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Children with Special Needs and my Mended Crystal Vase

Precious but Handle with Care

Posted in ChicagoNow May 22, 2014 (cartoon by Marcia Liss)

A favorite crystal vase of mine fell from a shelf and broke. I don’t know why or how it happened, but there it was in pieces on the floor. I was heartbroken. I loved that vase. It had been my grandmother’s and was precious to me.

My husband, who is an excellent puzzle worker, patiently glued it back together. It looked pretty good, but it could no longer function the way it had before. So rather than using it to hold cut flowers like the rest of my vases, I had to find another way to fill it. It was no less valuable or important to me, just different from how it had been before.

I’m thinking this is a decent analogy to having a child with special needs. When the child is born, she may appear to be the same as all the other beautiful babies. At some point, however, the parents discover that their precious child is broken. There are pieces scattered about that needed to be glued together. And they have to accept that their child’s journey will not be the same as others’.

So, what did I do with my vase and how does that help to understand raising a child with special needs. I discovered the vase was still a treasure, but I had to be careful not to treat it the same way as my other vases. The vase remained beautiful and useful but I had to be creative about how I filled it and what I put into it. It was no longer possible just to pour in water and plop in a random bouquet of flowers.

I think you can see where this is going. Like my repaired vase, the child with special needs is no less precious, lovable, or capable of learning things. But care must be taken to fix what can be fixed and work around the weak spots. Teachers can’t pour knowledge into them like they can with other students.

But maybe learning how to “fill” or teach these children will also help educators come up with creative approaches that benefit all of the vases in their classrooms. Using multiple approaches to learning that play to the strengths of children with special needs actually helps their typically developing classmates as well.

All of us have our areas of weakness when it comes to learning. I finally understand why I was such a compulsive note-taker and highlighter. I’m not an auditory learner. I need to involve my visual and tactile systems to ensure something will stick in my brain. That’s why I’ll often ask people to write something down or shoot me an email or text. Just listening doesn’t do the trick for me.

Given that crack in my vase, I have had to find ways to work around it. A child with special needs may have a similar crack that is just a bit longer and deeper than mine. But he will be labeled as having an auditory processing disorder. I’m sure the same techniques that help him learn would have benefitted me. If a teacher or lecturer incorporated opportunities for visual learning in her presentation, my ability to retain what I was hearing would have improved as well.

In a blog post by Valerie Strauss last year, Howard Gardner, Harvard Graduate School of Education professor and the father of the theory of multiple intelligences, advises teachers to individualize their teaching as much as possible. The same differentiation of instruction that is required for children with special needs will benefit all children. He goes on to say teaching should also be pluralized,

“Teach important materials in several ways, not just one (e.g. through stories, works of art, diagrams, role play). In this way you can reach students who learn in different ways. Also, by presenting materials in various ways, you convey what it means to understand something well.”

The special education teachers who are expert at working with children who have special needs understand this. As with my precious vase, they find ways to work around the cracks and to fill the vase differently. The result in the end is just as beautiful.


by Laurie Levy
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