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We Should Encourage Special Needs Kids to Struggle, Fail, and Prevail

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Read Time: 5 minutes

When my son came home with a backpack filled with certificates acknowledging his genius in math, English, history, science, and the rest of his eighth grade classes, I was proud. That was until another parent, whose son attended the same school told me, “All the kids get them.” 

My son is bright. However, he didn’t deserve certificates from every class—especially math. 

I shared that opinion with the school, and they dismissed my comments. The principal believed it was beneficial to praise every student. They said kids fear failure and if they get a poor grade or do something incorrectly, they’ll give up. 

I believe the opposite is true.

Every failure can be a step to success.

We needed a different approach to school so in eighth grade, our son began attending a school for children with autism and other special needs. The workload at this school depended on the teacher. Some gave more work than others. Most of the teachers did not give homework. Some did. Many parents let their children opt out of getting homework. I wasn’t one of those parents.

I don’t believe in homework for the sake of giving it. A lot of homework is unnecessary. Yet as my son’s math teacher explained, giving 10 equations, not 30 or 40, tells her if a student understands how to solve a problem. “Anything more than 10 or even 12 becomes busy work,” she said. So I wanted my son to do the extra work, especially because I knew he was capable. And I knew that struggle was an essential part of the learning process—and growing both academically and in life.

According to the Hechinger Report, “Disabilities shouldn’t keep children with special needs from achieving the same standards as their peers—and experts estimate that up to 90 percent of students with disabilities are capable of graduating high school fully prepared to tackle college or a career if they receive proper support along the way.” That preparation includes things like struggling over homework. 

Our special needs kids can meet high expectations.

While he was attending the school where everyone got a certificate, my son was often annoyed with his English teacher because she made him work hard. But he also appreciated her because, for him and lots of other kids, hard work means high expectations. And setting high expectations is often the product of believing students can achieve. She made him work hard because she believed he could meet her standards. “I do not agree with rewarding students who have not worked hard or do something to earn the reward,” said Laura Conti, special education teacher at CPNJ Horizon School in New Jersey. (Conti was my son’s favorite teacher, who pushed him to succeed.) “Students generally know when they have not earned an award; therefore, the reward becomes meaningless. As a result, no positive reinforcement, pride, or self-esteem is derived from it.”

When expectations are low,” she continued, “or even nonexistent, students are not given the opportunity to learn and grow and, perhaps most importantly, believe in themselves and what they are truly capable of.  

“If others do not believe a child can accomplish something, which is the message that is sent when a reward not truly earned is given, then they will believe the same. Giving children opportunities to succeed, with support if necessary, is one of the greatest gifts we can give can give children. For when they do succeed by working hard, we give the child a positive sense of self and they realize they’re more capable than they thought. Not only is there very little value in giving out rewards that are not truly earned, but it can also be detrimental to a child’s positive sense of self.”

Praise rings hollow when we’ve made things too easy.

Looking back on the challenging days of raising a child with special needs, Cherie Castellano, director of Mom2Mom, a 24/7 peer-support helpline for parents of children with special needs operated by Rutgers University, is certain her resiliency comes from her son. Today, he’s in college—a feat many parents of children with special needs don’t think is possible for their own children.

“A lot of moms of children with special needs are overwhelmed by the challenges of their child’s disability,” Castellano said. “It may take us a bit of time to raise our expectations.”

Her son had a difficult phase between the ages of 2 and 8. Finding out everything she needed to know about his diagnosis (he’s on the autism spectrum) and getting proper care was part of a learning process that most parents of special needs children face. “My husband and I are blessed,” she said. “We had the support of the school, of doctors, and of our faith.”

Proud of her son’s 3.7 grade point average in his first year of college, she said, “I think he’s stronger emotionally than kids who haven’t been challenged.”  

“But first hearing about your child’s limitations reinforces doubts that so many parents of special needs children have,” she said. “That’s where the [thought that] I need to do everything for them comes from. It takes strength to raise a resilient child.” 

That’s one of the reasons she founded Mom2Mom. “All of us experience worry and failure,” she said. “Our kids know and can sense when we’re making it easy for them. They know if we don’t think they can succeed. That’s why we have to celebrate their accomplishments.”

No matter what, giving support is most important.

All children need support. “In the field of education, we provide accommodations and modifications for kids with special needs to help promote success,” Conti explained. When it comes to providing support, “it’s a disservice to the child to leave it there,” Conti said. “Scaffolding accommodations and modifications allows teachers (and parents) to slowly take them away. Students are often surprised by what they can accomplish, which boosts their self-esteem and provides motivation to tackle future tasks that may be difficult at first.”

Students with special needs, like all students, will and should struggle and fail. It’s a part of life and an important lesson to learn. As students like my son continue to show, they’re up for the challenge. And we should encourage them to meet it head on.

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