instance by showing them how to fill in forms, by reminding them of appointments, by supplying them with addresses and telephone numbers, and by making suggestions to how they might plan their studies and their revision..."

Helicopter parents were a negative term for parents who hover around their teen and young adult children "overparenting", trying to clear obstacles out of their childrens' paths and make their kids' decisions for them. The College Board even published a 'Quiz' to encourage parents to "rethink" their helping habits.

Undoubtedly there are some extreme cases, more recent research says that many so-called helicopter parents are getting a bad rap. Now there seems to be a change in the winds. The College Board has now added Helicopter Parents Revisited, citing research from the Harvard Family Research Project that teens whose parents play an active role do better in school and more likely to enroll in college, and parents who are more involved while their students are in college are more engaged in their studies and more satisfied with their college experience. Because researchers found that the children of "helicopter parents" performed slightly worse than those with "non-helicopter" parents, it was theorized that the helicopter action was taking place because the students were really struggling in school.

Because of our interest gifted dyslexics, we read a lot of early life histories of individuals who later became eminent - and more often than not, a parent's unconditional support seemed to make the difference in that child's success - when John Yeats could not read, his father took it upon himself to read him Macaualay, Scott, Shakespeare, Shelley, Rossetti, and Blake into his teen years when he began to write verses of his own. When Pierre Curie struggled with multitasking, slow processing, and dysgraphia, his father took it upon himself to homeschool him, supplementing his studies with tutors and work he could do along with his brother in their dad's lab at the Museum of Natural History. More recent examples include dyslexic head of the Intel Reader creator team, Ben Foss JD MBA. In the video at the bottom of this post, Foss admits that he used to fax his papers home so his mother could read them to him.

These biographical studies still have a ring of truth today. Whenever we meet with a twice exceptional student who has made some remarkable accomplishment in higher education, more often than not, there's also a remarkable parent behind him or her. This shouldn't be surprising, but with all the negative press about 'helicopter parenting', many well-meaning people can get the wrong idea. A much more common mistake is that parents try to give their 2E child more independence after entering school, only to suddenly find out it was all too much, there're failing grades and their student wants to throw in the towel. What these kids often can't do well are lower order cognitive tasks - like decoding read quickly, writing by hand or note-taking, retrieving math facts etc. And the gap between high school and college away is too great. College professors often receive no training in the LD needs of their students, and college freshman find themselves buried under core requirements with outrageously long reading lists and tests that require fact regurgitation and trivia more than thinking.

Parents may often know best what their child's strengths and weaknesses actually are. If they think they are college / grad school material, they are probably right. Research from Drs. Linda Silverman and Karen Rogers has found that parents are excellent identifiers of giftedness in their children. In the setting of Gifted with LDs, that must also certainly be true. Not only can the see the promise, but they knew how much work went into keeping on schedule and writing papers and how many assists were necessary.

The truth is that parental support at university and grad school levels (if necessary) may be very important to these very talented students. What many of these students can do well is think - and they just need to reach high enough levels of education that thinking reallymatters (usually upper division courses).

So hooray for helping parents - and don't get down about your help - and share these stories with your students.

We don't mean to say it's not important to have these older students advocate for themselves or make independent decisions - there are of course common sense distinctions about all this business, but our take-home point to you is that the over-the-top helicopter parent is more an exception than a rule, and the truth is that many of you good parents are really making a difference in your kids' lives. Many twice-exceptional students are also developmentally late bloomers. College might be better suited to them in their early 20's rather than right out of high school, but delaying college for years may be impractical. This also means too that the help may not necessary forever. Thankfully, a lot of life is not the same as freshman year at college.

From Thompson's Reading Disability -

"When the writer interviewed the (medical) student, he admitted that he "never could read much." Throughout his education his mother had read everything to him, and in medical school his wife was reading aloud all books and references. His father had had the same trouble, but he graduated from medical school with the aid of his wife's reading to him. However the father could not pass state board examinations, because he could not read them. Later he became a professor in one of the preclinical sciences and wrote a textbook for his field...From interviews, it was obvious that the student had a specific reading disability. Arrangements were made for him to have expert and intensive remedial reading instruction during vacation time...there was some opposition to his continuance in medical school on the part of the dean and one other faculty member, but the opposition subsided...After his graduation a report came from a distant medical school hospital stating that this man was the best intern they had had for some time. He passed his American boards in internal medicine and became the head of a group practice clinic in a large city..."

More on this theme: NYT: More parents relocating to live closer to their kids at college

College Living Experience - a program to help college students with LDs transition to college XNQ7QRKQ7WC9


  1. Thank you for this. It reminds me of that article a little while back about the orchid children and the supermoms. The obsession with rugged individualism in our culture is extremely toxic, in my opinion, and is responsible for all manner of ills. How many professionals are there, do you think, who depend upon secretaries, paralegals, and nurses to support them in all manner of ways? What a waste that so many talented people never make it into the roles where they could be of enormous benefit to society.

  2. Anonymous5:42 PM

    Thanks so much. It's nice for a parent to receive sensible support. Luiza

  3. This is so timely - thank you for writing this! My son is finishing his freshman year at college, and while I've had to provide support (emotional and practical), I've seen him blossom during that period. It sometimes gets discouraging because one of my closest friends has a daughter in college who is so much more independent and I can tell she sometimes thinks I'm "overinvolved" and "enabling" - I know she's wrong, but it's still demoralizing sometimes.

  4. Thank you so much for this! I completely agree. Our son is a college freshman, and every once in awhile he calls to talk through issues of perfectionism or scheduling or even choosing roommates. We IM almost every day, if only to say a quick "hello" and "ciao!" At first, I heard the "helicopter parent" accusation in the back of my mind, but I soon realized that it was not what I was doing. It's just good parenting. I'm thankful that modern technology makes it easier.