One of the constants in the world: children need to be educated. It takes a village, right? What happens when the village is under-funded, over-populated, and government-mandated? What if a pandemic sweeps the nation, and it’s not safe for children and teachers to gather like they always had? Education has never faced more challenges than it does today, and one of the most vulnerable and important demographics is children with disabilities. These students span every age group, ability, disability, and personality. They need structure, social interaction, stimulation, and assistance to learn everything the school curriculum includes. Having to separate these immunocompromised students from classrooms has been detrimental, and this doesn’t account for the difficulties their
education faced before.
When I was 8 years old, one of my twin brothers was born with Down Syndrome. Over the years I’ve watched him go through the public school system with my parents at his back, fighting for his rights to many different kinds of therapy, for him to be included in general education classrooms, and much more. They’ve been met with lots of pushback. Many public schools don’t have the money or the staff to fully deliver what each special education student’s Individual Education Program (IEP) specifies. Each student’s IEP is put together by multiple people who work closely with them in school and know their needs, and the IEP is reviewed every year as the child learns and changes. The IEP contains the child’s current levels of educational performance, goals for the school year, services that may be required (such as speech or physical therapy), inclusion in general education classrooms, and ways to support them based on their behaviors (Fleming, Nora). These students with IEPs require special attention both in and outside the classroom.
My brother is several grade levels behind his peers, but my parents have insisted he stay in the equivalent age group as much as possible so that he’s still getting the important interactions he needs to continue developing his social skills. He has also needed a variety of different kinds of therapy over the years, such as speech, reading, and occupational therapy (which helps him with the fine motor skills everyday life requires).
My parents have had to fight school systems to keep him in these services as well, for budget reasons or government mandates, who knows. His education has been an uphill battle because he has different needs than his classmates, and his teachers and faculty lacked the
resources to properly provide for those needs.
Grace Fisher, a behavior specialist in the Adams/ Wells school district of northeast Indiana talked with me about how her department functions and whether kids’ needs were adequately met. She has worked with both verbal and non-verbal students of every age. Like
most specialists in America, she sees kids struggle for their curriculum and social needs to be met.
She notes that “[s]ome schools keep special education kids in t
heir room for too long because many general education teachers do not know how to work with kids with disabilities or behaviors...they are always sent to the special education room which, in the long run, prevents the students from making those social connections," (Price, Chloe).
Teachers aren’t being trained to juggle the many diverse needs of their students while teaching the material and maintaining the classroom. Instead, they are pressured to hit state goals for their curriculum and standardized testing to keep the school’s funding from the government. Fisher has also noticed a large difference in the way students with disabilities are treated in public schools versus private schools, possibly due to the influx of funding that private schools receive. Better funding for private schools allow special education teachers access to more resources, more time with their students, and more hands-on approaches to their learning.
Many families cannot afford a private education for their special needs students, and these students pay the price at their underfunded public schools. Fisher wants to make a difference in the schools under her program’s jurisdiction and influence her educator peers to become more versed in the needs of their kids. She is passionate about equal training and rights for all students with learning, emotional, or physical disabilities.
I recently began a position at an elementary school as an instructional aide, meaning I come into classrooms throughout the school day and assist students with IEPs, helping them stay on task and engage with the materials. Every adult in that building is working hard to help their kids get the best education possible, and yet some students still slip through the cracks. They may be left in the special education room for too long due to disruptive behaviors or chastised in class for their learning styles. Educating students with disabilities requires “a complex web of strategies and activities dependent upon student needs” (Baumel, MS, Jan), and some of these activities are hard to perform when the classroom setting already has enough variables. Each person has a unique learning style, whether it be through the use of visual aids, auditory guides, tactile practice, or other strategies, and special education students often need a combination of these to grasp all the material thrown at them. Their parents can’t be expected to play the role of teacher, instructional aide, interpreter, etc. - especially under today’s virtual learning reality when the students are educated at home with parents/caregivers who may have jobs of their own. Extricating children with special needs from their regular routines can cause more negative behaviors, and our idea of regular routines has had to change a lot over the past year.
As a community that cares about educating our children and funding the schools and professionals who provide this service, we can research which politicians support educational funding for public schools, bills that support balanced and diverse curriculums, and resources and programs for our students with disabilities. We can donate to the organizations that provide those resources. We can also educate ourselves - if we learn the cultures and practices of those with disabilities, we will be better able to implement those practices into our lives.
Images courtesy of Steve and Beth Price. Written by Chloe Price.
1 Fleming, Nora. “New Strategies in Special Education as Kids Learn From Home.” Edutopia. George Lucas Educational Foundation, March 27, 2020. https://www.edutopia.org/article/new-strategies-special-education-kids-learn-home.
2 Price, Chloe, and Grace Fisher. Special Needs Education Insight. December 8, 2020.
3 Baumel, MS, Jan. “What Is an IEP?” Parenting. Great Schools Org, 2014.