Special Education Students and General Education Teachers

A study released in May 2018 showed that the inclusion of students with intellectual disabilities is “lagging”  (Heasley, 2018).  The study examined trends in having such students taught in regular education classes since the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) passed in 1976 through 2014.  IDEA requires that students with disabilities be placed in the “least restrictive environment”, meaning that they should be placed in a regular education classroom as much as possible.

I’ve read several articles about this study and I’ve found that there seems to be some confusion about what the term “intellectual disability” means.  I won’t go into a complete definition here but the term is generally used to describe students who have problems with general mental abilities that affect functioning in two areas:  intellectual functioning (such as learning, problem solving, judgement) and adaptive functioning (activities of daily life such as communication and independent living).  Some of the articles included students with ADHD, receptive and expressive language issues, those with poor social skills, etc.

This got me to thinking about teachers and special education inclusion. 

I do not think there are any teachers who believe that inclusion is bad for students.  The majority would say that inclusion has real, tangible benefits both for the student with special needs and for the general population of PK-12 students.  On the other hand, there are many teachers who believe that they are not the best person to work with special needs students.  A person outside of education, would, I think be unlikely to understand why that is, and would probably cast those teachers in a negative light.

All teachers take a course or two about special needs students.  At the college where I taught, this class was a 100 level class meaning it was generally taken by freshmen.  Another course in assessment was required for elementary education majors; this course primarily focused on special education assessment but was also supposed to include assessments teachers might use for “regular education” students. 

I taught an upper level course on classroom management and I found that, almost without exception, these pre-service teachers had a limited view of special education and almost no understanding of various behavioral issues that a special education student might demonstrate.  To a student, none knew anything about specific behavior disorders.

This is not to condemn those who teach classes about exceptional learners.  Not by a long shot!  Understanding students with disabilities and what it means to work with these students in the general education classroom is simply too much for one, three credit hour class.  In addition, in my experience, few freshmen can fully grasp the topic.  It is not because freshmen are deficit in any way.  It is because they are usually quite young, 18-19 years old.  They are usually away from home for the first time and exploring how to be independent from their parents.  In addition, college learning differs significantly from PK-12 learning.  College students are expected to have the discipline to do most of the educating on their own – for every hour of credit, the student is expected to do two hours of work outside of what is happening in the classroom.  In other words, the college student is expected to be in charge of his/her learning whereas the high school teacher is expected to “make” students learn. 

This is a very difficult transition for many young people.

Those who major in special education may receive more specific training in working with students with special needs, but those teachers are the ones destined for the “special education classroom” and for collaborating with regular education teachers who are working with special needs students.

So why don’t colleges require students to take more classes where they learn more about working with special needs students? 

Have you looked at the requirements education majors must meet?  Where I taught education majors, the list of classes that met requirements for an elementary teacher meant that an elementary education major could not take any electives unless s/he wanted to add a semester or so onto his/her college time.  Few students want to do that.  As it is, elementary education majors often have to take 16 or 18 credit hours per semester even though 12 credit hours per semester is considered full time. 

Many college professionals recognize that education could easily become a 5 year degree, or even a 6 year degree if courses and field experiences were added to ensure that all of the education majors were adept at teaching their own subjects and special education.  I have heard of only a handful of colleges that have made this a requirement.  The thinking is that students will vote with their feet, avoiding the 5 year programs in favor of those who say they can get the student through the program in 4 years.

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There are many outside of education who believe that the regular education teacher receives significant support from the special education teacher.  The special education teacher is supposed to help that regular education teacher find accommodations to use to help the student with special needs meet the same expectations as the other students in the classroom, and with modifications if the special education student is expected to be held to a different standard.  Many believe the special education teacher will be working along side the regular education teacher, co-teaching and collaborating.  And, really, that’s the way it is supposed to be!  But how many sp. ed. teachers are really able to do that? 

Consider an elementary sp. ed. teacher.  States use a number of plans to determine how many students a sp. ed. teacher has on her caseload.  There are students with whom she simply consults with the regular education teacher, students who are expected to have the teacher or another trained professional working with them for a significant part of the day, and everything in between.

The sp. ed. teacher might have students in multiple classrooms who are supposed to be receiving services from a “trained professional” at the same time.  She has to create a schedule where she is in this classroom for this amount of time, and that classroom for a different amount of time.  She has to have the time during the day to meet with the general education teachers for collaboration.  She has to have time to administer alternate assessments for some students, and assessments with accommodations for other students.  She must write and update Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) and report on students’ progress to various people.  She must work with the parents of the students, too.  And she is expected to direct para-professionals on what to do with the students with whom they work. 

This is probably not half of what most special education teachers have to accomplish.

Some districts hire aides or para-professionals to work with special education students on a one-to-one basis.  Many districts pay only minimum wage to these aides and keep them under 30 hours per week so that they are not considered full time and do not receive benefits.  As a result, few of the aides can truly be considered “trained professionals”.  Some states require special education aides to receive training, but this training varies.  It could be an online overview of special education, or it could be a few hours of face-to-face instruction through a college, tech school, or district led inservice training.  Few states require special education aides to have a baccalaureate, and few states require aids to receive a salary commensurate with that level of training.

In short, most sp. ed. teachers wish they could be cloned so that there was enough of them to go around.

What this means for the general education teacher is that s/he is expected to accommodate or modify lessons for the special needs students assigned to them, find alternative materials as needed, work with the students developing social skills, helping the students change negative behaviors, etc. 

I’m sure there are many, many regular education teachers who are delivering fantastic services to special needs students!  My point is that those wonderful regular education teachers often have to figure out how to do all of that often based on what they were supposed to have learned in one or two college classes.

Some school districts try to “fix” the problem by integrating students with IEPs into “specials” like art, music, and physical education.  I used to be an art teacher, and I used to be a special education teacher.  My training as an art teacher did little to help me understand how to accommodate or modify art activities for special education students.  Special subject teachers in general receive no more training in working with special needs students than any other “regular” teacher.

As a special educator, I worked primarily with students with behavior disorders (BD).  Out of that experience, I’ve seen that it is very difficult for a regular education teacher to work with a BD student and assure that the other students in the class are learning.  By definition, BD students have problems with their behavior and can disrupt a regular education class regularly.  Regular education teachers can become frustrated and resentful if they are expected to work with a BD student without intensive support.  That frustration and resentment is communicated to the students in very subtle ways, even when the teacher truly does not want to project that.  (See the blog posts about teacher attitude.)  I found it was to the BD student’s benefit to keep him/her in a special education classroom where we could work intensely on his/her behavior, and to slowly integrate the student into regular classes. 

It takes a teacher with super powers to provide for everything a special needs student needs to be successful academically!

My hat is off to those teachers and paraprofessionals who are working hard to provide the best educational opportunities for both the “regular” and the “special” student!

In my opinion, that is why so many students with IEPs are served in classrooms separate from their general education peers.  It is not ideal.  It is not the intent of the law. 

And that is why, in my opinion, why we do not see an 80% or better inclusion rate.

If we really want special education students to be included in the regular classroom 80% of the day or more, we need to provide supports for both the students and the teachers.  We need more special education teachers and more training for regular education teachers.  And most teachers would say they also need fewer students – smaller class sizes or caseloads.

Sadly, I suspect that the student mentioned at the beginning will spur state agencies and local school districts to boost the number of students in the regular education classroom.  I also suspect that there will be no requirement for additional training for teachers or paras.

If you are a special education teacher, please have some compassion and empathy for the regular education teacher.  Help him/her develop effective accommodations and modifications.

If you are a regular education teacher, work as closely as you can with the special education teacher and recognize that s/he is probably doing the best s/he can with all of the things s/he is expected to do.

I encourage all teachers to request more training in working with special needs students, and I encourage all teachers to seek out more information themselves.  Advocate for the students by advocating for more support and training for all of the adults who work with special needs kids.  Remember:  being positive about what you do, tends to get more results that telling people how bad your day is!  We catch more flies with honey than vinegar.

The kids deserve it and so do you!

Take your advocacy a step further:  let your local school board know what you must do each day and how you do it.  Do this in a positive, informational way.  Help state and federal representatives know how the legal expectations for special needs children play out in the classroom. 

Let everyone know what the good things are that go on in your classroom and how students benefit from your dedication to the education all students. 

I hope I can do you a service by suggesting ways to work with THAT student in your classroom!


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Invisible Disabilities

December 3 was World Disability Day. For many people, disabilities are something visible, or something a teacher would encounter in an Individualized Education Plan (IEP).  That is true for some disabilities, but not for all.

Those of you who know me know that I am hearing impaired.  Being hearing impaired means having a nearly invisible disability, and having one that is often misunderstood.

I lost my hearing as an adult.  I caught a cold and my ears never recovered.  Yes, they did surgery, and no, it didn’t help.  I was teaching at the college level at the time and I did not tell students or colleagues to begin with.  As I discovered how little people understood hearing impairments and how much a lack of hearing affected the one with the impairment, I began to tell people.  I would let classes know about my hearing impairment on the first day, but I wouldn’t always say something later on when I didn’t understand something someone was saying.  I even had a couple of classes where students purposely would mock my inability to hear.  (Gee, I wonder why I didn’t think those students should become teachers!)

I decided I needed to help future teachers understand hearing and not hearing better.  I began to pass out foam ear plugs and encouraged students to try a class using one in one ear.  Many were astonished how much diminished hearing in one ear could affect their comprehension of the class.  I taught them a bit about how we hear and how we can lose part of our hearing.  I taught them about what hearing aids can and cannot do.  Many told me that they’d always be taught that hearing aids meant the person could now hear like “normal.”  Nothing could be further from the truth!

In retrospect, I could have done more to educate my colleagues.  But there is a part of me that wonders why I’m the one who is responsible for educating others.

If you are not standing near me at just the right angle, you might miss seeing my hearing aids.  That is not because I am trying to hide them, because I don’t.  Hearing aids today are easy to miss.  The parts that hook over the ears, like mine, are smaller than they were in the past.  Some people have hearing aids that are completely inside the ear.  The only clue for them is the tiny bead that is at the end of the part that helps the wearer remove them from the ear.

If you do not see my hearing aids, you may miss the reason why I want to sit in a particular part of the room during a meeting.  I am an adult and know where I need to sit to have a better chance of hearing the speakers.  However, I will not try to do so if I’m met with resistance, or if I have to ask every time we have a meeting.  I won’t ask, but I will become resentful that my colleagues are not more understanding.  As time goes on, and that attitude is likely to color other interactions.

If you do not see my hearing aids and we are in a large meeting room, please do not say, “I don’t need the microphone.  I have a loud voice.”  You may have a loud voice, but I probably need both the amplification and to be able to see you to understand most of what you are saying.  I may be bold enough to say, “No, I need you to use the microphone, please.”  Many people are not so bold.  They may wind up staring out of the window or playing with their phones, not because they are rude but because they can’t understand what’s being said.

If you do not see my hearing aids, you may keep talking to me when you’ve turned away so that I cannot see your mouth.  Many people think hearing aids make it so the wearer can hear everything that goes on.  Hearing aids do not give back “normal” hearing.  A hearing impaired person relies on many things to know what a person is saying.  They may need to actually see you, to be able to partially read your lips and to see your expression.  Hearing aids may  help mask tinnitus, but they do not make it go away completely.

If you do not see my hearing aids and I ask you to let me see what you are saying, you may just try to raise your voice.  That doesn’t help much.  Yes, hearing aids boost the volume of sounds, but those are only the sounds the person can hear.  There are sounds that are now higher than my ability to hear and lower than I can hear.  Just talking louder will never make me hear those sounds better.

If you do not see my hearing aids and I tell you I am hearing impaired, you may be tempted to talk louder and slower, and to use single syllable words.  My hearing loss has not affected my intelligence.  You do not need to simplify what you are saying.  I assure you, my intelligence will allow me to understand complex concepts.  I just need to be able to hear you or to see you in a way that allows me to read your lips.

If you do not see my hearing aids, you may not understand why I am so reluctant to use the telephone.  If you see my hearing aids, you may not understand either.  Telephones are strange things to me.  Sometimes I hear the other person very well.  Sometimes I do not.  It has to do with the timbre of the person’s voice.  For example, I can hear one of my grandchildren just fine, and another I cannot understand at all.  My personal telephone uses an app that translates messages from voice to text.  I’ve asked for this to be part of the telephone system at work only to be told the system cannot do that.  Inside my own head I was angrily snapping, “Maybe it should!”  But I didn’t want to make more waves.  Yes, there are devices that allow totally deaf people to communicate using telephones, but I am not that profoundly deaf.

If you cannot see my hearing aids because you are calling me on the phone and you want to leave a message, please do not rattle off the phone number you want me to use to call you back.  It is highly embarrassing to have to ask a student to listen to a message and have them write down the phone number for me!  You don’t know if the person for whom you are leaving a message is hearing impaired or not.  It is only polite to state your phone number is a way that the listener has the best chance of understanding it.

If you do not see my hearing aids and you are talking about a current movie that I have not seen, do not assume I do not like movies.  I like movies a LOT.  I just cannot go to theaters that do not offer closed captions.  There are a lot of theaters that do not, and there are a lot of hearing impaired people who are too shy or too timid or too irritated to ask the theater for that kind of help.  Many theaters have young workers who do not know what to do with a hearing impaired person and may do any of the above when they are told you are hearing impaired or they may just act like being asked if they offer devices for the hearing impaired is a burden.  It often makes it a hassle to even try, so I tend to wait to see movies when they come out online.

If you do not see my hearing aids, or maybe even if you do, if I ask you to repeat what you’ve said, please do not sigh, or roll your eyes, or become exasperated.  I wouldn’t ask you if I didn’t need to.

If you do see my hearing aids, you may think that all I need is to have the sound turned up.  I’ve even had movie theater workers tell me to just turn up my hearing aids.  I’ve been told the theater, or church offers sound amplification devices.  Amplification doesn’t help if the sound itself is out of my hearing range. Nothing could be further from the truth.  The problem may be that the sounds are out of my range of hearing, but there may be other issues as well.   Even though I’m hearing impaired, I am sound sensitive.  That means that loud noises and/or certain frequencies are like fingernails on a chalkboard.  There are sounds that make me yank my hearing aids out of my ears that fast!  (Come to think of it, young people may have no idea of what fingernails on a chalkboard sounds like!)

I’ve been told to go to events even if I cannot hear what is going on.  How many people will go someplace to sit without understanding what is happening for several hours?  Would you?

If I am in a hotel, I will want to be able to turn on closed captions to be able to watch TV.  I’ve been in some very classy hotels that do not have this ability on the room’s remote.  I’ve had to call the desk and have someone with the “normal” remote come and turn on the closed captions.  I’ve been in some where the clerk has just told me that they don’t have closed captions available.  It is both embarrassing to ask and exasperating to have to ask.  Maybe those hotels should advertise that they do not cater to hearing impaired people – oh, but that would be against the law, wouldn’t it?

Even if you know I’m hearing impaired, you may question why I have a handicapped tag for my car.  Part of my hearing impairment has affected my balance.  I’ve had people question my use of handicapped spaces enough that I am tempted to affect a limp when using the handicapped parking spaces.  Lately I’ve decided that I’m a big girl and I can tell when I’m having troubles with my balance and when I’m not.  I am the only one who knows when I need to park closer.  But that means I’ve had to try very hard not to see people’s faces or to not hear them tell me the handicapped spaces are for people who are “really handicapped”.

That brings us back to invisible disabilities.  There are many of them.  People who suffer from depression or anxiety may not be obvious.  They may take medication and still be depressed or anxious so telling them to take a pill can be insensitive, and can make them more depressed and more anxious.  We may not be able to see vision problems, autism, ADHD in adults, chronic illnesses, or learning disabilities.  That does not mean these disabilities do not exist.

Too often we’ve been lead to believe that disabilities mean something obvious.  In the 1970s when legislation was passed in the US requiring accommodations for children and adults with disabilities, we started seeing changes in textbook images and characters on TV.  Largely these images show people in wheelchairs or using crutches or white canes.  It is no wonder that we think of disabilities as something we can see.

I have been in education for 39 years.  I’ve had the opportunity to observe how children and adults with disabilities are treated.  If the student is learning at the same pace as his/her peers or if the disability does not require a teacher with specialized training, his/her disability does not have to be recognized through an IEP.  There may be something in the student’s file suggesting preferential seating, but that may be it.  Children are not always the best advocates for themselves.  They don’t know how to ask for more.  They also do not always know that there can even be something that would help them in the classroom, hallways, lunch room or playground.  (I have a great deal of trouble in lunchrooms.  The background noise prevents me from hearing.  The sound can overwhelm my hearing aids.  And my noise sensitivity may make it so I am overwhelmed.)  A child’s disability can even be a source of embarrassment.  I recall children who hid their glasses, or pocketed their hearing aids to try to be “normal.”  I even worked with an albino student who refused to wear her sunglasses, and always tried to sit in the sun – she cried and said she just wanted to be like everyone else.  Doesn’t every child?

If you are an educator, you may now be thinking, “Well, those kids should have 504 plans!”  For those of you who are not in education, a 504 plan is a legal document that outlines the accommodations a student needs to be successful in the classroom.  Students are eligible for a 504 plan if their disability does not require specialized instruction, but who need some “extra” things to reach their potential in the classroom.

In every school district in which I’ve worked, there has been great resistance to developing 504 plans.  I asked one superintendent why he would tell me to not allow 504 plans.  He said it would mean too much pressure on teachers and gave parents too much ammunition to “helicopter” their children, to not allow the children to learn without the parent hovering over them.

Yes, a 504 plan does require school districts and teachers to provide those accommodations to students.  It does allow parents and others to hold teachers accountable for those accommodations.  Yes, it does allow parents to legally advocate for their children.  And why shouldn’t educators be willing provide those accommodations?

If teachers have not received training in how to best work with a child with a 504 plan, they should be encouraged to get that training.  The school district should provide that training.  If the parent is willing to work with the teacher, the teacher should not be shamed by the school district or the parent.  I know from experience a four year degree does not allow enough time to learn everything a teacher needs to know!

The real point here is that we don’t know who does and who does not have a disability.  We should not wait to provide accommodations until someone asks.  We should not assume everyone around us is completely able-bodied.  If we aspire to being a kinder society, we should assume someone in any given group will need some accommodation.  And we should provide those accommodations without someone asking us to do it, without the law forcing us to do it, and without shaming the persons who need them.

So the next time I say, “Pardon me, I didn’t hear what you said”, please just look at me and repeat it.  Don’t sigh, or roll your eyes.  Don’t raise the volume of your voice and talk to me like I’m not bright.  Don’t make me always have to fight to be able to know what is going on.  And, frankly, don’t always make me ask!

When you come right down to it, all I’m asking for is to be treated with dignity and welcome.  I think I deserve it and I think everyone else deserves it too!