Educating Special Needs Children

Educating a child with special needs is an enormous topic — worthy of several books — but we’ll cover the basics here today.

The Most Important Part of Special Education

By far, without any question, is realizing there’s a problem and defining the problem. If a child makes it to kindergarten without anyone noticing anything dramatically wrong, it’s easy to assume the problem is something minor. (Sometimes, it actually is — we know of at least one child that was diagnosed with profound ADHD when his actual problem was nearsightedness; he wandered around the classroom not because he couldn’t focus, but because he was trying to get a better view of the activities.)

Further complicating the problem is the fact that many special-needs diagnoses are interrelated, or very similar in symptoms. For example, ADHD is strongly correlated with dyslexia, dyscalculia, and several similar diseases — but it’s not associated with the autism spectrum even though it shares far more symptoms in common with mild autism than it does with any of the dys- conditions. A child that doesn’t like to talk might be autistic, or they might have apraxia, or social anxiety disorder, or they might have a bad stutter… or they might be deaf and unable to hear you when you try to provoke a conversation. The point here is that special educators, no matter how skilled, cannot help a child if they’re using tools and techniques designed for the wrong disorder.

Special Needs is Not ‘Remedial.’

The next thing to remember is that there is a large difference between ‘special needs’ and ‘poor scholastic performance.’ Remedial education and special needs education have some overlap, but they are two different subjects — because ‘special needs’ can include scholastic affective disorders like dyslexia, but can just as easily include educating a brilliant but deaf student or a student with Asperger’s Syndrome that is an amazing mathematician and geographical wizard, but has trouble understanding the basics of social play and turn-taking. A good special needs program understands how to deal with gifted children — because being gifted is a special need — as well as those that need remedial assistance. Recognizing strengths has to be part and parcel of every special child’s education.

In fact, there is a special designation in special education — ‘2E’ — for those kids that are ‘twice exceptional,’ and require accommodation in both directions. A girl that is reading three grades above the rest of her classroom, but is also profoundly affected by ADHD and requires constant attention to stay on task — that’s 2E. A boy that is dyscalculic and cannot perform mental arithmetic, but is also a musical prodigy that masters new songs within days — that’s 2E. And these children are more common that most people understand.

The Same is True at Home

If it’s not obvious, these two overarching principles apply just as much to all of the lessons you teach your child at home as well. If you refuse to acknowledge that your child is different than the others, or if you assume that the problem is one thing without getting an expert diagnosis, you’re making a dire mistake. Similarly, learning that your child has dyslexia or ADHD doesn’t mean you have to treat them like they’re not as smart as a ‘normal’ kid — they are, they just have an issue they need your help overcoming.

Special Education Tools

Here are the biggest, broadest tools of special education, and how they relate to those principles:

The Individualized Education Plan (IEP)

The keystone of modern special education, IEPs serve as record-keeping, as a source of information for future educators, and as a tool for assessing the child’s progress. Each IEP contains information about the child’s diagnosis, known expressions thereof, and a record of every technique and tool used in the attempt to educate the child. Without an IEP, there is no individualization — and thus, there is no special education.

Your child’s doctor and/or the school’s specialists will tell you if they’ve been diagnosed with a condition that puts them in the ‘needs an IEP’ category. Not all children with a given diagnosis do — there are plenty of kids with ADHD who get by in mainstream school with no IEP, for example — but there are absolutely those who require special effort even if they receive and properly use a prescription such as Concerta or Adderall. Deciding whether a given child can cope with the school system ‘as-is’ or whether they require legitimate specialized education is part and parcel of the process.

The Special Education Crew and Room

Dealing with one special needs child at home can be quite difficult — imagine dealing with six, eight, or fifteen in a classroom setting! There’s simply no teacher, no matter how expert, who can predict how the kids will interact. When the ADHD kid jumps up partway through an assignment because he decided that spinning around in a circle is more fun than addition, and in his spinning he quite accidentally smacks the child with Oppositional Defiant Disorder in the back of the head, what will happen?

Will she scream at the top of her lungs and scare the autistic student into having a bathroom accident? Will she attack the ADHD boy and leave him wondering why he’s suddenly on the ground and bleeding from a scratch across the cheek? Or will she just upend her desk and get the entire room breaking down into a chaotic melee?

That’s why almost every special education classrooms features a ‘safe room,’ with padded walls and noise insulation a child can retreat to when they know they can’t cope. It’s also why every special educator comes with a squadron of assistants. Some of them are specialized therapists, like the speech pathologist or the occupational therapist; others are ‘simply’ other educators that are trained to deal with the occasional full-classroom breakdown and keep control.

Take-Home Lessons

As a parent, you can learn from these realities. Of course, you already individualize the attention you give your child — but do you keep a record of problems you encounter, solutions you attempt, and how well they succeed or fail? Can you see how that will be useful within a month or two? Do you have a ‘safe space’ the child is allowed to retreat to when overwhelmed? Ask your child’s teacher what tools they use that have worked for your child, and how you can implement similar strategies at home. Special education doesn’t have to — and shouldn’t — stop just because your child left the classroom.