Dear Dr. Debbie,
The oldest of our three sons experienced some language delays and has worn hearing aids since the age of 3. Where we lived before, he went to a special school and did well with their small classes and speech therapy.
He is now in fourth grade at a private school (not special education) and does fairly well academically – his teacher wears a microphone that transmits directly to him. But he doesn’t socialize much at all. His speech is pretty good at this point, however, when he’s tired his voice gets nasally.
For the next school year we are moving back to where we lived before, due to my husband’s job. We have the option of sending our son back to the school for children with hearing impairments, but I’m torn. The public school would have more after school opportunities, including scouts and sports. And his classmates would all live close to us which could better support friendships outside of school time. We’re not considering private school because of the lack of good options (that we know of).
Trying to Decide
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Too bad his current school hasn’t been a successful breeding ground for friendships for your son. It is very important for children’s mental health to know they are accepted by the peer group and to have at least one good buddy. A buddy can share good times and bad. A buddy will laugh at your jokes and never let you be the butt of others. But, if you are imperfect (as we all are), your best buddy will give it to you straight — because he would no sooner want you to embarrass yourself than to be embarrassed himself. There are many things that children learn from their teachers, but there are also critical lessons to be learned from social interactions with one’s peers.
With this in mind, let’s explore some pros, cons and unknowns of your choices.
Pros of special education: The special school can provide expert teaching methods and therapies because it is intentionally set up for children who are challenged by their hearing. Your son would benefit from a program designed specifically for his disability, and social exclusion based on that disability is therefore unlikely.
Pros of general education: The public school option would offer a nice variety of peers, wider academic and extracurricular opportunities, and would be more accommodating for family participation and involvement: one transportation timetable (whether walking, family car or school bus), one expectation for volunteering and and one network of parents through which to develop your own essential peers. This can free you up to focus more on your family’s needs — including looking out for your son’s opportunities for friend-making.
Cons of special education: It’s challenging to support out-of-school time with classmates and their families from a special education center because they draw from a wider geographic area. Being hearing impaired also makes it hard for all the children to communicate with one other making social interactions doubly tough. Misunderstandings often lead to frustrations between two hearing impaired children.
Cons of general education: There is less individualized attention in public school because the bulk of the children do not have special needs. Customizing takes advocacy — starting from parents. Unless your son’s needs are spelled out in an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) or other legal agreement, there is no guarantee he is getting the best education possible. And even with an IEP, parents find they need to keep tabs on what happens day to day if there’s no strong advocate for their child on staff. Being “special” at a general education school can have a negative stigma among some of the children. Because your son uses special equipment and or goes out for special therapy, he risks appearing “different,” which can make him unattractive as a potential friend.
Unknowns of special education: Since you’ve been gone, and considering he was younger then, has anyone addressed adding extracurricular activities at the special school? Sports and clubs are sometimes scheduled into the middle of the school day where there would otherwise be transportation issues and a need for childcare after school for most of the students anyway. Everyone just has a longer school day. With a smaller student body, there might be several short term options – i.e.: three weeks of bowling, knitting, puppetry or soccer, followed by three weeks of clay, photography, swimming or tennis. There should be plenty of interesting alternatives, with popular ones repeated in later cycles so there is always something for everyone. Perhaps you could get this going?
Are any of his old classmates still at this school to resume friendships started when they were younger? A strong friendship to come back to could be a deciding factor for the child who struggles with making new ones.
Unknowns of general education: What accommodations at the public school would your son be eligible for? Does the school make any specific efforts to be sure that children with special needs are well-included socially? Would there be any other children with hearing aids in his class or would his special needs be something they’ve not encountered before? Does his teacher have experience with accommodating a child with hearing aids? Would she be sympathetic with the goal of helping your son achieve — at the minimum — one strong friendship?
Unknowns of his special needs: Are his needs for special services staying the same or are there plans to reduce or eliminate these over time? For example, if he is taught to lip read, he might not require the amplification device and could possibly catch more peer conversations. Perhaps he would benefit from a year or more at the special school, but would sooner or later sufficiently improve his ability to communicate with peers.
Unknowns of the community: Are there recreation activities, such as scout troops that are inclusive of children with special needs? If not, could you initiate an endeavor to include a child who is hard of hearing in a program serving an interest of your child (astronomy, basketball, bird watching, canoeing, robotics, watercolor painting)? A friend may be found there.
Or, if private school isn’t readily an option, have you considered homeschooling? A group of homeschooling families could be a compromise solution. You would provide his individual instruction for the most part, but other students could join him at your house, or one of theirs, or a park, or a museum, for group activities. In some communities, homeschoolers actually pool together for classes that meet on a regular basis. Either a parent leads the class, or a private teacher is hired by the group. If this appeals to you and it doesn’t yet exist, you might contact some homeschool networks in that area to see who else might be interested. Homeschooling is sometimes chosen for a child because his development is uneven — making it hard to place him in one grade or another, and because he is not well-matched with most children his age, he may struggle with social skills. Among home-schooling peers your son would be in good company.
Weigh your pros and cons and get your questions answered. A thoughtful investigation will help your family with a good choice for next year.
Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.
What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at Betsy@jecoannapolis.com