Every Child is Unique

Every child is unique. Each has a different bundle of strengths, talents, interests and ways of learning. Children have the legal right to an appropriate education that meets their unique needs and prepares them for life. However, far too often these differences are not recognized, and a child’s learning issues are not appropriately addressed. Such children quickly develop a poor self-image viewing themselves as lazy, stupid and a failure.

They also have problems related to juvenile delinquency and substance abuse. While children with learning disabilities account for 10% of the general population, 70% of children in the juvenile justice system have learning disabilities. Their most common learning challenges involve anxiety, depression, ADHD, developmental disabilities, emotional problems, trauma and conduct disorder. Typically substance abuse is also present.

The majority of young adults aged 18-24 who enter the criminal justice system have these exact same issues.

So why are so many children with similar issues not receiving the educational support they need? Many social reform advocates refer to this disturbing social pattern as “the school to prison pipeline.” However, the problem is more complex than schools failing to provide an appropriate education. Shifting the blame to schools creates a hostile environment and is counterproductive. There are many reasons why children and young adults are funneled into the justice systems. Family, peers, learning disabilities, mental health, substance abuse, economic status, and other factors affect everything youth do.

Nevertheless, while it takes a healthy community to produce healthy individuals, society has chosen schools as the primary institution where learning and behavioral health issues are addressed. Schools are charged with helping a child to develop academically. The school community becomes the dominant social influence for developing teens. Schools are exceptionally important in forming a child’s identity and shaping his or her entire life.

Therefore, the law mandates that schools meet a child’s unique learning needs. And schools are clearly overwhelmed. So how can the community respond to the fact that 70% of the children in the juvenile justice system and the majority of young adults in the adult criminal justice system have problems related to learning, mental health, substance abuse and trauma?

We must advocate for strategies that support individuals, families and schools.   Such strategies include the following:

  • Family: The majority of institutionalized youth are from single parent homes and have family members who were incarcerated. Children with dysfunctional families have a higher risk of forming deviant peer affiliations. A family that monitors a youth’s peers can prevent delinquency. Communities must directly address these family risk factors.
  • Community Prevention: Increase funding for evidence-based prevention programs that strengthen families, build life skills and reduce anti-social behavior.   These programs are proven to reduce youth violence, substance abuse and delinquency. They are proven to improve school attendance, academic achievement and family functioning. For every $1 spent on prevention programs, there is a future $4 in savings. Advocate for more prevention funding.
  • Early Intervention: Early intervention consists of services that help young children from birth to age 5 who have developmental delays and support their families. Some indications that a child may have a learning disability include consistent problems getting along with others, difficulty communicating, lack of interest in age-appropriate activities, resistance to change, chronic behavior or social problems, and difficulty with seeing, hearing, attention, reading, writing or math. In Pennsylvania, a first step for families with concerns is to call CONNECT Services at 800-692-7288 for initial screening and evaluation. Services are free.
  • School Reforms: School reform is needed in the ares of budget, disciplinary policies and special education.
  • In 2011, Pennsylvania added $871 million to its prison budgets and cut $961 million from its school budgets. Inadequate resources in public schools (trained teachers, special education services, counselors, appropriate educational environment) harms student motivation, performance and behavior. This is especially problematic for youth with disabilities who tend to demonstrate less impulse control, greater susceptibility to peer pressure and lower social skills.
  • School discipline embraces zero-tolerance policies turning school matters into court cases. Schools should strive to view problem behavior as teachable moments, responding with correction and re-teaching rather than immediate disciplinary consequences. Suspensions and expulsions also create risks for youth because children are unsupervised, fall further behind in their coursework and disengage. Finally, schools should be challenged on their propensity to push-out low performing students to boost test scores, and ignore students’ due process rights with respect to disciplinary matters.
  • In the special education sphere, understand that due to resource limitations schools are heavily geared toward providing students with a standardized general curriculum. It is difficult and expensive for schools to devise creative solutions to meet the unique needs of children with learning disabilities. Strong advocacy is needed to ensure that the child receives the individualized education and treatment supports necessary to succeed. While this is the legal requirement, it is often not met due to resource limitations and bureaucratic impediments.
  • Juvenile Justice Reform: Pennsylvania’s Juvenile Justice System Enhancement Strategy asserts that children should be diverted from formal court processing whenever appropriate, and that the system must do a better job of engaging the family. A solid path to achieving this goal is a collaborative effort to resolve a child’s special education and behavioral health issues. Juvenile judges can ensure that families, schools and juvenile probation conduct a proper inquiry and are held accountable. This includes making sure that all assessments and evaluations are current, the child’s IEP is a good plan, and the IEP is properly implemented and monitored. In addition to literacy, behavioral support services and emotional support services, the IEP plan should also address post-secondary education, vocational training and independent living. Family wraparound services for struggling kids should also become a major initiative.


Society’s criminal justice, behavioral health, education and family institutions are struggling. It is time to push for new strategies. Caring, competent adults must make sure that every unique child receives an appropriate education. With advocacy, communities can provide the education and support resources needed to help children build strong healthy relationships and a brighter future.


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