The New York Times has an interesting article on special education accommodations in two highly praised NYC charter schools. Schools that receive federal funding must provide special education services (although a notable exception is the voucher/”choice” program in Milwaukee Public Schools; there is a lawsuit pending because the “choice” isn’t really a “choice” if your child has an IEP–the schools get to cherry pick and they rarely take special ed students). Regardless of where you are able to get your child into school, the accommodations for his disability need to be appropriate for him. One size does not fit all!
How do you work with a school to get the right accommodations for your special education child? The four Cs: Curiosity, Creativity, Collaboration, and Communication.
The article talks about two children who are highly distractible. Movement, such as a walk in the hall a few times a day, may be enough for one particular child to stay focused in a classroom of 23 children. For another child, it may not be enough. Also, let’s not forget that with sensory processing disorder, some kids are underaroused and some are overaroused. The underaroused ones may be distracted but very quiet about it–you often find them draped over a chair in the back of the room, picking at their sweaters. The overaroused ones may be distracted and hyperactive–they’re the ones who get into trouble and are more likely to be removed from class. Then too, if a child is gifted, she may be picking up enough information to do well on tests, but underachieving given her talents. How do we address the needs of all students who have learning differences? We start by understanding and respecting those differences. Then we rely on curiosity, creativity, collaboration, and communication, the 4 Cs, in order to alter the learning environment and curriculum to be appropriate for the child.
What do curiosity and creativity require? Any brain scientist will tell you that to awaken these qualities that are part of executive function, you have to quiet the limbic brain where you experience fear and anger. Getting angry at a child for not behaving or performing the way you’d like her to shuts down your creativity and sense of optimism and possibility ( which opens you to a sense of curiosity and wonder). On an MRI, you can actually see the blood flow to the front of the brain, where executive function is located, reduced when blood flow increases to the back of the brain and the limbic system, where fear and anger are experienced.
What do collaboration and communication require? Emotional intelligence, respect, and good communication skills among all team members. “Mother knows best” or “leave it to the professionals” are attitudes rooted in ego, that is, rooted in the fear that “If I’m not in control, and I’m not seen as THE expert, then I’m a failure.” And what does fear do? Again, it blocks us from our curiosity and creativity. Finding a new way to approach a problem, or a better way to express ourselves, requires executive function, not limbic brain fear. Our kids need us to put aside our egos and make the best possible effort to communicate respectfully and effectively with all members of the team, including the child.
And as our kids get older, they need to be more involved in the decisions regarding their schooling. They need to learn to self-advocate in a socially acceptable way. If a student is assigned a regular seat in September and then, in October, becomes extremely distracted by the construction noise outside the window, and would hear better if he moved seats, will he speak up for himself? Will the teacher notice? Will the parent have any clue? Have we taught our kids to let go of fear, anger, and resentment and use their executive function to become creative (“I could ask to change seats and solve my problem”) and communicative (“I could ask nicely”) within the classroom? Do they have the confidence to express their needs appropriately and collaboratively problem solve?
What’s more, we have to remember that we’re the adults and that doesn’t just mean we make the final decisions because we’re the authority figures. It means we have to be bigger people. When a child lashes out verbally, are we being the bigger person when we immediately engage in a power struggle? Or are we being the bigger person when we take a deep breath, observe what’s going on, and use our creativity, curiosity, and collaborative skills to discover the root of the problem and address it?
Our kids are complicated, but we make life easier when we take the time to calm our own anxiety, fear, and anger and get curious, creative, collaborative, and communicative. Only then can we find the right accommodations for our special kids.