Defining Education and Developmental Opportunity for Special Needs Children: Targeted, Individual Home Based vs. School Based
by Bob Doman
Many parents of special needs children, as well as children with attention and learning related problems, mistakenly believe their children are receiving a good, real opportunity for development and education from the schools. With rare exception neither public nor private schools are equipped to provide these children with a real opportunity. What does opportunity look like, and how do we help the children realize their innate potential?
A sad reality is that the typically perceived potential for all our children, and particularly our special needs children, is not truly based on their innate potential, but rather it is defined by the very limited opportunities provided by public schools, and most private schools, and the outcomes they produce.
Opportunity Defines Potential and Determines Outcomes
The range of individual function in a typical or special needs classroom is tremendous. In a typical classroom the reading, math, and other educational levels range in years, not months; but everyone is generally placed in the same curriculum and at the same spot in the curriculum. The instruction is based on the month and year of where the class is in the curriculum. In addition to the huge range of educational levels in the classroom, the level of individual processing abilities (short-term and working memory levels, the ability to process and understand the information) varies tremendously, as do the individuals’ actual knowledge base, and learning strengths and weaknesses. Our children are all unique; and the more targeted their education is to their specific needs, the more effective.
The greater the developmental and learning challenges, the greater the variability of function, the more specific their requirements, and the greater the need for targeted intervention– “targeted” as in designed for the individual child and administered one to one.
How does the public education system determine potential and define opportunity?
Perceived potential defines what is determined to be appropriate educational and therapeutic opportunity, as defined by the public educational system. The potential is based on expectations and prognosis, while the prognosis is based on the past failures. The past failures in turn are the reflection of the realities of limited opportunity, the result of budget restraints and previous outcomes.
The Reality of School Aides
If your child is “fortunate” they are provided with a 1:1 aide. Parents generally mistakenly believe that the aide is providing a targeted program designed for your child. This is rarely the case. Often the aide assists your child in walking through a dumbed down version of the school curriculum or a version of the “special” curriculum. Aides generally assist and prompt the child through whatever is deemed appropriate work, rather than providing targeted teaching. They are not teachers and are not expected to be. They aid, as in assist, which often impairs rather than facilitates real education and often results in prompt dependency.
Physical, Speech, and Occupational Therapy
Many parents believe that their children who need specific therapies need to attend school so that they can receive the therapy they need. The reality is that one or two twenty to thirty minute sessions of “therapy” per week is not enough to produce significant change and certainly does not define a real opportunity. Very few school therapists would really define what they are providing as adequate. But, once again, outcomes predict potential and thus determine what is considered an appropriate opportunity. Sadly, the same criteria has been used by insurance companies to define appropriate opportunity, and thus limit how much therapy they will cover. Fortunately, most children with developmental issues do not need rehabilitation therapy; they need developmental opportunities that generally do not require a therapist.
All individual development reflects and is the result of neuroplasticity, the process by which the brain changes in response to stimulation. The foundation of neuroplasticity is targeted input delivered with frequency, intensity, and duration.
Targeted input refers to specific input, specific as to the child; and because every child is different, the program needs to be designed around a comprehensive understanding of the whole child. All children are complex; and the more specific issues the child has, the more complex they are, as are their needs.
When schools started providing “special” services for special needs children and those with attention and learning challenges, the need existed for them to have administrative labels, so as to classify the children. The labels and classifications served as a means for the system to lower expectations and an excuse for the system to fail. One hundred or one hundred thousand children labeled as dyslexic or as having attention deficit, as an example, are all different and are categorized and stigmatized by a symptomatic label. They don’t have a disease, let alone an incurable disease; and they are all different. If they are all perceived as the same, then their needs are perceived to be the same, and their opportunities dictated by the expected outcomes. All the children with these labels are unique and complex, as are all labeled children, each with a multitude of different significant pieces that need to be understood and addressed if they are to be given a real opportunity to achieve their unique potential.
The Whole Child
You cannot successfully address a piece of a child without a comprehensive understanding of the whole child.
Who are the world’s greatest authorities on a specific child? The parents.
It is impossible to understand a child and provide a child with a real opportunity without the parents being in charge, the parents who know the whole child and who are ultimately responsible for the future adult. A dysfunctional 30-year-old child is not going to be living with their old teacher, or school principal, or therapist; they are going to be living with their parents or in some form of institution
What is the whole child? To understand the whole child, you must know and understand their history from birth to today– their birth history, their medical history, their developmental history, their educational history, their social and behavioral history. Who they are today is a reflection of their entire history and much more, including: any and all neurological/structural and physical issues, their sleep, their diet, current medical issues, behavior issues, social function, how they are on days when they don’t feel well or didn’t sleep well, what their relationship is with their parents, siblings, grandparents, extended family, friends, with their church or other organizations, what is fun, how do they engage themselves, how much screen time do they have, how is their vision, their hearing, their auditory and visual processing, short-term and working memory, do they have any executive function, exactly what do they know and understand, what are they afraid of, what do they like, what do they hate and on and on and on. All of these factors and many more need to be part of the consideration as to what they, these unique children who have never existed before on the planet and never will again, need. How do we target them?
How do you look at a label and determine what is appropriate for any child? You simply cannot define potential nor adequately work with a piece of a child without understanding the whole child.
Public education may pay some lip service to parents, but parents are generally perceived as the people the school sends the child home to at the end of the school day.
Reactive vs Proactive
Schools apply a reactive management strategy to the child’s development and education, meaning that the goals and thus the applications are not based on a long-term vision of what can be based on appropriate opportunity, but what is based on limited opportunity. Examples range from a perspective that the child really doesn’t have the potential to be functional in reading and math, therefore the “reading and math” programs provided aren’t really expected to produce a long-term result of someone who can actually read and understand math. If the perception is that a five-year-old really isn’t going to be able to speak and use language, then augmentative communication is the reactive approach. If the perception is that the child will never be an independent walker, then the reactive approach is not aimed at that goal, but rather life in a wheelchair or possibly a walker.
To work with a child proactively means that you are doing things today understanding and anticipating the long-term effects. What is seen as potential dictates the steps needed to achieve it and to work proactively, not reactively.
Shared Vision and Goals
Everyone involved with a child needs to share a common vision and goals. The primary voice in determining the vision and goals needs to be that of the parents. Parents can be assisted in this process with the help of those who have worked with and through families and their whole children for many decades.
A Better Way: Plan B
Home/Family Based Whole Child Comprehensive Programs
NACD (National Association for Child Development) has for over forty years been at the forefront of redefining opportunity and potential and has developed a toolbox of over 3000 specific techniques that can provide targeted intervention within the home and applied by parents, siblings, and caregivers. NACD focuses on providing individualized, home-based programs to children with special needs, those with learning and attention issues, as well as “typical” children, optimizing opportunity, changing perceptions and outcomes. This approach offers several advantages over public schools:
- Individualized attention: NACD programs are tailored to the specific needs of each unique child, rather than labeling and plugging the child into an “appropriate” curriculum.
- Home-based programs: NACD programs are best done at home five days per week. Each comprehensive targeted program maximizes neuroplasticity through short, intense activities that can be provided many times a day, rather than a couple of times per week.
- Flexible scheduling: Parents can choose when to work with their child, which allows for schedules that work best for the family. It also provides the opportunity for targeted social interaction outside of the school walls. It’s not the quantity of time that a child spends in the company of other children, it is the quality and structure of the time. The reality is often whether or not a child can survive the social world of schools, not if they have learned how to appropriately interact and have developed positive social skills and lives.
- Holistic approach: The NACD program focuses on the whole child, not just their academic needs, by addressing health and nutrition, motor skills, cognitive skills, speech, social and emotional development, behavior and much more–the whole child, and the whole child within the context of the family. NACD is constantly developing, exploring, and assessing new methods and treatments, bringing state of the art information and resources to bear on the child’s issues and needs.
- Targeted input, delivered with the needed frequency, intensity, and duration by the people who know and care the most defines a new opportunity and changes outcomes.
- Tri-annual evaluations and ongoing support, coaching, and interaction help keep everyone on target, working effectively and efficiently, and moving together to achieve the vision.
Learn more about how the NACD Program helps parents homeschool children with special needs: