An Uncomplicated Life: A few words about getting our special needs kids educated

I’m speaking tonight at the University of Cincinnati, to a group of Education majors, many of whom have decided that Special Education will be their field of interest. I asked my wife Kerry for some suggestionsfor how the new breed of Special Ed. teachers might make life and school easier for their students.

Jillian loved school. The social aspect, especially. And lunch. Jillian loved lunch. But she also enjoyed learning, approached it eagerly and tried hard, all the time. In other words, she was a dream student for any teacher wanting to make a difference.

It didn’t always work out.

Some of it was the time in which we lived. Schools were only beginning to accept the idea of inclusion back in the 1990s. Teachers are like the rest of us, somewhat resistant to change, and not always welcoming of criticism. We didn’t want Jillian in a resource room, ever. We wanted her fully included in a regular ed classroom, with an aide, as the law provided.

Teachers who embraced us, or at least made an effort at tolerating us, were rewarded with a student who was never less than enthusiastic, and wanted only to please. They taught Jillian; her attitude taught them. That’s how it’s supposed to work. Anyway, Kerry did all the heavy lifting when it came to getting Jillian educated the way we wanted and the law provided for. Here are some points she wanted me to make tonight at the university:

  • The main thing to impress on them is the word individual. The most important word in an IEP is individual. Every student is different. Don’t see them by their disability, but as individuals.

Jillian’s teachers pigeon holed her by her Down Syndrome. They automatically placed her in the resource room all day        because that is what every other student with Down Syndrome did. We wanted more. Jillian was the first student with            Down Syndrome to be fully included in regular classes in her school.

  • Allow students on IEPs to fail once in a while. It is unrealistic to expect success all the time. A typical student has successes and failures in his or her academic career, why not students on IEPs? We always felt if Jillian was getting all A’s, then her IEP goals needed to be adjusted to make her work more challenging. We actually called an IEP meeting after Jillian got a straight A report card. We wanted her challenged.
  • Try to understand how parents feel at IEP meetings. It is very Intimidating to sit on one side of the table with the school representatives on the other. Parents have the right to suggest things, so please listen and consider. Not everything can be granted, but understand where they are coming from. Make the parents feel they are being heard, and explain your suggestions. and they are suggestions, not mandates. The IEP meeting is a “team” meeting. So, ideas should be suggested, not demanded.
  • And, as teachers, please don’t feel threatened, or picked on, if the parent makes a suggestion or raises a concern. As we always said, it is just all of us working together to make the best Jillian we can. If you can say this diplomatically, explain how we never met opposition from the regular education teacher, only the special education teacher. I think that is because it was new enough to have Jillian in regular ed. classes that the teacher did not have any pre-conceived notion about what Jillian could or could not do. The regular ed teachers had high expectations. As special Ed teachers, keep your expectations high. Expect. Don’t accept!

k and j

An Uncomplicated Life, my memoir of raising a child with Down syndrome, is available at


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