The Kids Stay in the Picture

June 13, 2012 at 11:01 AM 1 comment

Parents coming to terms with a child’s Special Education needs are dealing with uncertainty. Their hopes and dreams hang in the balance, and it hurts. It would seem cruel to put the child through that as well. But with many disabilities, the child has been aware of his or her differences long before the grown-ups. By age 10, not only do children have a pretty firm grasp that there is an issue, but they are actively solidifying compensatory mechanisms that may complicate their responses to intervention if not uncovered through dialogue.

A sixth grade boy with Asperger’s syndrome smiles with genuine relief as he reads a book on the autism spectrum, saying “OMG! That’s what’s going on.” A young student with severe dyslexia stares at the adults incredulously and explains, “That’s not so bad. I thought I was just stupid.” A father and daughter laugh when the psychologist explains that the lines don’t actually converge in geometry because the girl’s visual processing disorder – the triangle doesn’t exist. “I told you, Dad,” she says, vindicated. “He hears a thousand airplanes landing on the roof. Your voice doesn’t always register,” suggests the audiologist, reassuring the boy who’s always getting in trouble. Facing such conversations need not be trepidatious.

Children get locked in their own worlds because of disabilities, and many experience altered states that leave them frightened, bewildered, embarrassed, or frustrated. Seemingly small explanations can be incredibly reassuring and key to their engagement in interventions. However, the children are left out of many of the conversations, often because of false hopes of protecting them from the reality the adults are trying to confront. A child who is special does not need to be burdened with the details. As if…

Legally, the children with special needs are not included in their own education planning until high school.  In my world view, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) should be modified to open the dialogue in special education to include the children as of fourth grade. The wording of amendments would have to allow for parental discretion, but the benefits of including children on their education planning teams need to be considered and supported.

Children seek to fit in with their peers and are quite willing to participate in the code of silence surrounding their learning differences. However, they tend to be incredibly cooperative with therapies once they understand the rationale and the desired outcomes. They can be empowered to set some of their own goals and measure their own progress. Chances are that no one has a stronger vested interest in overcoming obstacles than the child. In fact, that self-interest may already be driving a series of coping strategies with varying degrees of success.

Without better understanding, a child with ADHD, for example, is at risk of becoming the class clown or rebel to deal with his or her impulsive behavior. Exhausted by the extra effort needed for achievement, a child with longer processing times may exhibit a learned sense of helplessness. A child who shuts down or tries to be invisible may get under-served or overlooked by his or her own design. Fear of exposure may turn into defiance in lieu of participation. Children are resilient, but their solutions, while imaginative, are limited in scope and target social acceptance rather than academic progress. Delaying their involvement in their learning plans until high school accentuates that tendency toward dysfunction.

Children with special needs benefit from participating in conversations that explain their disabilities, expand their awareness of possible remedies, and allow them more options, especial if the interventions are counter-intuitive. Further, learning strategies are subject to trial and error. The sooner the child realizes this and gets involved as an explorer and evaluator, the more likely he or she is to be an effective problem solver….Because the ultimate goal is to enable the child to take charge of his or her own destiny despite special needs. With accelerated progress, there is no reason why many students with moderate disabilities should ever reach high school still in need of services or transition plans.

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