Thriving School Psych Thriving Students

Awkward Conversation #247

As a school psychologist, I get many little notes in my mailbox when I enter my school building. They are usually cryptic and anonymous:

Check in with Darius. He’s sad

Susana wrote in her journal that she wanted to hurt herself. Can you see her?

Not signed. No last names. Detective Branstetter is on the case.*

One I got the a while back made me dread the day I had ahead:

Jim thinks he’s retarded. Can you tell him he’s not?”

Ug. The problem was, Jim was borderline mentally retarded, so he was kind of right. He is in that group of kids who are smart enough to know that they’re not as smart as other kids. Jim was a 9th grade student with an IQ of 72 (below 70 is the technical cutoff for mental retardation) and low daily living skills (how he uses his intelligence in the community, like getting around on public transit, communicating with store owners, using money, and having hobbies or leisure activities with friends). These are the kids who you don’t quite trust to go to the store by themselves. By all other accounts, they look like “normal” kids, but they have pretty slow processing and they don’t problem-solve well (academically or socially).

Right. How do I explain this one to Jim in language he can understand that won’t make him hopeless? Ladies and Gentlemen, I present to you, “Awkward Conversation #247”:

Dr. B: Hi Jim! Would you like to take a little break from class? You’re not in trouble.

Jim: Okay!

Dr. B: (small talk ensues) Then: Jim, I heard a teacher say that you had some worries about…erm….uh…[In my head: Don’t say retarded yet. Don’t say retarded yet]…that you had some concerns about how well you are doing in school.

Jim: Yeah, I’m retarded.

Dr. B: Who told you that you are retarded?

Jim: My brother tells me all the time. Kids call me “retard” in class.

Dr. B: Would you like me to explain what our testing said about your learning?

Jim: Okay. It will show I’m retarded.

Dr. B: [In head:Urg. It kind of will]. Let’s see!

At this point, I take out a big piece of butcher paper and lay it out on my desk. I draw a number line with numbers ranging from 0 to 100, representing IQ. Keep in mind, Jim got a 72. I make marks at 20, 50, 70, 85, and 100. At 100, I put “average” and explain that most kids without any learning problems get scores of 100.

Dr. B: Where do you think your score on how well you learn is?

Jim: Like here [points to 0]

Dr. B: Actually, it’s here [Points to 72]. Kids who are severely “retarded” and can’t take care of themselves or learn well have scores here [points to 0-70]. Kids who can learn but it takes more help from their teachers and parents are here [points to 70-85].

Jim: You mean I’m not retarded?

Dr. B: [In head: Blerg. Borderline…should I even say it? What benefit would come from telling him he’s “almost retarded”? But I want to be honest and realistic…] No, you’re not “retarded” because your score was not in this range [points to below 70]. But your score is not as high as other kids in your class and that’s probably why you feel different.

Jim: Oh.

Dr. B: You can learn, but you were born with a brain that takes a little longer to learn new things. Once you learn them, you can do well. Can you think of something you know now that you didn’t know in middle school?

Jim: Nope.

Dr. B: Urm…er….what about in math? Did you learn anything new this year?

Jim: Uh, [longest awkward pause in the world] I guess fractions.

Dr. B: [In head: Thank God he thought of something] There you go. If you were retarded, you may never have been able to learn fractions.

Jim: I guess. Can I go back to class?

So there you have it! So awkward. Not sure if he totally got it.

Then, a few months later, his therapist came to me and said, “Thank you so much for talking to Tim. He came in a few weeks ago and drew me a number line and totally explained to me where he was, and was SO excited to show how he wasn’t down there in the 0-50 range.”

Huh. Who knew? It stuck. This is the job of a school psychologist. You plant a seed and hope it grows. You don’t often get “proof” your seed grew and actually helped the child very often. Every once in a while, you get some positive feedback like that, and it keeps you going.

*Weird to use my new last name. A kid told me that “Dr. Branstetter” sounded “meaner” than “Dr. Bell.” Yes! Perhaps the kids won’t tease me anymore. Plus, no more rhyming “Bell” with Hell! Or Smell! Just try to rhyme with Branstetter! Marriage is great.

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Comments on Awkward Conversation #247

  1. Casey says:

    I love reading how you explain to children their differences in ways that the child can understand. I like how you persevered through the awkwardness that others might avoid because… well… it is awkward.

  2. Rebecca says:

    Thanks Casey! I think I got good training in dealing with awkwardness from all those bad first dates when I was single.

  3. Natalie says:

    I think the awkwardness in this case represents our cultural stigma, i.e. that being retarded is something to look down on. You were able to help remove the stigma by giving him a straightforward explanation of his IQ. Then he was able to understand it without shame. I think the same approach would even be helpful for a kid who falls in the lower range. As in this is a measurement that should be used to help kids, and shouldn't be used (by society) to make them feel bad. Thanks for the post!

  4. Wonderful post. Hey, I think your Twitter link is not working. I couldn't find you at You are welcome to follow me at and then I'll follow you back.

    Keep the wonderful post coming. Really enjoy them. I'll tweet this.


  5. Rebecca says:

    Thanks Jeff! I changed my twitter username so that was the issue. I think we're good now! Thx for the "tweet" too!

  6. Kel says:

    Brilliant use of a visual Dr. Branstetter!

  7. Gustav says:

    Hi there!

    I'm a swedish psychologist, who is just about to start my new career as a school psych. Looking around the blogosphere for some inspiration, I stumbled over your blog.It looks great, and I'm looking forward to browse through some old posts!

    On this particular post: What a great piece of advice!

    All the best /Gustav

  8. Anonymous says:

    Wow. You are my hero. You pulled off a very awkward conversation which much sensitivity and grace. Good on you!

  9. Sarah says:

    I'm so glad I read this! I am a school psych student and tomorrow I deliver results to a parent and kid with IQ 75. My first time telling a parent their child has low intelligence and is probably functioning the best he can. I think this is a very positive way to frame it. Thanks!

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