As many see it, disability is a contextual interaction between a person and their environment, rather than an innate property of an individual person.
For many disabled children, it’s time to point fingers at one particular context: schools. It’s popular among politicians to talk about “failing schools” and blah blah blah; but my criticism will be different.
Look at this article about ADHD, “Lay off my daughter’s ADHD,” in which a mother describes the challenges her daughter experienced. These very real struggles were all about school. Literally all — school was the problem, period.
(Yet the author of that article never quite blames the school. Perhaps it’s because school has been the same for long enough — about a century — that we’ve lost the ability to imagine how it could be different.)
Autism parent support groups and forums are full of school issues. There are people on the autism spectrum who struggle with activities of daily living, and those struggles can span home and school. But many kids struggle most at school; at home, they and their families have found ways of living together that work for everyone. The school context creates disability.
According to the Department of Education, 13% of public-school-enrolled children received services under IDEA in 2012. This excludes the 3% of school-age children who are homeschooled, and most likely excludes a lot of children who could use services but are denied them, or who are given medication instead.
Not all disabilities in a school context are “labeled”; we had a server at a restaurant recently who told us about her son’s difficulties in kindergarten. He sounded like the opposite of my son and I — artistic, creative, sensitive, and simply not ready to learn to read yet. There’s most likely no label for that; her son is a square-peg kid whose strengths and rate of development don’t match the average, and he’s having a hard time.
Add up 13% receiving special education, plus homeschoolers, plus those who get medication due to school problems, plus those who are struggling but no label or medication “fits,” and you have a lot of kids. This isn’t 1% or 5%. It’s unclear exactly how many kids, but it’s an unacceptable number.
Are these school troubles inherent in the idea of school — are all these children learning disabled, or are they school-as-we-happen-to-implement-it disabled? For many kids I think it’s the latter, and I’ll try to make the case.
School: far less flexible than real life
There’s a viral Internet post “Rules Kids Won’t Learn In School” – I’d summarize this post as “real life sucks more than school, so kids should quit whining.”
Wow. Not my experience at all… post-school life has so many options. You can work for yourself, work mostly alone, work in a group, work in a big company, work at a desk or in the outdoors. If you don’t like your coworkers you can find new ones. You can make things with your hands or work with ideas or work in a caring profession. Some people are privileged to have more work options than others; but lots of different kinds of people do find work that suits them. Life after school offers diversity in social environment and physical environment. It values many different kinds of skills.
Historically, childhood was more flexible too. In a small community, children would interact with other kids of many different ages; and learn from many different adults. Until about a century ago, kids didn’t spend most of their time at school.
Today, typical schools are one-size-fits-all. Age-segregated classes of 15-30 work on reading and math on a rigid schedule, with frequent bells interrupting the day, and only brief breaks for recess and lunch. If a child has either talents or weaknesses in areas other than reading and math, those aren’t addressed.
Some will say “that’s not the school’s job”; but modern school takes over almost all of a child’s time and energy. When a school is inappropriate for a kid, that time and energy may be lost.
In my life, I’ve found a path where I work mostly alone, and I do a lot of communication in writing rather than in person or even on the phone. That’s how I can be successful. We all have to find the niche that works for us. Once we get out of school, we have the freedom to do so.
If you’re new to this blog, let me tell you about my son. As a three-year-old he was very socially delayed (autistic) and very academically advanced (including precocious reading, also known as hyperlexia). At age five, he still fits that same general profile, though he’s caught up socially quite a bit.
He will be eligible for public kindergarten next year. The school experiences reported by other parents of similar kids are overwhelmingly negative. I’d like to be optimistic, but… there’s no real basis for optimism. Even if we ignore other families, my wife and I had pretty bad experiences in elementary school ourselves. We’d have to ignore our own experiences too. And our son has a lot in common with us; he fell close to the tree.
To be clear, I know my son could survive. He could figure it out eventually, and eventually it would be over. It’s just that the school proposes to spend 7 hours of his time every day doing things that make no sense for him to do. If you have a 5-year-old who reads like a 9-year-old but could use practice playing with other kids, how does it make sense to spend hours per day on reading but only 20 minutes on recess? It’s so far from appropriate, and no IEP could ever solve that.
Schools and autism
Why are schools hostile to autistic kids in particular?
- strict age-segregation keeps kids from finding peers on a similar developmental level;
- very little social time (in our community — 20 minutes of recess, even in kindergarten!);
- academic work is often in groups, or something such as singing or chanting as a group;
- large classes with new kids every year (classes are assigned randomly each year);
- rules which interfere with setting up social events outside of school (no email list of all the parents, that sort of thing);
- little or no curriculum around social and motor skills;
- bullying seems to happen pretty often;
- loud or crowded environments;
- curriculum may be relatively set in ways that favor some learners over others (for example, mixing a lot of language into the math curriculum);
- policies often forbid outside experts or therapists;
- autism IEPs tend to be token accommodations necessary for survival, rather than the kind of thoughtful program that may be necessary for a kid to thrive.
Schools and strengths
Schools aren’t only unfriendly to disabilities; they’re often unable to build on strengths kids may have.
Programs such as art, music, and shop class have been reduced, in favor of a relentless emphasis on reading and math. While every child needs to know the basics of literacy, this won’t be where every child thrives, grows, and finds their niche. The “real world” after school ends isn’t a big reading and math test. It values many kinds of abilities. Kids in school aren’t getting that message.
We should not be asking kids to spend every weekday for 13 years remediating their weaknesses, crowding out opportunities to discover and work on their strengths.
Even for reading-and-math-oriented kids, schools can be a poor fit. Because of rigid curriculum, a kid who’s ahead on reading and math will have hours of their time wasted every day as they go through drills and tests below their level. If nothing else, this is a recipe for boredom and misbehavior. Token adjustments (such as gifted-program pullouts) don’t address the big picture for academically advanced kids, just as token IEPs for autism don’t address the big picture for autistic kids.
Side note: the problem cannot be dismissed as “overdiagnosis”
I wrote more about this in the past, but the point in “Lay off my daughter’s ADHD” holds. Diagnosis is the only alternative many parents have to solve a real problem (that school is inappropriate). The issue is not that we’re placing the diagnostic lines in the wrong places. The issue is a larger context that creates a need for diagnosis. When we talk about “overdiagnosis” we are blaming individual parents and professionals for doing it wrong, when we need to be blaming the situation they’re in. Parents and professionals are simply making the best of it.
It doesn’t have to be this way
Every child deserves an individualized education. It’s twisted and wrong to start with one-size-fits-all and then create a bureaucratic “Individualized Education Program” process for those kids who have the hardest time. It’s twisted and wrong to blame the kids for a school’s inflexibility. It’s terrible that we drive many kids to medications so they can get through the day.
Don’t assume that doing better would be cost-prohibitive. That’s a failure of imagination; our schools are quite expensive, but they don’t make individualization a priority. Many of their features are historical accidents. US public schools spend on average $12,608 per student per year. (Not that it matters; even if it did cost more to do school properly, society should be willing to do what it takes.)
In a school system with a dozen or more classrooms per grade, why not make some of those classrooms different? Not every kid needs the same schedule and the same curriculum. One room could be more about reading, another could be more about social development. At the very least, allow teachers to do this themselves by giving them more professional autonomy. Schools and teachers need to be able to treat different kids differently.
Different classrooms are allowed under IDEA of course, but only for kids with an IEP, and the law sets up a preference that kids should be mainstreamed (returned to the one-size-fits-all classrooms). When I say “different classrooms” I don’t mean places for kids who can’t possibly be mainstreamed; I mean diversifying the mainstream classrooms.
Politicians on both sides of the aisle seem to have the opposite prescription. In the politicians’ view, we allow too much autonomy and too much diversity, and don’t push hard enough to force all the square pegs into the same round hole. According to them, we need to have a standard curriculum, a bunch of rules on every level (federal, state, and local), standardized tests, standardized everything. Our heroic teachers make the best of the situation, but the situation is bad.
This isn’t what childhood should be about. It isn’t equitable, it isn’t humane, and it isn’t reasonable. I wish we could use our children’s time more wisely — every kid deserves that, not only those with the ability to homeschool or buy a private education.