Message to Schools: The Importance of Thinking Flexibly to Help Special Needs Students

Posted October 5, 2012 by

A parent new to my hometown commented that she thought that all the school buildings and particularly the high schools had a very closed feeling. “It’s like they are meant to contain the students. Some look more like a prison than a place of learning.”

Ironically (or not) some of the schools were designed by architects who also designed prisons. They are both meant to house large numbers of students/inmates and minimize ways to exit the building.

Her comment was timely for me as I had just been noticing how many issues coming up from parents and teachers were ones that created constriction and tightening.

Fear of losing their jobs caused teachers to hold on tightly to what they had.

That strategy, born out of a biological imperative to survive, worked well hundreds of years ago when we really did have to worry about famine and disease, but is it really a good strategy when it comes to education in our modern society?

As our economy struggles and individuals face uncertainty, all too often we have a ‘There’s not enough’ mentality. I see nervous teachers, overwhelmed with the scope of their roles, become rigid and narrow. I am not blaming them; they are subject to forces beyond their immediate control including federal and state mandates (almost always unfunded mandates), changes in job descriptions, increases in classroom size, decreases in support and a dearth of basic classroom supplies.

With the threat of even more cuts coming in our state, they see they have almost no choice but to buckle down and try to weather out the storm.

Unfortunately for the special needs students who can’t access their education without additional supports and services, this creates a perfect storm of suffering — by the student, the student’s family and the teachers.

While I can understand how this situation arises, the natural reaction to contract and hunker down is not actually necessary in this modern scenario. How can we support staff to go against their instinctual reaction and engage their higher minds? Though they may feel that they have to hold onto the last basket of nuts, rationing them to last the long winter, what if they expanded their thinking instead?

Taking this analogy further, what if the teachers decided to plant some of the nuts instead — or perhaps they could combine them with someone else’s greens and make a whole meal? What would happen if resources were shared rather than hoarded?

In the school where I work as an advocate for parents of special needs kids, I notice that it often just takes one person on the team to start asking if they can do something differently to shift the whole group’s thinking.  I spoke to a parent recently whose daughter was barely able to go to school due to severe anxiety, social phobias and ADHD issues. The school staff started reducing her options for places to take a break and regroup. They started saying things like, “We have made her accommodations available to her, and she just isn’t using them.” The situation was deteriorating to the point that her parents had to take her out of school for a week to keep her from having a full blown breakdown.  Her parents were frustrated and defensive.  Now the whole team was constricted and unable to see beyond their narrow perspective.

The various team members looked for help; they were hoping to have administrators agree with their rigid positions but instead, the administrators and consultants asked open-ended questions such as, “What helps the student feel safe and secure?” “What are we working towards here — is it going to classes or feeling that she belongs?” “What would a good day look like for this student?”

When the team began opening to the questions,  they were able to start thinking more flexibly and together designed a day that reduced stress and anxiety while also giving her access to classes and teachers that she liked and felt connected to.

There is always another way: of thinking, of delivering services, of meeting a child where they are. Schools may look like containment centers, but when they are filled with flexible thinkers and creative adults and students, they can become places where teachers really can make a difference and help children flourish.

About

Anna Stewart is a family advocate, writer, speaker, facilitator and single mother of 3 unique kids. She is passionate about helping families learn to advocate WITH their children and teens and supporting those with AD/HD. Anna is the author of School Support for Students with AD/HD.

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