Kerry is a talkative, red-haired 8-year-old. She works diligently at her desk for a few minutes, then spins around to see how her friend Terri is doing on the assignment. Across the room, shy, sensitive Brian works alone quietly. In the back row, Kim, wearing a look of complete frustration, shuffles and reshuffles worksheets. In the front row, center aisle, sits John. He has stuffed his half-completed worksheets into the desk and is busy flipping his pencil. Next to John is Ryan, who has already finished his work and looks bored.
Each of these children has special needs. Kerry needs structure and careful explanation of new concepts. Brian needs someone to assure him, to boost his confidence and to encourage him to interact with other students. Kim has an auditory processing problem. She needs extra help and a seat toward the front of the room. John is the class live wire and has difficulty concentrating. Ryan needs to be more challenged. So many needs, and we've only talked about a few of the children in this third-grade class!
In today's crowded classrooms, one teacher may have more than 25 students, each with varying emotional, physical and mental needs. How can you ensure that your child's needs are met at school? How can you know what is expected of your child, keep lines of communication open and be aware of the different needs of the average, the learning disabled and the academically talented student? We'll explore the answers to these in this article series.
"When should Daniel learn to add and subtract, multiply and divide?"
"How can I know if Sherrie is reading as well as she should?"
"How well should my child be writing in third grade?"
Knowing what school personnel expect your child to learn during an academic year is one of the first steps toward meeting his needs in the classroom and preventing problems.
For example, third-graders are expected to memorize multiplication and division facts through 12 x 12; recognize equivalent fractions; understand the use of letters in simple algebraic statements (ab = 12); and learn estimating and rounding-off skills.
In language arts, third-graders learn to use conventional spelling, punctuation and capitalization to write stories; learn how to identify character, plot and setting in stories; and improve reading comprehension. In social studies, they learn historical facts about state and country, begin to learn geography and study maps.
If you know that certain math skills must be mastered, that a certain level of reading ability must be reached or that certain writing skills must be learned, then you'll be able to help your child progress on course and get help if necessary. If there's a problem, if he's falling behind, you can ask the teacher how to encourage him and help him improve the deficient skills at home.
Rick von Kleist, a California principal and dad, gives each parent a list of the child's grade-level expectations at the first parent-teacher meeting of the school year. "Parents need to know the goals their child should be working toward," says Rick.
If your school doesn't provide such a list, ask the teacher for a "Grade Level Expectations" sheet that explains the academic goals in math, reading, language skills, social studies and science for a particular grade level. Once you have a list of the academic goals, you can watch your child's progress. You can reinforce what he is learning by encouraging him to use math in the grocery story, do special projects, play board games and read.
In addition, find out about your child's daily class schedule:
Another way to help your child learn the required skills is to help him with homework in the evening. Although you need to be involved, you should not do your child's homework for him. Parents' function is to monitor homework, support the child, answer questions and help only when needed.
If the daily classwork papers Carson Caraway brings home from school show he has a problem with math, his mom, Teresa, a speech pathologist, watches for homework assignments and makes it a point to help him with them. She tries to discover what he doesn't understand; she spends extra time helping him with problems and she tries to help him grasp multiplication or division concepts. She also watches for practical situations where math can be used around the house. For example, she gives Carson and her other son notepads and says, "Okay, boys, we need apples today. They7 are 69 cents a pound. If we need two-and-a-half pounds, how much are we going to spend?"
Valerie is both a mom and a teacher. She tells us, "I read over my daughter Kelsey's work and we discuss it. If she's already gone to bed, I write her a note on a yellow sticky that says something like, 'I appreciate your work on this' or 'What a lot of effort you put into this report! Good job!' or 'Maybe we need to practice this together.'"
Kelsey goes to a big school with classes of more than 30 children. It would be easy for her teacher to overlook her and any problems she might be having. However, even though Valerie is a full-time working mother, she doesn't wait until a problem becomes serious. She watches the daily classwork, and if Kelsey's grades drop, Valerie immediately talks to the teacher, asking, "Are there problems? What can I do to help?"
Watch for opportunities to communicate with your child about his school experiences. The car ride home from school or snack after school provide chances for parents and children to discuss the school day. You can also make school and what your children are learning part of family dinnertime conversations.
In public schools, there is a tremendous need for the average learner to be more challenged. One educator observed that public schools may do a good job with the academic superstars and the educationally or physically handicapped, but the average child can fall through the cracks of the system and just drift.
"The greatest virtue of average students is that they don't cause trouble," said a principal, "but it is this virtue that also causes them to be ignored. These 'middle of the roaders' are often expected to work on their own while the overworked teacher focuses on bright kids, those with learning problems and troublemakers."
In most schools, as students approach eighth grade, they are tracked into low, high and average classes for math, English and science. Then in high school, they enter corresponding tracks, such as remedial, vocational, general, academic or honors.
Stanford University professor Dr. Sanford Dornbusch says that 85 percent of all students finish in the track in which they started as ninth-graders. It is very difficult for average- and lower-track students to change tracks since schools often make decisions based on past rather than present performance or on improvement. Honor students often have the best teachers and educational opportunities.
Thus, the child in the middle may be slighted. Parents can help this situation by finding ways to challenge their students — no matter what their IQ or standardized test scores.
Parents are often unaware that there are different educational tracks. However, they need to become familiar with the system. Find out what courses your student is taking and what track he's on. He needs you to be his advocate.
Dr. Dornbusch advises, "You want your child in the highest track in which she can perform. If your child has been in average-track English, maybe it's time to say to the school, 'Look, why don't we give Sarah a try in Honors English for three to six months?' Usually the school will comply with a trial period. Then it's time for you and your child to get to work. Get the student some assistance: tutoring, much encouragement, and anything to help her catch up with the higher track."
Even if the student cannot change to higher-track classes right away, at least he or she could occasionally participate in the more demanding classes. Sitting in on discussions and debates and doing research on an area of interest challenges and encourages the average-achiever.
If students are grouped according to ability, make sure that just because of a low reading score, your child is not placed in the low group in science, math, etc. Dr. Arnold Burron recommends, "Let school personnel know that you expect different grouping standards for different subjects...All children do not fit into one mold. Programs, expectations and materials must be individualized to being out the best in each child."1
Cooperative learning, where an average-achieving child is paired with a brighter child for science lab work or a history project, might be helpful. A mentorship program in which a student works with an adult professional in a field of the student's interest also inspires and challenges students.
Some children may have problems communicating, processing information or learning to read. Other children have physical handicaps. Parents need to be especially involved with the school to address these needs.
The federal law states that learning disabled or handicapped children must receive education to meet their particular needs and that parents must be involved in planning the individualized program for their child. In addition to the many programs, there are trained people in the communities, as well as in the schools, to help these children. Parents need to seek out these resources and implement the best plan for their child's development.
The Individualized Education Plan (IEP), a blueprint of special helps designed for an individual child, aids parents of special education students. First, the child's capabilities, level of achievement and skills are determined by his test scores, and his needs both at school and at home are considered. Then a conference is held with parents, teachers, resource specialists, counselors and a speech therapist to design the IEP. Sometimes the child is included in this meeting.
Jason, the eighth-grade son of Debbie, a Tulsa, Oklahoma, mom, has significant hearing loss. When he entered a junior high school of more than 2,000 students, he was to be mainstreamed into regular classes. Before school started, Debbie set up a meeting of resource people to discuss Jason's needs and the program that would be best for him.
After speech evaluation was completed, it was decided that one day a week Jason would work at speech therapy articulation and miss one section of an elective class. He would sit in the front of all his classes, and his teachers would do a quarterly evaluation, in addition to the regular grading periods. Each teacher would record Jason's progress to keep his parents informed.
Don't give in right away to a teacher who calls your child a slow learner. Once a child is labeled "learning disabled," it is almost impossible to get him off the slow track, even if he makes progress or the problem is corrected.
A University of Virginia education professor who tutors elementary kids said she finds that the vast majority of "learning disabilities" are problems that could be solved through one-on-one instruction. For example, a second-grader was labeled "learning disabled" by her teacher because she failed consistently at adding columns of two-digit numbers. The child's mother didn't believe or accept the label. When she watched her child do homework and add 35 to 35 to get 88, she realized the child had been adding across instead of up and down. Because the mother discovered the problem, the label was removed, and the student was able to stay in the regular math classroom.
If you child needs extra help, find a tutor or do it yourself. Perhaps you know a retired teacher in your church or a college student who would be willing to tutor. The extra help and attention often boosts the child's confidence, efforts and skills tremendously. It is further encouraging to him if he can stay in his regular classroom and learn to compensate or overcome a difficulty.
Katherine Newman's nine-year-old daughter Angela had a learning disability that caused her to have difficulty staying on track and focusing on written work for any length of time. "By all rights and with her difficulties, Angela should have had a disastrous school experience," said Katherine. "But it's been very good. Because I've been active in her classroom, giving individual reading help to students and transporting kids on field trips, I've known how to help Angela at home." Angela's teacher is likely to say, "There's a problem in this area, but you can work on this at home." Trust has been built between Katherine and the teacher because of her participation in the classroom.
When evaluated at age two, Susan Gainer's son Joshua had an IQ of 50. His parents were told he would probably never walk, talk or have a normal life. "No hope," the doctor said. Joshua did not speak until he was six years old. But through the prayers, patience and dedication of his parents and Susan's work with the school, Joshua (now 18) reads at a 10th grade level; his vocabulary is post-college level; and he has never made below a C in a regular class. He is in regular ninth-grade classes except for math, has friends, and is responsible and organized.
The difficulties Susan faced with her child may be different from your struggles, but I wanted to share what she has learned from guiding her special son through 14 years of public education.
Some children are several grade levels ahead of their classmates and score high on standardized tests. Academically talented students may become bored in the classroom. Except for an occasional "enrichment time," they often receive little stimulation from the curriculum and few opportunities for intellectual challenges.
"Generally, we don't feel our son Kyser is challenged at school," says Posy Lough, a home-business mom. "So our aim is to surround him with opportunities at home. We love learning and thankfully he does too. We encourage him to be more diligent with schoolwork and find resources, books and activities to enrich and challenge him."
Parents working with the school and the teacher can help meet a bright child's needs. "If your superachiever is bored, as the teacher to enrich the curriculum or offer special projects," says principal Rick von Kleist. "Let the teacher know you'll be glad to do part of the legwork needed for these projects."
Parents can challenge their gifted students in a number of ways at home. Parents and children can work on special projects together, go to museums, keep an observation log, investigate animals at the zoo (many zoos have learning programs for kids with a special interest in animals), or participate in space programs at local planetariums or children's museums.
The Junior Great Books Program offers another avenue of enrichment within the school. The program includes a series of 12 readings per year from the second through 12th grades as well as training for parents, teachers and program leaders. Parent volunteers can conduct book discussions during lunch or after school. Rather than focusing on fact questions, discussions should utilize higher level thinking skills. The children test generalizations, share ideas, and develop socially and emotionally.1
Parents can also enrich academic opportunities with some creativity and fund-raising. One parent I know saw the lack of hands-on science materials, lab equipment and resources for a quality science program at her child's school. After presenting the needs to the parent organization, she got funds designated from the annual spring carnival for science and volunteered to research the best resources for their money. By the next fall, the students had new materials and were off to a year of discovery in science learning.
If music, foreign language or art programs are lacking, parents can join forces to find qualified volunteers from the community or among the parents themselves to teach these courses. The more parents are involved in planning, curricular decision and all phases of enrichment at school, the better the education will be.