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Early Help for Special Needs Kids

How Early Intervention Can Help Special Needs Kids

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the passage and implementation of the Individuals With Disabilities Special Education Act, or IDEA. When originally passed, it was a landmark piece of legislation. For the first time, our government acknowledged that the public school system had an obligation to provide an appropriate education to all children regardless of their abilities.

Since then, it has been modified a number of times (the act is reviewed and reauthorized every five years), but there are always areas for improvement. This year the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD) is urging Congress to focus on changing the category of specific learning disabilities. Because of the structure, or lack thereof, of today's bureaucracy-laden special education systems, many children have already been failing for several years before they ever get the help they need. Some even end up in special education when that could possibly have been avoided with early intervention.

A Long Struggle

When Teresa Ankney's son, John-Randall, was in first grade, he didn't start reading when the other children did. The school district insisted that there was nothing wrong, and he just needed some extra help at home. By mid-year, Ankney was dreading the nightly flash card sessions because they didn't seem to be helping at all. She and John-Randall were becoming increasingly frustrated. She was convinced that is wasn't merely "developmental" as the teacher seemed to think.

"They tested him and found nothing wrong," says Ankney. "Finally, they suggested that he had ADD, and if we medicated him, he could read. Later I found out that they had omitted the subtests that would have revealed that he was dyslexic. By the time we figured it out, he was really failing and falling apart emotionally."

After a long, fruitless battle with their district, Ankney and her husband enrolled John-Randall in a school that specialized in treating dyslexic children. He's now reading well, but she's forever soured on the special education system and its "wait-to-fail" mentality.

What Works, What Doesn't

The problem was that, technically, John-Randall didn't qualify for special education because his IQ was too high. It was further testing, done by a private concern, that revealed his severe dyslexia. If the school district had been willing to revise their testing procedures and use some simple subtests, it would have been made clear much earlier in the process. At that point, the district could have made special help available to John-Randall without ever placing him in special education classes.

This is the crux of the legislative changes that James H. Wendorf, executive director of the NCLD, hopes will take effect after this latest restructuring of IDEA.

"IDEA has been a remarkably good law that has helped many children, but it's time to step in and strengthen it, particularly with kids that have specific learning disabilities," says Wendorf. "The main flaw is that these kids are identified too late in the process, and that makes it all the more difficult to step in and address their learning issues."

The NCLD is taking action, such as recommending alternative approaches that will start the process earlier. Currently, a recommendation for special education is based upon a measure of IQ versus performance. The problem with this method is that it's not effective until the child is in third or fourth grade. By that time, they may have been failing for several years. This not only puts the child far behind where he or she should be, it often wreaks the type of havoc on their self-esteem that Ankney witnessed with John-Randall.

"The old saying that these kids are stupid or lazy is simply not true," says Wendorf. "Anyone who has been involved with kids who are struggling know that the vast majority are working very hard and, in fact, are working overtime. The result is that the children are becoming more frustrated, and the parents are becoming more antagonistic toward the system."

Wendorf and the NCLD would like to see the IQ testing method replaced by an approach called "response to instruction." This method takes struggling children, gives them extra instruction and measures their response. If they still do not succeed in spite of the extra attention, then it would be assumed that a learning disability is present, and they would be tested further for special education services. Technically, it is not special education, and many of the children won't ever end up in the formal special education system, because that early intervention will be sufficient to get them over whatever developmental hump they may be facing. It's a less expensive, less time-consuming and more effective model than what is currently in place.

"We look at it as an 'all, some, few model,'" says Wendorf. "All children start in regular education; some will need short-term intervention, and a few will need to be referred to special education. This method can identify kids with special needs in kindergarten or first grade and doesn't have to happen later with expensive and elaborate tests."

Learning Begins at Home

Underlying these "official" efforts by the NCLD is an increased push on educating parents to recognize early signs of learning disabilities – particularly in the area of reading. Reading comprehension problems are estimated to comprise up to 80 percent of all learning disabilities. There are several resources on the NCLD Web site for parents to use as a guide to possible early warning signals of a learning disability.

In addition, the NCLD is sponsoring an e-mail petition drive to urge parents to support these important changes in the IDEA legislation. To support their efforts, go to www.keepkidslearning.org and click on the "Send a Free E-mail" link.

The problems, as they always are, are funding related. Wendorf notes that the answer is a greater commitment by the federal government to special education issues. At this time, they have cut back their contributions from 40 percent of the costs in 1965 to 18 percent. And this figure is up from a few years ago. What NCLD is trying to stress is that reading is not always fundamental, and it's not an instinctual process – it has to be taught. For some children, that teaching needs to be more intense, or they won't break the reading code. In the long run, this could be more costly than any amount of educational services.

Early Signs of Possible Learning Problems

According to the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD), early signs that children may have learning struggles include:

  • Becomes easily distracted.
  • Runs from one thing to another.
  • Is unable to understand directions or what you ask of him.
  • Is unable to explain what he wants.
  • Shows difficulty identifying shapes.
  • Has trouble processing sounds.
  • Experiences frequent hearing infections.
  • Tunes out or shows inconsistent responses to verbal input.
  • Requires frequent repetition.
  • Misunderstands what is said.

These are clear signs parents should not overlook in their children, according to the NCLD. By keeping a watchful eye for these problems in children as young as 4, parents can look for gaps in their children's early learning abilities and take steps to prevent long-term learning obstacles. Should parents identify these traits in their children, there are simple steps they can take to facilitate learning for their kids which include:

  • Talking to their health provider.
  • Talking to their child's teacher.

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