‘Special’ kids

Should We Stop Telling Our Kids That They’re Special? asks Erika Christakis, a Harvard staffer, in Time.  Before the everyone’s-special era, “there was a tendency to view children not as unique individuals but as a monolithic category of people to be managed, controlled, and often ignored,” she writes. Many kids were “abandoned, emotionally and academically.”

Take learning disabilities. Before each child became “special,” a child with a learning disability could face a decade or more of agony and a fast track to the bottom rung of the socioeconomic ladder. But changes in pedagogy that support atypical learning styles and abilities have opened up opportunities for millions of kids whose failures would have carried a costly public price tag. That’s easy to forget when people decry the coddling-and-cosseting trend.

Similarly, girls, children of color, gay teens, children with physical disabilities, even kids with allergies or unique religious and cultural attributes have all benefited from the chance to feel “special” and as worthy as any child of protection and respect.

I don’t know. As a baby boomer, I thought my parents believed I was special just for being me. I had to prove myself to the rest of the world. On the other hand, schools — and the culture at large — is much more supportive of kids who are different in a variety of ways.

About Joanne


  1. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Before each child became “special,” a child with a learning disability could face a decade or more of agony and a fast track to the bottom rung of the socioeconomic ladder. But changes in pedagogy that support atypical learning styles and abilities have opened up opportunities for millions of kids whose failures would have carried a costly public price tag.

    I’m not taking a substantive position on this issue. At least not yet.

    I just want to point out that the language I’ve quoted above doesn’t actually say that the situation for LD students has improved at all, or that any money has actually been saved. It’s obviously what the author wants to say, but it’s also perfectly consistent with all the opened-up opportunities that the students continue to fail, continue to cost the system, and continue to suffer a decade of agony and a fast-track to the bottom rung.

    Whenever I hear language like this, vague, hand-waving sort of language that hints at the possibility of something good and then treats that hand-waving as a statement of the actualization of something good, I instantly get suspicious: why didn’t she say what she clearly wanted to say? Does she know about countervailing research? Is she hiding facts?

    Or is the picture really as rosy as she says?

    I honestly don’t know. I’m just pointing out the mealy-mouthedness of her statement. The fact that the next set of sentences really boils its substance down to a change of terminology (rather than any sort of actual social inclusion or better experience) doesn’t make me less suspicious.

    • I think that many if not most LD kids are better off today than back in the past where they were often simply told that they were dumb. And the situation for kids with more serious disabilities is definitely better than back in the day where they were simply institutionalized.

      • I don’t disagree overall, but I do think that there is a subset of “LD” kids who are not really LD; they are kids who needed very explicit instruction in order to learn to read (phonics, as opposed to balanced literacy) and/or explicit instruction in math (traditional, as opposed to discovery, groupwork and spiral curricula) and who did not receive it.

        I also think that the push for full inclusion has inappropriately placed a number of kids, to their detriment and to the detriment of the rest of the class. We have friends who elected to send their cognitively handicapped kids to the local spec ed HS (which is still open!), where they were taught skills that have enabled them to handle full-time employment.

        There are also some very severely handicapped kids who are neither educable nor trainable and I don’t think an academic environment is appropriate for them. I am thinking of the class in which one of my kids volunteered; aged12-16, unable to speak, unable to handle personal hygiene, dressing or self-feeding, behavior at a toddler level, most not toilet trained or able to walk.

  2. Chidlren who are different certainly should be respected. That’s not the same thing as the “I’m special” attitude that is causing so much trouble. That attitude has no reference to whether the child is typical or different; it’s the habit (among typicaol, not different, children and young people) of thinking that the world should accomodate itself to me so that I don’t have to exert myself. That is where the problem comes in.

    I’d add that I agree with Joanne; although public education (and actually private and parochial schools too) were originally designed to deliver a product (instruciton) that students could either consume or decline to consume or fail in trying to consume, it is morphing into a system that tries to accomodate students who experience difficulty in “consuming” the product if it’s delivered in the standard way. It’s good that we try to do this, but we must also be aware that a) education other than tutoring and self-teaching remains a group activity that cannot individualize 100%; and b) even when it does individualize effectively, the result is not always what we had hoped.

    It’s also true that Christakis, as Michael points out, jumps from educational accomodation to social climate with no explanation.

  3. “But changes in pedagogy that support atypical learning styles and abilities have opened up opportunities for millions of kids whose failures would have carried a costly public price tag.”

    That is very dubious, now that Michael mentions it. Isn’t it truer to say that the pedagogy for EVERYBODY has changed? The new pedagogy may (or may not) be better for special needs children, but it may equally well be worse for other children.

    Katharine Beals has written an entire book (Raising a Left-Brain Child) on how poorly many math-science-unitasking-less-social-less-artsy children are served by the new pedagogy, which favors group work and lots of arts-and-crafts projects. In fact, autism spectrum children will (very predictably) struggle a lot more under that new paradigm. A child who could breeze through straight math may struggle in math-plus-art or math-plus-socializing.


    Catherine Johnson also had a recent post on how much a special needs child she was advocating for struggles with projects.


    Projects, which are very typical of contemporary pedagogy, require a level of executive function which it is unreasonable to require of many special needs children.

    Now, we could say that special needs pedagogy has improved (that’s possible), but we cannot say that pedagogy in general has improved for special needs children, if they are in mainstream classes and suffering through inappropriate mainstream teaching methods.

    • These same pedagogical methods also disfavor boys, as well as those girls who dislike the artsy/crafty, touchy/feely approach. Many students – I had 4 of them (thank heaven they’re old enough to have missed most of this) – also hate groupwork, discovery learning and projects. For all of the talk about learning styles, only those preferred by teachers are accommodated.

  4. At the dinner table last night, my kids discussed whether it was OK to call someone “special” or whether it was an insult.

  5. It’s one thing to be “worthy as any child of protection and respect.” Sure, everybody deserves protection and respect. I cannot argue against that.

    The problem is that “everyone is special” means everyone deserves all good grades and participation trophies and other unearned accolades that take away from the achievements of others.

    • Stacy in NJ says:

      Yes. this. There’s a real distinction between recognizing that human beings are individuals and that everyone is a special unique snow flake. The former is just reality, the latter is a romantized version of it.

      • It used to be the norm for elementary schools to have a field day at the end of the year, with students divided into teams. Both team and individual awards were given, until my youngest two were second and fourth graders. That year, it was secretly decided that no student could receive more than one individual award, regardless of how many events they actually won.Both one of my older sons and I were volunteers and saw this in action. Between them, my two kids won at least 12 events (not surprising, since they were full-time elite athletes in a school that had few of them) and each received one ribbon – as if all the kids didn’t know who actually won. The following year, both kids were “sick” on field day; both they and I were sick of that game.

  6. BadaBing says:

    I’d say a good 90% of the kids (4 junior, 1 frosh class) I taught last year have grown up thinking they’re special. Here are some tell-tale signs that a kid thinks he’s special. He interrupts conversations between you and other kids or between you and other teachers. He comes up to you and starts talking while you’re on the phone. He gets out of his seat w/o permission and comes up to you to solve a personal problem. He interrupts class discussions to ask for a band-aid, a drink of water, a pass to go to another class to get something he forgot there. You’re in the middle of direct teaching and you’ve asked the class a question on subject matter and he raises his hand. You’re excited to see he’s participating, so you call on him. He asks if he can go to the bathroom. Or he says, “Can I go get water?” At the beginning of class, the special one rushes you as soon as he enters the classroom so you can solve one of his many little problems. He is usually accompanied by four or five other special ones who need their little problems solved, too. Or he gets out of his seat w/o permission (while you are conversing with the class) to sharpen a pencil. But the following example probably takes the cake. During a test in my 4th-period junior English class, a girl whined that she was cold. I thought I’d do a little experiment. I turned off the A/C to make her happy. The room began getting warmer and warmer. Now the rest of the class (who are also special) gestured or verbalized their discomfort. I informed them that Anonymous was cold. I started fanning myself with my clipboard as perspiration exuded from my pores. Kids said it was hot and could I please turn on the A/C. The cold one was well aware that her comfort had compromised the comfort of everyone else in the room. However, she was unfazed. It was almost 80 degrees and stuffy when the bell rang. I can’t imagine this or any other of the behaviors I mentioned happening when I was in high school back in the 19th century. I think this kind of behavior is an unintended consequence of the You-Are-Special approach to teaching and parenting. Or maybe my kids are just rude. Maybe they’ve never been taught the rudiments of good manners and common courtesy. Maybe their lack of common courtesy comes from being told and/or treated as if they are special. In any case I fight it every day. I’d like to put a poster up (or a neon light) that says, “Contrary to what you’ve been told, you are not special.” I’m sure admin would love that one.

    • I teach college and see a bit of this. I’ve had people from other classes come and interrupt me while I’m teaching because they “need” to get into a lab room or some such. (Not “need” as in “It’s an emergency, the lab is on fire and I am a firefighter” but “need” as in “I am supposed to weigh some stuff and it is most convenient for me NOW and I don’t want to go find someone not occupied.”)

      I also get the people who want me to solve their life problems for them. Um, guys? Hate to break this to you but I have a hard enough time satisfactorily solving my own life problems.

      I also have people come to my office when it’s not my office hours – when I’m eating lunch, or prepping for a class, or preparing to leave for the day – and be upset that I’m unwilling to drop everything that instant and attend to what ever their want is. (FWIW, I hold 10 hours of office hours a week and make appointments with prior notice)

      I will say that in my classes, by and large, the students respect that the a/c or heat setting is what *I* find comfortable, and that I don’t have to change it to accommodate one person.

      • I was brought up with the philosophy that “poor planning on your part is not an emergency on mine” – from both parents and teachers – and we brought up our kids the same way. Ok, there were some exceptions, but they were rare.

    • “Or maybe my kids are just rude. Maybe they’ve never been taught the rudiments of good manners and common courtesy.”

      Bingo. Where I live, a popular parenting philosophy fad is so-called “positive parenting”, which preaches that children should never be told “no” or be forced to use manners. That “squashes their creativity” or some such B.S.

      I’m looked at as the horribly strict, out-of-touch mom because I insist on forcing my kids to use manners (or at least making a serious effort to get them to do so).

      • All too true, even at the upper end of the SES curve. My kids are mid-20s to mid-30s, and we demanded more of them than did many other parents, but they came to appreciate it. Even then, many kids didn’t really know how to maintain self-control, how to interact with newly-met adults, how to handle introductions, use appropriate telephone manners or have the table manners to handle a formal table. My DH and I also expected them to follow current events (age-appropriate) and be prepared to discuss them at the dinner table. As I used to tell them, Mom has her own broomstick and you just need to live with it. My grandkids are learning the same thing.

        At the bottom end, of course, we have essentially feral kids who are raising themselves on the street.