Segregate or Integrate?

sam_0220In our school systems, there has been a shift from segregation to integration of “special needs” children. Congress passed a law that puts children with special learning needs into classrooms with “normal” behaving peers, whenever possible. The thought was that; if children with different learning abilities were all put together, they would all learn from each other. This is a wonderful idea, in theory. In some circumstances, it causes much more pain when compared to the positives.

When I was a child, I had no idea what “special needs” were. In the morning, there were a line of large buses that would all park in color coded spots and release their hoard of dozens of bouncing children. We would then all walk to our respective classrooms. On the front left side of the building, where we had to walk past every morning and afternoon, is where the “special needs” children were kept. I only knew this much because I would see the occasional wheelchair being pushed into the playground there, or into the classroom. I assumed that “special needs” stood for all children in wheelchairs, because no one had told me otherwise. But there was also a boy in one of my classes, that would be sent to a classroom I had never been to before, to teachers I had never seen before, whenever his behavior was out of control. He would yell, hit, throw things, and become very violent. I was afraid of him and had no idea why he acted that way. We all eventually learned to stay away from him.

My example shows the negative consequences of both segregation and integration. When we segregate children that look and act different then the majority of the population, we risk keeping them in the dark and becoming ignorant of how not everyone is the same. By keeping them in a different section of the school, they remained a mystery and were easily forgotten about by the other kids. When we did see them, in the lunchroom or library (occasionally) it was as if they were a weird intrusion on our day to day schedule. They were inconvenient. If the teachers had taken the time to take us to their classroom and show us how wonderfully special they were, we could have looked forward to seeing them. If there had been a program where you could go to the classroom if you had been on really good behavior, then children would have looked forward to going to see them and assisting. But they didn’t. I never knew there were different kinds of “special needs” until I was a grown up. Because literally every school I had attended, decided to segregate instead of integrate. I was ignorant and didn’t care, because I had no reason to care. They had their world (where I assumed they were cared for) and I had my world. I didn’t bother to try and figure their world out because I was wrapped up in mine. That is, until my daughter went into Kindergarten.

When my daughter went into Kindergarten, there was a student who was violent, pushed over trash cans, left the room on her own, hit kids over the head with dolls, and other such actions. As an ignorant adult, I was frustrated that the school would allow such a violent child around the other students. She was given special privileges and her bad behavior was ignored. I didn’t know why. I told my daughter to stay away from her, if she kept hitting her in the head with the dolls. She said that she tried, but the teachers told her to stay there and they didn’t care she was injured. I was mad. I didn’t take the time to think there might be something going on with the child. But on the other hand, the school didn’t inform my daughter or myself that anything was different about this child’s learning abilities and personal abilities. That is one of the problems with integration. If you put a “special needs” child into a room with children who have been to school before and are now in a class with a child who has behaviors that wouldn’t be tolerated otherwise; it ends up looking like favoritism. Had the school told me that child had Autism or any other form of “special need.” I would have looked it up and helped my daughter to understand her behavior.

When my son got diagnosed with Autism, I realized that the “problem child” in my daughter’s class, probably suffered from Autism or otherwise. I realized that all of the parents, including myself, had been exacerbating the problem, but not explaining how we all learn and behave differently. I was ashamed. I explained to my daughter how the little girl was probably the same as her brother, that she probably suffered from Autism too. By then, it was the end of the school year, and it made no difference. But she had the summer to watch her brother and to learn his ins and outs. When she got to school this year, the same girl was in her class again. Instead of getting frustrated by her behavior (which was very similar to the year before), she was happy. She created a “club” of friends in her class who now sit with the girl during lunch and make sure no one picks on her. They stay near her at recess time and when people say mean things, they tell them to get lost. She is so proud of herself and her friends now. When she sees other children behaving differently, she asks me if they have Autism too. I usually tell her that I don’t know, but maybe they do (how would I know, when it comes to strangers?). But when I do know, I tell her, and she is always very happy to meet them. She rushes up to say hi and tell them her name, and isn’t discouraged by their lack of response. This is the positive side of integration; with the use of knowledge, understanding, and love.

Should schools be required to tell parents when there is a special needs child in the room? No! I’m currently going to college to finish my degree in psychology, and there was a student in my class, who said “special needs” children ruin the classroom experience for the rest of the kids. That’s right; a woman who wants to be a psychologist, thinks special needs children are a burden to other kids and ruin their schooling. Since we can assume that there are many parents out there that are ignorant, mean, and just plain MORONIC, it would be a bad idea to inform them of anything. But children are not born with such prejudice, they learn it over time. If the children are shown how the student learns differently and needs a little extra help, then the children can become not only tolerant, but helpful to the special needs children. If there is a student who has visual problems; the other students could wear blind folds for an hour to see how their learning experience may be different. If there is a child with Autism, they could have an hour or two where they aren’t allowed to speak, but have to try and communicate. There are so many ways to show children (without scaring them) that the world is a vast and interesting place. With many forms of people and different learning abilities. Only through early intervention is this possible, though.

Being in the military means that you move frequently. Some people don’t stay in one place longer than 2 years. For an average person, this is no big deal. But remember what was just mentioned above. For those children with special needs, they are switching classrooms and therefore the children in them. Since not all schools will have integration and children with special needs, that means not all children have been exposed to it. Their understanding and yearning to help, may be none existent. In one of the Facebook groups that I am a part of, I hear parents of Autistic children talking about bullying. More frequently than not, the parent with the Autistic child is forced to bring their child home for home schooling because the teachers don’t care, the principal does nothing, and the superintendent acts just as carelessly. This is not for one state, but many. Imagine how it feels; the bullying of your child is so bad, that you have to bring them home to be schooled, in order to keep them safe. This is a reality for many students and parents. Early education for children; in the differences among us, is crucial for all of us. The earlier we start showing children that there are differences among us and that there are different learning abilities in everyone, the better. Without the knowledge, ignorance grows in its place. And ignorance is where bullying grows from.

So while I am all for the integration of our overly awesome children, I am also for the education of these “special needs” to children. Teach all children, from an early age, about people’s differences. Maybe then, we can create loving and caring adults that are free from bias and over-whelming ignorance.

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