Imagine going to school and not being able to understand what the teacher is saying. Being afraid to read out loud. Taking longer to do assignments. Working twice as hard as someone who has the same education only to barely get by.
I have dyslexia and I have to reread many lines over again due to the inability to process what I just read. When special education programs aren’t where they should be and children do not get the proper attention early on in school, they are left thinking they are just not smart enough. Clinical psychologist Roberto Olivardia tells us that “for kids with undiagnosed dyslexia, everyday schooling is like being taught in a foreign language.”
I came from a district close to Boston which had the resources to provide special education for students, but didn’t use it properly. I only had an Individualized Education Program (IEP) until the end of elementary school because my fifth-grade teacher thought it wasn’t needed for middle school. My parents agreed, so they took me off of it. A lot of the time, children get taken off of the IEP because they have shown progress and found ways to get around their struggles. But in truth, they still need help. The only way students who require special education are going to be successful is if they receive the proper interventions early on in school, and then continue to be supported.
The number of children who received special education services dropped 40% in the U.S. in 2021 compared to 2018. During the pandemic many children were not attending preschool or kindergarten. That limited their ability to have a teacher who is trained in those disabilities to address them early on. Parents aren’t always aware of what is normal development compared to issues that might need to be addressed to prevent long-term struggle.
I felt this way when we got sent home in 2020 from my freshman year spring semester of college. It was extremely hard to focus at home while sitting in front of a computer screen for hours on end with no face-to-face interaction. I can’t even imagine what it must have been like for elementary-aged students who require special education. Children this age require in-person attention and without that they have been falling behind. When a student is in class face-to-face, their teacher can see if they are struggling and hopefully help them be successful.
Even though the lack of teachers in special education worsened during the pandemic, the problem existed long before COVID-19. At the same time, the percentage of students in special education has increased, causing a huge increase in unmet need.
In Connecticut this problem doesn’t affect all kids equally. One study found that affluent suburban towns in Fairfield County “received on average eight times” more funding than low-income districts like Bridgeport. The report, conducted for the Connecticut Voices For Children, finds an “achievement gap” as well as differences in the quality of education for both special education and non-special education programs.
To bring this issue to life, one student who attends Bridgeport public schools – a boy who has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) – spent most of his school year with “no human” to support his needs because teachers were absent. Allowing these students to suffer because there aren’t enough special educators is unacceptable. No two students are the same, but they should be able to learn in an environment that they feel comfortable in.
Some schools in the state have found ways to support student success across a wide spectrum. For example, Winston Preparatory School in Norwalk has figured out how to work with students who have learning differences such as dyslexia, ADHD, and nonverbal learning disabilities (NVLD), but it does come with a hefty cost that might not be affordable for many. Their model is to make sure students are able to “build independence, resilience, responsibility, self-awareness, and self-advocacy” . You aren’t going to be successful if being aware of yourself first isn’t achievable. Winston also implements a program called Focus that allows the students the ability to know what works for them as individuals because they have that person who is willing to work with them to discover those successes every day for forty-five minutes. If more Connecticut schools could adopt at least some of the lessons from these systems, it could help many more students be successful.
Figuring out a way to allocate funding to account for students with disabilities would make education more equitable in Connecticut. It is okay to learn differently, but with the right tools and attention, every student can be successful. Connecticut, don’t allow these students to struggle, allow them to be leaders of the future. Dr. O Ivas Lovaas, who pioneered interventions for children with autism through his Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA program), put it this way: “If they can’t learn the way we teach, we teach the way they learn.”
Emma McGillicuddy is a senior at Sacred Heart University majoring in Health Science with a concentration in Healthcare Administration with minors in Global Health and Management.