Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

My Son Is In Special Education And I Want Him To Be Challenged

Richie Pope for NPR

By the time my younger son is midway through third grade, I realize that his academic progress has stalled. He's stuck somewhere between kindergarten and first grade.

School is a struggle for him. He has a language-based learning disability, which affects how long it takes for him to process new information before he can respond.

We have safeguards — classroom accommodations and an Individualized Education Plan, or IEP, a document required by law for students who receive special education — to keep him on track.

Except, that he isn't.

Desperate to wake him, we begin working through stacks of math and reading materials I amass at home, ones that I found researching teaching approaches designed specifically for kids with language-processing issues.

I see his potential. With little distraction, we move forward, mastering concepts at our own pace.

But at school, his progress remains at a standstill.

Here's the thing: Undeterred by his lack of progress, my son loves school and rises ready and willing to begin his day. He's a social kid who consumes his world in great detail, even as it comes to him in rapid-fire sequence that he soaks up in slow motion.

And he appears to be content.

But even as a fourth-grader, his days are filled with teachable moments followed by mini breaks—movie watching, song singing and walks throughout the long hallways, all rewards for completing a single assignment.

In our annual IEP meeting, I request that my son be challenged for longer periods of time and encouraged to struggle through problems to reach a solution.

I point to Stanford psychology professor Carol Dweck's research on growth mindset, demonstrating the brain's capacity for unlimited potential. The research shows how neurons in the brain can grow new connections when effort is applied. Plus, when students learn that they can actually get smarter and grow new brain cells by trying harder, their test scores improve.

I bring up recent studies verifying failure as a crucial part of the learning process.

I contrast the team's strategies to motivate special ed students with approaches used in general education. My older son, for example, was fed a rigorous curriculum punctuated with high expectations that he met with little fanfare.

As the meeting wraps up, it's agreed to encourage my son to work harder.

Students in general education are required to meet well-defined standards written for grade-specific goals. In special education, there are not set academic standards.

Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, federal law rules my child's right to a Free Appropriate Public Education, known as FAPE, which includes specific support services outlined in his IEP.

Without any incentive to get students in special education at, or near grade-level standards, though, minimal progress is acceptable under FAPE.

Hopefully, what is considered an appropriate education will change as the future of FAPE came to a head in March this year at the Supreme Court. In Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District, the Court ruled unanimously in favor of providing students with disabilities more challenging objectives to establish consistent progress.

All kids, despite their differences, are young aspirants and should be encouraged to reach their optimal potential. Creative teaching methods and research-based programs must be coupled with consistent and credible expectations to drive students, no matter what type of learner, to advance academically.

But months after the annual IEP meeting, I see no change in my son's ability.

Frustrated with his lack of achievement and concern for his future, I pull my child from public school in the middle of fifth grade and place him in a specialized learning environment.

At his new private school, students are not considered special, and therefore not treated as such. High expectations, little distraction and a rigorous curriculum thrust every child forward.

With focused, strategic interventions and multi-sensory instruction, he advances two grade levels.

Now, at the age of fourteen, my son is toiling his way through his education again, after almost two years in the small school for kids with learning differences.

And I have learned that no matter where my child gets his education—intimate environment, at home, spacious public school —that not one place fits all.

Which brings me to the day, in the spring of 2016, when my teen is about to start seventh grade and we are touring yet another a potential change in his environment: our local middle school. I believe in a public education and the benefits of inclusion.

Inclusion means my son, despite his learning differences, is placed in a regular ed classroom for the majority of the day, with necessary accommodations.

Inclusion only works as long as the school accepts that all students can be equal participants and are pushed to reach their potential. And, when trained educators are given the support they need to make inclusion successful.

Baltimore's One Year Plus, as an example, sets goal standards for students with disabilities (who are not severely impaired) at grade level or 12 months behind, with specific academic expectations being met annually.

And a few New York City schools follow a program called ASD NEST, where high-functioning students with Autism work in small, highly specialized teams focused on language and special skills development, but follow grade-level curriculum alongside peers who are typical learners.

I am looking for a setting where my son will not only continue the headway made in the private school—but a place where he can trek through adolescence, socializing with his peers and participate daily in activities he thrives on like chorus, music and physical education.

I meet with the district's Director of Special Education. We collaborate on IEP goals that include pushing my teen to work hard and encouraging self-reliance. He will be expected to navigate the campus on his own.

The day of the tour, the halls are vacant except for the occasional student or teacher scurrying past. Our guide is an eighth-grade boy from the learning support class. Chatty and confident, he manages his way around the sweeping corridors with ease.

At one point, our trio peeks through the window of the band room door. The music teacher waves us in, but we don't want to interrupt. We continue on past the large library and two cafeterias, then step inside the auditorium to watch kids from theater club morph into a wave crashing on stage.

Before leaving, classes end and my son and I turn to watch the sea of students fill the halls.

"What do you think?" I ask him. "It's a pretty big school."

He hesitates, processing the morning's events before turning to leave. I know he's hungry for music class, chorus, outdoor clubs and groups of kids he can connect to. This is why we are here today.

"I think it's pretty cool," he says.

Which means we're going to give it a try.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit

Margaret Gilmour