There is a dark secret that has been kept and maintained for many years in B.C. schools. If you have a child with special needs, with autism, with a learning disability; if you have a child with Attention Deficit Disorder, or who is suffering from a mental illness; if you have a child who is gifted, if you have a child who is a typical student, there is something you need to know. Your child is being robbed.

Here is how the theft happens: there are fewer and fewer children whose medical diagnoses qualify for one-to-one support in the classroom. Many students whose medical designation at one time brought full-time support now only qualify for a small portion, if any; for example, students with Sensory Processing Disorder or Developmental Co-ordination Disorder.

Many needs do not qualify for a support worker at all, such as: ADD and ADHD, behaviour disorders and mental illness (anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder), and trauma (students who are or have been abused, exploited or neglected, as well as refugees etc.).

Students with a learning disability typically receive from one to four 45-minute periods of small group or in-class support from a resource teacher per week. This is typically not one-to-one support.

Ask any teacher which of their students require the most time, support and adaptations to the regular curriculum, and they will tell you it is the students who struggle with the issues listed above.

So what happens in a school that has many students with these needs — as all schools do? We call it “piggybacking,” which should really just be called “stealing.”

We look at the students who have medical designations (chronic health issues, physical disabilities, autism) that qualify for a support worker; then we look at other students who need one-to-one support but don’t qualify, and guess what we do? We place them all together in the same classroom. Not based on what is educationally sound for them, but based on an attempt to stretch our paltry resources as far as we can.

Let me be clear, when I say need support, I really mean NEED. I am talking about students who may be a safety risk to themselves or others, students who require the input and support of an adult, or an alternative setting, or adaptations in curriculum (such as oral rather than written assessment) or perhaps more time to complete their work. And yet, they do not receive these things because they do not officially qualify for help.

So the support worker who is assigned to a classroom based on funding for one particular student, is now spread thinly among multiple students who struggle to function independently within a classroom setting.

And let’s not forget about students who are awaiting assessment. Just because they have not yet been assessed — which can take many years due to school psychologist positions that have been relentlessly cut — does not mean that their urgent needs step aside until the paperwork comes in!

If you have a child with a learning disability or other special needs, you are probably familiar with an IEP (Individual Education Plan). This is a plan developed between the classroom teacher, the resource teacher and the parents; it’s intended to ensure that the student has the appropriate strategies and adaptations in place to help them to reach their potential and achieve success.

I have begun to view an IEP as a “wish list,” a document that states what a child needs to succeed, but without the actual resources in place to make it happen. I have lost the idealism I had in my early years of teaching, when I used to actually believe I could somehow make these strategies work in the classroom.

I have gotten to the point where I have actually said to parents, “This is what your child needs. This is what your child requires to be successful. But I need to tell you, this is not what is actually going to happen, because I am not physically able to manage it and I do not have another person available to implement it.”

I have gotten to the point where I will no longer pretend that when a child has an IEP it will actually come to life. Why? Because when there are 30 students, two grade levels, seven IEPs, five ELL (English Language Learners), three pending designations, two on the waitlist for assessment, another two not yet on the waitlist but glaringly should be, guess what? I am not able to provide those 19 children with the intensive, independent attention they need. The other 11 children who are not on crisis radar? I am lucky if I get to them at all.

The cycle continues year after year. One child brings in funding for his or her medical diagnosis, so let’s split that seven ways in one classroom. The trickle-down effect is:

The students who qualify for support get a sliver. I have even seen on occasion the student who brings in the funding receive nothing because there are other students who require more, are a safety risk, or their struggles appear more urgent.
The students who don’t qualify but should, split the remaining slivers.
The students who don’t require support but would still thrive on personal attention from their teacher get a fraction of a fraction of a sliver.
ALL are being robbed.

I want to know why, in a province as wealthy as ours, in a country as wealthy as ours, not all students are receiving the education they need and deserve. Why are principals and teachers forced each year to triage the needs of students?

Why is it acceptable that a medical diagnosis that at one time received funding no longer qualifies or exists? Why is a student with severe ADHD, which is debilitating to learning, not even acknowledged as needing an IEP or any type of additional support?

I know why. Because it is too expensive. We are told over and over, it costs too much. Well I’m here to say, along with my teacher colleagues, that is not good enough. The cost of not providing quality education to ALL of our children is far greater.

Originally published