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The Preview: Disabilities

Believe in my child with special needs!

Author Mary Falvey fully understands inclusive education from preschool through postsecondary options. [She] shares information on how to promote your child’s access to the general curriculum, how to encourage friendships, how to work collaboratively with the school, how to problem solve, and what your legal rights are. To keep current as a special education attorney, I have read over a hundred books in the field. Believe In My Child will join the ranks of the small handful of books I recommend to my clients.

—Anne I. Eason, special education attorney in Connecticut; excerpted from a June 13, 2005 review on

Mary Falvey, professor, advocate and lecturer, has 30 years of experience in the special education field. She has attended thousands of school planning meetings for children with disabilities and is a fervent believer in inclusive education.

In her book Believe in My Child with Special Needs: Helping Children Achieve Their Potential in School, Falvey offers pointers to help create an atmosphere of positive expectations and acceptance for a child with disabilities. Watch the changes that unfold when parents and teachers implement these 6 simple adjustments in approach and attitude:

Disability Is Natural

1. Model positive expectations and belief in your child’s abilities.

Parents and teachers hold tremendous power over how the world interacts with a child. As the parent or teacher of a child with disabilities, you know that despite legislation intended to eliminate rejection and discrimination, large numbers of people with disabilities continue to live isolated lives.

From the time a child is first diagnosed, the outside world, often beginning with the doctor or specialist, tends to focus on what is “wrong” with the child. Parents and teachers must make sure they too do not send unintended messages of rejection by always focusing on ways to “improve” the child or by making unfair comparisons.

In your quest to help your child, don’t forget he is just a child and the disability is only one aspect of him. You will do your child a world of good if your search to help him is balanced with love and acceptance of who he is and who he is to become.

Changes in attitude toward people with disabilities will not come as a result of legislation but through daily contacts with people with disabilities and their families. Your respectful modeling of positive interactions will have a powerful influence on others around you.

Accentuate the Positive

2. Use words that create possibilities for your child’s future rather than limit her.

What teachers and parents say to and about children with disabilities makes a huge difference to the children’s perception of their present and future opportunities. Be sure to:

• Believe in a child’s capacities.
• Assume a child is competent.
• Highlight a child’s strengths, gifts, and talents.
• Accept a child for who he or she is as a person.
• Interact with a child in chronological, age-appropriate ways.
• Give a child a voice (i.e., a means to communicate).
• Do not compare a child to brothers, sisters, or classmates.
• Use person-first language when describing a child. (Not Angela’s my autistic student, but Angela is my student and—if it’s relevant—She has autism.)

Mikel’s Story*

At the beginning of his third-grade year, my nephew’s teacher told his mother and me that Mikel, like all her students, would be able to read by the end of the year. She said so because third-grade teachers had to ensure that no one left their classes without the ability to read. I knew that Mikel, who has Down syndrome, did not have the prerequisite skills for reading and was very delayed compared with his classmates. But his teacher was young and enthusiastic, so we went along with her.

To our amazement, by the end of the school year Mikel was in fact reading—albeit not on grade level. He achieved those emerging reading skills because his teacher had held high expectations for him and had used systematic strategies to teach him.

*Adapted from Believe in My Child with Special Needs! by Mary Falvey

Supportive Legislation

3. Know how the law protects children with disabilities.

As a parent or teacher of a child with disabilities, you should be aware of what your child is entitled to under the law. Several laws and court decisions are enormously important because they guarantee people with disabilities rights and access to their communities:


What they mean for students with disabilities

Zero reject

Schools must educate all students regardless of their disability. Children cannot be denied access to a free public education.

Nondiscriminatory evaluation

Schools must evaluate students with the use of assessment procedures that do not discriminate against them as a result of their disability.

Appropriate education

Schools must individually tailor educational programs including supports, aids, and services to students with disabilities.

Least restrictive environment (this is a biggie)

All school districts must educate students with their typically developing peers to the greatest extent possible. All students with disabilities must have opportunities to interact with peers without disabilities.

Procedural due process

If a parent disagrees with a school district, he or she has the right to mediation and/or due process, which provides for an independent party to rule on the disagreement.

Parent and student

Schools must include parents and students as equal partners in the design and implementation of educational programs, services, and supports.

Note: Teachers are also entitled to support under the law for instruction of children with and without disabilities in their classrooms.

Respectful Collaboration

4. Set adult issues aside to work together for the needs of the child.

Too often educational planning meetings turn contentious and defensive. Parents and educators alike must remember that the focus of these meetings must be on the needs of the child.

Teams that yield positive educational outcomes are those that are committed to working together to build positive futures. They leave the sidebars, secret pre-meetings, and power trips at the door, concentrating instead on building educational programs that maximize a child’s potential.

Collaborative teaming is important to the success of schooling for all students. Although there will be challenges along the way when working with others, the final outcome is always more positive and productive than when working alone, whether you are a teacher or a parent.

Work to build bridges and mend relationships for the sake of the students.

Kerry’s Story*

Kerry was a seventh-grader who had just started at a new school. After the school year started, Kerry’s parents were horrified to learn that Kerry had been standing to eat lunch every day. She said the tables were for kids joining their friends, so she couldn’t sit down since she hadn’t made any friends yet. Kerry had learning disabilities and was very sensitive. Her parents called her special education case manager, who immediately offered to help.

The next day, her case manager talked to the social studies teacher who taught Kerry’s class before lunch. The teacher decided to use cooperative learning groups and strategically assigned Kerry to a group of gregarious students. Just before lunch, he told the students to eat lunch with their groups so they could complete their classroom assignment.

They did, and Kerry ate lunch sitting at a table for the first time that year. Every day after that, the group welcomed her at the table. Sometimes it is necessary to intervene in a very delicate manner to facilitate social interactions and a sense of belonging.

*Adapted from Believe in My Child with Special Needs! by Mary Falvey

Social Inclusion and Acceptance

5. Provide opportunities for social connections and social success.

Schools that are concerned about their students’ ability to function in a social world make a point of facilitating peer interactions and relationships. Children need to have plenty of opportunity to interact with each other to build friendships. Teachers can employ a number of means to build positive social connections:

Make sure students have a way to communicate, including the possible use of augmentative and alternative communication devices.

Use social stories to help children develop their social skills. These stories are short, explicit descriptions of appropriate behavior that students can rehearse or review before entering a situation.

Encourage peer collaboration, which builds relationships between students. Peer tutoring can be a cost-effective way for teachers to increase individualized instruction for their students, and peer tutors can be more effective than adults because they use age-appropriate examples and can relate to potential frustrations.

Form cooperative learning groups of 3-6 students who are assigned to work together on an academic task. These help children develop positive interdependence, cooperative behaviors, and individual accountability and responsibility.

Encourage the use of peer advocates, who support students by participating in peer tutoring, transition teams, planning teams and peer support networks. Peer advocacy is increasingly being used as a powerful means of support for the student.

Jorge’s Story*

In his tenth-grade history class, Jorge’s teacher tells the students they will have a test on Friday. The test will cover information from the last three chapters of the textbook.

Jorge does not have the literacy skills to read the text, but he is able to participate effectively in class with a variety of accommodations. One of Jorge’s peers takes notes on carbon paper and gives Jorge a copy. Another student earns extra credit by reading the chapters into a tape recorder. Finally, a student who lives two doors down goes over to Jorge’s house after school to study with him. The neighbor reads the notes and plays the tape recorder so he and Jorge can review the chapters. The students study very hard for the test.

On Friday, the special education teacher and Jorge go off to the library so that Jorge can take the test orally and not disrupt the other students. The teacher reads the questions and Jorge dictates his answers. With peer collaboration and accommodations, Jorge ably demonstrates that he has learned the academic material.

*Adapted from Believe in My Child with Special Needs! by Mary Falvey

Transition and Self-Advocacy

6. Help students develop the skills to advocate for themselves.

The process of planning for transition from high school to the next step must provide student with a sense of empowerment and self-determination. Too often in the past, students have been handed a transition plan that others thought would be appropriate for them. A plan should be based on students’ strengths, interests, and preferences to be effective.

Self-advocacy is the ability of students to speak up and receive support during the transition process as they become more independent. Encourage students to:

• Speak for themselves.
• Solve problems and make decisions.
• Know their rights and responsibilities.
• Contribute to the community.
• Accept differences.
• Deal with labels and prejudices.
• Increase self-awareness.
• Solve common problems.

Students who have developed the skills and confidence to speak for themselves are at a distinct advantage over those who have not.


Essential books for unlocking children's potential...

book coverBelieve in My Child with Special Needs! Helping Children Achieve Their Potential in School

book cover"You're Going to Love this Kid!" Teaching Students with Autism in the Inclusive Classroom, Second Edition

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