Special Needs & Stereotypes in Education
One of my daughters has always been a little bit different from other kids her age. She climbed before she could walk. When she started talking she never seemed to stop. She blurted, babbled, interrupted, and couldn’t stop herself from touching anything and everything that caught her eye. When she was a toddler and preschooler I learned that I couldn’t really take her to a store: she wandered away in the blink of an eye, climbed shelves and knocked down displays, or shoplifted the things that she wanted. I worried that she would be abducted when she wandered. I got upset each time I dragged her to a store clerk so that she could apologize and/or return stolen items. The response of each clerk to my mixed race, red-headed daughter was always the same, “Oh, it’s no problem. She’s so cute!”
She is cute. She can be the most loving, caring, and sweetest person in the world. But the world has always overstimulated her. If she holds herself together in public, she melts down at home. Her meltdowns are fierce, too: holes in the walls and doors, bruises on family members, and enough tears to soak a pillow through. She and I started seeing a therapist when she was 4 years old because our relationship was suffering. I loved my baby, but I couldn’t handle her meltdowns and I didn’t know what to do.
I worried a lot when she started school. So much so that I dreaded that first parent-teacher conference in kindergarten. On one hand, I wanted the teacher to tell me that my daughter acted the same in school as she did at home–I wanted validation. On the other hand, I thought it would be embarrassing to know that she behaved so crazily in school. Throughout preschool and kindergarten her teachers told me about incidents that happened in the classroom. But when I asked if they thought those incidents were worrisome enough to seek professional help, they said no.
In first grade things got more difficult. Her teacher said that my daughter’s behaviors were interfering with her learning. We decided to visit a child psychiatrist to see if we could get more help. After a psychiatric evaluation, the doctor called me into the office and told me that my daughter met the criteria for a diagnosis of ADHD and Anxiety. Honestly, I was not surprised at all by the diagnosis. I was frustrated that her teachers hadn’t thought her problems significant enough to recommend we get help sooner. How much learning did my daughter miss as a result of leaving her problems untreated? My question to the doctor was this: Why didn’t her previous teachers want me to get her evaluated? His response surprised me more than the diagnosis. Our mixed race doctor said,
“Your daughter is a person of color. I think a lot of white teachers see kids of color and think they can help or save them on their own. They want to save the brown kids.”
I was flabbergasted, both as a teacher and as a parent. “That doesn’t make any sense! If she needs help, she needs help!” Why should the color of her skin matter?
Since that appointment, I’ve made it a point to learn more about disabilities, special education, and how to advocate better for my daughter. I enrolled in a graduate program in order to become a certified special education teacher and this year finally helped my daughter get a 504 Plan for accommodations in school. Some of what I’ve learned has disappointed me–like the fact that culturally and linguistically diverse (CLD) learners are placed in special education more often than their white peers (see this article for more information.) Studies done by the U.S. Office of Special Education Programs and the Office of Civil Rights have shown that disproportionate representation of minorities in special education can cause significant issues:
- Students may be misclassified or inappropriately placed.
- Placement in special education classes may be a form of discrimination
- Students may be unserved or receive services that do not meet their needs
When they have gathered all of that information, the school will evaluate results and decide whether or not to offer special education services. It is important to get the results of your child’s evaluation in writing, especially if you disagree with the findings. If you disagree with the school’s results, you can look for an independent evaluator and/or hire an attorney who specializes in Special Education Law to help you arrange for your child to receive services. The most important thing to remember: you are not alone. There are many, many parents struggling to help their children, just like you.
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