More and more, I am hearing stories from parents and educators of an epidemic in our schools. Seemingly on an upward trend each year, mainstream school classrooms are more packed with children with IEPs (individualized education plans) or needing additional services like counseling, than ever before. They may be given labels like high-functioning autism, ADHD, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, or are anxious or depressed. There are times when a single diagnosis fits perfectly for these kids and leads to the access of appropriate school services and therapies. But for more and more of these children, there seems to be a blending and overlap of symptoms in diagnostic categories, leading to unclear diagnoses or more than one diagnosis, or only a few scattered characteristics with no clear diagnosis. They may not fit in with their peers, often struggle with their emotions, and have difficulty with a traditionally structured school day, or even shut down, refusing to attend school all together. They may demonstrate high intelligence, high creativity, high emotionality or empathy, but combined with oppositionality, anxiety, sensitivity to external stimuli, attention problems, or obsessive thinking and perfectionism, it makes functioning in traditional classrooms difficult to say the least.
Parents and professionals in the psychological field are struggling to understand this growing group of children who don’t fit into traditional special education services, yet aren’t quite served by the mainstream model either. We are coming to terms with the differences we see children facing today than when we grew up. Children now are exposed to screen time and smart phones at a younger age, with more access to immediate sensory gratification and are used to rapid attention shifting and peer scrutiny through social media. They are being asked to memorize more information from a younger age for state testing and are being placed in an academic pressure cooker of expectation by well-meaning parents and school staff who see the competitive road these youngsters face in future college and job applications. Meanwhile, they are faced with an outdated, overly structured school system, not rising to meet the needs of their increasingly stressful world and overworked, sensitive emotional systems.