When they asked how their 9-year-old son could be better challenged in school, Toni and Kent Parrish were stunned by the response they received.
“We were told that his teacher and the school’s principal considered him a success because he exceeded the curriculum requirements for his grade,” says Toni.
“Instead of discussing options to further challenge Dylan, the staff boasted of their pride in having a child excel.” When presented with the options of their son spending more time playing computer games or mentoring others by helping them learn to read, the Parrish’s were instantly made aware that the No Child Left Behind policy didn’t apply to their son.
“Our son should receive just as much attention as any other child regardless of whether he struggles or is gifted,” says Kent Parrish. “We feel that he’s being left behind.” There are many varying and conflicting opinions of the educational laws and standards that affect our children.
From feeling a school’s staff is too strict to questioning the practices of district administration or singing the praises of a favorite teacher, nearly everyone has an opinion about the education their child is receiving. “What many fail to recognize is that children who are gifted have nearly as many needs as those who require a modified program,” explains Bruce Dushane, Ph.D.
Parents of children with special educational needs examine the practices and policies of their child’s school with a unique perspective. But, parents of gifted children also scrutinize curriculum and material presented to their children. “Many forget that program requirements and needs of gifted children are in many ways similar to those of children who struggle,” says Dushane, an elementary school principal.
But parents of individual children don’t forget. Whether a child is gifted or has a learning disability of some kind, they are both deemed “special education.” Dushane explains, “If a child’s abilities fall anywhere outside of the average, chances are they have special needs.”
Fitting Into an Average World
With both a bachelors and masters degree, MaryBeth Sanders has taught first and second grade for more than 20 years. She reluctantly concedes that funding and overcrowding often play a key role in determining how much attention a special needs child receives. “It takes just as much time and effort to modify a program to accommodate a gifted child as it does for a child with a learning disability,” Sanders shares. “Either way, when you’re trying to impact a class of 30 or more children, there is often not enough time to devote to each child’s specific needs during the set number of hours we spend with a class.”
Concerns about school practices of inclusion and “teaching to the average” has many parents questioning the extent of their children’s education. Denise Roberts is quite familiar with the specific needs and concerns of both ends of the special needs spectrum. Helping one child with dyslexia thrive within a modified program and another who excels struggles to be challenged, Roberts shares her concerns for her children’s development. “I wish that our school divided children for the core classes based on ability, instead of focusing so much on mainstreaming. Teaching to the average misses kids who are either above or below,” Roberts honestly expresses.
The Affects of Special Needs
Most schools accommodate children with special needs by placing them in an accelerated or modified learning program. “Singling out a special needs child can draw attention to them and create social problems,” says Katie Hopkins, a licensed clinical social worker. Special needs children who are singled out because of it can often feel alone or find themselves without many friends their age. “This is because it is sometimes difficult to find other children the same age who share the same interests as they do,” Hopkins adds. “For this reason, gifted children might find themselves more comfortable with children who are older than they are and children with learning disabilities may feel comfortable and able to show off their skills with kids younger than they are.”
The Roberts’ are very aware at how special needs impact a child’s self esteem. “My son fights very hard for kids to not realize he’s gifted. There are times when he’ll pretend he doesn’t know an answer and doesn’t like to participate in class,” Denise says. Regardless of whether a child is gifted or has a disability, recognizing that he is anything but average can affect a child’s self-esteem and confidence.
“Most kids want to blend in. Drawing consistent attention to them in class can lower their self-esteem,” says Hopkins. Most schools work with children who have special needs by taking them out of their regular class to meet with a smaller focus group, or by working with an inclusion aide. “Although this is helpful academically, it can cause problems socially and emotionally,” Hopkins explains. “A child with any type of special needs who is consistently removed from his peers can miss some of the opportunities to spend time bonding with the rest of the class.”
While many disagree with the Roberts’ desire to divide children and teach them based on their abilities, there are some experts who acknowledge the need for change. “We are constantly reviewing the process and looking for the best possible way to educate our students,” says Dushane.
Meeting Your Child’s Needs
Education professionals agree that regardless of a child’s needs in the classroom, parent support and participation is crucial to success. “Knowing how your child feels about himself in respect to his performance at school will help formulate the best course of action,” Dushane adds. Keeping a clear line of communication open between your home and your child’s class will assist in addressing his needs and helping him transition through the various programs and subject matter he’ll encounter.
Asking questions and for progress reports will offer additional information beyond what comes home in his backpack each day. “If a parent suspects his child is either struggling with a disability or is gifted, their cooperation is extremely helpful,” says Sanders. “Effectively educating children requires a strong team.”
Gina Roberts-Grey is a mother, freelance writer and licensed clinical social worker.