Special Education: Lessons for Education
From the Biblical Creation Perspective
My youngest daughter Rebecca has Down's Syndrome and an IQ of about 40. She has been attending the Wichita, Kansas, public school special education program for the trainable mentally handicapped (TMH) since 1976. My experience with the public school TMH program A has been overwhelmingly excellent. This program works well because it is in basic conformity with the Biblical creation perspective and therefore has fundamental, practical lessons to offer for education in general.1
First, the very existence of special education programs witnesses to the community's greatest gift to its mentally handicapped members: acceptance. Philip Roos, executive director of the National Association for Retarded Citizens, a professional in the field of mental retardation and the father of a retarded daughter, singles out felt rejection and derision as the greatest torment haunting the retarded and their families. He writes: "Even after many years of such exposure, I am still not completely immune to the furtive whispers between parents and children which greet my retarded daughter when she ventures on a playground or into a store with me."2
The most unhappy six weeks of my Becky's life were the time she spent in "normal" kindergarten before being transferred to the special education program appropriate for her. The merciless taunting by her little classmates (proving the existence of original sin in small children to any Bible-believing Christian!) caused severe regression of acquired skills (even loss of bladder control), daily crying spells completely at variance with Becky's naturally sunny disposition, social withdrawal and overall arrest of her personality development. My gravest warning for any special education program would be to avoid the exposure of mentally handicapped children to a "normal" or "mainstreamed" school situation without proper safeguards.
It was quite otherwise for us when Becky was allowed to participate in vacation Bible school in a neighborhood Bible-believing church. Here the proper safeguards instruction of the normal children by their parents and teachers to be especially kind to Becky were thoroughly taken, while Ion my part did all within my ability to make sure that Becky would participate as best she could, and would on no account disrupt the class. I shall always treasure the letter from a dear young Christian mother in that church, thanking me for bringing Becky and thus enabling her own little daughter to become acquainted personally with one of "God's special children." Lamentably there are no special education classes in local Christian schools, a lack which seems to prevail in general in the Christian school movement.
In Wichita special education in the public school system is carried on in separate classrooms within several regular schools. In these settings the normal children are instructed by word and example to accept their "special" schoolmates as a matter of course. I was very grateful when Becky was included in her school's graduation banquet for sixth-graders going on to intermediate school, because Becky, too, was being advanced to an intermediate school TMH class. The Wichita program recognizes and accepts the varying natural enoowments given to each of us by our Creator, atfempts to do the best for the development of the individual abilities of each child, and does not penalize either the handicapped or the normal or gifted for being "different." This, of course, is in entire agreement with the Biblical creation perspective, that is, with the personal creation of and providence for each and every one of us individually by our personal God-Creator.
Hand in hand with acceptance of each "special" child goesioyfu/recognition of real accampfishment, even when the accomplishment is relatively small. Since it is not possible to predict how far retarded (and especially Down's Syndrome) youngsters can go, parents and teachers charged with their upbringing rejoice at every step forward Oh, how Becky's dear teacher and I jubilated when she learned to tie her shoelaces (a feat some Down's Syndrome children never master)l Generous, sure and sincere praise for real accomplishment has been bestowed on Becky almost daily through the years, nurturing her strong desire to continue doing the best work she can. Surely we can see how this applies to "normal" children: here, too, can we ever really predict how far they will go in their progress, and is not therefore each "normal" child's every accomplishment, no matter how small, cause for joy?
I am grateful to Becky's teachers, principal, and one dear Christian school bus driver for administering rebuAe to her when needed (by God's grace, not oftenj. Thus Becky experienced in her own conscience the contrast between right and wrong conduct, and their just consequences. This is, of course, the proper and inseparable complement to praise which is praise indeed. For praise is not "sweet talk" largely independent of real merit, nor is it primarily given to please the child. Praise is precisely the joyful recognition of the child's real accomplishment, with pleasure so to speak the extra dividend. This is an essential and fundamental feature of the Bibtical creation perspec~ivel When we read that our Lord created all things for His pleasure (flevelation 4:11), we understand that the creation must therefore totally conform to His goodness expressed in His original creative purpose. A truly good God cannot countenance evil. nor permit sinners in His perfect paradise (Genesis 3:24; Matthew 13:41-43; Revelation 22:14-21). The appalling breakdown of discipline in our public schools for "normal" children today is due to neglect or of outright rebellion against this Biblical creation principle. Discipline in special education classes I have observed is excellent.
With our retarded youngsters we are compelled to be realistic about advancement. Just as they evidently cannot learn at the rate of normal children, 50 each individual handicapped child learns at a different rate which must be ascertained, accepted, and realistically handled byplacement ontheproper educational level, including retention on that level when indicated by lagging accomplishment (e~en though some will thus never "advance"). Why has this realistic policy been largely abandoned in general education in America and even infected some Christian schools, so that either a softening of grades or "automatic promotion" from grade to grade right through graduation from high school is now our national practice and scandal? A large part of the answer is that for two generations American educational policy has been set by men wanting to bring up children not in the image of God Who created man in His image, but in the image of "democratic man" preached by John Dewey.
The handicapped child cannot reach his Or her highest potential without diligent and constant parent involvement. While the road to appropriate public school education of the retarded has been long and arduous, and while problems still exist,3 it is recognized, and mandated by federal law (Public Law 94-142) that close cooperation between all adults involved is indispensable.
Therefore, unlike children in regular public school classrooms, Becky often brings home suggested homework to be done under my supervision, especially before breaks and vacations, and my suggestions for school projects are solicited and implemented. I receive almost daily reports on particular accomplishments and innumerable samples of Becky's classroom work. All this is undergirded by the "l.E.P." (Individual Education Plan), established at twiceyearly conferences attended by everyone involved in Becky's schooling. Here individual, well-defined, down-to-earth achievement goals are worked out for Becky's progress during the following school term. These goals may be modified during the term as needed, in consultation with me, the parent. The adjacent cover drawing from the Wichita schools' special education brochure for parents illustrates the practice well: note that the parent comes first, though all cooperate. This is again in conformity with the Biblical creation perspective placing theparents in charge oftheir children, with corresponding responsibilities to `bring up their children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord" (Ephesians 6:4b).
Finally, the upbringing of a retarded child does not lend itself to ambition and competition with others, which muSt be totally excluded This is perhaps the most blessed lesson life with a retarded child teaches. To parents in our success-oriented society this may be hard, especially when they are unbelievers (Or merely nominal "church members"), and also when they themselves are intelligent above average. But once the reality of the situation is fully accepted, 4 the freedom of Simply taking each day as it comes, and of being content with the child's doing the best he or she can, is incomparable and a cause for daily thanks to our Creator-father Who meant it to be thus for us all.
To give an example, to attend sports events for "normal" youngsters permeated with intense ambition and competitiveness between individuals and teams, and to attend a Special Olympics meet for the retarded which literally vibrates with joy, peace and love, and where the athletes are too "stupid" to resent another's victory, is like night and day. Only since being blessed with my always affectionate, cheerful, ambition-less, and altogether childlike Becky have I become childlike myself in this sense, and loathed the sin of Cain in me which brooded over a brother's or sister's greater success. It seems to me that there should be no quarters given to this pride of excelling others in home, school, business or society: "For who maketh thee to differ from another? And what hast thou that thou didst not receive? Now if thou didst receive it, why dost thou glory, as if thou hadst not received it? (I Corinthians 4:7)."
In sum, then, the lessons of special education for the retarded are these: acceptance of our fellow men, women and children with their innocent handicaps; joyful recognition of their real accomplishment (praise when deserved); rebuke when needed; being realistic about advancement; parent involvement; and exclusion of ambition and competitiveness. All these add up to careful nurture of the created identity of each one of our children as God determined their created identity (and ~e "maketh the dumb, or deaf, or the seeing, or the blind", Exodus 4:11), so He our and their Maker may be glorified to the utmost by the utmost development of their God-given abilities through the Utmost faithful exercise of our stewardship under Him. "Bear ye one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. For if a man think himself to be something. when he is nothing, he deceiveth himself. But let every man prove his own work. and then shall he have rejoicing in himself alone, and not in another. For every man shall bear his own burden" (Galatians 8:2-5).
1 Wichita has a long and notable record of involvement with and acceptance of the handicapped. It is the home of the world-renowned Institute of Logopedics (for people with speech disorders, primarily children), and has fine private training facilities for deeply retarded youngsters, as well as sheltered work places and "halfway houses" for retarded adults needing only minimal supervision For some years parents of retarded children have been serving on the school board. The Special Olympics program enjoys enthusiastic and community-wide support.
2 Quoted in Ann P. Tumbull and H. Rutherford Tumbull Ill, Parents Speak Out. Charles E. Merrill Publishing co., 1300 Alum Creek Drive, Columbus, OH 43216, p. 19.
3 ibid, passim. The chief problem looming over special education is the institutionalization of the professional special education "establishment" which often minimizes parent involvement and parent advice even when the parents themselves are professionals! The present trend away from institutionalized care is altogether laudable; one hopes it will be maintained, and that standardized approaches may be kept away from special education as much and as long as possible.
4 ibid, passim. Parents Speak Out is a symposium on special education by parents of handicapped youngsters (various mental retardation problems, and autism), who are also themselves professionals in the field. While highly recommended reading to anyone involved with special education or institutionalized care for the mentally retarded, it was doubtful to me whether even one of the contributing parents was a regenerate Christian, because none of the parents seemed to have fully accepted their children and Situations (admittedly, many far more tragic than my own). All were in agreement that our society's emphasis on high l.Q.'s, achievement, and "normalcy" greatly increases parental distress.