All living things, with the exception of clones and genetically modified food, are unique. Of course, that includes children. Every kid has a collection of traits, quirks, interests, annoying habits, talents, and abilities that makes him or her truly special. That’s why education should be special for every child. But unfortunately, it’s not.
Many schools could do a better job fostering creativity and problem-solving skills that 21st-century students will need to solve 21st-century challenges. The same can be said for the low priority most school place on character education. So, on many levels, students in the “mainstream” are not getting a lot of what they need to succeed. It’s also true that millions of kids with special needs are being grossly underserved, despite federal law mandating that these children receive truly special education in public schools.
While I am a seasoned educator and a parent, I have no direct experience with the challenges of raising a child with special needs, nor the complexities of navigating an education system to best meet those needs. But here’s what I do know from talking with parents who have lots of experience in this realm: Crippling state budget cuts aside, one major obstacle to providing effective special education may be educators who pre-judge a child’s ultimate learning potential and then design programs based on what the student can’t do rather than acknowledging what s/he may not be able to do yet.
As school psychologist Jan Baumel, M.S., states in her excellent article,Understanding Special Education Laws and Rights, “The courts have said that a child must receive ‘some benefit’ from his education, but schoolsdon’t have to maximize your child’s potential. (That’s what’s meant when you hear that the schools have to provide ‘a Chevrolet not a Cadillac’ education.)”
But why not push for maximizing potential? Every child deserves that! No one can ever predict exactly where anyone else’s path may lead. For that reason, education must help all children construct a path toward their own unlimited future. Because that doesn’t happen in every school, all kids need parent advocates. Kids with special needs may need especially loud and pushy parents to go to bat for them.
Here are some tips to help you advocate most effectively for your child:
Know your rights. Educate yourself about what your state law guarantee in terms of special education. Each state’s Department of Education also has its own division for Special Education and Support. Search the Internet for “Special Education (your state)” to find the programs and services to which your child is entitled.
Connect with other parents. It doesn’t matter that one child’s special needs are significantly different from another’s. What counts is the simple fact that parents working together, supporting each other, brainstorming questions in advance of district meetings, sharing information after such meetings, are more powerful and effective advocates for the rights of children.
Communicate with your school. To understand and navigate school district policy on behalf of their children, parents need to keep the lines of communication open with teachers and other school support staff. It is helpful to take the point of view that you and the professionals who work with your child are on the same team. Your appreciation for the job teachers do helps build trust, and it can ease the way to get the services your child deserves.
Bottom line. The challenges of advocating for a child with special needs can be stressful for families. The challenges of providing excellent special education can be stressful for educators as well. Parents and schools need to work together to understand the diverse educational requirements of every child with special needs and how best those requirements can be addressed and fulfilled. It often takes tremendous patience and persistence. And yes, pushiness helps!