Parents of children with special needs and gifted children encounter many challenging, rewarding situations
By Cortney Moriaty
To a parent, every child is special in his or her own way. But some children have special needs that challenge parents to find ways to best prepare these children for the future and to handle any problems that may surface.
In Kansas, children with special needs are identified at any point from birth until high school, depending on the disability or need. By federal mandate, Kansas schools have programs to provide for children with special needs. And by state mandate, gifted education is also provided.
Experts at Kansas State University offer a glimpse into the world of parenting a child with special needs, from the first stages of identifying a child's special need to coping with daily challenges and enjoying the rewards these children bring to the lives of others.
The identification process
"Children in Kansas are identified categorically," said Marilyn Kaff, assistant professor of special education. "There are 10 major categories, the most common being learning disabled, mental retardation, emotional or behavioral disorders, gifted and autistic."
Learning disabilities are frequently not identified until children enter elementary school. Parents may be able to spot warning signs such as difficulty learning to read, delayed language development or motor skills, unreasonable emotional outbursts or extreme trouble sitting still.
The process of figuring out the child's special need usually begins with a parent or general education teacher, Kaff said.
"Typically, each school has a school improvement team, or SIT team. If a general education teacher or parent has a concern, the two talk together and put together a packet of information for the SIT team," Kaff said. "SIT identifies the basic problems the student is having and generates an intervention plan. The parent must consent before any testing is done. They conduct standardized tests, observe the child in different settings and conduct other tests. The parents and the SIT team then decide on a plan," Kaff said.
Similarly, gifted children are usually identified in elementary school. Mary Kay Zabel, professor and chair of special education, said very high scores on standardized tests can flag school administrators and teachers to examine a student for gifted potential.
"The official definition of 'gifted' deals with high achievement. Schools focus primarily on academic areas, especially math and reading," Zabel said. "They look at percentile scores on standardized tests and then do more testing."
According to Zabel, a gifted student will exhibit more than high intelligence or good reading skills early in life. Children with high abilities are designated as gifted based on how they compare to their peers. Once a student is identified as gifted, parents and teachers can either provide more challenging material in the general education classroom or allow the student to receive separate gifted education at some point during the school day.
Not all states offer gifted education programs, though. Zabel said gifted education is the only area of special needs education not mandated by federal law.
Getting assistance from teachers and others
Knackendoffel recommends parents of children with special needs seek out support from others.
"Find a network of support, both with other parents and with professionals to help realize your goals and dreams for the child," Knackendoffel said.
Parents also should understand the situation teachers encounter on a daily basis.
"There has been a push towards inclusion of special needs students in general education classrooms in recent years. Teachers now have more responsibility for knowing about and handling diversity in the classroom," Knackendoffel said.
The challenges and the rewards
Raising children with special needs may present challenges for parents that they would not encounter with other children. The type of challenges parents face can depend on the particular disability or need of the child.
"If there is an outward disability at birth, first, the parent must come to terms with the idea that the child you have may not be the child you were expecting," said Ann Knackendoffel, assistant professor of special education.
"With older children, parents often say that birthdays are the most difficult time of year because of the reminder that the child is not where they should be developmentally," Knackendoffel said. "At that point, they're thinking about the long-term consequences for the special needs child."
Kaff agreed. "First, parents are challenged with figuring out the disability area -- what specifically is wrong. Then, parents have to deal with not blaming yourself as a parent for the disability, coming to terms with it and helping other family members understand it," she said. "Finally, finding the right kind of help is also a challenge."
Children with special needs can demand attention or resources beyond what is available in the general education classroom. Children may require help such as assistive technology, speech or language coaches, counseling or specially trained child-care providers.
There are many common mistakes parents make when it comes to dealing with their child's disability.
"Some parents fail to acknowledge a child's disability, to the other end of the spectrum where they don't take no for an answer for every need their child has," Kaff said. "A lot of times, parents fail to balance the child's needs with what needs to happen in the classroom on a daily basis." Kaff said parents must know both their child's needs and the resources available in schools.
Parents of gifted children often face different types of challenges.
"The difficulty for parents with high-ability children may be keeping them challenged and keeping up with them and their various, often changing interests," Zabel said.
Also, gifted children who excel in one area may run the risk of focusing only on that subject or activity.
"Keeping them well rounded can be tough, but most gifted students have a variety of interests," Zabel said. "There is the stereotype of gifted kids having low social skills, which is usually not true. Most gifted children have tremendous leadership abilities and can be very outgoing."
Parents with gifted children might try to make all aspects of the child's life academic, Zabel added.
"Mostly, parents and kids need to enjoy some fun time together. Not everything needs to be academic all of the time," Zabel said.
Parents should also be aware of common mistakes made by others.
"Parents are very good about looking to the whole child, but with gifted children, other people -- even teachers -- can see the gifted label and assume that because the child is gifted, they're good at everything," Zabel said.
Experts emphasize that although parents of children with special needs or high abilities may face additional challenges, the rewards can equal or even exceed the challenges.
"Many parents have told me that one of the big rewards is the empathy their other kids develop toward each other and the rest of the family," Kaff said. "A lot of special education teachers get into this profession because they have someone with special needs in their own family."
Zabel said gifted children provide parents with surprising rewards.
"Gifted kids take you in directions you may never have expected. For example, if the child develops an interest in paleontology, then suddenly you find yourself learning about paleontology, too!" Zabel said.
Recognizing the demands placed on teachers can help parents keep communication open between schools and the home. This connection is best fostered through regular updates and a partnership between parents and teachers, Kaff said.
"Sometimes teachers and parents fail to sit and talk together. It's important to keep an open mind and open communication. Both sides need to follow through with what they say they will do," Kaff said.
Maintaining a balance
If a parent has a child with special needs and other children who have not been identified in one of the categories for special needs, parents may face a difficult balancing act.
"Some parents want to be fair to all of their kids," Kaff said. "It can be a real guilt trip if one gets more attention because of a special need. Parents must balance special treatment carefully with the rest of the family."
Knackendoffel said it's possible to maintain the needs of each family member.
"Convey to everyone that you will give each child what he or she needs. An example I have heard is glasses. If one child needs glasses, you as a parent would provide them. The same goes for special needs. If that attitude permeates all that you do, then all children will eventually understand," Knackendoffel said.
"It doesn't mean you love one child more -- just that you have to provide more for that child," Knackendoffel said. "Give others examples of things you provide for them."
The same is true with gifted children, Zabel said.
"Identify the strengths of everyone in the family. One child not identified as gifted may be great with maps and may have great spatial skills, something achievement tests don't look for," Zabel said. "Parents can make it a situation that everyone understands by looking to the other 'gifts' in all of their kids."