Friday, May 05, 2006


Had lunch with a friend today who teaches in the public schools. I have a lot of those, actually. Teacher friends. Anywho, we were talking about a classroom situation she has with a "screamer". Screamers, for those of you who haven't set foot in a public classroom lately, are special needs kids who are included in regular classrooms who, well, scream a lot. They scream for a reason, of course. I don't know this little guy's diagnosis nor why he screams. Not my business and would invade the child's privacy. Interestingly enough, though, neither does the teacher who sees him several times a week.

And there is part of the inefficiency and inepititude that is special education in public schools.
The background is this (in simplified form). Federal law requires that a child who has identifiable special needs (defined under federal and state law) must receive an appropriate education in the least restrictive environment. Often that "least restrictive environment" segment is satisfied by having a special needs child be included in a special ie gym, music or art.

Sounds good, right? How hard can it be to have a few kids who are "different" in your music or art or gym class? Harder than it sounds on first blush. Enter our screamer. Music teacher is attempting to teach her class about rhythms. They clap out the syllables to different words. Only problem is that no one can actually hear the teacher or the clapping due to the screamer.

The screamer has an aide. A good aide who cares about her screamer. She gives him a treat and he's quiet for a bit. But only a bit. Sometimes, she's able to help the screamer clap out the rhythms, holding his hands and helping him clap. Sometimes, by the end of the class, the screamer has stopped screaming.

Who is learning what here? It is difficult to tell, but our poor sweetie screamer doesn't appear to be taking in much of the class, beyond having the experience of being with normal students for 30 minutes. The other students? Unsurprisingly, they have a hard time paying attention and taking in the curriculum.

Why doesn't the teacher adapt her classroom activities to meet the screamer's needs? Well, let's see. As is often the case for specials teachers, she doesn't have a copy of his IEP (individual education plan) nor has anyone ever told her what his label is. So she doesn't actually KNOW what his special needs are. She has no training in how to work with screamers. No classes were offered on "Screamers in Music Education" at her university of choice. And there don't seem to be many continuing ed offerings on how to meet the special needs of special students within a regular music classroom and curriculum.

This situation is not exclusive to special classes like PE, music and art. Kids with special needs are, of course, included in regular classrooms, too. And those teachers face similar challenges, though a screamer will generally not be one of them. While they do see the IEP, and usually have a chance to help craft it, they often do not have the training necessary to work with children who have challenges. Yet they are legally required to do so, if the least restrictive environment is determined to be a regular classroom for a particular child.

Who suffers here? Everyone, pretty much. Kids with special needs are put into classrooms that aren't prepared to deal with their issues. The education they receive, despite the best efforts of many teachers, will be subpar. If they have aides, those aides will not be trained to deal with their issues, either. Some of these kids will be lucky. They will have aides and teachers who care deeply for these kids, who go the extra mile, read up on their diagnosis, come up with strategies to help them. My son, who has Asperger's Syndrome, was very fortunate and had many educators who did this. But they often do it on their own with little support from the school districts. And, frankly, many educators don't go the extra mile, with often disastrous results for the child.

Kids who don't have special needs who are in regular classrooms with those special needs kids? They suffer, too. Sometimes the special kids cause disruptions. Teachers' time will be taken up by those special needs. An aide will ameliorate that, but not completely.

Even the teachers suffer. It's frustrating to want to teach and reach every kid in your class, yet be overwhelmed by the varying needs in that class. It's frustrating to want to help a special needs kid, but not know exactly the best way to do so.

We parents suffer, too. It is terribly difficult to watch your child struggle in a challenging setting and have so little power to effect change over that struggle. And it is hard to know what role a parent is supposed to take on. The special education legal system really requires a parent to be an advocate for her child. Many parents are not ready to take on that role, and don't realize that if that role is not filled, that child's education is often imperiled.

Parents must also take on the role of educator. We are often the most knowledgeable people in the room at a meeting. Most knowledgeable not only about our child, but about their disability. I spent most of my years as parent of an autistic child educating his teachers on what autism looked like. Clearly, not every parent is able to take on this role, nor are they suited to it.

What would a better system look like? Teachers would be educated to level that the law requires them to teach. They would be provided with the aides and aids (meaning people and materials) necessary to teach these mixed classrooms. Aides would be chosen before the first day of school and would receive some basic training on the students with whom they will work. Inclusion would balance the needs of both "normal" and special ed kids, and not be merely for the sake of looks. And administrators would stop looking at this whole area as a place to manage so they spend the least amount of money possible and start figuring out how to maximize the education all of these children receive.



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