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.

Photo by nappy from Pexels

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!


Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

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Kathryn

Kathryn Roe has been an educator for 39 years. She began teaching in a juvenile corrections facility (no, she was not an inmate!). She has taught in public and private schools, special education and regular education, at the elementary, middle, and high school levels. She moved from the classroom into administration where she was a principal and a curriculum director. She taught pre-service teachers at the university level for the past 13 years. Classroom management is her passion!

2 thoughts on “Special Education Students and General Education Teachers”

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