Let's face it: unfortunate stereotypes exist around special education. These stereotypes are wrong, of course, but knowing they're wrong doesn't keep them from influencing our parenting decisions. My son is now in a classroom for children with emotional and behavioral disorders. Looking back, I wish I'd ignored my stereotype-influenced fears and chosen this classroom sooner.
What Is Special Education?
A common misconception is that "special ed" is a place. While a separate classroom is needed for some, special education itself is a set of services, not a setting.
Another misconception is that only children with physical or developmental disabilities qualify for special education. Parents of children with mental illnesses need to know their children qualify, too. The idea behind special ed is that every child deserves a general education. If a disability causes barriers to that education, the school can provide services to help. In other words, children with special education are not getting a different education. They're gaining access to the same education as everyone else.
An Example of the Special Education Journey
My son's school issues started in kindergarten. By first grade, we implemented an individualized education plan (IEP) based on his attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The IEP set educational expectations and allowed for accommodations like movement breaks.
Despite that, my son's behaviors kept getting him removed from classrooms. By third grade, we added social skills instruction and sensory room breaks to his IEP. Even then, he'd get suspended for disruptive behaviors. After the disruptive mood dysregulation disorder (DMDD) diagnosis in fourth grade, we implemented a behavior intervention plan (BIP), which basically meant he couldn't be suspended for behaviors related to his disability without following the plan first.
When he still couldn't learn or control his behaviors, he moved to what's called federal setting three. This means he spends more than 60 percent of his day in a special ed classroom.
6 Reasons to Consider a Special Ed Classroom
1. Smaller Classrooms
My son's regular ed classroom had 36 children. His new classroom has 10, with a teacher and two assistants to oversee it. Children with ADHD have poor attention spans, impulse control, etc. Having an adult who can redirect them without disrupting the whole classroom makes a huge difference. My son finishes his in-class work for the first time ever.
2. Specially-Trained Staff
The staff in my son's classroom have training and experience with emotional and behavioral disorders. My son has had two major outbursts this year. The fact that it hasn't been 20 is itself a testament to special education, but he also wasn't removed from the classroom for the outbursts. The staff has been able to de-escalate situations, maintain specific expectations around behaviors, and help my son control his emotions so that he can learn.
3. Structure and Consistency
The classroom is highly structured in a way kids with mental illnesses tend to crave. Instruction is provided in 20-minute increments, which is perfect for anyone, let alone someone with ADHD. Kids get five minutes of "free time" between instruction. However, they have to finish their work to get that time. My son is hugely motivated by this.
The staff also maintains behavior charts. If a child acts out, they get a mark, meaning five minutes of free time lost. If the child manages their behavior well for the next 20 minutes, that mark is removed, and they've earned back free time. In addition, positive behavior is tracked on point sheets that the teacher sends home daily. At the end of the week, kids can use accrued positive behavior points towards a reward.
There's much more to it. The classroom is so highly structured that it would be impossible for me to do it at home. My son's behaviors have drastically improved, though, and he's doing grade-level work.
4. Boosted Confidence
My son now has proof that he can be a good student. Previously, he'd insist he was stupid and refuse to work. As a parent, I feared he'd drop out one day. I feared he'd be a school-to-prison pipeline statistic.
Now, my son enjoys school. He comes home and does his homework. In the past, homework triggered terrible outbursts. Now he knows he's capable. In general, his classroom structure has helped reinforce that positive behaviors lead to positive outcomes, and this informs his behavior even outside of school.
5. Friends Who Understand
When asked, my son says the best part of his new classroom is his new friends. He maintains old friendships, too, but now he doesn't feel like the "weird kid." The kids in his classroom have social skills instruction together, where they relate to each other's experiences. They can talk about outbursts or anxiety and have someone say they understand how it feels. They provide positive peer pressure.
It's refreshing to feel hope. Parents of children with mental illness know how dark it can get. When offered special education, then, don't let the stereotypes win. Whether your child only needs basic accommodations or a separate special ed classroom altogether, consider the options. Allow yourself to hope.