My Special Ed Students and Special Needs Son Come First… But I’m a Close Second

Mary McLaughlin
Special Education Teacher

I teach Special Education. Is that really a THING to teach? It has forever sounded so awkward to me when people asked what I do for a living. I mean, how does one TEACH someone Special Education? Over the years, I've learned to say, "I work as a Special Education Teacher." What a neat little change a verb can make, right?

We Belong…

My posse of pupils is quite sweet. They are happy, a little naughty, eager to learn, and ever since they decided to embrace the notion that they are smart but just learn differently than their peers down the hall, they've come to love the fact that their classroom is smaller in size… that they get more time with their amazingly fun Teacher (moi) and their equally awesome Paraprofessional (Miss Lora)… that we get to bake or cook every Friday… and that in general, we are a tightly knit family who sticks together through thick and thin during their three year loop with me from Grades two through four.

This baker's dozen of kids belongs to me and they have unashamedly stolen my heart.

But there are days…

And Then…Home

At home, I am step-mother to a fine young man with Down's Syndrome. "Charlie" is 26 and has basic independent skill functioning (dresses himself, eats for himself, etc.) but needs guided support for tasks like cleaning, bathing, and managing his routine of getting ready for the bus every day as he prepares for a day at his day program in our community. Charlie wears a hearing aid to support a significant hearing loss and has been known to pretend to not be able to hear us even though we know he can. Charlie's days are full and productive, and like most people with Down's, Charlie is happy-go-lucky yet prone to a lot of classic behavior challenges and mood swings, and a champion at manipulating. It just goes with the ‘drome.

While he is very much a fun-loving guy, Charlie can occasionally get stuck on doing what he wants when he wants to do it. When appropriate, that's just dandy; when not, it can make for a very long after-school time.

Gimme a Break!

Not gonna lie: when I have school vacation days but Charlie's day program center is open, I can't wait for the bus to arrive so I can have a few hours of the day…To. Just. Be. Mindlessly. Chill. It is the dirty little secret of my life. I. Want. A. Break. I NEEEEEEEEED a break. But this isn't the dirtiest part of my secret. The true dirt lies in this: I don't feel the least bit guilty saying I NEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEED a break.

That said, it's not like, in our family's case, the physical demands on us are high but it is an obvious fact that the need for our mental stamina necessary to meet Charlie's constant needs of safety, wellness, intellectual stimulation, and social interaction is rigorous. While many are sympathetic to our desire to have a few hours to just go and be a couple, there's truly not much offered to us in the realm of, "We'd Love To Have Charlie Come Hang With Us While You Two Go Be a Couple" department. If we're being completely honest, only once has someone offered: the gift of a week was bestowed upon us so we could take a honeymoon. By Day 3, Charlie was wearing out his welcome.

Home Sweet Home Is What It Is

As with most special needs families, we aren't in search of pity. But let me tell you in complete honesty, we ARE looking for a break, even if only for a few hours. Judge me or judge me not, it's how we-well, I'll only speak for my household-how we feel and I know plenty of others who feel precisely the same way. We love our babies and we also want an evening out to build our parental relationship, even if it's just for a couple of hours. But we're accustomed to not having it, so we figure out ways to integrate the entire household into events…or we just hang out at home where routine reigns supreme and schedules remain in tact. Please don't tell me to enjoy our alone time after Charlie goes to bed because honestly, it's not long after that we both begin to enter that American worker state of ZZZzzzz in front of the television because we give our all in all our day.

The Good the Bad, the Sneezes

This issue is, for me, a legit double-edged sword. I am a parent of a special needs son and I am a teacher in a Special Needs classroom.

Flu season was especially tough this year. In our community, it was not uncommon to have five or six kids head home from one classroom each day with flu-like symptoms during the peak months. Special Education Teachers everywhere were using antibacterial wipes, spraying with anti-germ sprays, and doing everything possible to contain and kill whatever viruses were running rampant in our rooms, yet it felt like students were being sent to school sick the day after they may have dropped like a fly with those illusive symptoms. No matter how many reminders were issued to wash hands or "vampire cough," there would be rogue sneeze spraying the Reading Rug.

Yet parents continued to send sick babies to school. My flu fate was sealed with Type A; Charlie, Type B. We stayed home the doctor recommended amount of time. It cost me sick days from my job…why does it seem, though, that people send kids to school sick?

Over the years, my classroom newsletters start out full of fun news and classroom information but typically get a bit more concise during flu season. This year, I felt like we just all needed to say it: KEEP YOUR SICK KIDS AT HOME. If compassion were really a trait evidenced in our schools, parents of sick children would understand that there are medically fragile kids in our buildings who can handle a lot of the day-to-day germs with which they come in contact, but when a nasty virus comes along, they can be knocked for loop and end up in the hospital. At what point does consideration for the Greater Good come into play?

Takin' It To the Streets

I contemplated this issue for quite some time and actually was excited to have it come up in conversation with some peers from another district. They, too, are Special Education Teachers and a couple of them are parents in special needs families. They walk a mile in my shoes, y'all. We railed on about how frustrating it is to have parents knowingly deliver children who are contagious to the doors of the school, drive off, then refuse to answer phone calls from the school nurse or administrative assistant because their child is sleeping on the office bench and has a fever of 101 degrees and please come pick them up, thank you very much. But then our conversation took my thought to another point: children with behavior issues, sick or well, seem to experience attendance excellence. Driven from a purely anecdotal perspective, these teachers were venting about how frustrating it is to feel like there is never a reprieve from behaviors which can be significant, consistent, pervasive, derelict, defiant, disorderly, disrespectful, and might even feel a bit demonically-driven. Yes, we went to school to teach children with special needs. Yes, we have learned the theories about working with children who are E.B.D. (Emotionally/Behaviorally Disturbed), but dang. Some days it would be nice if the lions could coexist with the lambs.

…and the Jury Says…?

Then I got to digging around a bit more, broadening the scope of my query and of the query created by my conversation with friends and posed the question to a group of Special Education Teachers on a social media platform. It's always a great way to hear the voices of others, so to speak, and to be reminded about things which may have been forgotten (kids need the routine school provides because perhaps they do not get consistency at home; sometimes kids need to come to school just so they can have two full meals each day for five days; maybe you-the teacher-have truly lit their fire for learning like no other teacher has done for them and while they may be behavioral challenges, they really do want to be at school), some things you already thought (because parents need the break; because parents probably don't know how to deal with behaviors so they hope the kid will get guidance at school; parents need daycare) to things I really hadn't considered (support services are not provided if the student isn't at school. If the kid is absent, they're not going to get the needed Occupational Therapy, Physical Therapy, Speech Therapy, or social interaction which is for many, therapeutic). Further, several admonished my question posed ("Why do you think/do you think a lot of SpEd kids seem to never miss school?") to be validated with data.

Challenge accepted.

I am willing to be proven wrong, always looking for a negative mindset to be changed to a positive mindset, and enjoy digging for information.

Here's what I found, and in case you suffer from a very high Duh Factor, of course my search wasn't comprehensive-but hopefully it is balanced and fair in its presentation of data:

*According to, the rate of chronic absenteeism equates to being absent fifteen days a year or more. Within that construct, over six million students were considered chronic absentees during the 2013-2014 school year; this represents 14% of the nation's students. Of that population, students with disabilities are 50% MORE likely to be absent than their non-disabled peers.

Well, there went THAT theory that Special Needs kids didn't miss as much school. Can you feel my mindset shifting? The data speaks for itself, but it's going to be a hard sell to my colleagues.

*As far back as 1985, school attendance issues have been connected to socio-emotional and academic issues

Let's face it-if the child is not at school and is identified with socio-emotional disabilities and academic issues, if they are truant, there is no consistency in their learning experience. If there is no consistency, their emotional issues are going to trigger a variety of negative behaviors which in turn will beget manifestations of behaviors within the classroom because the child is, truly, suffering from a lack of sense of belonging.

*The N.Y.U. Steinhardt Institute for Education and Social Policy present a research study entitled Showing Up: Disparities in Chronic Absenteeism between Students with and without Disabilities. Authors Michael Gottfried, Leanna Stiefel,† Amy Ellen Schwartz, and Bryant Hopkins (2017) studied students in New York City schools. One point in the discussion segment of the study was given the disaggregation of the various disability classifications of the elementary school aged cohort in the nation's largest school district, students with Emotional Disturbance as a diagnosis tended to have a higher absence rate than those within the other named disability classifications. Also of note is that the results suggested NYC schools follow the national trends for rates of absenteeism.

Fascinating stuff.

"Mary Pondered These Things In Her Heart."

(Luke 2:19)

Again, while not a most comprehensive look at the problem, this should serve as a point to ponder as we wind down our school year and wonder WHY THE HECK the ones with the most ridiculous behaviors never seem to miss a day. Personally, I need to shift my mindset away from "Poor Teacher Me" to one of how can I continue to support this kiddo who clearly needs me to provide stability and a continuous set of expectations for appropriate behavioral training…?

A good teacher's work is never done. Indeed, we DID sign on for this. But yeah, a break would be nice on occasion…not gonna lie. But no matter what, I love what I do and am grateful and excited to work with my special peeps and live with an even more special peep.

Mary McLaughlin

Mary McLaughlin

Mary has always loved learning, but was a struggling learner who couldn’t read until one day, the right teacher came along with the right methodology, and everything clicked for Mary. Understanding the struggles of children who just “don’t get it,” Mary has spent her career supporting children with learning difficulties and finding ways to excite them about education. Over her career, Mary has taught Second Grade, Third Grade, and served as a Middle School Administrator in Michigan, most often in the urban setting. In 2015, Mary relocated to Arkansas in search of new opportunities and is excited at all that has been placed before her. She currently teaches Special Education in a self-contained setting for children in grades 2-4.
Mary McLaughlin