It is sad to me that one approach to teaching reading has become the yardstick against which every child is measured, and those who do not measure up are labeled with a disability. In my opinion, a large percentage of the children who have been branded disabled are not disabled at all. Somehow we must lose the idea that there is one right way to teach reading. How have we let the situation get so skewed?
I have spent a lot of time nose-to-nose with kids who had been sent to special education classrooms and have seen the resulting emotional pain. They carry the disability label as a brand on their hearts and minds. It colors everything in their world. By labeling children with disabilities, educators intend to identify children who need to receive special help, but all too often what results inside the child is completely detrimental.
Talking to Anne About Special Education
I remember talking with a middle schooler who I will call Anne. She was, as many children are, absolutely defeated. She’d been told that she was learning disabled, and what that did for her was remove any reason for trying. Telling a child, she is disabled is like holding up a mirror that shows her a version of herself, a version that will never measure up to what is expected. To a child, being disabled means they are never going to make it. Very few people try hard if they know failure will be the outcome of their efforts.
As I spoke with Anne, trying to find something I could use to motivate her, she brought up being in special ed and how much it bothered her. Rashly, I asked Anne what she’d be willing to do if she could get out of the program as a result. She said, “Anything. I will do anything.”
I went to the head of the special education department and asked exactly what Anne would have to do or what skills she’d need to acquire in order to test out of special ed. Some eyebrows went up, but we got some specifics to take back to Anne. The change in her was startling. She saw hope. Immediately Anne’s work ethic changed and she began to try very hard and make progress in her work. Rather than having a sentence, Anne now understood she had specific skills to learn.
What if the “Cure” Ends Up Killing the Patient?
Apart from the emotional damage labeling a child can cause, there are other reasons to exhibit great caution before identifying a child as disabled. Too often, once children have been taken through the process of identification, the label they receive is so broad as to be nondescript and certainly unhelpful. Worse yet, once the child has his label in place and he receives help in or out of the classroom, that help frequently comes in the form of dumbing down the expectations for the child.
Many children who have been identified for special education have their requirements cut in half (half the math problems, half the spelling words, etc.) The problem with this scenario is that the number of problems or words a child is given is not usually the issue. The issue is that the child might just not know how to do the work! So it doesn’t matter if you assign five problems or ten. Ten words or 20. If the problem lies in missing skills or if the child simply cannot memorize, you are not really helping him by cutting the amount of work in half.
Look at the Child First, Then Make a Decision
If I am correct in surmising that a large percentage of children who are in special ed don’t belong there, it makes a lot of sense to spend more time identifying where the gaps in learning are for the child and finding resources that teach in ways that make sense to him before labeling him as special needs or disabled.
We, at Child1st, believe that many children who are seemingly not able to read COULD read if they had the right method.