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An Education in Special Education

Like most parents juggling their work lives and their children’s summer schedules, I was admittedly eager for the first day of school to arrive. But my anticipation took a sharp turn when I learned that my son would have to attend a new school. This type of news can be disturbing to any parent, but when your child has special needs, it can feel like a real disaster.

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I now accept that educating a child with special needs is totally possible, just like walking across hot coals is totally possible. I’ve spent the past few years sitting in administration offices, e-mailing, calling and creating an education network for my son. The process is not uncomplicated. In fact, in the past two weeks, two different special-needs teachers have looked me square in the eye and suggested I get ready for the biggest struggle of my life.

I’m learning that educating a child with special needs will cost more time and money than I had imagined. I think I was naïve in thinking that we would “hit a rhythm” and things would magically fall into place. Although I’ve spent the last several years actively involved in my son’s education, I believed that as he grew older I would be able to loosen the reins a bit. I was entirely wrong.

For the first time I saw how difficult it can be for my son to move from a familiar environment to an unfamiliar one.

Preschool and kindergarten were easier. The younger children are, the less teachers need to focus on each particular learning milestone or disability. With this in mind, I anticipated that first grade would present new some new challenges — what teacher can effectively address 10 children who are in entirely different places in their development and learning abilities?

Well, I was right, first grade in a new school was overwhelming. For the first time I saw how difficult it can be for my son to move from a familiar environment to an unfamiliar one. He was placed in a class that was beyond his current learning scale, and the classroom did not provide the support he needed.

In short order, everyone in the class experienced my son’s ability to turn the room into a scene from "The Amazing Spider-Man." After giving the new school a try for three weeks, we decided it was best to take him back to his old school with teachers who knew him, friends he loved and a program that has equal challenges in different ways. At least at the old school my son was comfortable and surrounded by people who were familiar to him.

Educating a child with special needs in the public school system is a full-time job requiring a parent’s research, time, money, ideas and imagination. I’m not exaggerating when I say that a parent must work day and night, and never lose his or her focus on the child’s requirements and growth. It means creating systems and routines between different environments and being consistent, nearly to a fault.

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For the next few months, if not years, I’m going to do my best to take advantage of the programs designed for children like my son and the knowledge of those familiar with the system. I’m certain that the difficulties I’ve been facing, the uncertainties I feel and the paucity of clear guidelines on the best path are not new experiences, which is why people keep telling me how hard it is. There must be someone who has had success and created a system that isn’t so taxing. If not, I will need to be that person.

For today, I’m grateful that my son is reunited with his best friend, who took the liberty to introduce to him the class as his friend Zion the day he returned.

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