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  • Christine Lowry

So, What is Special Education?

Pigtailed girl blowing on a dandylion

Special education is inclusive education. It is education that says all children should have full access to the classroom, all children should be able to fully participate in all activities, and all children should receive the support they need to feel successful and thrive. Special inclusive education accepts, respects, and honors each child’s unique gifts, strengths, and yes, challenges.

Special education begins with an attitude, a value and a belief that each child belongs in our classroom. It is cultivating the open mind-set that we can prepare ourselves to serve and support every child in our classroom. It is making the commitment to learn, expand our skills, and really “see” each of our students.

On a regular basis, I hear Montessori teachers say, “I can’t work with children with special needs – I wasn’t trained to do that.” And yes, that is true, most Montessori teacher education programs are not explicitly preparing educators to work with the full range of children we have in our classrooms. The number of children who have been put into label categories is larger than in the past, the number of children who seem to experience the world differently than we expect them to is larger than in the past. It’s also true, though, that our society is different than it was in the past and we are all absorbing those changes – we are all different than we were in the past. So, might it be time to let go of clinging to “the way it used to be” and move on to “what can be?”

So many of Dr. Montessori’s observations of children are now verified by current research. She deeply understood what all children need to learn to become their own best selves. Are we practicing what she taught, that children learn what they are interested in and what motivates them, children learn at their own pace and in their own way? She knew the importance of guiding the “whole child,” the physical self, the cognitive self, the social- emotional self, and the self that wants to engage in their culture. Ask yourself, am I teaching to my agenda, to my expectations, to my set of should, would, could, and ought? Or am I willing to reflect and transform myself to guide each and every child?

That is special education! Easier said than done, right? There are students who challenge us in ways that make us uncomfortable, who leave us feeling incompetent, who just confuse us, and “keep the classroom from being normalized.” And this is where that open mind-set that is willing to learn comes in. We can gain knowledge of the characteristics associated with categories of diversity to better understand an individual child’s learning and behavior needs. We can learn some strategies as a starting point to support an individual child’s learning and behavior differences. We can learn and practice how to observe with curiosity and inquiry to uncover what a child’s behavior might be trying to communicate. We can expand the way we use a material or give a presentation so that it better reaches that child who is struggling. We can begin, with knowledge, understanding, and strategies to not only fill our toolbox, but actually have confidence that we know just what tool to choose to teach that individual child and guide their success.

We can all learn a framework for managing an inclusive classroom, rooted in our Montessori foundations, to work with all children in our schools. And this is, in part, what Montessori and Special Needs is all about. Here is a place for you to learn, to practice, to learn from mistakes. Yes, you’ll make some along the way. But you can become a member of the Montessori community that says yes to diversity, to educating all kinds of learners in our classrooms and schools. And one day, maybe we won’t talk about special education because all education will be special, just as each child is special and ready to grow with a true sense of belonging.

I look forward to having you join me on this journey.


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