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American Special Education

By: Leilei Chen


For a long time, I have been considering writing about Special Education in the United States, and now I’m pleased to share my experiences. The primary school my daughter goes to is one of the top three public elementary schools in the State of Michigan, renowned for two characteristics: Chinese programs and special education. Though having heard of its fame in the exceptional education industry, I didn't understand its value or realize what implications it brought to the children until now.  




















On my daughter’s first day at school, an Asian boy was sitting in the entrance hall in a wheelchair with a blanket on his knees. He had some old scars on his forehead and he was frowning. His eyes were full of tension and fear, and sharply aggressive. Besides the wheelchair squatted a Caucasian woman, who was trying to comfort the boy with a low and soft voice. Being Asian myself, and curious, I approached the woman for a brief conversation. I was told that she had adopted the boy from China and he was studying in the classroom next to my daughter’s. He had been badly hurt and lost his feet in a terrible accident at an early age. As a mother of four children, the adopting mother had to quit her job to take care of her new family member. 


This made my daughter a little scared in the beginning, especially when she saw some other “special kids” in the hallway. Within a few days however she was used to the special needs children. One day, she had loose bowels but insisted on going to school. I made her some porridge for her lunch and ate with her in the cafeteria. A little girl with Down’s Syndrome came to say hello and my daughter responded warmly. I asked her if the two of them had been playing together.

“Of course!” She said, “She chased me around on the playground. I love her; she is so cute.”

“Are you scared of her?” I asked.

“Not at all.” She smiled, “The teachers say that every kid is an angel blessed by God, God loves some children more so he makes them special so that all the special kids can have more love.”

Well done, teachers. 


Next year, Lisa, the daughter of my friends will begin her kindergarten life. At the orientation Open House, a boy in a wheelchair showed up. My friend was not concerned in the beginning; however, she was shocked that none of the parents frowned, turned around or gave any clouded face later when the boy couldn’t help yelling in the back of classroom. Indeed, this seems impossible in China.  The Chinese parents would have made thunderstorms over a special needs child in their own child’s classroom! It turned out all my friends' concerns were unnecessary as no special kids had classes with non-special ones, instead, they had special classes in different subjects and levels selectively provided for them by various teachers. Two weeks later, Lisa came home very happy with a brilliant yellow wristband and T-shirt, saying that it was her turn to be the Special Kid Helper tomorrow. This was very funny to us as Lisa was only four years old. She couldn’t even button up her uniform, what help could she give to others? Nevertheless, she put on the band and T-shirt the next morning, with her head held high as she walked to the school bus. In the afternoon, she was waving energetically as she flew off the bus. With her chest out, she proudly showed us a small purple badge reading “Wonderful Helper”. Though there were professional teaching assistants taking care of the special kids, and children’s help was just somehow very symbolic, it mattered that good education was like life-giving breeze and rain in spring, establishing children’s responsibility, love and the joy of giving in a subtle and natural way. In the meantime, the special kids also enjoyed the care and friendship from the others who passed on the wristband and T-shirt in turns. At the Valentine’s Day Party, the special boy in the wheelchair showed up again, with some water dribbling from one corner of his mouth. Without any reminding, those kiddies, 4 or 5 years old, hugged him one by one. They didn’t express any hesitation, compassion or sympathy, but the true love came naturally from the bottom of their hearts. Those were the faces of angels, weren’t they?


This year, my daughter started her second grade in a new class. Her new head teacher, Mrs. Deboer, invited me to give the watercolor lessons. There were two special boys with teaching assistants. One was in a wheelchair and had Down’s Syndrome, the other showed no signs of a disability at all. My class was divided into steps of demonstrations. After each step, the teaching assistant beside the child in the wheelchair would subdivide it into smaller steps and repeat it to the boy, while using a lot of verbal and gestural encouragement. The other assistant was almost completely silent with only occasional reminders to pay attention which helped him to follow the class the whole time. Back home, I checked with my daughter to find out if the other boy was really a special needs student. She said he wasn’t disabled, but just had some difficulties with focusing his full attention. I guess he has Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Fortunately, he was especially gifted in math, mechanics and IT. While the other children played games, he was allowed to play computer games or disassemble & assemble games. His study was more based on his hobbies and interests with special help from his teaching assistant. What an example of Confucius’s philosophy of Aptitude-Based Education in the US! Since it was a public school, all costs of special teachers and facilities were funded by the government. It seems the government’s input in education is the key, isn’t it? Otherwise, educational innovation would end up as empty talk. 


The meeting with the Chinese boy in the wheel chair was so haunting that afterward I just couldn’t help thinking about his aggressive eyes, just like the eyes of an injured deer. Luckily, I saw him again in the School Halloween Parade this year. He was dressed as a firefighter, and his wheel chair was decorated like a firetruck. Three adult women firefighters followed him, and were probably his teachers. His firetruck was moving so fast that he seemed to pass me by like the wind, leaving a calm and smiling face impressed in my head, which reminded me of the famous quote by Karl Theodor Jaspers, “Education is the soul cultivation of mankind rather than an accumulation of facts. If nature is love, is a tree to shake another tree, a cloud to promote another cloud, and a soul to awaken another soul.” Despite the fact that in American education injustice and discrimination still exists, in general, and quality issues at the elementary level American special education is quite worthy of the Chinese counterparts’ attention. Education is not merely the input of funds and Human Resources but includes love as well. The highlighted point “Moral Development Tops All in Education” is rather a deep topic that we all should address.


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