Kids with Disabilities Need Support, Not Punishment

Written by Sharon Juenemann; originally printed in The Portland Tribune

I’ll never forget the day my 5-year-old was suspended from school. My child has learning challenges and was working out their frustrations on the playground. They were spinning around and knocked over another child. It wasn’t intentional; this was the only way they knew how to self-regulate at the time.

The school, however, perceived this behavior as aggressive, and the response was a suspension notice. When you think of all the things that might be in store for your 5-year-old at school, that one is probably not on the list.

That experience, in part, propelled me to where I am today: the executive director of The Shadow Project, a Portland nonprofit that, since 2003, has partnered with Portland Public Schools and other local districts and teachers. Together we arrange for volunteer mentors to work one-on-one with select children to improve their reading and social/emotional skills. We’re also helping schools shift their approach with neurodiverse kids from one of discipline to one of compassion and flexibility.

We already know that educators have a really tough job when it comes to classroom management and meeting the needs of a diverse student body. Yet, we are continually shocked by the disciplinary rates for students of color and those with learning challenges, as outlined in a recent Portland Tribune article.

When it comes to neurodiversity, the number of students affected is much larger than you may think. According to the National Center for Learning Disabilities, roughly 1 in 5 children has a learning disability that makes school much more difficult for them. More locally, the Oregon Department of Education reports that no fewer than 78,300 students participated in public special education programs during the 2021-22 school year.

A common myth is that students who misbehave just need harsher discipline. As a parent of a student with disabilities, I’ve heard this message for years. But the truth is, the needs of students with disabilities — many of whom are also students of color — are multifaceted. To address this and help those kids succeed in school, we need to layer multiple evidence-based support programs onto their educational programming. The Shadow Project does exactly that with three programs: Goal Setting, Reading Mentors, and Sensory Spaces.

These programs are designed to meet the unique needs of children impacted by autism, ADHD, dyslexia and trauma. They help participants develop important life skills, and also help with core academic skills by improving reading and math proficiency. Finally, they also make available to these students new skills for remaining calm when triggered by overstimulation that, to you and I, might not seem that hard to handle.

Using our programs, teachers and parents in a growing number of school districts are now supporting students in positive ways that nurture their strengths and recognize the gifts these children bring to the classroom.

This approach works, says Beth Brod, long-time Shadow Project partner teacher from Woodmere Elementary School in Portland, which is now using Sensory Spaces and other Shadow Project programs. “We teach kids early on that instead of saying ‘I can’t’ they say, ‘I’ll try.’” Brod says. “Our students integrate that growth mindset over the years. They like the feeling of that success, and they want more of that.”

It is my sincere hope that no parent of a child with learning disabilities receives a suspension notice or other disciplinary action when proven programs exist. Kids don’t deserve to be punished for expressing their needs in the only ways they know how. And it’s our job to give them the tools they need to succeed, in school and beyond.

To allow those children to be heard, we are seeking school partners for the 2023-24 school year who want evidence-based programs to support their students with disabilities and the staff who teach them. If you would like to see Shadow Project in your community, please email You can also learn more about our work at

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