November 9, 2009

Children with Special Needs: Where do they belong?

As a substitute teacher, I have a somewhat unique view on how any classroom functions.  Children's usual behaviors seem to be amplified by the presence of a different leader (a.k.a. me) and possibly changes in their usual routine.  This makes the whiners more whiny, the ornery more bold and the organized almost obsessive.  Fortunately, most of this polarization can be averted by a teacher who leaves a thorough and detailed plan for the day, and by a substitute who arrives and guides the class with confidence.

Unfortunately, these measures are not always enough to help a child with special needs.  Many special needs students are so sensitive to routine that my mere presence and the lack of their usual teacher can be quite upsetting.  This initial distress often cannot be avoided; however, most students warm up within a few minutes or hours and the day is ended on a good note.

But I have become concerned with some of the special needs students I have come across in classrooms.  I don't want what I say next to be misinterpreted; I believe that most special needs students belong in a regular classroom.  The structure and interactions there are a fine environment for their education.

But I have seen students who cannot possibly be learning in their classrooms.  These are children who are unable to understand the lessons, or unable to work independently.  I usually try to sit down and give this student a few moments of one-on-one attention as I can, but this is usually impossible to keep up for more than five to ten minutes at a time; if I stayed with one student any longer during independent work, I would be neglecting other questions and problems in the room.  

I have had two different students, in different school, who would literally just wander away.  They walk out of classrooms, out of lines as we walk through the building, or out of gym, art or music.  Both these students were almost entirely unable to participate in their class's activities due to their learning disabilities.  Other students have become physically aggressive, to me and to others near them, when I've tried to insist that they must, for example, stay quiet during rest time or sit down while they cut with their scissors.

My point is that this handful of children aren't learning.  Every child is entitled to an education, and every child should get an education.  Some of the students I have seen would be better served by being placed in classroom for children with special needs.

I'm not saying this because it would make my life "easier," or because I would ever, ever want to push a child aside.  I'm saying it because every child should get the education they deserve, and some students need more individualized attention than others.

I think schools need to be very careful where they draw the line, so they can ensure the best quality education to every student in their care.  Sadly, some children, it seems, are slipping through the cracks.

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