Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Accessing the Real "Real World": Homeschooling and the Special Education Child

Lately, as I have said, I've been thinking about certain issues in Special Education.

I have also been reading. Of course, I have been reading papers and books related to my courses, But I also picked up this book at the library.
It is The Well-Adjusted Child: The Social Benefits of Homeschooling by Rachel Gathercole. I highly recommend it to homeschoolers, particularly those who have confronted the dreaded "S" question from concerned friends and relatives, as well as curious or even hostile strangers. Gathercole puts a lot of these kinds of questions and objections in perspective.

As I was reading this book--in my spare time, as it were--I came across a section that brought another perspective on the issue of the special education child, one that also gelled some ill-formed thoughts that I had about the full inclusion ideology and some of the other assertions that go with it. One of these assertions is that there is really no such thing as disability. From the perspective of the Constructionists, Deconstructionists, and Postmodernists on the left in education, disability is socially constructed and therefore it can be 'deconstructed'--it can be made 'not real' because there is no objective reality to it.

In the midst of all my musing about this really amazing assertion--and it is amazing because the Postmodernists in Special Education are thus hell-bent on 'deconstructing' their own field--I was reading the Gathercole book and in a chapter called 'Independence and Strong Family Relationships,' I came across a section on the gifted or special needs child. Gathercole says:

"If labels ("problem," "gifted," "hyperactive," and the list goes on) were removed, many of these children would be described as bored, different, intelligent, creative, underappreciated, unsuited to the classroom environment, energetic, misunderstood, spirited, and so forth." (p. 93).

And I wondered, does Gathercole mean that mild to moderate disabilities and/or enhanced abilities (giftedness) do not really exist? Or are they a by-product of "the unnaturally restrictive and conformity-oriented setting of school" (p. 94)? Gathercole does not discuss this question. In fact, the question probably did not occur to her. Her point is that these children tend to do better when they are educated one-on-one by someone wholly invested in their development i.e. a parent.

As the parent of a child with disabilities, a child who has Aspergers Syndrome comorbid with Anxiety Disorder, and who has been schooled and is now being homeschooled, I have experience and perspective to comment on these questions. That "unnaturally restrictive and conformity-oriented setting" that is school was very hard on N. because of his disabilities. The constant interruptions, the noise, the pushing, the rudeness of some teachers towards him and others, the light, the stress of the hurry-up-and-wait, the endless homework, the regimentation,...need I go on? ...all of these things and more only served to increase his anxiety, his tics, and his sensory sensitivities. And the conformity...the expectation of conformity...the idea that everyone at a certain age should be able to do certain things and not do others...this created situations in which N. was punished for his disabilities. And his giftedness, which is quite pronounced, was not recognized or engaged. His interests, his passions, his ability to hyper-focus were, with a very few exceptions, not used as a starting point to scaffold to more learning for him.

Gathercole says: "Often "problem" behaviors disappear just by removing the child from school." (p. 94). And we found this to be true for some of N.'s behaviors. But of course the underlying special needs did not disappear. Rather, we saw an improvement in mood and anxiety, tics and sensory sensitivities because we were able to meet his need for order, quiet, frequent physical exercise, frequent small snacks, and fewer and well-planned transitions. The stress of the overwhelming social demands was removed because we separated his social contact times from the times he was expected to be focusing and concentrating on academic learning. This recognition of what Tony Attwood, a world-renowned expert on AS, calls the parallel curriculum, has done wonders for N.'s ability to engage socially. (What Attwood means is that in school, the kids are really learning on two tracks at once--the social and the academic--and due to the large numbers and rigid age-expectations, these tracks are stressful even for kids without disabilities. They are often a nightmare for kids who have significant neurological impairments).

Now, I have been told that by doing this, I am not preparing N. for the "real world." At first this objection from well-meaning, and not-so-well-meaning people confused me. I have since learned to ask them what they mean by the "real world." Adults who have the freedom to do so, naturally separate their social events from work, and work from study and introspection. They choose the timing and intensity of social interactions, alone-time, and time spent with family in intimate settings. They are not left to deal with bullying in "zero-tolerance" settings, nor are they blamed as a participant if they are the victim of an assault.

School children often do not have the luxury of these kinds of choices. They must deal with playground bullies on their own, and can be labeled as the "tattle-tale" or the "troublemaker" if they attempt to enlist adult help. In "zero-tolerance" settings, they can be blamed for being assaulted, defending themselves, or even being an innocent bystander in a situation they cannot escape. And woe to the child who has a neurological disability in such a not-the-real-world setting. My child, for example, "included" in a large, visually busy third-grade classroom, expect to conform to a narrow set of norms, was targeted by the teacher and then by certain students for bullying and humiliation. And there was no escape.

This is far from an isolated situation. Unfortunately. Several studies have shown that general education teachers feel unprepared to deal with special education needs and meet the every-narrowing standards required by NCLB. The "support" promised from special education teachers now in consultative role is either scattered due to large case-loads, or not sufficiently targeted because the support is ephemeral. Special education students in these settings are not receiving the focused, relentless direct instruction that the research shows is effective in developing their academic skills. And the special education students themselves perceive that they are a burden in the classroom, and they prefer being in a smaller, more specialized setting in order to get the leg-up they need in accessing the general curriculum. (The sources for this information can be found in Kavale and Mostert, 2004, The Positive Side of Special Education: Minimizing Its Fads, Fancies and Follies, Chapter 8: 'Ideology and Special Education').

And homeschooled special education kids? What is their experience with "the real world?" Like adults, when they are given the freedom to do so, they learn to regulate the time and intensity of social contacts so that they fit their unique needs. They learn to balance their social needs with their needs for alone-time, study and introspection. They have constant support and modeling from their parents and families when learning to deal with difficult people and situations. They receive the targeted, relentless direct instruction they need, one-on-one, and delivered by those who has the greatest interest of all in their development and future prospects, their parents. And they are out in the real "real world" all the time, interacting with people of different ages, learning from a wide variety of people in many different situations, all with the support of the people who care about them the most.

And in this real "real world," we just might see that there is more to the disability than the problem behaviors. Gathercole again:
"...these "different" children especially benefit from being in a more individualized environment with a caring individual who is genuinely interesting and invested in (their) well being and... individuality. Such a person can come to recognize...the challenges as the gifts they are so that the child may learn to use the gifts behind each challenge in a positive manner. When a parent can take the time to discover and understand these gifts, he has done the child a priceless service that will fortify (the child) for the rest of his life." (p. 93).

Yes, the disabilities are real. They pose significant challenges for special needs children and those that love them. But when the environment is changed to one more conducive for their learning and growth, behaviors become less difficult and easier to shape. Out here in the real "real world" of family and community and relationships, where authority is earned and the real differences between children are respected, the disability still exists, and still needs support, but we also find, as Gathercole says, that these special needs kids, "viewed as problem children in school, show themselves to be extremely creative, persistent, intelligent, and passionate when removed..." (p. 94).

My response to the "real world" objection has become another question: What "real world" do I choose for my own precious child? Personally, I choose the real "real world."


Unknown said...

I have always said my boys do not have any disability. but sometimes Ihave to use these nam made labels to find the resources I need to teachmy kids in the way they learnbest.

sounds like a good book

jason said...

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