An Educator’s Fight For and Against Special Education

When people think of children in “special education” most times they think of special needs children all in the same classroom for the duration of the school day. Honesty, that’s what I remember it being like in high school, except the “bad kids” were in that class as well. But things have really changed, for the most part, when it comes to special education. The push now is for inclusive classrooms, where children with learning disabilities are emerged in the general education population. The goal is to normalize the classes, while also providing those students with the scaffolds and resources they need. 

This topic always brings my mind to the conversation of Equity ~vs~ Equality. While all of our students are treated Equally as humans and children, the accommodations given to children with disabilities allows us to be Equitable to our children. They allow us to put  our students in a situation where they can all meet the same goals as their peers just in different ways. So, while there seems to be many benefits to special education programs, why is it that parents oftentimes are so resistant to the idea?

After a few weeks of class it is ideally pretty easy to see who are your consistent strugglers. Some students struggle with the material because they struggle with reading and/or comprehension. While others may struggle with the material for other reasons such as the lack of ability to retain the information, difficulties organizing information, etc. Every year there are usually a few students who I pull a mental yellow flag on. Meaning, I’m noticing some consistent difficulties they are having so I consult with their guidance counselor and other teachers to see if the struggle is across the board in their classes. I keep an eye on them to see how they progress or don’t. I would normally throw up a mental yellow flag if I notice a student is doing poorly on assignments where they must work independently, having a hard time focusing, having a difficult time understanding or reading instructions, or sometimes even refusing to do the work. Many times those students who teachers have behavioral issues from are the students who need some assistance, but instead of asking choose to act out. The yellow flag doesn’t necessarily mean something is wrong, but just that a concern is there. 

One year I had a student who was really struggling with basic foundational concepts. When I would try to help him independently or invite him to small group with other students who needed just a little more one on one help, he refused. This could be really frustrating, because here I am trying to provide students with the help they need and am being met with resistance. There was nothing I could really do in those moments, because I can’t force a student to receive help. I reached out to his mom, expressing my concerns and desire to help him, but ultimately it was his decision if he was going to be open to it. 

Unfortunately, what ended up happening was this particular students would begin to distract other students. It was one thing for a student to decide they weren’t going to do the work or get the help they needed, but it’s a whole different story when you begin to distract others. Eventually, I got tired of speaking to this student about their behavior and their disrespectful responses when being called out on those behaviors. So I had the student join another class for a few days, to somewhat give us a break from one another. He was tired of me and I was surely tired of him. I reached out to his parent, for what felt like the 30th time and her response was, he (the student) doesn’t like me and doesn’t think I like him. He doesn’t want to be in my class and the mother wants him moved. NO PROBLEM!

I had the student permanently moved to the other class, because honestly I never want a parent to feel uneasy about their child being in any class, let alone mine. While I was completely aware that this was their way of deflecting from the real problem, the student needed help academically, I gave in to the request. Surprisingly enough, the teacher whose class he was moved into found he was having the same exact issues. As we began to reach out to his other teachers, it became clear these academic struggles and behavioral issues were happening across the board. As the guidance counselor reached out to the parent about coming in to meet about the student, they would get no response and no call back. Here this child is struggling in all of his classes , and the parent was not being cooperative. 

Ironically, once the student was moved from my class he became to come by and visit me and we would have conversations about all kinds of things he was dealing with. One day I decided to talk to him about his academic struggles. I pushed and probed, asking questions in an attempt to get him to see that he would benefit from the additional resources he would get had he received an IEP (Individualized Education Program), which it was clear he needed. Eventually as I explained in detail what accommodations he could possibly get, he agreed that he needed them and that they would be beneficial to him. But he expressed some real concerns he had, and they were all social. “I don’t want people to think I’m stupid. I don’t want to be pulled from my classes for everyone to see.” It became obvious that he was watching as other students received the same accommodations he needed, because he knew he needed them. So I asked him, do you think the other students who get pulled out are embarrassed or think people are talking about them? He quickly responded “no.” So I asked why he thought people would do that to him. I explained that initially, I’m sure that the other students were a little scared or even uncomfortable, but they go used to it and saw that it was really helping them. 

This quickly made me think about his parent, and the many other parents who are hesitant to get their child tested to see if they have some sort of intellectual disability. It can be difficult to accept that your child is struggling and needs additional help and resources. Feelings of shame and blame can arise, and it sometimes just isn’t an easy pill to swallow. Other times parents are simply scared of the stigma that they believe comes with having a child with a disability. As a parent you never want to do something that can harm you child in the long run and making decisions such as these can be very difficult. Which is why it’s important to have a humble and empathetic team present to help the parents navigate through the process.

As an educator I have mixed feelings about the idea of Special Education as a whole. THE GOOD: The accommodations give our students with disabilities what they need to be successful. For instance, some students receive read a loud for all assignments and assessments. This means any passages, instructions, or questions can be read to the student. What this does is, say in a Science class where you are testing students knowledge plants, students don’t fail and aren’t penalized because they have trouble reading the words on the page. I’ve seen first hand the benefits of read aloud in a math class. Some of the questions are long and wordy, and it can be easily discouraging to look at for someone who struggles with reading. But once the passages are read to the student, they become more comfortable answering the question. 

THE NOT SO GOOD: My issue with Special Education programs as I have seen them is that while we give students these accommodations and scaffolds, if we don’t remediate the issue, we aren’t  truly helping the student in the long run. If a student struggles with reading, then as we provide those read aloud’s we should also be providing them with the help in learning to read. From my experience many students receive accommodations for years, without appropriate remediation. Which means, ultimately the child never learns to read. So what happens when they graduate and go on to the real world and those accommodations are gone. When there is nobody there to read for them or help them to break apart the tasks. 

I believe the only way for these programs and accommodations to be truly helpful to the student in the long run, is to slowly pull back some of the accommodations as time goes by. The goal should be to help the child learn to read so that ultimately they won’t need the scaffold and/or accommodation any longer. While I am aware that this isn’t possible for all students, because some students disabilities are more severe then others. There are a vast number of students being done a disservice because of the lack of remediation.

Please share your thoughts or comments…

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