* Coming to grips with a label

sped labels 2Coming to grips with a special education label?  Easier said than done.  The labeling process has timelines and established procedures, but for all parents, there’s a lot more to it than getting a Handbook of Parents’ Rights.  For some parents, the very idea of a disability may come as a shock. How could their chatty, sociable kid have a reading disability?  How could their brilliant but shy kid be autistic?  How could their lively and curious kid have an attention disorder?

The labeling process stops in its tracks right there for some families.  They believe that the school is off-base, biased, prejudiced, or negligent.  I’ve been on both sides of the fence: seeing kids who clearly needed special education and seeing kids who clearly needed better instruction.  For parents who are shocked by this news from school, it can take years to sort through the process.  Evaluations, grief, denial, lawsuits, and more can characterize this difficult impasse.  When parents are the ones demanding an evaluation, the impasse can be equally disheartening.

Let’s examine what’s involved when parents do recognize that their child has a disability.  Perhaps the disability was identified in preschool.  Perhaps it was a result of whole body radiation to fight leukemia.  Whatever its origin, which is likely unknown, a disability can be like a death, a loss of hopes and dreams.  Early intervention may restore some of that optimism, or it may solidify their worst fears.  It’s an uncertain path which sometimes leads to depression or ends in divorce.  I remember a parent telling me that she grieved every year on her child’s birthday.

Assuming the parents and school agree on a special education label, let’s fast forward to another annual event which can be equally devastating: the yearly IEP meeting.  There’s a reason that school-based committees have boxes of tissues available for parents.  Although the IEP does reference strengths, the bulk of the document carefully outlines the child’s weaknesses and ongoing need for intervention.  As much as a family may want that IEP, it’s another reminder of what might have been or what has already been.  It’s a tough meeting, perhaps made even more difficult by a conflict with teachers over the services provided.

What can parents do?  Enlist support, whether from family, friends, other parents of kids with similar needs, and/or professional organizations.  Educate yourself on the disability and best practices for improving your child’s success. Be your child’s best advocate.  Enjoy your child.  Your child is a wonderful kid who wants to succeed, wants to be accepted, and wants to do their best.

What can teachers do?  Empathize with the family.  You may not have had a child with a disability, but you will surely have suffered loss and despair.  Encourage the parents.  I have seen many kids who had serious problems in their first years of school who are now successful college students.   Educate yourself on the disability and best practices for improving your student’s success.  Be your student’s best advocate.  Enjoy your student.  This child is a wonderful kid who wants to succeed, wants to be accepted, and wants to do their best.

* Special education labeling and race

Yes we canAs a special educator, I would have to be blind (and dumb) not to see that black boys are over-represented as behaviorally-emotionally handicapped.  The Office of Civil Rights has also reported that blacks are far more likely to be identified as mentally handicapped (retarded) than their white peers.  The Schott Foundation report “Yes We Can” indicates that black males are twice as likely to be identified in this way, along with far greater numbers of suspensions and significantly lower rates of graduation from high school.  Other studies show that black kids are more likely to be identified as learning disabled and/or speech-language handicapped.  An ERIC report on these discrepancies concludes: “The results indicate ethnic disparities in special education labeling among children with similar clinical profiles and that mental health and education services are substituted for each other differently based on ethnicity. Possible reasons include undertreatment of ADHD, differential interpretation of associated behaviors, and differences in parents’ ability to advocate for children’s educational and mental health needs.”

My experience (in my current community) has been an interesting one.  I have served on the school-based committee which determines special education placement.   In that role, I have seen noticeable variations overall between black, white, and hispanic parents who attend these meetings.  Remember that in my community, there is a very small middle-class black community.  A large percentage of black and hispanic kids receive free and reduced lunch.  At the same time, white families are typically middle- to upper-class folks who live in this area as professionals and students of local universities.  

White families have usually advocated for their child’s placement in special education (notable exceptions being parents who vehemently assert that their child is NOT autistic).  White families often made an official request for an evaluation or brought a privately completed evaluation to school, asking that their child be labeled Learning Disabled or Other Health Impaired.  They have been more likely to seek medication for their kids.  White parents have also been more likely to participate in special education advocacy groups and join community associations that support parents of kids with special needs.  I have observed remarkable differences among these families, regardless of education or income, regarding their understanding of the labeling process.

Black parents typically viewed the special education process with great suspicion and argued against their child’s placement in special education.  Some suggested that the school “just wants my boy to take medication” or “wants to test all the black kids.”  They referred to those national figures cited above.  They often had a personal and historical association with blacks being regarded as “retarded” and riding a “special bus.”  They often noted that their kids did well in other settings.  Many of these parents (and often grandparents) in this community did not have finances to provide outside resources for their kids, nor were they well educated themselves.  These parents did not usually have a clear idea of the labeling process.  They just wanted it to stop.  Immediately.

Hispanic parents typically agreed with anything the school-based committee suggested.  They were very eager for special assistance, if that was suggested.  Most hispanic families in this community had few resources and were not typically well educated.  Those parents who required a translator often had little understanding of the special education process.  A translator who was familiar with special education “jargon” typically interpreted the process for them.

Despite these variations in family attitudes, black and hispanic kids have been over-represented in special education in my community.  Why is that? 

I do not believe that black and hispanic kids are more “naturally” learning disabled or behavior disordered.  When these kids were referred to the school-based committee, they were struggling mightily.  They did meet the criteria for these labels.  So what gives?  I think the answer lies in expectations and school environments.  Do teachers (typically white female) truly believe that black kids can perform as well as whites?  What about whether blacks can outperform whites?  They do in some schools.  

Stay tuned for more.

* What a difference a day makes…

The child in this blog has a truly wonderful mom! It’s a poignant but courageous post. Read on….

unitedinsite

I was full of joy two days ago, happy as a lark. Next day my little bubble burst a bit, the wind definitely out of my sails. I was told that Canon has got a learning difficulty alongside his autism. Whoa what? You mean my little one who is not freaking out at school, saying Canon when you ask his name and saying guuuuuud thumbs up when you ask him how he is. No. Can’t bear it.

The thing is I can see it, I don’t know the difference between autism and learning difficulties but I can see that he is just not really picking up stuff like we thought he might. Colours, names, objects. How any times have we tried to teach him colours? Yesterday as standard… Look Canon yellow car, red car, yellow car, red car (pointing them out) now asking him to copy.. Red car… Red car…

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