Special Needs

Two weeks ago, at theatre camp, a girl ripped one of Eila’s books, bit people, and ruined the final play by running across the stage in every scene moaning delightedly, “I’m scared.” The following week, at a different camp, a boy kept sneaking up on Eila and shouting into her ear; at one point he also grabbed her. Both kids made her miserable. She did have a good time at theatre camp — she always does — but she didn’t enjoy the other camp at all. Every morning she told me she was too frightened to go back.

I have no idea to what extent these children’s problems are caused by their parents or by chemical imbalances. I don’t want to cast blame or give advice. But when I was told by other mothers that their kids were also scared or mad, and by counselors that these two kids had “special needs,” I started to wonder once again about this particular oversized euphemistic umbrella. When “special needs” – which carries with it the ethos of integration – means kids can learn that a person with cerebral palsy is just as smart as they are or that a kid with downs syndrome can be a fun guy, it’s marvelous. When it means that a whole camp group is on edge for a week, I’m not so sure about it. It is not clear to me that these two children benefited from the integration, and there’s no doubt at all that their presence made Eila less tolerant and caring, rather than more.

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7 thoughts on “Special Needs

  1. In my blog, I made a post back in February called “incident Report – Made Anonymous” (because I obviously can’t reveal the child’s name.

    I have many more reports like this, all on the same child. A bipolar student that: 1) strangled another student on the table, 2) caused two screaming matches with students that weren’t doing anything in the middle of my class, 3) Punched out my calssroom window and disrupted the entire 7th grade wing, and 4)Broke a pane of glass by punching a metal grating so hard that she shattered the glass on the other side. She did a few more things, but those were the highlights.

    She is diagnosed bipolar and gets ongoing behavior supports at home. She was allowed to continue this behavior; she was never disciplined, the school never punished her for these actions and her mother continued to imply it was our (the teachers’) fault. We, as her educators, got screamed at by our principal (in front of other teachers) for bringing up issues of the child’s placement.

    I have realized that the only way to counter the fear by the school system that they will get sued by the parent of a special needs child is the fear that they will get sued by the parent of a regular education child. If two or three parents banded together and came up to the school to protest their child remaining in the classroom with this student, the school would have had to deal with a possible law suit. Because parents came up one at a time, one at a time, children with active parents got transfered out of my advisory and put somewhere else where they would be safer.

    All of her core subject teachers were afraid of her and afraid of what she was capable of — the school enabled her behavior by using “special needs” as an excuse for her behavior to the general population rather than as a reason for her to work harder to manage it.

  2. Of course it’s easy to see the other side too. Your kid sounds like she’s been encouraged in this behaviour and needs discipline. It might already be too late, and that’s sad. But some of these kids have problems that aren’t so badly exacerbated by parents, who on the contrary are working hard. If we shut them away from others in their age group, putting them together with other kids who are hard to manage, does that help? It sounds like a way to avoid problems: put them all in a room and ignore them.

    But all in all I do think you’re right. We need to get these kids out of regular classrooms and into well designed, supportive programmes. Which would take money.

  3. The problem is, with most special education kids I’ve seen at my school, firm and consistent discipline goes a long way. “Special needs” is not a reason to not discipline a child for disrupting everyone’s activity or shouting in someone’s ear.

    There’s an issue that we’re facing right now: inclusion is a required reality. We can’t just put all of the special needs kids in a classroom down the hall. This is a good thing. However, we can’t just open the floodgates and have Billy, capable of throwing chairs across the room at other students at the slightest trigger, in the general population without specialists. We are supposed to be taking 3-5 kids that are ready and capable of making the shift into a class with 20 regular education kids, and monitoring their progress. If they fail to thrive, we send them back up the hall, making way for kids whose special needs are more conducive to positive accommodation. Money is part of it. Administrators (whether it be school, after school programs, daycare, or camp) need to be competent at dealing with special needs rather than using the challenge as an excuse for the child — at the expense of other children.

  4. At Eila’s regular kindergarten this past year, a disruptive child had a full-time overseer. She was great, and as a result of her caring but firm presence, the child was able to be in the class with minimal disruption from outbursts at circle time. But a full-time professional for every disruptive kid would be enormously expensive.

  5. Yes, it’s true that some special needs children in an integrated school setting do really need a personal facillitator for the duration of each school day. The reasons are twofold. Firstly, to maintain safety and secondly, many of these children need a personal educator who can help them keep up with the curriculum. The best of these personal educators have known and worked with the child before, sometimes for years.

    I am working this summer in an integrated camp as a facillitator assigned to an individual special needs child. Miriam is exactly right in that, as I have learned, having special needs does not provide an excuse to explain away socially unacceptable behaviour. Special needs children need to be held accountable for their actions through discipline. How else are they, or typically developing children for that matter, going to learn how to be in this world? Special needs children are no different than typically developing children (and many adults) in that they can learn to manipulate those around them with whining, crying, scratching, biting etc. And of course as Miriam points out adults can, by their actions, be enablers for this behaviour, or not.

    Without doubt, no child can be permitted to strangle another. Where was that child’s personal facillitator? There wasn’t one. But there should’ve been. Maybe this is less clear with a bipolar child than it is with a child with cerebral palsy or acquired brain injury, (all capable of learning in an integrated environment) but if a special needs child in an integrated setting is identified as tending toward violent behavior, the school (or the parents, or the government?) needs to cover the situation.

  6. “Special needs children are no different than typically developing children (and many adults) in that they can learn to manipulate those around them with whining, crying, scratching, biting etc.”

    That would very much depend on what the ‘special needs’ are – my autistic nephew, for example, couldn’t possibly learn to do this, and if he cries or bites, it’s certainly not with an intention to manipulate – manipulation would require an understanding that other people are not just large objects, and that they have feelings. An autistic child is COMPLETELY different from a typically developing child in this respect.

  7. Nobody is arguing that we should treat an autistic kid exactly the same way we treat other kids. We are taking for granted that all children need personal, responsive care, and some need more behavioural leeway.

    My original point was only this: that if a kid’s “special need” makes him unable to play with others without major disruption, then he should not be playing with them.

    Sandor and Miriam add, almost with one voice, that many “special needs” kids respond to discipline and that, by holding them to standards, it is possible to integrate them into groups with less disruption. And that they are sometimes *not* held to the standards they might be.

    Everyone would agree that some kids do not respond well to such standards. But what, then, are we to do? A situation where a child can’t be stopped from biting other kids is intolerable, whatever the child’s intentions.

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