Where should my child with special needs attend school?
I have been a general education, public school teacher for twenty-two years. My own daughter with disabilities is thirteen years old. Parents of children with special needs wonder, “Where should my child attend school?”
This question does not reflect what we really worry about. What we really worry about is, “What supports and structures does my child need to be successful in school?” I did not realize until I had my own daughter that children with disabilities are often sent to separate schools away from their siblings, friends, and neighbors. Special education is a service offered free of charge to children that are eligible–it is not a place.
Incorporating the needs of a child with disabilities in a typical classroom requires that all the best teaching practices are implemented. When inclusion is done well, “The research and evaluation data on inclusion indicate a strong trend toward improved student outcomes (academically, behaviorally, and socially) for both special education students and general education students” (Libsky, Gartner, 1995).
General education teachers address the needs of a variety of learners daily. When I taught fourth grade, I had a range of reading abilities–some students read at the college level. Some students could not read at all. Some students came from supportive families. Some students’ only sense of stability came from school. When I arrived at the doorstep of our neighborhood school with my daughter with disabilities, I felt like they were saying, “We cannot meet her needs here.”
In first grade my daughter would not leave her shoes on in school. It finally occurred to me to say, “Whatever they are going to do in a special needs classroom–do it here. Do whatever it takes to educate her in the school where she eats lunch with her brother in the cafeteria and walks to school with her neighbors.” And we did. Being educated in our neighborhood school does not mean that she has less services (speech therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy) than in a school only for children with disabilities. It means that my daughter receives these services in our neighborhood school along with all the typical childhood lessons and memories with her siblings, friends, and neighbors. It means she has the experts in disabilities and typical abilities working together to support all children.