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Relationships in Special Education: We Must Do Better

June 16th, 2016 | No Comments | Blog

One of the most stressful aspects of my job as a pediatric psychologist is witnessing how often relationships are undervalued in our systems of care. Parents regularly ask me why their child with special needs is moved from school to school, while their other child without special needs easily attends the same school year after year. Far too often, children with special educational needs experience frequent changes in aides, helpers, teachers and school placements, causing stress. To be sure, this problem is not due to a lack of good intentions or dedicated professionals in the field. It has to do with the fact that the majority of professionals working with children and families are not cross trained in mental health and social emotional development.

Experts in the field of neuroscience and attachment continue to emphasize the importance of healthy relationships for psychological resiliency and brain growth. Warmly engaged relationships support all aspects of development, and promoting relational stability should be a priority for all children, including those in our special education systems.

Consider “Brent”, age six, who was diagnosed with autism at three and struggled to keep up with classroom routines in kindergarten. He kept to himself, preferring to walk in circles around a tree during every recess and lunch break rather than engage with classmates. Halfway through the school year, Brent’s parents requested that the school provide a classroom aide to support his social skills. After extended negotiations, the school district provided the aide, an affable woman named Laura. Brent and Laura proved to be a great match. Within months, Brent was more engaged in classroom activities and began to play with his peers. By the end of the school year, Brent made his first friend.

The following year, Brent had adjusted so well that school administrators decided that he no longer needed the aide, and Laura was transferred to help another child. Within weeks, Brent began circling his familiar tree again and a new behavior emerged: he started grabbing objects and throwing them around the classroom. The loss of Laura, whom he trusted and used as a secure base, sent him reeling.

Throughout the lifespan, relationships support healthy development, build resilience, and serve as buffers against stress. Brent’s aide, Laura, provided emotional support, enabling him to explore his social world. With the relationship in place, he took risks and his confidence grew. With Laura gone, he regressed. Without a secure adult to help him regulate his emotions, Brent found refuge in his old familiar patterns.

If the school administrators had considered the importance of the relationship to Brent’s development, they might have reconsidered the plan to remove Laura. Their reasoning was that they didn’t want him to become dependent on Laura. This is a common reason offered for reducing or removing one-on-one support for children in school settings. Rather than creating an unhealthy dependency, relationships form the framing and scaffolding that help children feel safe, explore the environment, and reach out socially. When relationships are allowed to grow, they build a solid frame around a child’s growing capacities toward independence. If the frame is successfully built, the withdrawal of relational support will not result in regression, but in stable, lifelong skills.

Here’s what may help:

  1. Make sure that changes to your child’s established relationships serve your child’s individual needs and not the logistical needs of the school or district.
  1. Let your child’s IEP team know that changes in schools, teachers or aides may potentially increase your child’s stress load, impacting social and emotional health and the ability to learn.
  1. Ask to be advised about necessary changes in staffing and relationships ahead of time so that you can discuss the potential impact it will have on your child. This will allow your child time to say goodbye and prepare emotionally as he transitions to another teacher, aide or school.

Let’s not underestimate how critically important relationships are for our children to grow, learn and develop resilience.  Experts at the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard state it quite simply: The single most common factor for children who develop resilience is at least one stable and committed relationship with a supportive parent, caregiver, or other adult.

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