Easton officials mull rise in special education students

The number of elementary school children in Easton qualifying for special education services has risen in town, and education officials are pondering the reasons for the increase.

Since the beginning of the school year, a half a dozen students have been identified with disabilities, said Superintendent of Schools Dr. Thomas McMorran. Some of those may have entered the school system from other towns with IEPs (Individual Education Programs) already in place.

A total of 88 students at Samuel Staples Elementary School were identified in early December as having special education needs, up from 82 the previous month, officials said.

“It’s about reading and anxiety sprinkled in as well,” said MaryLou Torre, interim director of special services.

Torre presented a special services update at the Dec. 11, Easton Board of Education meeting.

Students needing special services stood at 12.7% of the total Easton K-8 population, according to information from Torres.

The State of Connecticut averages stand at 13.5%, McMorran said.

“There has been improvement in the ability to discern a disability earlier in life,” he said. “Special educators are doing a good job of identifying students with special needs.”

Torre concurred. “It’s all about early identification,” she said.

Anxiety

About 80% of special education services focus on literacy, McMorran said, including language skills and learning disabilities, but educators are also noting an increase in anxiety-related disorders.

“The emotional need for support has grown over the past several years,” McMorran said. “There are some children who have greater anxiety about navigating the day.

“We’re identifying more children with learning difficulties,” said Jeffrey Parker, chairman of the Easton Board of Education. “It continues to be a concern throughout Fairfield County.”

The anxiety issue can become a special education issue if the child’s ability to learn is compromised,” he said.

One cause of children’s anxiety could be the increase in academic expectations at the elementary level, dictated by the Common Core framework, McMorran said. The Common Core initiative includes national standards detailing what K-12 students should know in language arts and mathematics at the end of each year, according to online sources.

At the middle school level in Easton, special services identifications are “holding pretty steady,” McMorran said, but more students at the elementary level have been identified possibly because that’s when “we first interact with them.”

“The numbers of kids needing emotional support has grown quite a bit,” said Kim Fox-Santora, principal of Samuel Staples Elementary School.

A child exhibiting emotional difficulties first goes through general education process, including participation in “lunch bunches” or social groups with the social worker.

“If the child’s demonstration of anxiety is interfering with learning, we will refer the student to a PPT (planning and placement team),” she said, where the issues are discussed by the child’s social worker, parents and teachers working as a team.

“If the team finds there are some concerns, they may recommend an evaluation,” she said, which may be a full psycho-education evaluation or a psychiatric evaluation.

Students’ anxiety could be the result of “kids plugged into social media 24/7,” McMorran said. “Parents should be monitoring and controlling access to cell phones.

“Kids are feeling more anxious because social media is bombarding them with threats,” he said, including concerns about a poor economy or international politics.

Parker also notes the impact of technology on children.

“This whole issue of children’s anxiety and the impact of smart phones are creating a new challenge for us in the field of education,” he said.

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