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What Is an Educational Therapist (and How to Find a Good One)

Educational Therapist-Learning TherapyAfter interviewing over 3,000 parents and students seeking one-on-one help for a learning disability, I am sure of only one thing: there are as many variations on the theme of learning disabilities as there are afflicted individuals. For the uninitiated parent this complex range of types of learning disabilities is overwhelming and confusing.

How Tutors Differ From Educational Therapists

To begin, it is important to understand the difference between a “tutor” and an “educational therapist.” A tutor provides subject support whereas educational therapists provide remediation by addressing the specific learning disability with specialized teaching techniques. (This can sometimes be achieved within the context of a particular subject.) There are many teaching approaches and kinds of expertise. An ideal therapist is eclectic and able to pull many “tricks from his/her bag.” The educational therapist has the ability to analyze the student’s individual learning style, discover which remedial approach works best and help the student to understand and come to terms with this learning style. This is often referred to as the diagnostic/prescriptive approach.

So how does a parent find and recognize this paragon? How does one judge which educational therapist has the magical combination of expertise and personality for a particular child?

Appropriate Credentials

  1. Formal educational background – A graduate degree in education is excellent but not absolutely essential. Good experience can compensate for lack of specialized graduate training. But if a graduate degree has been earned, it is desirable to know the areas of concentration, e.g., reading, moderate special needs, speech and language. It is also advantageous if there has been some training in both administering and interpreting educational and psychological testing.

  2. Further training – e.g., specific remedial approaches (Orton Gillingham, Project READ, LEAD, Semple Math).

  3. Experience – How many years, at what age/grade level, what type of teaching.

  4. Certification – Not essential but helpful as an assessment of training and experience.

Meeting Your Child’s Specific Needs

So far it’s all quite measurable. Now the parent must make more subtle inquiries and assessments about the therapist’s expertise. Examine the child’s specific learning disability profile. Does it include an attention deficit, dyslexia, problems with short-term memory, comprehension, decoding, organization of tasks, organization of thoughts, written expression, oral expression, dysgraphia, dyscalculia, word retrieval, etc.? The list is endless and hopefully no one is dealing with all of it. Does the potential therapist have the training backed by experience to address the child’s specific needs? A graduate degree in reading is great for reading comprehension problems but is not going to be much help to a child with dyscalculia. And eight years of experience in an elementary resource room is helpful for the 2nd grader with decoding and comprehension problems but doesn’t do much for the college student who has creative thoughts, but can’t organize them into a term paper.

Professional practices should be reviewed with questions about pre- and post-testing, written or oral reports and communication with schools.

Business practices that should be discussed beforehand are hourly rates, billing/payment methods and cancellation policy.

Personality/Teaching Style

Having covered this much ground, the parent should begin to have a handle on the therapist’s personality and teaching style. This is sometimes the toughest piece of the puzzle and usually the most important, in that all the other pieces may match perfectly, but the tutorial will fail if the chemistry is not right. Does the child respond best to a firm disciplinarian or a warm, sensitive and not overly stern type? How important is a sense of humor? A lot of TLC? Is self-esteem or motivation an issue? If so, has the therapist had success dealing with these in the past? How creative is the therapist in adapting materials to capitalize on a student’s interests? Could they possibly have similar interests? (Now we’re really talking luck!)

No one is going to come up with all the right combinations of training, experience, and expertise and personality, but by examining a therapist from all these perspectives, a parent stands a reasonable chance of finding a competent professional, vitally interested in helping a child master his or her own particular learning disability. And that is a considerable achievement!

This article is an adaptation of one originally written by Polly Cowan for NCLD’s former magazine, Their World.