School Reorientation of Children with Disabilities: A Stressful Life Event Challenging Parental Cognitive and Behavioral Adjustment

Article excerpt

Disabilities affect 54 million people in the United States, of whom 4.4 million are children. Two out of every 100 newborn babies are found to be affected by a disability (Steinmetz, 2006). The disabilities can be physical, sensory, or intellectual and may affect the child's daily living, personal development, social inclusion, and integration in her or his educational setting (Farrell, Elliott, & Ison, 2004). Most of the children with a disability require specialized attention and support in their education and especially in their upbringing. The impact of the disability is, however, not limited to the child: parents of a school-age child who has a disability typically report high levels of stress and are at risk for depression (e.g., Baxter, Cummins, & Polak, 1995; Dyson, 1997; Hanson & Hanline, 1990; Olsson & Hwang, 2001).

This article is focused on the situation that occurs when a decision must be made regarding the need for a child's orientation into a special school system. When this is the case, this decision will have an impact on the adjustment of the child, the parents, and the family (Naseef, 2001). In this article, the notification of a school reorientation is conceptualized as a stressful life event, and we specifically examine the impact of this event on the parents' cognitive and behavioral adjustment. We focus our attention on parents because they are the ones who will be notified that a school reorientation is needed, and they will be responsible for making a decision for their child.

Although emerging studies have focused on the event of a notification about other types of bad news, such as the notification of a death (Servaty-Seib, Peterson, & Spang, 2003; Stevenson, 1995) or disability diagnostic notification at the time of a child's birth (Garg, Buckman, & Kason, 1997; Heremans & Decacche, 1997; Tielemans & Haelewyck, 2000), little is known about the notification of school reorientation. The present article is innovative because it proposes a conceptual framework intended to examine the variables that need to be taken into consideration when a counselor notifies parents of a need to reorient their child who has a disability into a special educational system. We review the existing literature regarding the determinants of the parents' emotional, cognitive, and behavioral adjustment. We divided the determinants of the parental adjustment into predictors and mediators. Predictors included, on the one hand, the eliciting event of the school reorientation request and, on the other hand, resource and risk factors related to the school system, the child, the parents' characteristics, and the context variables. We also review mediators that contribute to the adjustment of parental beliefs and child-rearing behavior: defense mechanisms and coping strategies. A conceptual framework, summarized in Figure 1, is proposed that integrates these different predictors and mediators of parental adjustment that occur subsequent to the notification of school reorientation. The review is focused on the literature related to 5- to 12-year-old children because learning disabilities and poor intellectual performance are more likely to emerge at this age rather than earlier or later. It is, indeed, when children start primary school and are evaluated for their learning, memorization, and reasoning capacities that a disability is most likely to be noticed. Finally, taking these elements into consideration, guidelines for school counselors are provided.

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* Parental Adjustment as an Outcome

For the last 20 years, parenthood has been studied by developmental psychologists from the life span and constructivist perspectives (Demick, 1993; Galinsky, 1981; Sameroff & Feil, 1985). According to this perspective, parents evolve through several transitions and processes that represent the parents' development. Parental development has been described as a sequence of stages. …