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Delivering the Hard News of Mental Retardation

Delivering the Hard News Well: Your Child Has Mental Retardation

by Diana Browning Wright and Nancy Gronroos

California Department of Education, Diagnostic Center, South

Your child has mental retardation. Saying these words for the first time to a family is probably one of the most dreaded responsibilities for school psychologists and special educators. Informal discussions with our colleagues suggest a need for additional training devoted to the issues, techniques and communication strategies necessary to skillfully give this message. Although school psychologists and special education teachers learn the technical skills for making the diagnosis in university training programs and through mentorship on the job, there also remains a need for research and systematic training on best practices in actually communicating the diagnosis and necessary supports.

 In our reading and discussions with colleagues, these questions have repeatedly arisen: How do we effectively deliver the message? When should we do it? Do we really have to do it? What is the fallout from doing it well vs. doing it poorly? Through dialogues with families who have received the message in skillful ways, and with those for whom years of accumulated rage and pain have ensued following poorly delivered messages, working tenets have emerged that are embodied in the following articles. They have been many years in the making as the writers have struggled with the issues of honesty, compassion, skills, and background knowledge necessary to perform this critical service. They are offered here not as solutions but rather as beginning points to stimulate discussion with your peers and supervisors, self-reflection and the desire for further study.

You may also wish to order an accompanying audiotape that includes further practice tips not contained in the written material online. These additional tips are discussed by five psychologists from the California Department of Education, Diagnostic Center in Los Angeles who appeared on a panel at a recent California Association of School Psychologists (CASP) Convention. The audiotape also contains a role play of “Delivering the Hard News Well” to an unprepared, unsuspecting parent that embodies the principles contained in the document. Order “Delivering the Hard News Well,” Tape # 21N01 from CASP Convention 2001, from:

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