Too often I find that parents are confused by school. They believe that the purpose of school is nothing more than to return our kids to society with an academic education. They consider that what their kids are learning at school isn't useful if it isn't focussed on the their child's primary issues.
The reality it somewhat different. In this post, I want to touch on some of the supports in and around school systems and see how they combine to help children with special needs. Hopefully by the end of this post, you'll understand that school is only a small part of your child's educational process and that those numbers on the report cards really aren't much good as a measure of success.
Individualised Education Plans (IEPs)
If your child has documented special needs which entitle them to an IEP, then make sure that you get one. IEPs are a essentially a goal orientated plan for your child's learning in the school. They deal with real measurable output and they are designed to help your child achieve some specific goals with appropriate support. The IEP meeting shouldn't occur in the first few weeks of the school year (or in the last ten). In order for it to succeed, the plan should be written after the teacher has gotten to know your child but before it is too late in the year to make a difference.
IEPs should be reviewed and rewritten every year because goals, skills and problem areas change. When the IEP is reviewed, you should ask whether or not your child reached their goal and what types of support helped or hindered.
It's always a time of "false joy" when your child is allocated an aide. Most parents are excited by the prospect of a one-on-one helper teacher in the classroom for their child but this is usually not how it works. They're not called "Special needs child's aides", they're called Teacher's aides. They support the teacher, not your child. The aim of a teacher's aide is to "take the heat off the teacher" so that the teacher can spend more time with the students who need support.
It's still good because it means that the teacher will be spending more time with your child but it certainly doesn't mean that your child will get one-to-one attention while the aide is there. The aide supports the classroom and some days, your child won't get any benefit from them at all.
What Schools Teach
You might be surprised to learn that schools don't teach everything. In the academic world, schools teach primarily by example. Mathematics is taught by having the teacher do examples on the board but it's not something that the students will pick up without lots of practice (and in particular, homework). Then there's English; I can remember going to a good school only to have to sit in English class while the students took it in turns to read chapters of Jane Austen's Emma out loud. I'd already read the book before starting the year and in fact, I'd read it once or twice more once we started working on it. The readings were purely to help the kids who hadn't read it. Personally, I'd rather they spent the time to teach us how to write a good essay but they didn't. Instead, we wrote the essays and were taught by our marks. A low mark meant that you were "doing it wrong" while a high mark indicated that you were "doing it right". Sadly, that's still the way that schools operate today.
Schools are not academic powerhouses. They teach a little of the basics at usually, the lowest common denominator. They teach a little math, a little English and a smattering of other subjects including History, Art, Science, Religion, Phsyical Education and more. The aim is to raise awareness of the subjects and help the students find their interests, not to make them subject experts.
The best one-to-one academic resource for children is a tutor. A tutor can spend time looking at your child's specific needs and adjust their teaching accordingly. One hour per week with a good tutor is generally more effective (academically) than an entire school week with a classroom teacher. If your child is struggling, then a tutor is the best resource you can have. A special needs tutor is even better.
Tutors don't replace the school, they supplement it.
The other part of schooling is social development. In school, this typically happens as part of Playground activity, Sport, Drama or Music and to a lesser extent Art. The problem with school-based social development is that it plays a poor second to general school work. Children with poor social skills often don't realise that this time is supposed to be spent socialising and with the abundance of other kids around, their potential "mates" will easily find someone else to talk to.
The best social development occurs with different groups of friends and in different circumstances such as outside sporting groups, special interest groups, like little athletics, scouts and even chess and drama clubs. One of the best things about these clubs is that they're limited in numbers. This means that the kids have to make friends because there's not a whole lot of choice elsewhere. The right sort of group can also engage the special needs child in terms of subject matter and help them to grow in confidence.
Special needs kids also need a lot of therapy to help them along. There are lots of different types of therapy but the most common two are Speech and Occupational. Speech therapy isn't just something that you need when you stutter or have problems with words. Speech therapy promotes a lot of social skills too and teaches children how to approach others in conversation and how to use more emotive language. If for example, your child often speaks in a monotone, then speech therapy can help. Occupational therapy provides support for a wide range of behaviours including support for fidgety kids, assisting with pencil grips, modifying classroom equipment and putting in place other kinds of supports.
Sometimes these therapies in themselves become an almost psychological outlet for kids. That's not a bad thing though. It means that your kids have an adult that they can trust and with whom they can talk about school and playground social experiences. If the therapist is attached to the school, they can often intervene in problems before they get worse or can provide useful information to your child on how they should handle specific situations.
Arguably the largest piece of any child's education is family. It's from family, particularly parents that children learn most of their social behaviour. It's parents who teach by example, that books can be a welcome alternative to computers and TV or that sometimes it's good to just get outside and play. Finally, it's family who follow through on things in the school system, such as attending IEP meetings, showing interest in their child's work and prompting and assisting with homework.
Together these, and a few other things, help to give your child a well-rounded education. The problem is; only one of these, schools, actually gives grades. The message here is simply; "don't put too much stock in the grades assigned by only one of the components of your child's education".