Should I Mainstream My Son?

Q: My 14-year-old son has been in a special-ed school since he was about 9 years old. He had severe behavioral issues (such as continually getting out of his seat, sitting in the rebbi’s chair, etc.), and we had no choice but to put him in a special school. At this point, through behavior modification work (and general maturing, I think), his behavior is more appropriate in class and with his peers.

He is entering mesivta next year, and I would really like him to attend a mainstream school. His gemara skills are improving, and I think that by spring, he will be able to keep up with a low-pressured yeshivah seder.

My wife is less sure than I am. She remembers (maybe more than I do) how hard it was to control him in class, and how difficult it was for him to listen to school administrators. She is fearful that he will not succeed and we’ll just end up with a child who is unhappy, again.

My son would rather stay where he is (the school has a continuing mesivta class), because he appreciates being in a more supportive and less pressured environment. The actual daily seder is not so vigorous, and he’ll have the opportunity of being home more (as the actual learning involves fewer hours).

I realize we need to seek daas Torah on how to handle this chinuch-related question. However, I’d be interested to know what are your thoughts based on your professional experience with bachurim who remain in special-ed settings?

A: As you mentioned, issues of chinuch need to be discussed with daas Torah, but I am happy to share information about my experience with special-ed programs.

Some programs are mainstream-oriented, and others are not. Those in the latter category cater to students who require special-education expertise extended into the high-school level; mainstreaming students is not necessarily their goal. This can be the case for children who are autistic or severely learning impaired. Such students need to remain in a special-education environment.

However, many special-ed elementary-school graduates fall into a grey area, where the option of being mainstreamed needs to be seriously considered. What would be the benefits of being mainstreamed? The student’s self-esteem may improve initially, but will only be maintained if he can keep up with the class’s academic level. Some children will be taken out often for ancillary services such as occupational and speech therapy. The large portions of class they miss may be difficult to make up.

Your son is comfortable in his present environment, as most people fear change (especially those who were unsuccessful in a more normative school environment). However, growth does not occur when someone is underachieving.

A potential problem when mainstreaming a child is that the child may possibly be among the lowest-functioning students in the new classroom (as opposed to his previous status as high functioning in his special-ed program). The previous school may be worried that the class level will fall once a high-functioning student leaves (and this might color their attitude about the student leaving). Special-ed administrators sincerely want students to succeed and not return to their previous state of being frustrated and unhappy in their learning situation.

If your son’s issues are behavioral, rather than academic, has his behavior improvement been across-the-board — not only in the classroom? If your son has worked out his issues, is it due to particularly supportive teachers (of a type that may not exist in his future new school) or a mature understanding of appropriate behavior? These are some of the criteria that you need to consider before making a decision to mainstream your son.

Hatzlachah in this most important decision!