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Thoughts on educationally fragile children

Dr. Sam Goldstein

“I like learning, I just don’t like school.”

A 12-year-old student with significant learning disabilities

When shipping a beautiful crystal vase to a friend living a long distance away, you wrap it carefully. After all, crystal is fragile. In order for the vase to safely reach its destination, it must be protected and carefully handled. Though children are not crystal vases, they too are potentially fragile. As my colleague Dr. Brooks, and I have written, in our quest to help children find happiness, success in school, satisfaction in their lives and solid friendships, we chart a course through their childhood designed to develop the inner strength to deal competently and successfully day after day with the challenges and demands they encounter. We call this capacity to cope and feel competent, resilience. As we have written, resilience embraces the ability to deal effectively with stress and pressure, to cope with every day challenges, to bounce back from disappointments, adversity and trauma, to develop clear and realistic goals, to solve problems, to relate comfortably with others and to treat oneself and others with respect.

Schools rank among our most important institutions to help prepare children to transition successfully and happily into adult life. We do a very good job of marketing the school experience to preschoolers. On that first day of school most children can’t wait to put on their new clothes and venture out. They are instinctually optimistic about their future success and intrinsically motivated. The act of doing is sufficiently rewarding. At that moment, all children are equal in their potential to benefit and learn from their upcoming educational experiences. Yet, once they enter the school system it quickly becomes apparent that not all children are equal in the goodness of fit between the skills and abilities they bring to school and the expectations, demands and tasks teachers place in front of them. Put simply, the abilities of one out of five children impedes their potential to meet the educational system’s expectations. These children are educationally fragile.

Some might suggest that the term “educationally fragile” is inappropriately assigned to students with learning disabilities or other developmental impairments that impede their progress and potential for success at school. From my perspective, this appears to be a very appropriate description. The term does not refer to genetics or biological phenomena but rather as with the crystal vase, the term guides us to carefully create an environment in which children are able to learn without becoming demoralized, become connected to others without feeling different, and are able to make contributions without feeling like “second class students.” In our efforts to educate these children we expose them to a far greater degree of frustration, failure and adversity than other students. When special education systems throughout the world are examined, despite our best efforts, an unfortunately large percentage of these educationally fragile children find school a frustrating and often demoralizing experience. Yet, as a number of outcome studies examining the adult lives of individuals with histories of learning disability - educationally fragile students - have demonstrated, some manage to overcome obstacles and find success in school and in life.

During a trip some years ago to Scotland, I had the great pleasure of visiting the New School. Founded in 1992 by Baroness Linklater of Butterstone, a parent of a child with significant learning disabilities, the New School is a co-educational, residential day school for children ages twelve to eighteen. The school has links with colleges throughout Scotland. Senior students have college experience and work in developing independent living skills that allow them, once they leave the New School, to enter college. The school provides basic educational services as well as specialized support in language and motor development. The New School is committed to creating a learning environment for educationally fragile children in which stress and adversity are reduced and opportunities to learn, feel connected and successful are increased. The school is located about an hour by car outside of Edinburgh. Most students live at the school from Monday through Friday and then go home on the weekends. Set on a pristine hillside overlooking the Scottish countryside, the school consists of a number of buildings, including a classic, castle-like structure. Ms. Sophie Dow, the Executive Director of the international charity, Mindroom, accompanied me on this visit. Sophie’s daughter, Annie, was fifteen years old at the time. This was her third year at the New School. Fees for this school are paid by each local school district much like in America.

As we pulled up there were a number of students waiting to greet us. We visited with the headmaster, Bill Colley, and were taken on a wonderful tour by a number of the students, visiting classrooms and the surrounding grounds and interacting with dozens of students. Everyone smiled. Everyone was excited. It wasn’t just excitement because it was Friday, it was excitement because these youth were connected to their learning environment. These educationally fragile children had found the necessary environment to be educated without becoming demoralized. In my forty plus years of clinical practice, I have evaluated thousands of children. I have yet to meet a five-year-old about to enter school who has evaluated the potential psychological and emotional damage an educational experience could afford him or her and decided that rather than attend school he/she would stay home, and feel good, even if it meant she/he didn’t learn how to read, write, spell or perform mathematics. Regardless of ethical, cultural, religious or scientific beliefs, we must strive to create educational environments for all students, including those whose learning disabilities create significant vulnerability for psychological and emotional fallout as they attempt to learn and we attempt to teach them. I would argue that no child is immune today from stress, pressure and potential adversity in school. In our fast paced world, the number of children facing adversity and the number of adversities they face, even in school, continues to increase dramatically. Even children who are fortunate to be “good students” are increasingly reporting the stresses of their educational experiences. As we learn how to best create nurturing, resilience building environments for fragile students, we also learn how to create better educational environments for all students.

The International Consensus Statement on the rights and needs of children with learning disabilities argues that schools must find a way to educate all students efficiently and effectively. They must provide students with knowledge, critical thinking skills and resilience qualities. Competency in basic academic skills, including reading, writing, spelling and mathematics are essential. Basic academic competency in the world we have created for our children today and for the future is a necessity not a luxury. Because of their neurologically based impairments in emotional, cognitive, language, motor or perceptual processes, educationally fragile children struggle in our schools. Their impairments make every day education frustrating. Their achievement is slow and the gap between them and their classmates widens as they progress through school. Yet, with appropriate identification and education, with attention to their rights and needs, most children with learning disabilities can close the gap and transition successfully into the world of work and independent living.

The New School and other facilities like it throughout the world, understand that as Ralph Waldo Emerson has written, “the secret of education lies in respecting the pupil.” The New School and facilities like it throughout the world respect and recognize the rights of educationally fragile children. These facilities provide children with an education that allows them to develop basic literacy, critical thinking skills, diversity of knowledge, independent living and vocational skills in an environment that builds a resilient mindset. Through scientific and sound educational processes, these facilities understand and address not just the weaknesses of their students that cause impairments but the strengths that will carry them through life as well. These facilities provide children with access to established and effective educational programs that directly address and ameliorate their educational needs. They provide them with opportunities to “feel smart” and successful in school. They provide them with a safe environment that facilitates the development of psychological health, the embodiment of a resilient mindset. Finally, facilities like the New School help educationally fragile children transition completely into adult life, competitive vocation and independent living.

In a time when public education should be creating more programs for educationally fragile children, we are seeing fewer programs. Many school districts in the United States have eliminated full day, special classrooms for children with learning disabilities, arguing that these children are better served in the regular classroom setting. This argument is without scientific merit and I believe based entirely on funding considerations. Science is about proof and replication. From my perspective, those who would advocate for fewer services, in particular the absence of specialized schools and classrooms for the learning disabled, do so based on belief rather than data. One bright hope in the United States is the introduction in many states of charter schools. Though these charter schools have been founded primarily as settings for children without learning disabilities, we are witnessing an increasing interest by parents in organizing and opening charter schools to serve specific children’s needs. In Salt Lake City for example, Spectrum Academy founded in 2006 by a group of parents now serves over one thousand educationally fragile students kindergarten through high school students on multiple campuses.

In accordance with the United Nations convention on the Rights of the Child, it is the right of every child to not just survive and be protected but to be educated as well. Parents’ influence on their children cannot be overestimated. Research has validated what parents know in their hearts: children’s ability to cope with adversity whether social, emotional or educational is best predicted by the strength of their emotional ties, first to their parents and second to their educational settings. On both fronts we can and must do a better job of helping parents help their children and by creating, funding and supporting appropriate educational programs.