I’ve experienced special education from several different viewpoints. As a child I was in special education until the 6th grade. I was a substitute special education teacher for a few months after graduating college. And now I’m the parent of a child in special education.
One time as a substitute I found myself in a classroom with children preparing for a spelling test. Special ed classrooms now always have aides (they didn’t when I was in it), who were useful for orientating me to the kids and classroom procedures. I sat down with one boy watched him practice his spelling. I noticed what errors he was making. One thing I noticed was he was doing something I used to do, confusing his lowercase ‘b’ and ‘d’s. It wasn’t that he didn’t know how to spell the words, but that he was mixing up his letters.
So I told him how I learned the difference between lower b and d. The b is a bad child who faces away from his parent (uppercase) letter.
Meanwhile, d is a darling child who faces his parent letter.
“Bad B, Darling D” I told him to remember. I also told him when he got his spelling test to write the letters on the top of the page to refer to. And let me say, he lit up SO much when I told him this. He was so excited to have a way to figure out the difference between lowercase b and d. When he took his spelling test he scored 90%, the highest he’d ever gotten on a spelling test! He was over the moon.
Meanwhile, a little girl I’d not had a chance to work with had failed the test. The aide told me to yell at her for failing it. I asked the aide what was going on in her life that might explain the poor grade. For one thing, looking at this girl, I could tell she was likely confronting a lot of bullying. She was completely bald. She was possibly battling a scary illness.
The aide completely discounted this and said she should have studied more.
I felt that familiar sense of frustration. Even though we have a wealth of research showing learning disabilities are real, that when kids are bullied they tend to not focus on studying, or that not performing well in school is usually linked to a cognitive deficit or emotional upset, we still view special education and kids in special education as unmotivated and as needing to be punished. I cannot stress how harmful this is!
I have an auditory processing disorder. In a lot of ways, I grew up deaf, but when tested was rated with above average hearing. In the paradoxical way that sensory processing disorders work, because my hearing was so good, I also could not filter out and distinguish between the sounds I was supposed to focus on and the background noise. Nowadays, under good conditions it’s not a problem. But I still struggle understanding disembodied voices (phones calls are very stressful for me for this reason) and in crowded restaurants or parties I also have a hard time hearing, hence why I’ve never been a party animal or big into the bar scene. I really don’t like gatherings of more than four people. And forget talking to me on a bus.
I remember people talking to me and it was like dunking your head in a swimming people and trying to understand what someone in the pool is saying. Very distorted. I did a lot of guessing what people were saying and answering them as neutrally as possible, simple “yes”, “no” or “I don’t know.” Really I was taking a shot in the dark and hoping my answer would be satisfactory.
I remember one teacher in the first grade got on to me all of the time for not paying attention and didn’t believe me when I said I couldn’t understand her. I my mind, I was paying attention. I was sitting quietly and looking at her.
Reading was something I latched onto because the words on a page were solid and certain, not distorted. I think learning to read eventually helped me comprehend what people were saying. To this day if I click on a news article and it takes me to a video I usually hit the back button. I’d much rather read it.
Now, in theory, because my problems were with auditory comprehension and spelling, under Texas law I should have received specialized education targeting those areas. In reality, Texas doesn’t like expending the resources to meet a child’s individual needs. The district wanted to label me ADHD and have my mom put me on ritalin, something she fought tooth and nail (and never did). My mom knew the ADHD diagnosis was bogus because I could sit and read for hours.
Failing that, they decided that since my symptoms most closely resembled dyslexia they would put me in remedial reading classes. For me, this was humiliating. I was reading chapter books at the age of 7, and they put me in a classroom with kids struggling to read, “the goat on the boat went out on the float.” It took some of the kids more than five minutes to read that sentence. I could read an entire chapter in the time it took them to read a simple sentence. This was not the right place for me!
Strangely, in the special ed classroom I was look upon by the other kids as an Einstein. I could read very well! And there were nice things about the special ed classroom. The kids were nicer and I got to interact one on one with them. And my special ed teachers were nice and I tended to be teacher’s pet there because I could read and made their job easier.
However, it didn’t change the fact that going to the special education classroom was a red scarlett letter. When I left general ed to go there, everyone in the general ed classroom knew I needed extra help and couldn’t do the regular work. Combined with the humiliation of not having my actual needs met and being in remedial reading, it was an agonizing experience. In the fifth grade I just stopped going for a few weeks. Amazingly I was so quiet my general ed teacher never even noticed that I hadn’t left. Eventually I went back because I didn’t want to get into trouble when my absence from it would finally be noticed.
Which brings me to the first thing I wish special education teachers knew. It is demoralizing to be in special education. No matter what it is called, how it is dressed up, or how fun it is to be in the actual special education classroom, you are marked as someone who needs special education.
Here’s another thing I wish special education teachers knew. We are called “retards” on the playground. People tease us for being in special education.
Which leads me to my next point, no kid willing underperforms or refuses to learn to the point that they end up in special ed. No one wants to be called “retard” or ostracized from their peers for being in special education. If they are there, then there is something going on that prevents that kid from learning like typically developing children do.
Typically the kids I’ve known in special ed are demoralized. They see other kids reading so easily, and wonder what is wrong with them if they are struggling with something others get so easily. And the thing is, yelling at them is not going to make them perform better. Neither is labeling them defiant or uncooperative.
If a child is having a difficult time learning, we have to figure out what is going on that is causing the difficultly. In the case of the boy I mentioned earlier, he was having difficulty in reversing his letters. This was something I did not need a fancy test or a lot of time to discover. I likely worked with him all of ten minutes. But when I showed him a way to figure out how to write his letters correctly, he grasped at it like a drowning man does to a lifesaver!
The other thing I want to emphasize here is I found this out in 15 minutes. I was subbing in this classroom in the spring semester, the second half of the school year. This was an easy problem with an easy solution. How had it gone on undetected for so long?
Likely, in my opinion, because the teacher was too busy yelling at the kids for being unmotivated rather than finding the reason for the difficultly.
Not all problems are so easy to fix or diagnose. However, if something isn’t working, labeling the kid as the problem is not the way to go about finding the solution. The child is already wondering what is wrong with him. A teacher calling him unmotivated is telling him that’s the problem. To a child who is really trying but failing, this is devastating. If you work really hard at something that you see others doing so easily, but still fail, someone telling you you need to try harder does not motivate you to do so, it’s a recipe for getting someone to give up.
There are some special education teachers who get it. Chris Ulmer starts his class with ten minutes of compliments. For children in special ed, we’re used to hearing about all the things we aren’t doing. We hear about it from our teachers, our parents, other students. Rarely does the kid in special ed hear a compliment.
Ulmer found that when he started the day by complimenting his students, the kids behaved better and made more progress. These kids are now partaking in typical school activities like debate club.
Right now our school system is focused to teaching to one type of learner. Fact is, humanity is diverse, with people who learn in different ways. However, the way things are now, if you don’t fit into the box that schools cater to, you’re branded as being difficult and unmotivated. A lot of times, kids in special education just give up, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
To fix this we need a school system that recognizes that varied ways kids learn. A lot of the things that helped me growing up are not difficult or expensive to implement. Certainly teaching kids memory tricks to remember the different between lowercase b and d is not complex. For whatever reason, though, we don’t.
Thirty years later, and still frustrated as hell with the system.