Monday, July 1, 2013

SPECIAL NEEDS ETIQUETTE 101: Squabbling Over Schools

Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.
~ Proverbs 22:6, KJ21 ~

I may be incredibly biased in saying so, but parents of children with special needs are a remarkable bunch.  Fierce advocates, consumers of voluminous amounts of information, and discerning decision makers, these mothers and fathers tend to be dedicated individuals who know their kids better than anyone else.  Perhaps it is because they must spend more time with their children, focusing on issues of health and adaptation, but these parents are amazingly attuned to the nuances of how their child functions best.  Their intuition is typically spot-on, despite the harsh judgment of others.

One thing that seems to be a perpetual hot-button issue for kids of every diagnosis is the issue of school.  I regret to say that in my role as a leader, I hear far too few parents telling me of success and cooperation with their local public school.  Parents bear a heavy burden as they go to battle with administrators and educators on behalf of their child.  Despite laws in place and improving since the early 1970's, many schools seek to do the bare minimum for children with challenges rather than striving for excellence.  Yet, every family wants their loved one to receive the best possible education, especially within the guidelines of the law.  Sadly, I have even witnessed schools preying on the ignorance of parents in not abiding by the federal guidelines set forth.  In other words, they will not comply unless the parents have enough knowledge of their rights to make a complaint.

Given the fact that school horror stories abound with children who have special needs, mothers and fathers are seeking different options across this land.  Many step up to serve as their school or district's parent liaison, thus providing better communication and interaction with their public schools.  Others are setting their hopes on school vouchers to open up the option of working with a private school.  Charter schools are offering notable results for many families who are in need of smaller class sizes and more kinesthetic learning.  And there are multitudes of diligent parents who have devoted themselves to effectively homeschooling their children.

These very personal decisions seem to evoke opinionated statements from others, and commenting or squabbling can become contentious.  People in the public school camp may look harshly upon the private school fans, thinking they threaten programming in public education while settling for a lesser education in the parochial setting.  Private school fans can look down their noses at public education, feeling it serves no good purpose, simply because they had a bad experience.  And both public and private school parents can look at the homeschooling crowd with the false sense that children taught at home lack proper socialization and world exposure.  The fact is, everyone is wrong.

Here are thoughts for each camp to keep in mind:

  1. If you take one thing away from today's post, let it be this.  One size does not fit all in education.  Even within the same family, every child does not learn and thrive in the same way.  Some kids do better with full inclusion, while others blossom by being in a dedicated special education classroom. 
  2. Respect that a parent knows what is best for their own child.  You may not agree with it, but you are not that child's parent.  One of the most memorable things anyone ever said to me when our family was exploring the homeschooling option came from my friend, Shannon, who stated, "God gave that child to you.  Not to the school.  Not to the government.  To you.  He is equipping you to make the best decisions for your child."  Her words brought great encouragement and renewed confidence to me as a mother.  And what Shannon said is no less true of any other parent and child out there.
  3. Before you become concerned with another person's educational direction for their child, realize that there is likely much you do not know.  For example, children being educated in a homeschool setting have a wide variety of opportunities open to them for socializing with others, such as outside phy ed or art classes, area homeschool network field trips, and so forth.  Private schools are now hiring inclusion specialists who are incorporating best practices into their curriculum.  Etcetera. 
  4. As with other special needs etiquette issues, ask questions rather than making verbal judgments.  If you truly care about the family, the 3 words, "Help me understand...", can be a tremendously compassionate way to approach a subject.  End your conversation with words of support and encouragement rather than criticism. 
  5. If you are a parent weighing these decisions for your own child, make sure you find out what the rules, regulations, and opportunities are in your individual state.  The Wright's Law website is always the go-to place for such educational information.  
Whatever option is chosen, know for certain that it is critical to pursue the best education possible for a child with special needs.  Like fertilizer producing the most magnificent blooms, quality teaching can help each one of our children to reach their maximum potential. 

PRAY:  Father, bring us together in love to work for the betterment of each child, especially those with special needs.  May we respect one another's educational choices and support one another on this often-bumpy journey.

~ Barb Dittrich

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