If your child is struggling in school and isn’t reaching key developmental milestones, you may be wondering if your child needs special education classes. As a parent, you want to do anything within your power to help. You want your child to progress in school, to feel successful.
It seems obvious that high academic achievement is linked to good self-esteem and to financial success. But you also want your child to develop a love of learning. You want your child to actually see the connection between academic and personal success.
That’s why, when you see your child is struggling in school, your initial reaction might be to request testing through the school district, to get your child evaluated for special education. After all, special education is a free resource for children in pubic school whose families pay school taxes. Why not take advantage of any available resources?
Special Education Offers Equity
For children with legitimate disabilities, special education is an important resource: one that can offer educational equity. The special education system was designed to help kids who couldn’t acquire academic achievement on their own without help. Services such as speech pathology, occupational therapy, literacy and reading, and many others are available to students who qualify for special education. These services help children bridge the educational equity gap, feel good about themselves, and get excited about learning.
But it makes no sense to conclude that special education is the only solution to your child’s academic problems. Special education services may not be the right reaction to the string of failures a child has suffered, or a teacher’s discouraging comments on your child’s report card. Parents should instead ask, “Does my child really need special education?” and “Is special education the best option for my child?”
According to Dr. Ann Greenberg, a clinical psychologist and author of the parent handbook, “Keep Your Child Out of Special Education,” some children would be better served with services provided outside the realm of special education. Written for parents, this book discusses children who fall somewhere between the mainstream student population and those students, who without special education, wouldn’t make it through school.
Special Education History
For many kids, special education can mean the difference between equity in education and being barred from learning and academic achievement. According to the National Education Association, education should be accessible and fair to all children, no matter their abilities or station. In 1954, the landmark legal battle, Brown v. Board of Education, aimed to equalize an educational system riddled with segregation and inequity in the way schools received government funding.This legal win also improved accessibility to students with disabilities.
In 1975, President Ford signed the Education for All Handicapped Children Act. Included in this act are the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), school-based accommodations as outlined in Section 504, and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). These laws makes it easier for students with disabilities to access services.
Students who meet specific criteria set up by the U.S. Department of Education whose disabilities prevent learning and get in the way of access to educational services, can receive a wide range of special services through their designated school districts without paying additional out-of-pocket expenses. Even students with less obvious disabilities like ADHD and dysgraphia can get special education services if an evaluation shows proof that the disability keeps a child from learning.
But free access to special education doesn’t mean that a parent should use these services at the first sign of a problem, or at all. And there are consequences, some of them negative, to having a special education classification.
What are the criteria for special education?
In order for a child to be declared eligible for special education and related services it must be determined that the child is a “child with a disability” and is in need of special education and related services. How does the law decide what it means to have a disability?
According to the Department of Education, “A child with a disability” is:
- A child who has been evaluated according to the IDEA evaluation process, and who may have intellectual disabilities; a hearing impairment including deafness; a speech or language impairment; a visual impairment including blindness; serious emotional issues (referred to in IDEA as “emotional disturbance”); an orthopedic impairment; autism; traumatic brain injury; another health impairment; a specific learning disability; deaf-blindness; or multiple disabilities; and
- Who, by reason thereof, needs special education and related services.
At the discretion of the state, the local school district, and the school, a “child with a disability,” between the ages of three and nine or a child experiencing developmental delays that have been confirmed through a district evaluation can be classified as learning-disabled and may be provided with special education services.
If special education is available, why not use it?
Classifying your child as “special needs” has consequences. Yes, there are kids who without special education might never make it through the educational system. But imagine this scenario as mapped out by Dr. Greenberg: Your boss tells you each day that you were hired for your job because you are special needs. Every day of your life, you have a label that indicates you are a notch below your co-workers. Your co-workers treat you differently. Less is expected of you. Your work-related responsibilities are modified because of your label.
After awhile, the label of being special needs—of being part of the special education system—becomes a yoke you have to shoulder. The label turns into an obstacle, one that you can’t seem to overcome. And having that label does indeed affect self-esteem. Being labeled “special needs” may actually undermine your child’s efforts to get educated and get ahead.
Think of it this way: if someone tells you you’re not as capable as other people because you have a disability, why try at all? The label “special needs” becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as the child feels incapable of learning success.
That’s why “special needs” is a label you want to avoid placing on your child if you can.
Does that mean you shouldn’t ask for accommodations? No! There are accommodations that school administrators can offer instead. Receiving effective accommodations can protect your child from ending up with a “special needs” label.
If your child seems to have a problem in school, what should you do?
According to Dr. Greenberg, you should take a deep breath before you demand special education services. Do your due diligence first. See if you can get to the root of the problem and find solutions that help your child outside of the special education system. Become invested in your child’s welfare because it’s your child’s future, and not because a child’s academic failure would be a stain on your ego. Look for community resources. Extend yourself as much as you can toward getting your child the help she needs. Let your child know that you are there to support her.
- Do gather evidence about your child’s performance. Look at all past tests, school projects, and homework assignments. Disregarding grades, read through teacher comments and look for any patterns that jump out. For example: do teachers comment that your child is bright and personable, but becomes frustrated when changing off between activities and assignments? Does your child seem lost when it’s time to begin an assignment? Does s/he seem unable to map out a process during problem-solving exercises?
- Do meet with a school psychologist if you suspect an academic or behavioral problem. A school psychologist can do several things. He or she can observe your child in the classroom, talk with teachers, and negotiate accommodations if needed. If there’s a behavioral problem, a school psychologist can talk with your child and assess if the behavior is linked to a larger learning issue. If there is a bigger problem, the psychologist can recommend some intervention that might help you avoid special education such as tutoring, therapy, mindfulness meditation for anxiety, or even an organizational strategy coach.
- Do evaluate your home setting. Is your home structured in a way that is conducive to learning? Does your child have a specific distraction-free place for doing homework with adequate materials and lighting? I knew one family where the kids were always searching for pencils, tape, and other helpful school supplies they needed for after-school work. I bought them a box, filled it with colored pencils, an economy-pack of colored Sharpies, tape, notebooks, loose-leaf paper, extra notebooks, and a host of other goodies. I checked the box monthly, topping it up as necessary, and the family jokingly referred to this supply box as the “Merle Box.”
- Do meet with your pediatrician and evaluate your child’s health. Does your child sleep well and eat balanced meals? Is your child rested or tired much of the time? Does your child often have a stomachache or frequent headaches? Poor sleep habits can affect a child’s concentration and poor eating habits can affect sleep, energy levels, and the immune system. Do what you can to rule out any potential health issues that might interfere with your child’s learning.
- Do arrange for special help for your child if she seems to be struggling in core subjects. Many teachers offer early or late office hours and special tutoring sessions. Arrange for a private tutor if your child needs it and you can afford the fees.
- Do help your child with organizational strategies especially when it comes to doing homework. Each day (with younger students), have your child read through class notes and handouts. Break down homework into two categories—homework that’s easier and takes less time; and homework that’s more complex and needs more time. Have your child start with the easier homework. Taking this approach has a two-pronged benefit: Completing easier homework stimulates the child’s thought processes and gets them into homework mode. Doing the easier homework assignment first, leads to feelings of accomplishment. Once done, the child can check off this task from her list and feel successful. Finishing easier homework first also warms up the child for problems that require more intellectual effort.
- Do convey to your child the message that “quitting is not an option.” Your child should know that you don’t care about perfection. You care about effort, consistency, and completing started tasks.
- Do implement some rules or maxims that help your child stay on course. In our family, we implement the “five problems a day” strategy. This means that even when a child doesn’t have homework, s/he should still study and read textbooks and notes to sharpen memory and build consistent study habits.
- Do develop a strong channel for communication with teachers and administrators and let your child know that you have regular conversations with teachers and that you are all working together to make him a success.
- Don’t make educational decisions based on your personal dreams. Perhaps you always wished you’d gone to an Ivy League school or that prestigious prep school. Perhaps you had higher hopes for your own child than you had for yourself. By having unrealistic expectations, you are adding to your child’s burdens, an unnecessary pressure. Make decisions for your child based on your child’s needs, and not on your own.
- Don’t assume that switching schools will solve the problem.
- Don’t place blame. When your child is struggling, it’s easy to feel a personal sense of responsibility: that somehow your parenting is to blame. Out of frustration and helplessness, you may feel like lashing out—at your child, at your partner, at the teachers. Stop and take a deep breath. Blaming others accomplishes nothing.
- Don’t grumble if you have to modify your schedule to take your child to tutoring sessions. Your child will understand your grumbling as his personal failing: He’s the weak link in the family. He’s the one who creates all the problems. Insist that everyone who interacts with your child see tutoring as a positive endeavor. Let them know that grumbling is unacceptable.
- Don’t impose your own feelings of insecurity on your child. Your child’s problems are not about you. Solving your child’s problems are about helping him to grow into a more successful, more confident student, one who will become an independent adult who loves learning.
- Don’t compare your own schooling experience to your child’s. Teaching methods have changed. Certainly don’t compare yourself to your child. Remember that you remember your childhood through a lens revised by adult memories and perceptions. Comparing your child to yourself can be destructive to your child’s self esteem.
- Don’t do homework for your child. That sends the wrong message: the message that your child has an out. As a teacher, I saw a handful of students whose parents secretly wrote their papers for them, correcting their homework sheets, and even creating their art projects. Your child must learn that he must do the work and that being PERFECT should never be part of his lexicon. The important thing is to be consistent and to try.
- Don’t let homework drag out for hours. If your child is having trouble completing homework each night, set a timer. Give him 15-minute spans of homework time with the promise of a ten-minute movement break. (Movement and exercise can improve focus.) Continue that cycle until homework is completed.
- Don’t remain silent if you feel there’s too much homework. If the teacher is assigning an excessive amount of homework, an amount that your child can’t possibly complete or that feels overwhelming, talk to the teacher about alternatives. Can your child do his homework during study hours? Is the homework really just classwork that your child isn’t managing to complete?
Special education can be a wonderful thing for those children who need it, but don’t run to it just yet. With accommodations and effort from parent and child, it may not be necessary. And let’s face it: nobody needs a label. Least of all your child.
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Editor’s note: This post was originally published June 26, 2015 and has been completely revised and updated for accuracy and scope.