In this Vital Mercy series, Dr. Brenda Murphy shares letters to help calm the fears, answer the questions and steer parents on a path to successful teaching and learning with struggling learners at home.

Laura Bailey, SailAway’s former Homeschool Director and nineteen-year veteran home educator of five, once edited one of my emails to her. I had written, “…special needs child.” She revised: “…a child with special needs.” And oh, the difference it makes. 

A “special needs child” is defined by their different, non-typical educational and behavioral needs. A “child with a special need” is a unique, precious, perfect creation of God who happens to have something like a speech, vision, hearing, memory, or developmental issue that requires special attention, more help, more patience, more understanding, more love. It is NOT the child himself, just a characteristic or condition. 

To me the distinction is game changing. Instead of seeing the child through a filter that clouds her true identity, it puts the need in a little cart behind or a box outside the child. Now, the child herself emerges and stands in the spotlight of untold gifts, talents, and abilities. I’d like you to meet two children whose gifts, talents, and abilities now far outshine the inabilities that once defined them.

At fifteen, Leslie’s special need (not her real name) prevented her from reading anywhere close to grade level despite the fact that her mother was a seasoned teacher with a master’s level reading specialty. A beautiful, good-natured, humble young lady, she shied away from certain peer relationships because she did not want the kids in her group to know about her special need.

Neither did her family. Instead, they shined the spotlight on her area of tremendous ability, drawing. Leslie’s gift of creating poignant, humorous pencil drawings with insight far beyond her years did not go unnoticed by a publisher, who knew about her special need. He contracted her to create illustrations for one book, then another and another. The spotlight of success totally erased the special need description from her life.

Buddy always struggled academically and was labeled “special ed” early in his school career. By the time he was in middle school, his reputation always preceded him. Tall, muscular, swarthy, Buddy intimidated everyone with a wall of protection ten-feet thick. No one was going to penetrate the barriers he had erected to stave off the hurt of the constant failures caused by his special needs. Deep inside he knew he was capable but no one ever gave him a chance to show the brilliance of his spatial, hands-on gifts.

In truth, he had a genius for mechanical things, especially automotive things. Eventually someone gave him that chance. With the spotlight aimed at Buddy’s ability, he dropped the stony face and welcomed others into his life as he was able to repair automotive problems technicians with far greater experience and training could not. He became an active, productive member of his community and a loving husband and father.

How do you see that child, your child? Is it through the filter of a special need that is evident in the way he looks, speaks, or behaves? Is it that Down Syndrome child; that autistic child; that ADHD child; that special needs child? Is the first thing seen the need, the anomaly and not the child for who he is? 

Sadly, my answer and yours, if we’re totally honest, is probably yes more times than we’d like to admit. So, let’s covenant together to change the focus and shine the spotlight of success on the strengths and gifts of a child, that child with a special need. And, oh, the difference it will make!

Let me know what happens.

Waiting with high expectations,

Dr. Brenda Murphy

Read the next letter, A Powerful Learning Tool Called Hope