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Parenting Guide: Special Needs

Tara Halaychick, the high school guidance counselor at Pace Brantley Preparatory, notes that students often greet their first day at the school—which exclusively enrolls K-12 children who have learning disabilities—with a learned mistrust.

“Typically, when they first step foot on campus as a new student, they’ve had an experience before Pace that wasn’t so great, so they come in a little nervous, a little apprehensive,” she explains.

Those adopted defenses are indicative of a difficult reality: While awareness campaigns and curricula that teach compassion and acceptance do help, neurodiverse children and those with mobility issues are still at risk for being targeted because they don’t look, behave, speak or move like the majority of their peers.

And equality initiatives, while well-intentioned, tend to further alienate and even developmentally harm children who would benefit most from accommodations specifically designed to give them the equity they really need, whether it’s remedial classes, one-on-one support or longer exam times.

“Someone once told me that there’s nothing more unfair than the equal treatment of unequals: Our students are not all equal when it comes to academics and social skills, so it’s unfair to treat them all exactly the same,” Halaychick says. “They’re all unique individuals who all need something different.”

Disregarding the fact that every child has their own strengths and weaknesses not only makes already-vulnerable children feel more defensive but also can feed into the insecurities that fuel a bully’s actions. But compassionately assessing what triggers bullying behaviors is one way schools are working to resolve those inciting issues.

“We train our staff through a trauma-informed lens, so we’re hopeful that that approach is beneficial in making sure that when youth come to our programs, they do trust that we have their best interest at heart and in mind when we’re working with them,” notes Christin Edwards-Salinas, a clinical liaison at Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health, which also has a uniquely diverse student body requiring additional accommodations.

She continues: “We’re taught to think more along the lines of, ‘What has this youth experienced, or what have they observed, that could be impacting the way that they’re interacting with others?’ Rather than approaching it from the perspective that a child is hurting others on purpose, we make it more educational, so they can learn how some of the behaviors they’re engaging in are hurting others—it’s more about helping them see the experience from that other person’s perspective.”

A spokesperson for Orange County Public Schools (OCPS) says that while the district “does not have any policies or procedures that specifically pertain to students with disabilities (SWD), the district’s objective of a ‘positive climate and safe environment’ and ‘student social and emotional well-being’ applies to all of our students.”

“Whenever a bullying allegation arises on a school campus, the administrator in charge of the investigation reaches out to the mental health designee,” explains Michael Ollendorff, OCPS media relations manager. “The designee then helps to ensure supports are considered on a case-by-case basis for both the alleged perpetrator and the victim as needed. Supports are differentiated to meet the needs of students, and might entail a supervision plan, social skills training, small group support, check-ins with a mentor or trusted adult, or individual counseling.”

Getting parents involved is often an effective way of mitigating interpersonal kerfuffles among students.

“We have a program available to students, parents and school personnel to provide on-site and immediate therapeutic and clinical responses to different challenges that students might be facing, from academic stressors, test anxiety, bullying and other social challenges,” Edwards-Salinas says.

“We’re also here for the parents, because we know that disabilities don’t stop when a child leaves school,” Halaychick adds. “They say it takes a village, and we’re part of that village helping our parents find the resources they need. It might be a direct referral for outside support, and we like to bring in different professionals—whether it’s a speech language pathologist or a counselor or someone discussing the legal issues in having a child with a disability—to provide outside support directly to our parents.”

Because raising not just well-educated children but also compassionate members of society is, indeed, a team effort when it comes to surrounding students with positive role models demonstrating life’s harder lessons.

“There’s a difference between being a classmate and a friend, and not everyone is going to be your friend—and that’s OK,” notes Pace Brantley Preparatory Principal Jennifer Foor. “But by showing our students that they can be a good classmate and a good citizen without needing to be friends with everyone, we’re demonstrating how important it is to make the choice of being kind, because everyone deserves your kindness.”