Columns 2016

Mainstreaming children

My heart broke a little with every word I read about the recent move by the school district to mainstream children with significant behavioral problems into regular classrooms. My heart broke for the parents who wanted to protect their children from a disruptive school atmosphere and those parents who wanted their child to get a chance at making it in a regular setting.

There are no winners or losers in this scenario. Parents on both side of the issue have valid points to make and valid concerns to express. I have worked with children who end up in special classes with aides tracking their every move. They are, to put it mildly, challenging. But being challenging should not be an excuse to not offer these children every chance possible to achieve some level of normal life in the future.

Some of these children have significant emotional and behavioral problems based on a roll of the genetic dice. They might have some level of autism or other emotional issue not easily resolved. No one is to blame in that scenario. It falls under the heading of “stuff happens”.

But there is a whole other population of children for whom these problems need not have ever existed. They’re victims of their parents’ behavior before and after they were born.

There is no way out of the fact that the mom bears the brunt of this burden. Her drinking during pregnancy caused the FASD that is so damaging to the child. Mom’s drug use during pregnancy can cause any number of mental health issues. And after birth, actions by the parents that include domestic violence, sexual assault and just plain crappy family life can leave children so scarred they are diagnosed with PTSD before they turn five.

Having worked with families and children where significant problems existed, I can say without hesitation that children as young as four and five have often seen and experienced things that would take an adult down. Given their youth, they can’t leave home or remove themselves from the situation. They end up as witnesses and victims to some pretty horrible things. It’s no wonder that when they get to school, their behavior leaves everyone nonplussed.

Of course, understanding the cause doesn’t resolve the issue. It still leaves us with the conundrum currently faced by the school district, the parents and the children of Anchorage. How do you best educate these special needs children so they have a chance at being productive adults? Is it in an isolated situation where they get 100% of the attention 100% of the time? Does that really prepare them for the world they’ll find as adults? Or do you bring them into a regular school setting and hope to provide enough support and assistance to get them through the day, to show them that they can function in the larger world if they just learn the right cues?

Most people strive to raise their children to be compassionate and caring towards those less fortunate. But when it comes to kids in elementary school, what do you say to prepare them for a classmate whose meltdowns make Chernobyl look mild? What do you say that explains the behavior without excusing it and still leaves your kid open to respecting that other child?

Parents and guardians of these children want them to learn how to live, work, play and learn in a regular classroom as a prelude to growing up and facing a world that won’t particularly care what diagnosis they’ve been handed. So they push to get their kids as close to normalcy as possible while parents of children without these issues push just as hard to keep their children’s school experience as positive as possible.

No matter what promises the school district makes about the staffing they’ll provide, anyone who has worked with this population knows that meltdowns are always only minutes away, often triggered by actions we don’t even notice. So it will never be a perfect world for either population. But what I think needs to be remembered above all else is that these are not children acting out because they are spoiled brats.

Too bad we can’t figure out a way to stop this problem where it starts, because if there is any group responsible for the problems these children endure every day it is the parents who couldn’t stop drinking, drugging and fighting long enough to give their child a decent start in life.