Saturday, February 20, 2010

The therapeutic childhood

Consider a quirky, unsocial child who grew up a generation or so ago.  At home, his parents worry about friends and bullies; at school, his teachers comment that he's always alone at recess, but praise him for his independence and intelligence, and for how quickly he's moving through the advanced math and reading books they've given him to work on on his own.


After school, he plays outside in the dirt and sand among the other kids on the block, rides his bike around the neighborhood and swings on the playground swing sets.  He gets good grades in school despite his sloppy handwriting.

But his handwriting is improving, thanks, perhaps, to all that in-class penmanship instruction and practice.  More importantly, he's gradually opening up and becoming more sociable; perhaps he's just following his own quirky developmental time table.

Consider his contemporary counterpart.  At home, his parents agonize over those notes and phone calls from the teacher and school psychologist; at school, he refuses to cooperate in group activities, refuses to complete his class assignments, and either fidgets uncontrollably or zones out during Circle Time.  He never hands in his homework on time, and his projects are sloppy and show minimal effort. Get him evaluated, they keep saying.

Once he's evaluated and duly diagnosed, an IEP meeting is scheduled, and his parents secure accommodations that allow him to spend a portion of class time working independently on more challenging material than what the rest of the class is doing in groups or discussing during Circle Time.

He spends his late afternoons at Social Skills Class, Play Therapy, and Occupational Therapy: working his pencil grip and letter formation, playing with shaving cream and sand, peddling therapeutic riding toys, and swinging on therapeutic swings.  All this is completely covered by insurance, and is tightly scheduled between his many hours of weekly homework.  Even if he had time for outdoor activities, in this day and age no one dares send their kids out unattended.

His grades improve, and, gradually, he opens up and becomes more sociable.  The experts rave about how well the system is working:  the therapies, the IEP, and the involvement of experts.

Is it?

15 comments:

Anonymous said...

Um, no.

I'm saying this as a kid like this "a generation or so ago" (I'm now 40). I'll go through this point by point.

"Parents were worried about friends and bullies". This was true, I had very few friends, and being chased home by bullies was an almost daily event. My escape and evasion skills would put an Army ranger to shame.

"his teachers comment that he's always alone at recess, but praise him for his independence and intelligence, and for how quickly he's moving through the advanced math and reading books they've given him to work on on his own"

They might have commented about how I was always alone at recess, but praise for independence and intelligence? They would comment about their frustration that I would do well on tests, but couldn't pay attention in class, and how I wouldn't do the assignments (because they were boring.) The word I didn't hear was "Independent", it was "Lazy." If there were any comments about the advanced books I was reading (that I brought from home) it was mostly that I wouldn't stick to the assigned material.

"After school, he plays outside in the dirt and sand among the other kids on the block, rides his bike around the neighborhood and swings on the playground swing sets. He gets good grades in school despite his sloppy handwriting." I didn't play with the kids on my block because they saw me as a weirdo, and not one of them. I didn't get good grades, because I couldn't focus on the material and work, and homework was a nightmare. One of the reasons my handwriting was sloppy was due to the educational system being so inflexible that they forced me to write with my left hand in the same way a right handed person does.

"But his handwriting is improving, thanks, perhaps, to all that in-class penmanship instruction and practice. More importantly, he's gradually opening up and becoming more sociable; perhaps he's just following his own quirky developmental time table." No, it didn't improve. The teachers and system never made an attempt to find out what might have been wrong in the larger picture, and just assumed I was lazy. I also didn't gradually open up and become more sociable, the teachers happily reinforced the "pecking order" and turned a blind eye to my being tormented by the popular kids. I don't what my own quirky developmental time table was like, but it certainly wasn't helped by this.

... and then there is your contemporary example. I don't think you have an idea how much better things are for kids like this. I have a special needs kid who has many similar issues to my own (if more severe). I have been watching the whole process like a vengeful hawk, making sure that what did (or didn't) happen to me is avoided with him.

And it is so different, the mind boggles. The active effort of the school to try to find out how to work with him, to understand his limits.. The different way the kids treat him, with respect for his abilities and tolerance for his differences and outbursts is wonderful.

The problem with your argument is that you are not talking about the same child in two different generations. This kid " At home, his parents agonize over those notes and phone calls from the teacher and school psychologist; at school, he refuses to cooperate in group activities, refuses to complete his class assignments, and either fidgets uncontrollably or zones out during Circle Time. He never hands in his homework on time, and his projects are sloppy and show minimal effort." Is not the one who you use as an example for a previous generation. That kid would not be treated with understanding and compassion. I am stating this with very vivid memories.

There are valid criticisms of the way, both in general and in specifics, of the way kids like these are treated now. Saying, however, that the outcomes from then and now would be indistinguishable is a gross mistake.

Katharine Beals said...

A cautionary note: This story is a hypothetical anecdote, not intended to describe every child who fits either the contemporary or the "a generation or so" description. It will be inconsistent with many people's personal experiences. It is, however, consistent with the personal experiences of a number of people I know quite well.

Beth said...

Katherine, I don't know about special-needs issues, so I have no direct comment on that.

But I know more than I ever wanted to know about homework as it is currently assigned. Please, fight back! Ask the teachers what the point of the homework is, and find a quicker way to reach that goal.

Most homework is assigned with very little thought as to its purpose or necessity. Teachers are told to assign a certain number of minutes every night. So their goal is not to find the most effective, streamlined, useful homework, but rather to fill an hour (or more!) of your child's time.

Please, take a close look at your child's homework, determine what is useful, and tell him not to bother with the rest. There is just no good reason for us to allow our kid's afterschool time to be eaten up with pointless dreck.

I know I'm repeating myself, but I will (again!) recommend:

The Case Against Homework (Bennett and Kalish)

The Homework Myth (Alfie Kohn)

http://www.stophomework.com

Beth said...

The flip side to the army of therapists working for the diagnosed "special needs" kids is that a kid who is performing adequately gets no attention at all from the public schools. So a bright, creative kid, who has been reduced to chronic anxiety and depression by the demands of school, will get no support whatever. Zip, zero, none.

Marcy said...

I don't love nostalgia. It doesn't seem to serve much purpose. We aren't going back there. It seems more useful to pick out what works and what doesn't and attempt to affect change.

I am pretty sure my special needs son would have been considered unteachable when I was in school 40 years ago. He'd have been institutionalized despite his high intelligence. It's nice that he is now integrated into school. I was bullied considerably more as a normal kid than he currently is due to the increase in bully awareness programs.

Personally, if my kid didn't need therapy, or if I was pretty sure he would develop adequately over time, than I would refuse therapies. I don't know why a parent would agree to something they found unnecessary. I know a lot of special needs families too, with kids on all ends of the spectrum. I don't know anyone who feels their child is getting more than they need. Usually I hear the exact opposite.

Katharine Beals said...

Marcy, There's a fair amount of evidence out there that many of today's learning disabilities result from inadequate instruction, of the sort that there used to be more of a generation or two ago.

I blog about that here:
http://oilf.blogspot.com/2009/03/some-superintendents-i-recently-learned.html

There's also a lot of discussion on this at kitchentablemath.

Ironically, this is part of what Response to Intervention is all about.

Again, I'm not claiming that my experiences are representative of all children and all schools.

Does your school teach penmanship? Ours doesn't. As a result, a friend of mine has to take 4th grader to Occupational Therapy once or twice a week so he can learn how to form letters fluently.

Laura said...

Dear Katherine,

I read your response to Marcy, and I would like to see the evidence you refer to. The blog post you suggested has many sweeping generalizations but not backup. Do you have research on these points to share? I'd like to read it.

I have many comments, but here is my main one:

By generalizing about the "special needs child" in a nostalgic tone, you risk offending many parents of children with special needs. Many of us have children that would have never been educated before the ADA mandated that schools do IEPs with measurable results and evaluations. Many of us have children would not have developed "at their own pace" without special help at early ages, far before school age. Many of us have kids who are bright, even brilliant, but with issues that go far beyond penmanship and social ineptness. And many of us have spent many hours at the swings and sandbox with our special needs kids, including your correspondent Marcy and I, who met at the playground with our kids in the sandbox. All the therapies you mention are not covered by our insurance or our state programs after age three.

By titling your post "The therapeutic childhood" you imply the experience of your friends, that you say you base this post on, is the experience of all of us. Your experience of early intervention is clearly not mine, or my friends. I know you acknowledge this in your response, but your blog post and your response to Marcy imply that you expect most kids experience something similar to your examples.

The title of this post and its implication that everything we are doing is wrong, you run the risk of implying that all special services are a waste and that kids do not need individualized instruction (which seems run counter to your main point.) And though our children have had psychological evaluations and serious developmental issues, anxiety, violent behavior, trouble making even simple conversation (unless it is about light bulbs) - we are just "helicopter moms" and should just hand those kids a book and let them figure it out. Well - our kids are not your friends' kids. There is no general "therapeutic childhood" as there is no general child. As your blog suggests, individuals are unique.

Many of us have special needs kids with far more serious issues than the child you describe. Also - your picture of the system's response to a child that is struggling would be a dream for many kids in my city's public schools, who are ignored and left to flounder and quit. I know no one who is taking their kid for handwriting practice after school. No one I know can afford this, and penmanship is the least of our worries. Our kids' issues existed long before the schools got a hold of them.

I am sorry to rant, but this post touched a nerve, because it did imply it applied to all kids, though you reassure us it did not. My child would not be able to attend public school without special services, although he is charming and extremely bright. So many people make comments about the money wasted on special education services such as those that allow my bright child to succeed in his public school. Though I have my long laundry list of complaints about the public schools and IEP services, I will never believe that the mythic past was better for my kids than the present. Please be more precise about your titles and your examples if you wish to draw conclusions about special education services.

Thank you for reading. I did want to rant at you, but I had some things to say.


PS - I found the first child in your story resembled my own childhood quite closely. Except that no one taught me penmanship. They just gave me Cs.

Katharine Beals said...

Thanks to Marcy and Laura for your feedback. And—wow!—I’m more convinced than ever that I must have some flavor of Asperger’s Syndrome, for this post appears to have touched many nerves I did not intend to venture anywhere near. I keep reading my actual words and, try as I might, I’m really having trouble seeing how they imply anything more than what I intended them to apply. I suppose I sound suspiciously like Humpty Dumpty.

To clarify what I intended: this post is not about special needs children. It is about a hypothetical “quirky, unsocial” child with handwriting issues who may or may not be considered to have special needs. Nothing more, nothing less. This child is a hypothetical stand in for many children I know, including many I interviewed for my book.

All my intended criticisms are directed not at parents, but at schools, who I believe have abdicated much of their educational responsibilities and are creating a generation of kids with learning disabilities and marginalizing the socially quirky.

To recap from my earlier post:
Many I.E.P's require schools to provide additional structure, more explicit instruction, quieter learning environments, exemptions from group work, exemptions from visual "creativity" requirements, fewer large scale/interdisciplinary projects and open-ended questions, and/or more challenging math problems, to the children in question.

If schools were to provide these basic accommodations to everyone from the get-go, perhaps we wouldn't have nearly the numbers of students labeled with Asperger's Syndrome, PDD, social anxiety, dyslexia, dysgraphia, Nonverbal Learning Disorders, sensory integration disorders, ADD/ADHD, and mental giftedness.

The earlier post does not refer to evidence; it simply raises questions that I believe urgently need addressing.

On dyslexia, social anxiety, and ADHD, however, there is some evidence out there:

Dyslexia: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SCNDFTBkPBQ&feature=fvw

Social anxiety/aloofness: "Shyness: How Normal Behavior became a Sickness" (Christopher Lane)

ADHD: "The Trouble with Boys"; "Raising Cain"

As for what afflicts me in particular, I remain as baffled as ever.

But I'm convinced I would have totally floundered (on so many levels) in the school my kids attend, in contrast to how I actually fared in the schools I did attend, ages ago.

Andrei Radulescu-Banu said...

Katharine, hold on to your hat, you said nothing wrong. Laura and Marcy misunderstood, the complaint is not about special education - but instead about the side effects of discovery-style instruction.

Laura M. said...

But I'm convinced I would have totally floundered (on so many levels) in the school my kids attend, in contrast to how I actually fared in the schools I did attend, ages ago.

This is a convincing point, but doesn't change the fact that some of us former quirky kids with slightly different profiles from you (or maybe a slightly different school environment, or slightly less sympathetic teachers)floundered in the old system.

Just because the "therapeutic" approach causes new problems doesn't mean there weren't problems in the past that are at least somewhat better addressed now. Though I think it varies tremendously from school to school and teacher to teacher.

Andrei Radulescu-Banu said...

Laura M., the proposal is not to go back to the old system, and for a simple reason - discovery learning has embedded itself pretty well in American school practice since the 1920's. Discovery learning is the old system, manifesting itself in ever new forms - from the child centered education movement of the 1930's, to the open class movement of the 1970's. The history of this is told in Diane Ravitch's excellent volumes, "The troubled crusade" and "Left Back", which can be perused in part on google books.

http://books.google.com/books?id=iH6jKXSgoRkC&printsec=frontcover&dq=diane+ravitch&cd=8#v=onepage&q=&f=false

http://books.google.com/books?id=xyOxAKKwfDYC&printsec=frontcover&dq=diane+ravitch&cd=6#v=onepage&q=&f=false

As with many things, what matters is what we have in practice. Look at Katharine's post from a week ago about TERC investigations, a discovery-based approach. Check this 2nd grade problem out:

"Show your work.[...] Kira has trouble with 7 + 9. Write a clue that will help Kira remember 7 + 9."

Now tell me. Is this a correctly formulated math problem? Isn't it the case that any answer will do?

Laura M. said...

I agree that discovery learning et al. cause new problems (and I agree entirely with Katherine's opinions about academic curriculum). But I don't think explicitly paying attention to how kids are coping emotionally (not in terms of curriculum, in terms of teachers being expected to be on top of that angle) is inherently worse than not explicitly paying attention to emotional and social functioning, though in practice in can sometimes be worse, unfortunately

Katharine Beals said...

It is indeed important for teachers to pay attention to how kids are coping emotionally. If more teachers did this, they might not require introverted children to work in groups and write about their personal feelings, and might allow more bright children to do work that doesn't bore and disengage them.

Beth said...

Katherine -- darn right about the emotional needs of school kids. Gee, maybe if somebody had noticed my daughter was depressed (not just "quiet") she could still be in the public schools.

Anonymous said...

I'm kind of like the kid described in a kid a generation ago (I was born Summer 1984), and while for the most part I fit the description, my social life took a nose dive upon entering secondary school. If I were 10 years younger, I'd probably have gotten an Aspie label, and it's not uncommon for Aspie girls to completely flounder in middle school, when the social requirements shoot way up.

My kid who just graduated from kindergarten is a lot more severe. He's HFA, and when he started school just after turning 3yo he had a severe speech delay. It's amazing how big the difference in treatment is depending on where you live though. In rural Texas he was in a mixed SpEd/regular pre-K for two years, the first year of which he made an astounding amount of progress (only special thing was small group speech therapy 2 half hours a week), second year he made good progress as well. Then in regular K he did alright, with just the small group speech two half hours a week, and a 1-1 aide 1 hour a day. We moved to (sub)urban New York (not City), and the school started throwing all sorts of stuff at him. Increased aide to 6 hours a day, put him on the SpEd bus, added OT (he has above average fine motor skills, but holds his pencil wrong) and PT, and time as a guest at the reading specialist (since he reads above grade level it's not official, but he struggles with phonics, despite having a HUGE sight word vocab). The only thing they weren't willing to do was increase his speech, but eventually they did do that as well (added a half our of 1-1 speech therapy per week). I didn't even see the PT coming - he had his PT eval the day before his annual IEP review, so we didn't have the results yet, when at the IEP meeting they suggested PT two half hours a week, starting in the Summer (he's never qualified for anything in the Summer in the past, since the kid never regresses). I actually asked during the IEP meeting if he really needed PT, and they assured me they wanted to give him PT. I doubt he'd have gotten PT in rural TX if I'd begged them for it.

He's making progress, but well, he was making progress in TX as well, and especially that year between 3-4yo he made incredible progress - a lot of it is just getting older, I think. There is no denying he needs Speech, but I do wonder about some of the other stuff at times. Since all the therapy is free, provided by the school during the school day it doesn't affect me though, so they can knock themselves out. The main downside here is that here I get the feeling that whatever progress he makes, it's never good enough, whereas in Texas they were always so happy about all the progress he was making. Here they seem to see him more as a person with problems, as opposed to just a person. (Even the fact he knows his multiplication tables to 12x12 is a problem instead of something to be celebrated here - if it's not exactly at grade level, it's a problem).

I know some people with little kids who spend money, time, and emotional energy they don't have to ferry their kids to all sorts of private therapies they swear their kids need (but that aren't paid for by insurance), and who are about to collapse under all the stress. And I just look at them and wonder how much of the progress they're seeing is really due to the therapies versus their kids just getting older. Not saying therapy can't help, or be necessary... just saying, I doubt therapy is *always* worth the (physical, emotional, financial) cost. One friend of mine has a saying: you can't make flower grow by pulling on it.