by PammyMcB

We ordinarily think about special schools as having particular value for students with acting-out behavior. Special classes and special schools, however, also provide environments where students with internalizing disorders feel safe and can flower.

Pauline entered the school bedraggled. Tall and slender, she hobbled in more like a wounded crow than a graceful swan. This was Pauline’s first day in a special school for students with emotional and behavioral difficulties. She was now 14 years old.

For the past three years in secondary school her life had been a story of daily trauma. Due to her height, she had very quickly become the butt of jokes among her peer group. The jokes led to bullying—verbal taunts and eventually physical attacks. Teachers tried to intervene, but always the hunting pack of students would seek out its prey, and Pauline would again fall victim to abuse from her peers.

Pauline changed from being an outward-going student of average ability, always eager to contribute in class. She became withdrawn, pale, shoulders hunched, frightened to speak or to be spoken to for fear of ridicule. When teachers, unaware of the peer pressure she was suffering, urged her to play a more active role in class, she became distraught. School was no longer a safe place; Pauline began to play truant. When her parents discovered this, they forced her to attend school daily by taking her there themselves. This caused Pauline physical distress to the extent that she would vomit. Her peer group turned on her even more, barring her from entering the bathroom when she needed to be sick (pretending, if a teacher passed by, to be helping her).

Pauline’s emotional state did not cause her to display aggressive behavior, but it certainly reflected a disturbed child who found her whole school environment disturbing and alien. Such was her mental state that she began to underachieve in all lessons. There were suggestions from teachers that she had specific learning difficulties. She was certainly suffering from curriculum malnourishment. The curriculum diet she was receiving was failing to give her any sustenance. She was failing to thrive in her school environment, merely existing as a lonely, hyper-anxious, vulnerable child. She had lost her dignity.

At the instigation of the educational psychologist, an alternative placement was sought in a special school for students with emotional and behavioral difficulties. As the weeks passed in the special school, Pauline began to make contact with the teachers. She would never speak in class, but after a lesson ended, she would hang around to discuss some point with the teacher. Teachers were soon convinced that she did not have any significant learning difficulty.

Her attendance was good. Gradually, the dreadful pallor began to fade; her eyes lost some of their traumatized glare. She eventually shared with the school counselor the extent of her personal pain and anguish over the previous three years. She described it as “a daily nightmare.” She had found the secondary school of 1,500 students totally disorientating. Once her peer group abandoned her, she described herself as “floating in a sea of people,” none of whom she recognized, or who recognized her.

In the small special school of 40 students, Pauline found peace. She learned to trust again—first adults, and then fellow students. She became an active participant in classroom learning experiences, no longer the peripheral onlooker. Her capacity to care for others became clear, and she befriended many isolated individuals.

Her time at the special school was short. She left at the age of 16, and not all problems had been solved by far. Three years of lost education cannot be regained in two. New situations or change still caused Pauline anxiety. But when she left the school, she had a renewed sense of self-worth. This “restrictive environment” had been her safe haven; it had given her back her dignity.

1. How would you respond to someone’s argument that Pauline belonged in a general education class in a general education school, not the special school?

I would explain that Pauline was traumatized by her school experience, and she is now suffering from high anxiety due to the experience. I would also explain that anxiety is not easily remedied in a loud and crowded space such as a large school. However, the small school setting could help her learn in an environment in which she feels safe. I would further explain how research shows that children in survival mode have a great deal of difficulty learning

2. If you were a teacher in a general education school, how would you respond to bullying of students like Pauline?

I would advocate on Pauline’s behalf by suggesting the administration really does something about the bullying problem instead of making it worse. I get so frustrated with administrators who say if they do something about bullying, it will only cause more problems for the victim (oops – tangent). I would also suggest that a respect policy be devised, implemented, and practiced in the school as seen on the behavioral supports video we watched in class. In the classroom, I would make sure Pauline felt safe and would not tolerate any bullying, teasing, or belittling. If I saw that Pauline was uncomfortable with anything I asked of her, I would not push her and would allow her space. I would also build a relationship with Pauline so that she would be more comfortable in my classroom.

3. What would be required to make all schools small, supportive, and inviting places for students like Pauline?

They could make the classes smaller, hire more staff, stagger schedules for students (begin and release times for classes could be staggered), split the classes in the cafeteria to prevent overcrowding, and schedule restroom breaks. This would not have to be done for all of the students, just for students who are overwhelmed with crowds and noise, i.e. Pauline, students with an ASD, students with high anxiety, etc.