Thriving School Psych Thriving Students

Dance with the Tiger.

Twice this week, I embarrassed myself by making an obscure reference to an obscure part in an obscure film to make a point. Has anyone else besides me and my husband seen Cedar Rapids, starring John C. Reilly and Ed Helms? No? Well then you would have looked at me with the same look these two groups of people did. But I like the analogy, so here you go.

In the soon-to-be-classic film, Cedar Rapids, starring John C. Reilly and Ed Helms, the main characters are insurance agents attending a conference to battle for the prestigious “Two Diamonds” award for excellence. In one scene, John C. Reilly’s character gives Ed Helms’s character advice: that in order to meet his goals, he can either “fight the tiger” or “daaaaaaance with the tiger.” In the context of the movie, it is basically a decision to fight the guy in the jacked up insurance system or work the guy and the system to your advantage.* And it’s funny because John C. Reilly he does so in his underwear and does a tiger dance.

In one case where I embarrassed myself this week, the school staff and district muckidy mucks (sp?) were having a strategy meeting before a highly contentious parent meeting. The parent has had her child assessed three times over the course of the kid’s school history, and each time, the child came up in the intellectually disabled range cognitively (formally known as mentally retarded). She claims that the school district each time has not assessed him properly and further, that she is entitled to a hojillion dollars in compensatory education at the district’s expense for failing to bring him up to state academic standards. Oh, and the child is autistic as well. Like, biting other people autistic. Low and behold, the last assessment also came up with low cognitive scores as well. As the conversation turned to how to fight this mom and her denial, I told the staff, “I think on this one we should daaaaaance with the tiger” and I made a dancing gesture not unlike the one John C. Reilly does.

[Crickets chirp]

So I went on to explain the movie, and then suggested that we might partially validate mom’s concern, without totally caving in. I get denial. Dealing with the truth is painful. Externalizing blame happens. I can’t claim that if I had a severely disabled kiddo that I wouldn’t be a fighting tiger for his or her rights. I’ve never been in that situation, and can empathize with the grief and anger of having an out of control child. I know that some districts do not provide a very good education for some groups of kids. We’re not perfect, and we have no money to create perfect programs. But if I were in the parent’s situation, I would like to think I would not sue poor urban school districts for a squillion dollars in compensatory education and blame the teachers for my child’s disability. One never knows though.

Anyhoo, the mom’s big thing was that her child had untapped potential. And maybe there is untapped potential we can’t see because the kid is off biting and punching people in class. In my post-doc years, I learned a great way to describe the concept of untapped potential in kids with Autism. I had the great fortune to train with the amazing Bryna Siegel, autism guru, and author of The World of the Autistic Child and many others. She explained it something like this:

Each child’s cognitive potential is like a bowl. Some bowls are deeper than others. We can measure cognition in kids without Autism, because they comply with “on demand tasks” (as in, put these blocks together, answer this question right now, finish this puzzle this fast). Kids with Autism (or behavior problems, for that matter) have saran wrap over their bowls. We don’t know how deep the bowl is, because they have trouble performing on demand. The bowls could be very deep and untapped potential is in there, or the bowl could be shallow. We don’t know until we peel the saran wrap off. We peel the saran wrap off by working on the behaviors that are interfering with joint attention.

I proposed that we use the analogy with this mom. That way, we are acknowledging there could be untapped potential, but in order to fully see it, we have to address the behavior and work on “peeling the saran wrap” off. Instead of arguing about how “deep” his cognitive bowl is, we can shift the conversation to helping this kid connect to others and be safe. I am sure this is a mutual goal of the mom. Let’s just hope after the meeting, it looks a little something like this….

Wish me luck. I do want to have a productive and positive meeting. No one likes getting swiped in the face by a tiger mom.

Sharing is caring!

Comments on Dance with the Tiger.

  1. Angela says:

    "Each child’s cognitive potential is like a bowl. Some bowls are deeper than others."

    This is not true. All children must have equally deep bowls, since all children must be on grade level by 2014.


    [crickets chirping]

    Have a productive meeting. See you Sunday, I hope! 🙂

  2. Sioux says:

    I am almost finished with Jodi Picoult's book called "House Rules," which is about a young man with asperger's, who is accused of murdering his social skills tutor. I would recommend it, if you ever do any "fun" reading.

    I worked with a particularly difficult parent who has a child who is autistic. The mom constantly says that her child is "destined for greatness." That may be, but she has to stop making excuses for him, she has to get off the River Denial, and she has to accept what is best for him.

    I want to hear the update after the meeting happens…

  3. Rebecca says:

    This was absolutely a wonderful post! You have a gift. Thank you!

  4. Anonymous says:

    Would love an update after the meeting and how mom takes the bowl explanation!

  5. EABeam says:

    My oh my, you do not know the timeliness of this post!

  6. teachermum says:

    The idea of seran wrap over the bowl is brilliant. I am going to share that thought with my entire Learning Centre team tomorrow. Thank you for sharing it.
    I find one of the big issues with parents is that they can see the potential, and although we suspect it is there,or see glimpses of it, we don't always witness it in a formal learning environment like school because of the behaviour problems. If parents don't match the school's behaviour modification, unwrapping that bowl will take even longer.

  7. Josie says:

    Hi! I'm a School Psych in a Special Education district (all our programs are Level IV settings) and I used the saran wrap analogy twice this week. Love it!

  8. John D. Ayer says:

    My step daughter is "cognitively disabled” and I found teachers and psychologists at the upscale suburban high school ridiculous. As we toured class rooms during parents night one teacher offered to show us slides of his vacation in Europe. Another spoke so quickly while pointing out visual aids that it was obvious to me that his auditory and kinesthetic communication skills were miniscule. I asked “Do you talk this fast in class because my daughter is primarily kinesthetic and she will never understand you.” “Yes,” he replied, “but I repeat everything at least three times.” “Best” is always an opinion based on individual education and experience. Doctors disagree on the “best” treatment for cancer. Psychologists disagree on the best treatment for issues. Because of budget issues school psychologists often make diagnosis and recommendations on treatment based on twenty different experiences with a child and those often total less than two standard appointments. In addition school psychologists are forced to work under conditions where they have to deal with the political realities of peers in the form of teachers who are often less than well trained in psychology. When I requested the academic credentials of the individual making the assessment of my daughter the school psychologist didn’t know. We eventually discovered she had an undergraduate degree and twenty years’ experience. Parents often know more about their child’s condition than teachers or school psychologists. In our case we have a friend who has a doctorate in clinical psychology and over 15 years’ experience as a doctor. You don’t quote the resources that the parent is using for their determination and appear to believe and imply that the parent has no resources other than the school, hardly likely.

  9. I love the tiger analogy and the picture says a lot about how you prefer to deal with the "tigers" of education. This is how we all might try to attack a problem that big (Education or otherwise). There are no perfect answers, I am sure, but a positive attitude with some vivid and tangible goals will help us go a long way. Thanks for the post.

  10. Hi! I'm a special education teacher and love reading about your interactions and stories. I am going to use the saran wrap analogy when I run across a parent like this. And I know I will because there are so many of them out there. 🙂

  11. vndshowell says:

    My husband found this blog and thought I would like it. He was right (darn it). I am a school psych as well and I find you to be HI-LAR-IOUS! Love this latest post, because I too make obscure references that I think are the bomb dot com that turn out to be just bombs. I did, however, use your bowl analogy in a meeting with a parent who is waiting for her child to "out grow" some of her behaviors. The kid is on the spectrum fo' sho', but the parents want hands off. So, long story short, I used the bowl analogy and the mom started crying and real talk began.


  12. Sioux says:

    Rebecca—Great post, as usual.

    I gave you an award. Check out my post on 4/6/11.

  13. Juliana says:


    thanks for it!!

  14. Y. Theresa says:

    Great Analogy. I'm glad I found your blog. I am a grad student in the SP program. Always looking for the "real" stories about the job. Thank you for sharing!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *