Throughout my career as a clinical neuropsychologist, I have been a big fan of the independent schools that serve students with special needs. I recall that when the field of special education was developing, experienced educators intuitively knew that students who do not learn easily or are not developing at a typical rate need highly specialized instruction that is provided in small, structured, supportive classroom settings with a low student-teacher ratio. Along with the development of special education programs in public schools following the passing of the first special education law in 1975, numerous independent schools were founded in the Greater Washington area and around the country to meet the needs of students who required a highly specialized learning environment. In my work over the last 30 years, I have met dozens, if not hundreds, of children and teenagers who have been “saved” by these independent schools. These are students who hated school and, in many cases, hated themselves before they entered these special independent schools, where they felt understood and supported – and did not feel stupid. We have all met successful adults who struggled as children and attribute their success in life to adults who “got them”, believed in them, and supported them. Over the last three decades I have met many, many people who have told me that they are thriving in life as adults because teachers, administrators, and/or support staff in these independent schools saw potential in them and nurtured it.
Over the last 10 years, the landscape in public special education has changed dramatically, as changes in special education law have led to a stronger emphasis on education in the “least restrictive environment”, and as reduced resources for public education have forced schools to close their small, specialized programs. Although I believe that many students can be included successfully in regular education classrooms – and that school districts make a very sincere effort to support their students, it is my experience that many students cannot be successfully included and need the kind of specialized learning environment provided by these independent schools. I’d like to briefly share with you some of the reasons why I think this is the case.
Safety First. One of the most important principals of education, based in research on the effects of stress on learning, is that kids need to feel safe in school in order to learn. Many of the children and teenagers I have seen over the years have been highly stressed in regular education environments and have simply felt safer in their own skin in a small independent school. This is commonly because the classrooms and hallways in typical schools are too noisy and distracting or because being in a regular classroom leads to a painful awareness that other kids learn easier, get their work done more quickly, seem smarter, etc. In my experience, one of the primary benefits of the independent special schools is that they have the flexibility to create nurturing environments in which kids feel safe.
Intensity of Intervention. One of the conclusions of research on the remediation of learning disabilities is that intensity of intervention is one of the most important variables. Intensity means that, everything else being equal, children make faster progress if they are taught one-on-one rather than in a group, if they are taught for 45 minutes rather than 20 minutes, and if they are taught every day rather than twice per week. Given the small class size and specially targeted mission of these independent schools, they are commonly able to offer much more intensive intervention than can be provided in other school settings.
Big Fish, Little Pond. A very compelling body of research in psychology is on what is simply called “Big Fish Little Pond Theory”, which holds that we evaluate and make decisions about ourselves in relation to our peer group. In my experience, children with special learning needs or developmental challenges often see themselves in a more positive light if they are educated in an environment in which other students have similar challenges.
Integration of Services into the School Day. One of the great benefits of many of the independent special schools is that they are able to offer support services (e.g., individual tutoring, speech and language therapy, or occupational therapy) during the school day, without requiring students to miss important instruction in the classroom and then make it up at unpopular times (e.g., lunch period). Being able to provide these services during the school day also means that kids don’t have to be taken for additional intervention after school — and thus have more time for play, sports, music, dance, etc., – and to “have a life”. Moreover, the work of these support service providers can be carefully coordinated with the efforts of classroom teachers so that all of the adults working with a child can be “on the same page”, which helps to support learning and progress toward specific goals throughout the school day.
Birds of a Feather Flock Together. Particularly for children who are not “social naturals”, independent special schools provide excellent opportunities for developing friendships, which is an enormously important component in social skill development. Because children typically feel most comfortable with other kids who are like them, they tend to befriend other children who are similar to themselves. Thus, while there are some social benefits to being in a mainstream setting (e.g., learning appropriate social behavior and expectations), children and adolescents can practice true friendship-building skills only with other children who want to be their friend, and this is most likely to occur with other students who also have some social challenges.
Maximize Potential. Special education law mandates that school districts provide appropriate serves for students with educational disabilities but does not require schools to try to maximize their students’ potential. Partly because they are not constrained by having to prepare students for county- and state-wide tests, the independent special schools are able to individualize curriculum and instructional approaches and to nurture students’ particular interests and talents in ways that allow the students to discover and maximize their potential.
In conclusion, I will mention that I sometimes hear people say that students need to be educated in the mainstream in order to get used to dealing with “the real world”. In my view, the “real world” that most adults live in is very different from a traditional classroom. Moreover, adults have an enormous range of environments in which to live and work. Furthermore, when we look at how well children who have been home schooled fare in college and in the real world, it becomes clear that there is no “one size fits all” way for children to become educated and skilled at living with others. I thus want to say that I am extremely happy to be hosting a party to express my appreciation for the service that the dedicated and talented people who work in these independent schools provide to children, families, and our community. In this age of inclusion, these schools are more important than ever.