Tuesday, February 5, 2013

What's in a name?

One of the first things we learn to do as children is to label things.  To name things.  This continues throughout our entire lives, as we label, and categorize, separate and organize.  Labeling helps us to prioritize and to give special attention.  Labeling quickly tells our brains what category something belongs to, and allows us to quickly decide what action needs to be taken.  Labeling serves a very useful purpose in our lives.

So, why then, is it so difficult to label a child?  I have numerous conversations with people where a parent's defense for not wanting their child classified under special education services is that they do not want their child "labeled."  I bite my tongue.  For a child to receive formal, structured educational support through specialized teaching, speech therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy and counselling, along with modifications to the general education curriculum, he or she must be classified as having an educational disability.   This classification allows for the generation of an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), in which a specific plan, with modifications, accommodations, and specific supports is developed, based on thorough evaluations.  Specific, target goals are developed to help measure a child's progress.  But, once a child is classified (labeled), he or she then falls under the special education umbrella.

And that is what trips so many parents up.

There is most definitely still a stigma attached to special education.  But, in my experience, those with the bias are not the children but the parents and the grandparents.  For a very long time, I hated to admit that my son received special education services.  Some have proposed changing the name of special education.  Why?  It is special education.  The child's needs are not or cannot be met by the regular education curriculum.  The curriculum is adapted in some way or another.  It is specialized.  And, as the "I" in IEP implies, it is individualized to the student.  What's not to like about that?

Being brutally honest, there are still children who cannot ride the regular school bus to school...it is too big, or too loud....or there are too many students.  These children ride a short bus.  There are children who are significantly delayed, with little hope of becoming "typically" functioning.  That being said, each and every child deserves an education to help he or she become the best person possible.  There are children in self-contained classrooms, and that is an appropriate placement for the most severely impaired.

However, there are a lot of children who receive special education services who sit right in class with all the other kids.  Some are easily identifiable.  Some, not so much.

Parents argue that if their child is labeled as "special ed,"  they will not be invited to birthday parties, and will not have friends.  The label means nothing.  A child who receives (or should receive) special education services often has behavioral or social difficulties.  This is what may be off-putting to peers and parents.  Peers do not care that a child goes off with a special teacher.  They care that the kid is annoying or picks his nose or cannot respect personal space.  The sooner the team can get into help the child, the more quickly the socially inappropriate behaviors can be dealt with, and hopefully gotten rid of.

Parents and teachers can help raise our children to respect others for their differences.  Sometimes, being able to explain why a child acts different can help others tolerate differences more.  A child is not going to say, "I don't like Johnny because he's autistic."  He's going to say, "I don't like Johnny because he stands to close to me and always talks about trains."  But, as a parent, when you can educate your child and tell them that Johnny has difficulty knowing what to say, or needs to be reminded to take a step back, it gives our children a new level of acceptance and tolerance.

In each and every one of us, there are things that come easily and things that are more of a struggle.  Sometimes, this is more apparent than in other cases.  In children who receive special education and have developmental disabilities, it is usually pretty apparent.  Sometimes it is caused by a specific injury or a genetic mutation or disease.  Sometimes, it just is.  Whatever the cause, our job as parents and educators is to help the child make the most of what he or she has and help with the areas that may be more difficult.  And, sometimes, to best figure out how or where something fits, the first thing we need to do is to label it.

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