What are “special needs”?

What are “special needs”?

I specialise in tutoring children with special behavioural or developmental needs. But what does that really mean? Here are the definitions of “special needs” that are important to me. Children with these needs often require extra academic support to achieve their full potential, and need a teacher who understands their particular needs.

Diagnosed Kids

The classical definition of special needs. This means known behavioural conditions or learning disabilities, diagnosed by a professional paediatric psychologist or psychiatrist. They include Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Attention Deficit (Hyperactivity) Disorder (ADD or ADHD), dyslexia, Central Auditory Processing Disorder (CAPD), etc.

Children with these types of special needs are supported in the public and private school systems as much as possible. Often children with these issues simply find the day-to-day challenges of coping in a school environment with lots of other children and adults very stressful.

One-on-one tutoring can provide a safe, comfortable space, which can be tailored to meet individual needs. Once the child is safe, comfortable and happy, higher-quality learning can take place.


Some children display certain behaviours or symptoms of such conditions as ASD or ADHD, but can’t be given an official diagnosis because they don’t meet enough of the criteria.

This means they are not given support from the public purse, whether for education in school or therapy options outside of school.  Often their unofficial special needs are just as challenging for them and their carers as a child with the official diagnosis.

Just as for children with “official” special needs, one-on-one tutoring can provide a safe, comfortable space, which can be tailored to meet individual needs. Once the child is safe, comfortable and happy, higher-quality learning can take place.

Cultural Clashes

This refers to a cultural clash between home and school. Schools are a construct with a great deal of history, and the bulk of that history is embedded in Western, middle-class culture. Despite the best efforts of educational policy-makers and teachers (and everyone in between who cares about education), our curriculum and culture in schools are still biased towards children who come from Western, middle-class families. Children from this type of background come to kindergarten already fluent in the language of school: reading, writing, counting, “time-outs”, taking turns, saying “please” and “thank you”, submission to (and permission from) authority figures, the rules of play between children… the list goes on. They know all these things because their family members value the same things as the school, so the children are taught about them from birth.

Children from other backgrounds have families with different values and codes of conduct. They often spend kindergarten completely overwhelmed by an apparently incomprehensible set of social rules, getting into trouble when they get it wrong.

Note that the definition of “wrong” is completely elastic; in one family, “wrong” means “disobeying an adult”, while in another family, autonomy is valued and any instruction from an adult is merely a suggestion – and “wrong” means “hurting someone”. This cultural minefield can prevent children from learning effectively. Tutoring in this case is intended to give the child a similar experience to school, but in a gentle, guiding manner that helps the child learn the rules without fear of punishment. This safe space means that literacy and numeracy training can be tackled more effectively than in the difficult school environment.

Strolling and Striding Developers

Children whose development either strolls behind, or strides ahead of their peers, who often feel like square pegs in round holes in the school environment.

Let me start by saying that between birth and eight years old, optimal learning is dependent on brain development. We can’t speed up brain development. We can OPTIMISE it by providing an environment that nurtures learning, but your child is not going to learn that A is A until s/he understands everything leading up to that step. It’s very important to me to reinforce this message as I have met some very distressed children in the early stages of their development, who believe they are stupid because their friends can read and they can’t – yet. This is why I use the expression “building bridges in your brain”. It helps children – and adults – understand that their bridges will eventually be completed and they will know that A is A without having to think about it, but that many ropes and bricks and boards are required to build that bridge in their brains. Development and IQ are not synonymous.

For children whose development either strolls behind, or strides ahead of their peers, school is often a frustrating place. Teachers do their best to differentiate their content to cater for everyone, but we are limited by the numbers – hours in the day, kids in the class, distance between stroll-ers and striders, and so on. Children such as these benefit from one-on-one time because their needs are just too different from the rest of the class to allow teachers to cater for them optimally.


Of course I never have favourites in my classes, but if I did, these children would be my favourites. They’re the “naughty” kids.

“Naughty” is a word which I believe is totally inappropriate when used to describe a child in their early childhood. Young children are simply working their way through the minefield of social and cultural rules which bombard them at every turn. They are constantly seeking knowledge, stimulation, social fulfilment and growth. Sometimes they seek these things in a way adults find unacceptable.

By the time children get to school, the majority of them have grasped the cultural and social rules considered important in their worlds, which might include family, day care, playgroup, shopping, eating out, visiting friends, etc. As pointed out in my original post, these rules are fairly consistent between home and school if children come from Western middle-class families. Therefore, it is reasonable for a teacher to expect that most children will have an understanding of the basic rules for human interaction when they get to kindy and pre-primary. Often, though, development and maturity play a large role in self-management of behaviour, and teachers allow for this and try to ensure all children leave kindy and pre-primary with the rules for school in place. This means that when year 1 begins, children are supposedly ready for formal schooling and are able to self-regulate their behaviour to keep the rules.

I have been a part of this system for many years, and I have seen it fail time and again for my totally-not-favourite kids. Why? Because they are super-active, super-sensitive, super-curious, super-driven and often super-smart. Their impulse control constantly lets them down in their sheer enthusiasm for life and learning. Expecting these kids to sit at a desk for five hours a day and do exactly as they’re told without asking questions is frankly crazy. I’ve watched children, who adored school as a source of endless stimulation in kindy and pre-primary, become disheartened, bored, and self-hating as they attempt to tackle year 1. They’re constantly being told to sit down, stop talking, keep still. Being only six years old, they assume that since their authority figure is endlessly, exasperatedly punishing them, they are clearly terrible people.

Let’s be clear, here: year 1 teachers are awesome. They have insane amounts of curriculum to cover, 24 kids to cater for, and minimal – if any – education assistant support. It’s honestly impossible to do everything that’s required of them without resorting to rewards and punishments to keep children quiet and still so they can plough through their work. I don’t expect them to allow “naughty kids” the freedom afforded them in kindy and pre-primary. Without radical changes to the education system (like smaller class sizes and full time EAs), year 1 teachers do what they must. I’ve done it myself.

However, this is very hard on those precious super-kids. They are rapidly learning that their natural love of physical and mental challenge is constantly getting them into strife. They often start doing things that they know will get them in trouble to regain some control over their lives. There is a high risk that they will end up believing there is something wrong with them and develop irreversible low self-esteem.

Super-Kids may once have asked all the questions, climbed to the top of the climbing-frame every time, and been excited by every new experience; but they are now finding it increasingly more difficult to regulate their emotions, or acting out at school or at home.  One-on-one tutoring can restore their self-confidence and re-ignite their love of learning.

 If you care for children in any of these categories, contact me at www.BuildingBridgesECS.com.au to discuss tutoring options.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s