Children are all on a spectrum – an argument for mainstream schooling.

Shockingly diverse kindergarten group in Paris

Image via Wikipedia

As mentioned in a previous post about choosing between mainstream and special needs schooling, one of the arguments to support sending special needs children to mainstream schools, goes like this:

All children belong on a spectrum of disabilities or problems – whether they be behavioural, physical, or learning difficulties. Some are just more severe than others (in our case, my son having Autism). Therefore special needs children belong with every other child at mainstream schools.

I want to make clear at the outset that it is true that some special needs children do indeed fit in well to mainstream schools, such as those with physical limitations, where ramps and other accommodations can come close to eliminating the child’s barriers to taking part in most of the school’s education activities. I also recognise the value of exposing children to variations from the “norm” – being part of a community that incorporates and respects the differences in humanity.

The problem with the claim that all children belong on a spectrum of disabilities and challenges, and therefore should be schooled together even if they fall at the severe end of such spectrums, is that it has dropped context. The context is a learning environment. The comparison of ability that must be made is in regards to that central function of a school – learning. In the same way that you would not expect someone without legs to take part in a running race, neither should you expect someone with an extreme learning disability to take part in an environment where everyone’s else’s ability to learn meets minimum standards such as understanding basic verbal instructions.

There are children with behavioural difficulties who may not do as they are told, but at least they understood the instructions that they are disobeying. There may be children with the inability to take part in certain activities due to sensory issues, or religious or cultural rules, but as long as they have the ability to convey their disagreement to the activity, and a reason for the “disobedience”, the situation can be dealt with. But when a child, such as my own, can have unexpected meltdowns because his anxiety has been set off by the wrong words or actions of others, and he can’t explain why he is upset, and he can’t understand many simple instructions, and even struggles to perform what other children would treat as basic physical feats, then how is he going to perform the intended aim of that school – to learn?

There is support for him in the form of teacher aides, though that is nowhere near full-time. He would always be the class’s and school’s problem child, and ultimately the bullied child. Even worse, the bullied child who is unable to defend himself physically or verbally, and unable to tell anyone what was done to him.

Mainstream schools expect their children to have certain basic social and physical skills, or to be able to pick them up quickly within the first year as new entrants. This includes abilities such as recognising and responding (at least somewhat) correctly to emotions. It’s not so straight-forward for children like mine. For example, he often gets up close and stares at children if they cry, then mimics the cry – not to be cruel, but because he is fascinated and loves mimicking. Obviously other students and teachers would see and treat this as teasing – I would have too before having my son. He also needs to be taught not to hum and rock and flap his hands when he is happy, we’ve been trying to teach him that for years. Can you imagine how disruptive such behaviour would be in a classroom – to the teacher and other students?

Because I don’t want this post to be overly long, I will leave it there at this point though there is more to be said. I hope it is at least clear from what I have put forward that it is too simplistic to refer to the spectrum of issues all children suffer from, as an argument to put them all together in a mainstream teaching institution. Is is vital to remember that the point of a school is learning, and so a learning disability cannot be treated in the same category of, for example, a strictly physical disability, or a hearing disability where a sign-language interpreter could overcome the problem for a child who otherwise would learn perfectly fine.

I realise that some of what I’ve said here could be seen as controversial. It is said with respect and the aim to educate and explain. If you take issue with it, I strongly encourage comments – perhaps you could teach me something too. At least my own capacity to learn, faces no barriers.

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2 Responses to Children are all on a spectrum – an argument for mainstream schooling.

  1. Clara says:

    I agree with you fully – I had many problems throughout my school life, but they mostly began when I began Secondary/high school. Before then, it wasn’t too bad – Throughout primary school, I would have an assigned seat, so i could sit in the same place every day, we’d have a structured set of lessons and I could stay in the same classroom all day, and we would have clear instructions so I knew exactly what i was doing, and i could deal with that ^_^

    When I began high school, it was the opposite extreme – I had to be in 5 or 6 different classrooms a day, often on opposite sides of the school. People sat randomly in any seat they chose (which left me flummoxed constantly) the teachers would expect me to know what to do and how to do it, and they expected me to be able to ask them if i needed something- like the toilet!

    I recall one event where my Food Tech teacher (who was extremely grumpy and strict) told us that if we forgot our homework (which had to be in the day after it was set – OR ELSE), we would have to come and find her and apologise personally.

    The next morning I arrived at school and realised that yes, I had forgotten to pack my Food Tech Homework. I was shaking like a leaf for over 15 minutes, unable to think or even talk to anyone – eventually i mustered the courage to find my teacher and i said to her exactly as she had told us to say, “I’m so sorry Ms Covell but i’ve forgotten my food tech homework.” My absolute terror must have been evident because she wasnt frowning, and she said okay, and bring it tomorrow.

    Om another occasion i forgot to tuck my shirt in as i was entering school, and a teacher caught me trying to tuck it in as i went up the stairs. “Go down to the bottom of the stairs and wait for me there,” she said to me in a cross voice, so obediently i went down the stairs and sat, once again shaking like anything, and sat there, through the first bell, through registration – and then a friend saw me and said, Aren’t you coming? And I said no, I was told to wait here because i forgot to tuck my shirt in and i’m in trouble. My friend said that we were already late, and to just come along anyway, which I did because I was in such a panic.

    I was scared all that week that I would bump into that teacher again and be told off even more severely. These incidents happened frequently and eventually I became unwell and was taken out of school on mental health grounds, where I home-studied and got 4 GCSE’s. ^_^

    I remember people telling me, “School is the best days of your life!” but actually, i’ve been out of school for 3 years now, and i’ve never been happier. I’m freeeeeeee ^_^

    • Thank you so much for sharing your experiences Clara. I’ve heard similar stories before – about how things can get particularly challenging at high-school level for the reasons you talk about. It’s so important and valuable to hear about this from the people who have personally gone through it. And congratulations on doing so well with your home studies!

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