Like most parents, my children’s father and I thought a lot about their education.
Even before they were born, we had many conversations about what we dreamed would be different for them. We discussed our experiences in school and what worked for us and what didn’t. We both had experiences as kids and teens that left us feeling short-changed by what could have been much better educational experiences, and we wanted better for our kids.
Our divorce wasn’t part of the plan, but we did the best that we could to make that work. We chose a private K-12 school in between our homes that seemed like a dream come true. This school had a philosophy of inclusiveness, generosity, and taught the children the importance of service to others, all values we hold. First Mini Me started there, and then two years ago, Man Cub began kindergarten.
THE DREAM OF A BETTER EDUCATION
The academic program at the private school was rigorous but also inspiring and complete. We loved that science lessons involved the children trekking off in their rain boots to observe the life cycle of the tadpoles in the pond. The children made drawings of the tadpoles and frogs as they sprouted legs over a period of a week or two. They learned about plants by growing them in the full garden outside the classroom, harvesting onions, carrots, and digging up worms!
The class sizes were small, allowing the teachers to focus on each child. This impressed me. At the first parent-teacher meeting, I was blown away at how much the teacher knew about my child and where she was with her learning. Mini Me’s teacher knew every letter and even phonetic combination that she knew well or still needed to work on, as well as her relative strengths and weaknesses in writing numbers (she even knew which numbers she tended to write backwards!). She could tell me all about her well-developed imagination and story-telling ability and her science aptitude as well as her impatience with following sequenced instructions. I marveled at this, but I guessed this is the difference between having 25 students or having 13.
A TROUBLE-MAKER IN A CLASS OF 13
When Man Cub started school, he was excited. He’d been in Montessori school for two years already, but this was different; this was “big kid” school, where his sister went. Unfortunately, he encountered problems almost immediately. I heard from his teacher that he was having tantrums in class when they moved from one activity to the next. In the Montessori, this type of thing was overlooked, I think, because there were so many younger kids. But now in kindergarten, the expectations were different. They worked with him a lot at first, trying to help him calm himself and rejoin the class when he was able…
I heard more and more reports as the year progressed: Man-Cub was refusing to come back to class at the end of recess, requiring a staff person to chase him down on the playground and return him to class. Many times he had crying fits or tantrums if he wasn’t “done” with an activity or didn’t want to do the next thing the class was doing, again requiring an extra staff person to “manage him so the class could continue as planned.
At the parent-teacher conference, we instituted a daily behavior report card to track his outbursts throughout the day and (hopefully) motivate him to improve. We also agreed to begin therapy outside of school. The school was trying to help, but they didn’t know what to do. They lacked the resources or experience.
WHY WASN’T IT WORKING?
I assumed that this smaller school would be the best setting for my ADHD son. They had a smaller class size with fewer distractions. The small campus and hands-on science classes must be perfect for such an energetic young boy! And these teachers should be better able to handle him with a smaller group of kids, right? Not necessarily.
In actuality, the small private school setting was limited by their resources. Many private schools do not have special ed services and lack the experience of servicing these kids. While a smaller class size should make one ADHD boy a bit less of a hassle, it also made his antics more noticeable, and his disruptions brought the small group to a halt every time. And where a larger school might have more aids or paraeducators to help, this school had to scramble to find available to staff to help out when it was needed.
Why Private School May Not Be Best For Special Needs Kids
Children with special needs are protected under The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). This is a federal law requiring schools to meet the educational needs of students with disabilities. Under this law, schools must evaluate any student suspected of having a suspected learning disability and, if found to have a disability, it allows parents and schools to work out an Individualized Education Plan to make goals and determine what services will help the child reach them. (Understood.com)
Kids who don’t qualify as having a disability under IDEA (including many ADHD kids) are often eligible for services under another law called Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. A 504 Plan helps parents and schools work out reasonable classroom accommodations to helps these students to be successful in school.
What many people don’t realize is that private schools get very little (or no) funding to provide special education services. The only money a private school may receive is the small amount of federal funding from a public school district through individual Instructional Education Plans (ISP) for special education students who attend private school. Even then, once a student’s special ed evaluation has been done and as ISP has been written, it is up to the public school to decide what services they will provide. If a private school student is determined to be eligible for special ed services, special education services, public school personnel must provide the services at a public facility. (UnderstandingSpedialEducation.com)
So, unless my son had been evaluated by the public school district given an ISP, his private school would not have received a penny to help offset the cost of providing him any services. Even then, they would not receive much compared to what a public school might receive.
“Because special education funding for students in private settings is so limited, students usually do not receive the same services that would be provided to them if they attended a public school. For example, a district may agree to provide an ISP student with dyslexia with 30 minutes of reading tutoring per week. However, if the child were enrolled at the public school, they might receive a daily reading support class of 55 minutes. ” (UnderstandingSpecialEducation.com)
It’s certrainly not accurate to say that no private schools provide the types of services that public schools do for special needs kids. In fact, there are many private school that actaully specialize in offering classes and services for kids with disabilities, but these are the exception rather than the norm. One must also consider whether that’s the right setting for their child. For many parents, making accommodations to allow their child to succeed in a regular classroom environment is the goal rather than placing their child in a school for children with special classrooms. These classes may be ideal for children who require more intensive interventions, but for those with ADHD or high-functioning Autism, it may be counter-productive for students learning to adapt and operate within the structure of the typical classroom.
GIVING PUBLIC SCHOOL A TRY
After two academic years of daily behavior report cards, we decided to move our kids to the public school system. There were a few reasons for this, but one of them was my suspicion that the public school might be better equipped to handle his ADHD behaviors. After all, it was unlikely he would be the only second grader with ADHD in his class! I believed this would also a good thing for his self-esteem since it must be upsetting to feel like the only kid in his class each year with “behavior problems.”
I was nervous, sure. I wrote Man Cub’s teacher a letter before school even started. I didn’t tell her, though, about his daily behavior report cards. I wanted to let him start with a bit of a clean slate, so he could have a chance to start off on the right foot. I didn’t want to run the risk that she’d want to institute the report cards from day one like the last teacher.
It’s been five weeks… and I have not had a single complaint about his behavior. Not. Even. One.
Do I think that means he’s behaving perfectly? No, I’m sure he’s not. I’m sure he’s acting like a normal second-grader, probably even a normal second-grader with ADHD. But I think that the public school expects that, and more importantly, they are prepared for it. They are experienced, and they are equipped.
I did finally get my first email two days ago from his teacher, but not about his behavior. She is concerned about his attention and ability to stay on task when doing independent work. She told me about the interventions she’s tried, which included seating him close to her desk, having the instructions on the overhead projector, reminders, and using a privacy screen to help him stay focused… and she wanted to start a dialogue about ideas. And the fact that she’s communicating with me about this shows that she’s not ignoring the issue, that she knows a few thing to try, and that she is willing to work on it together…
If I could go back, I’d have started the kids off in public school. I’m lucky to live in a great school district (which is not an accident!), but it turns out that private schools are not always the solution when your child has special needs…