Neurodiversity Awareness/Appreciation

Neurodiversity Awareness/Appreciation

Thursday, November 15, 2018

When Special Ed Students Are Punished In School (My Thoughts)

Some schools call their isolation rooms "Focus Rooms,"
like the one where this 9-year-old from Texas was sent.
This blog entry is going to be a little different from most of the ones I write. Usually I write about my experiences as an autistic person. But I was also a special education teacher, and worked in special education classroom for about 10 years. So when I saw these two articles recently, I wanted to write about my point of view... both as an autistic adult, and as someone who has worked in schools.

The articles are both about how children with special needs... particularly autism...  get punished or get put in time out at school. Both articles are mostly from the points of view of the children and their parents, speaking out about how the children are treated at school.

In one article, an adorable, freckle-faced little autistic boy told reporters that when he was put in an isolation room... a small room with a mat on the floor, an exercise ball, and pillows... he felt like the teachers didn't want him around, and he worried that they'd forget him in there. In another article, a 14-year-old autistic boy who missed over 100 days of middle school because he was suspended or sent home, said that he felt like "the worst kid that ever was."

Reading those articles gives me mixed feelings.

First of all, I sort of felt empathy for the teachers and the school. There have been plenty of times when I've been the teacher having to escort a screaming child to the isolation room, or having to beg the special ed director to send this child home. Those were circumstances in which the children were making everyone around them unsafe. They were circumstances in which my other students had to spend hours just sitting on the floor in the hallways reading books or drawing because all available staff had to be in the classroom dealing with the kid who is kicking holes in the walls. Part of my frustration with teaching special ed in public school was that I was expected to make behavior management a priority over everything else. If I had a class of ten kids, and one of them had severe behavioral issues, I was expected to spend 99% of my time an energy on that one child... to the point where, several times, I was quarantined in a separate room with a child or children for weeks or months while the rest of my students were taught by paras or substitutes.

If you've read this paragraph, you might think the simple solution is, then yes, do put them in isolation. Do send them home. If they can't function in a classroom in a safe way, then they need to be somewhere else.

But the truth goes a little deeper than that.

In every school where I've worked, the children with the most behavioral issues are also the children I've grown the most attached to. They were smart, creative, funny, sensitive, and often a lot of fun to spend time with. They wanted to do well in school... but they were constantly on edge. Imagine a day when you were at your most irritable... a day when you woke up on the wrong side of the bed, it felt like everything was going wrong, your emotions were running strong, and everyone was getting on your nerves. Now imagine that you are 8 years old and that is your life every single day. Life for them can feel like they're surrounded by people running their fingernails down chalkboards.

I also know that most of the kids I've known, most of the time, didn't just suddenly blow up over nothing. It always started small. A kid would put his head down and refuse to do his math. The teacher would insist that he sit up and do his math. The kid would mutely refuse. The teacher would start revoking privileges such as recess. The kid would argue. Things would escalate. Next thing I'd know, I'd be sending my students out into the hallway while the principal dragged the kid into my room.

In the schools where I worked, there was a lot of pressure to "not let them win." We, as adults, had to "win" by making the children comply. If you told a child to pick up his pencil, you'd better be ready to do whatever it takes, remove any privileges you needed to, or send your other students out of the room, to get this kid to pick up the pencil. And at the end... after the other students are sent out, the kid has destroyed the room, the parents have been called, etc... you're still supposed to say, "Now, you need to pick up this pencil."

I feel empathy for the kids. When you are a small autistic child in the middle of an epic meltdown, being pushed into a tiny room and having the door locked behind you must feel scary. And on one hand, yes, everyone's life would be easier if they would just do what they're asked to do and pick up the pencil. But sometimes they cannot. Sometimes their brains and bodies just won't let them.

When I started writing this blog entry, my intention was actually to defend the teachers and school staff. Because really, when a kid is screaming and throwing things, you do not have a lot of choices. You have to separate them from the other students, either by removing the kid who is throwing things, or by removing all of the other students. In the last two schools I've worked at, because of the problems created by isolation rooms being misused, the protocol was to remove the other students. So you end up with the other students losing hours of their activities and lessons. Sometimes, as a teacher, you're given some ideas that you're supposed to try, or a behavior plan. Often those behavior plans take up just as much time and energy as the behavior itself, and the behavior rarely improves. If a child really does not have control over his mind and his actions, he is not going to suddenly be able to control himself because you give him the chance to earn a sticker.

To me, a lot of the problem is because schools are set up similar to businesses, where the idea is to spend the least amount of money possible in order to get the desired results. What is the maximum number of students we can put in each classroom where the teacher is still able to get some teaching done? What is the fewest number of paraprofessionals we can put in the special education room? How can we make this one single school social worker stretch out enough to serve all of these students who desperately need help? What is the shortest amount of recess we can get away with giving kids, in order to get the most academic instruction in, so that we can raise our test results? It is about numbers, it is about dollars, and we could make it all work so beautifully if it weren't for these darn square children who don't fit into our round holes. And when some children fall apart, we blame everything on them.

I guess this could be another blog entry supporting my Someday School plan. But although my little school will possibly be able to help a handful of children, there are hundreds of others... at least one in every single classroom across the United States... who will still be lost in the system.

Thousands of Washington students isolated and restrained, despite law limiting practice (11/9/18)

Washington special needs students disciplined more than twice as often as general education peers (10/25/18)

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