Special needs or need something special

special needs girl lyingon desk

My children simply did not fit in the mainstream schooling system. They’re both very bright and along with that come some eccentricities that often get labelled as problems within a very structured environment where children are expected to be alike, fit within the system and not stand out or cause waves.

My ten year old once explained it like this: “I’m like a puzzle piece that’s been put in the wrong box… I don’t fit anywhere. There’s no place for me.”

That’s quite a tough feeling for a small child to bear. And it isn’t that there’s something wrong with her, although within that system that was exactly the message she was getting.

There are many children struggling in school who don’t need to be placed in remedial classes. They need something special, but they’re not exactly special needs. They would thrive in a different environment but not that one. I have nothing against remedial education. It is fantastic in the right circumstances. But a child who is simply in the wrong place and is then moved to a remedial class where there are real special needs kids can look around and label themselves. They end up thinking there is something wrong with them.

These kids will generally fly if homeschooled or placed in a good cottage school or Montessori or within the Cambridge system where they have the freedom to work at their own pace and fill in the gaps they missed by being in the wrong environment.

For some the box is simply too small to contain them. For others it’s the noise levels. Some children are visual or kinesthetic learners and don’t respond to lectures. Most children don’t learn at the predetermined pace of the SA education system. Every child is unique – the exact reason that standardized education is failing. Nobody is standard. The trouble is if kids keep being pushed to move onto the next thing without mastering the previous stage then they end up with huge gaps in their foundational knowledge which will cause the whole structure to come crashing down at some point. That’s the point they pick up the label. Or if they learn faster than the system they get bored and restless and get labeled as ADHD or ODD (Oppositional Defiant that is, not odd – although they can be labeled as odd too!)

If there is a problem with learning don’t necessarily assume that the problem is with your child. It might be. But it might not. And you are their advocate until they can stand up for themselves. You need to question and explore alternatives and not necessarily take the word of those in educational authority as fact.

Only a few children really thrive within the schooling system. Most do not. Your child may genuinely be a special needs child – with Autism or dyslexia or serious processing difficulties and for these children the special needs schools and classrooms can make a huge difference to their ability to learn and develop with the appropriate assistance. But if your child is simply in need of something special – a smaller class, a more nurturing environment, a faster or slower pace, or a different style of teaching – then you need to look beyond the special needs class to any of the amazing alternatives that exist. Every child deserves to feel that there is a puzzle that they will fit in to!

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Mia Von Scha

Mia Von Scha

Mia Von Scha, Transformational Coach, motivational speaker, children’s author, student to two Zen Masters (aka kids), avid cloud watcher and lover of life.

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22 Responses

  1. Awesome article, something that I have just recently had to discover with my family. Don’t also think because you pay private school fees your kids are in a better place than most others especially if their puzzle piece is not a “standard ” fit. Find a school to fit your child.

    1. Hi Lou

      Good point! I’ve also found most private schools to lack innovation in dealing with kids who don’t fit the box.

      Thanks for bringing that up!

    2. Couldn’t agree more. I’ve moved my son’s (now 7yrs) school 4 times over the last 4 years as I cannot find the right fit not even in private 🙁

    1. Hi Laura

      Some of the alternatives out there include:

      Homeschooling and homeschooling centres
      Unschooling / Self Directed Learning
      Cottage Schools
      Montessori Schools
      Waldorf Schools
      Sudbury Schools
      Online schooling

      And there are new schools and schooling systems popping up all the time. You just need to find something that works for your particular child.


        1. Dear Louie, We have an incredible list of alternative schools on Jozikids which you can browse here https://www.jozikids.co.za/johannesburg/schools/alternative_schools/
          plus another list of schools for children with special needs here:
          A lot depends on what you are looking for specifically, as there 2 lists are different. What they have in common is that they are not mainstream schools

    1. Thanks Coleen. I have a friend who is a remedial teacher and she ended up with a highly gifted child in her class who has simply been misunderstood. Parents sometimes need to trust their gut and just keep pushing until they find the right solution. It’s not always easy!

  2. Fantastic article! I have been through it all with my boys. From private schooling to government schooling to remedial schooling. Doing OT, Speech Therapy and Neurotherapy. My 10 year old is now in Gr 4 and mainstraming very nicely. My 7 year old is repeating Gr 1 and just started at Delta Park School and he is so happy. Only 10 kids in a class with amazing teachers and therapists. The school has had a major revamp and all the staff are so passionate. Feeling blessed!

    1. Thanks Catherine! And well done on keeping going. It is a blessing when you find the right thing for your kids, but a blessing you brought upon yourself by persevering. I have also heard wonderful things about Delta – I’m glad your little one is thriving there.

  3. Hi. I am a Grade 4 teacher in a mainstream school. Loved this article. From time to time I teach a child that I know is not thriving in my school environment. I desperately want to help this child but cannot because of the size of class and fast paced curriculum. When you tell this to a parent, they frequently get very angry with you. They think you don’t care about their child and even become abusive.You share this with them because it is so hard to see such a child struggling daily. Many of these parents are unwilling to look for alternatives. It is unfortunate that alternatives are often very expensive. I have learned that there are many styles of education that are valid, If a child is not thriving in a learning environment, I’d love to see parents more willing to find the best for their child.

    1. Thank you, Jenny.

      I think teachers in mainstream schooling have an incredibly tough job and cannot possibly accommodate every child’s needs. Well done on recognising this. You can only try your best and then the parents have to take it from there. I’ve often thought that parents and teachers should go together on a parent-teacher meeting training to help everyone see from each others point of view. So much is lost in defensiveness when actually both parties are trying to do the best for the child.

      I also feel there is a huge gap in the market for affordable alternatives. Perhaps you will take up the calling?!

  4. A great read! I have recently been put in this box with my child! I live in PE. My child attends a top school; I am in special needs education for the past 10 years. Finding a teacher who is willing to “accommodate” learners individual “needs” and is willing to make minor adjustments in the classroom is a very rare find! Almost impossible!!!! This makes me very sad!!!!

  5. Thank you for this well written piece. My 8 year old was at a excellent private school which is also very academic. She battled in a big classroom and had to work extra hard to keep up (speech, OT, Visual Therapy etc). I made the decision to move her to a smaller school-Her school at the time was not supportive of my decision. An educational psych said a remedial school would not be a good environment for her. She started at her new school this year, it offers bridging and much less pressure, as well as very small classes, she seems to be thriving, to the point where I am questioning if I made the right decision or not. Her confidence is sky high and she is top of the class in everything. I am now thinking that the extra pressure might have been good? who knows. There are a ton of new schools popping up, how do you know if they are “legit” or not. Schooling is such a tough part of parenting.

    1. Hi Leigh

      Thanks for sharing! It is really tough to know whether you have made the right decision or not. If it’s any consolation, my kids have been through 5 different schools as well as homeschooling and unschooling! So I know how hard it is to find the right balance between support and challenge (of which they need both in just that perfect Goldilocks balance!) There is no easy answer to this. What I can say though, is that confidence is a great marker of success. Let her enjoy the confidence of being at the top and then when she has deeply integrated that into her self-concept, bring on the challenge again. Keeping in mind that children can have challenges that are meaningful to them that don’t necessarily imply pressure. Let her be your guide on this. If she’s enjoying the challenge and thriving you know she’s in the right spot. If she’s miserable and suffering from anxiety, you might need to think again! It’s a journey!!

  6. I find this so heartbreaking for a child to go through. That is why I run a cottage school for learners just like this. I find that many parents are searching in the junior years and are broken by the time they get to the senior years of education. We focus on Grade 8 – 12 at Moore House Academy and we can see the difference it makes to a learner.

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