An IEP, for those that don’t know stands for Individualized Education Plan. If you child learns differently from most, they can have different needs from the average learner, requiring them to get more help in school. In our case, there is no specific label except that my son exhibits all the characteristics of someone with ADHD and shows signs of dyslexia. When he was in nursery school, his motor skills weren’t up to par compared to others of his age so what they call “early intervention services” assigned him occupational therapy and physical therapy. His speech was most likely fine but because he didn’t follow directions or pay attention, it was difficult for them to determine how well he was reaching speech milestones so he was assigned a speech therapist as well. At the time, it was really frustrating because I knew my son knew his letters and could speak without a problem. He was constantly saying things at home but in school he would reduce himself to infantile speech and never answer questions directly. the teachers didn’t know what he was actually learning. At home he would correct me if I called a Styracosaurus a Stegosaurus by accident and inform me that spiders weren’t insects but actually arachnids. You can’t imagine how frustrating it is to appear to everyone else to be a mother in denial that her son needed the extra speech services, when I knew he was holding back around his teachers. It reminded me of the Michigan J frog cartoon which my family found hilarious when I was a child and loved to recount to me if I didn’t cooperate to show off on command. “Children are just like the frog!” they’d squeal laughing. “You could sell out a whole theater and they will embarrass you publicly.” I didn’t think it was funny as a kid, and didn’t understand why they couldn’t see that we were being put on the spot and not deliberately humiliating them. After all, no one likes to be treated like a show pony.
As you continue to read, please keep in mind that I am in NYC so the education system may vary if you are located somewhere else. Since he received early interventions services in pre-school, my son was automatically given a spot in what is called the self contained classroom once he was set to start elementary school. At first, I felt upset, thinking that my son was being deemed less capable than his peers for not being allowed in a more mainstream classroom. However, the self contained classroom has a maximum of 12 kids in it. Usually it is less than that as it has always fluctuated between 6 and 9 students. The classroom also has a main teacher and what they call a para professional to assist the teacher with the students. I realized that it would be foolish not to give him the opportunity to try the self contained classroom when parents in regular classrooms are constantly complaining about the large classroom sizes and the need for more one on one time for their kids. If I didn’t like the self contained classroom after a few months, I could always switch him to the mainstream classroom. You aren’t forced to take these services. It just makes it easier for the teachers and for you to accept that your kid might require more individual attention than other students. As with everything, I received unwelcome opinions from some individuals. “Your child will have a special education label for the rest of his life! He’ll never escape it and it will hold him back.” I knew that was untrue right away because my mother actually works in the education system and many kids that she has helped obtain needed IEPs have actually gone on to be received at very competitive schools. Having an IEP, in no way means that your child is slower or less intelligent than other kids. It just means that your child learns differently and the mainstream approach may not be the right one for him/her. I’m assuming I, myself, learn differently from other people. It’s likely that most of us do but some are better at getting in sync than others. I recall never paying any attention in school. I hated lectures and I often drew, daydreamed or wrote stories while the teacher was giving his or her lessons. Later I would go home and read the material from the day and basically have to relearn everything. This was fine when it came to history and literature, which absorbed my attention fully. However, I was always terrible at math because it is really difficult to teach yourself something like Math without having help putting it into practice. Later on, science would get more complicated and it would turn out to be included in my achilles heel. I couldn’t let the thought of being labeled a different learner intimidate me from giving my son a chance to learn in a way that might have worked better even for me.
The self contained classroom is not composed of a bunch of children as rowdy as my son, despite what some may think. It was another thing that the individuals in question had commented, “Those kids are troubled and will just ruin him more. He’ll never learn in a room full of kids like that. He’ll just learn to misbehave is all.” Actually, from the group of 8 kids, only my son and two other little boys were rowdy. It was no different than what the mainstream classrooms had. My sister works in the same school where my son attends so I had the benefit of having her around to compare potential classmates and settings. The difference was that in his classroom, he was assigned an individual known as the para professional, more likely better equipped at behavioral differences to redirect their attention. They also had the choice of using different equipment such as a bouncing ball at their desk for when they might be having a hard time sitting still during a lesson. The remaining students were actually the complete opposite of my son. They were too quiet. Their extreme shyness was actually also considered as much of an obstacle to learning as my sons rowdiness since they might be too intimidated to participate in the class. Don’t think that you will be able to identify on sight a child who attends a self contained classroom, unless they are really spirited as I’ve said and can’t sit still for a second like my own. Some of the other kids are just quiet students whose differences wouldn’t be noticeable unless you were their parent or teacher. One or two of his classmates could potentially be on the Autism spectrum but again I’m not an education specialist nor did I spend enough time with them to be able to tell you if that’s the case. I gathered from interactions and friction with my own son that the other model students might have some sort of sensory processing difficulty. One of my son’s classmates, for example, did not perform well with certain noise level and music class was a nightmare for him. He sometimes refused to enter the music classroom.
I won’t say that my education experience has been picture perfect. I’ve faced my own frustrations with teachers and other parents but they don’t differ from any of the ones I hear other parents face. One of the saddest things for me, remains the approach newcomers have to different learners. When I open up to parents with younger kids that are in need of an IEP and are new to the experience, they always express some kind of lament over our position as if we were at a disadvantage somehow. Some have been family members, in denial, that their kid might need the extra help and will bitterly talk about how children are labeled “in this country”. “There is nothing wrong with my child,” they’ll tell me. Of course there isn’t! Believe it or not, identifying their differences doesn’t mean that you are being told something is wrong with your child. I had similar frustrations in the beginning but I also recognize that it is common for international parents or those with old fashioned upbringings to feel as if they are being told their child is unfit somehow because their needs are identified. I don’t see why the “label” should be seen as undesirable in comparison to being called “gifted” or “advanced”. We sometimes label things here because it helps us understand more about the person and their needs. In my opinion, it isn’t a setback that my son is ADHD. Of course, as a parent it makes things difficult sometimes. I constantly have to give him something to work on or keep him stimulated or else he spirals out of control. Yes, that can be exhausting but I don’t see it as a disadvantage that he’s equipped with. If anything, he seems like the DC character Barry Allen also known as the Flash to me. If the Flash had his ability as a child, he would have probable been terrible at sitting still, but their were many other gifts that came with his speed. Our greatest strength is often also our greatest weakness, as they say. Our kids are blessed with different abilities. While everyday things may be challenging for them, they are gifted at recognizing patterns and have the benefit of hyper focus when something does actually interest them. My son can analyze and talk for hours about a subject that someone else would grow bored with after a few minutes. They may be wired differently but that doesn’t make them any less gifted. I’d also like to include a blog entry from the creators of Robofun, where my child thoroughly enjoyed his time, which helped me recognize a lot of the differences in his development. If you’ve ever wondered why you kid can manage some tasks so superbly but struggles with something that would be deemed more basic, this is a great post on asynchronous development. Honestly I truly feel that understanding these differences helps soothe our frustrations and insecurities as parents about children’s development. Please take the time to read more about it so you can see more about what is going on in your little learners head. It may ultimately lessen any doubts you are having and decrease anxiety in your household.