Special Education Opinion

Football Coach Teaches Empathy and Compassion

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — October 17, 2013 3 min read
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Children with special needs often have a somewhat different experience in school than their peers. In some cases, children with learning challenges discover in their early years of schooling what they can’t do rather than what they can. In the best of situations, however, they receive the services they need, their parents are actively involved as advocates in their lives, they experience an inviting classroom and a welcoming school community and they flourish. Committees on special education, teachers, principals and support staff work tirelessly to ensure this is every child’s experience.

Countless variables contribute to the academic and social gaps that can develop between a special needs child and age peers. Challenges arise that are physical, mental and/or emotional. This domain of education is the most litigious within our work as federal and state law offer assurances and protection. Over the past thirty years the move toward inclusion has, thankfully, brought these students into our schools and we have learned how to provide an education with less restrictions.

The experience for the child, is accompanied by the experience of their parents. Parents of these children can experience something quite different from that of the parents of their children’s peers. They are called to school to have meetings in which, no matter how positive the tone, reminds them that other parents are not generating IEP’s or educational plans for their children. Their children are not often the lead in the play, the valedictorian, the team captain, or a class officer.

However, it is far better today than before 1975. Before the passage of the federal legislation called PL 94-142, millions of children with disabilities were either denied public education or were segregated from their non-disabled peers. That story is captured on an archived page of the U.S. Department of Education’s website. Families and educators have come a long way to including special needs children in our school programs and classrooms with great success. This most certainly is a civil rights movement that has resulted in millions of children joining peers in general education programs, resulting in personal success not imagined before.

Federal legislation called Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was passed in 1990. A comprehensive website is designed to help parent and educators understand the rights of our special needs children and the responsibilities we have to meet those needs. This resource offers parents and schools easy access to information. Accessibility to a free and appropriate education has become the standard.

Schools offer more than academics. Children learn how to socialize, be members of teams and clubs; they learn how to be part of a society. This is often a challenge for a special needs child, but one man in Georgia is showing us how simple respect and empathy can change that experience. Today News reported how Coach Scott Hamilton adds special players to his roster for every home game. Those players, called ‘The Player of the Day’, are given their own jerseys and are included team activities, attending the pep rally, riding the bus to the pre-game dinner, and running out of the tunnel onto the field. Parents of two recent ‘Players of the Day’ described what it meant to them and their children. It is not simply the inclusion of these children on the team that makes the difference. It is the sincerity and the dignity Coach Hamilton brings to the process. These children are sharing a team experience with the football team, athletes who otherwise might not consider them peers. The team is learning empathy and compassion, building skills to deal with those who are different from them.... authentic workplace skills.

The article states, “Hamilton is out to show his players that it’s about more than just wins and losses, while also promoting compassion in the school.” We think he is doing that. Perhaps to some this doesn’t seem like a meaningful or sizable action. It is not a sweeping systemic change but it is monumental for the lives touched. That is how educators want to live each day. It is the attitude and intention of the coach to which we have been drawn.

When our heart is in the right place, our head can follow. Coach Hamilton was quoted at the end of the article as saying, “When I die, I don’t want to be on my tombstone, ‘Scott Hamilton, the football coach,’' he said. “I want it to say, ‘Scott Hamilton, a good man.’” The smiles on the faces of those boys we saw on the video and the high fives exchanged with the rest of the team say it all. Joy is joy. Scott Hamilton is a man whose life is making a difference.

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