In 1975, the first version of what we now know as the IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) was passed. Amendments passed in 1990, 1997, and finally in 2004 to create what we now know as the document that ensures children with disabilities receive a “free and appropriate education”.
Before that time, children with learning, physical, or mental differences were not guaranteed time in the general education classroom.
For general education teachers, not teaching those with differing abilities meant they had no reason to learn about those differences.
Many teachers who began their careers before and during this shift are still teaching today.
As science advanced, particularly neuroscience, we began to understand more about who these children with differences are. There are now names for many of these differences (Aspberger’s, sensory processing disorder, selective mutism, and dyslexia, to name a few).
We have a much more detailed understanding of how learning works, not just in the neurotypical brain but also in the brains of those who are neurodiverse. As science uncovers more that shows these students are learning, although it may be in a different way, educators in the general education classroom are appropriately given more responsibility to teach these students.
However, this is where the system starts to break down.
For decades, general education teachers have been frustrated with the fact that more and more students are being excluded from special education and placed in the general ed. classrooms - not because they want to isolate and ignore these children, but because they have never received adequate training on how to help them.
This lack of increase in training and resources in the gen. ed. environment has created a crisis.
Although we are aware that science has advanced, we are lacking pioneers in the field to bridge the widening gap between knowing that these children need more time in general education and actually supplying their general education teachers with training, tools, and resources to teach the children.
The solution for many teachers, especially in the beginning, seemed to be to find a way to get these students qualified for special education. The way to do that was to fail them by allowing
them to drop further and further behind until they could be flagged and tested for special education services.
There are significant problems with this mentality. First, the evolution of special services 40 plus years after the first IDEA has created another significant gap.
Students who currently qualify for special education are often vastly different from what we would now consider “low achievers” who are in general education. Students in a self-contained classroom are often unable to communicate verbally. Some are unable to communicate at all. They still wear diapers, have to be fed, and will spend a large part of their education not working on academic skills so much as they are working on life skills - feeding themselves and caring for their own basic needs.
They do receive an academic education, but there is a chasm of difference between their needs and the needs of low performing students in the general education classroom.
Many general education teachers don’t even realize this, so the idea of letting a student fail so they can qualify for special education may seem perfectly reasonable, even if it is questionable in its ethical applications.
Another problem is that low-achieving students who have basically been given up on are aware that they have been given up on. They act out, becoming not just academic challenges, but also behavioral challenges because being the “bad” kid is better than being the “dumb” kid. It can crush a child.
Although there are services offered for students who operate within the chasm between self-contained sp.ed. and general ed., gen. ed. teachers may still have the idea that if a child qualifies, they will somehow be relieved of the responsibility of educating the student.
Unfortunately, the cavalry is not coming. There is no backup. The general ed. teacher is very often the last line of defense available, regardless of the fact that the gap still exists between gen. ed. teachers receiving these students and having the resources and training to actually teach them.
The truth is that it’s up to the individual teacher to research how these children learn, what advancements have been made, and figure out for themselves precisely how to teach them. We have to find the resources on our own.
We have to become the pioneers we so desperately need.
That is not likely to change within the “lifetime” of the careers of this generation of educators. It’s time to buckle down and get to work.
How, then, have successful educators started to gain traction in teaching these children?
Ask the Experts Within the School
Most teachers approach their peers, the counselor, or their administrators for answers and resources first. However, few in these positions have the day-to-day practical expertise to really help problem-solve in tough situations. Consider those avenues your first stop, but our main concern in this article is to broaden your scope so you have access to more resources for those particularly grueling, year-breaking situations.
For example, special education teachers in charge of self-contained classrooms have had much more training on how to work with children with specific differences. Ask if you can either observe them teaching (which may not be possible because they often have very strict confidentiality regulations) or just talk with them about strategies they use in their classroom.
If the special education teacher at your school is unable to help, seek out others in the field. You can sometimes find information about specific behaviors or differences online, in social media forums, or in book form.
Speech Therapists are another wonderful resource for information, often with much more to offer than just articulation (speaking) concerns. They are generally knowledgeable about language processing and many other things that may be contributing to a student’s difficulties.
Ask the Experts Outside of the School
If the student is having behavioral issues, you might also be able to approach other professionals within your school district, like a school psychologist. Many districts share psychologists, and their time is limited as well, but you may be able to email them with the occasional question.
If the situation is serious enough, you might even approach a child counselor or therapist outside of the district for suggestions on the best ways to help your student, but remember to keep as much information confidential as possible.
If there is a physical difference, occupational and physical therapists assigned to your school, district, or area (they are usually shared, just as the psychologist is) are highly likely to have suggestions on ways to help.
For neurotypical students, it may take 6 times for information to be worked through before the student retains it. Gifted students can sometimes retain and use information after one exposure. Unfortunately, there is no cap on the limit of times it may take students to interact with the same material before they retain it when they are struggling learners. This means that frequent repetition is necessary - preferably daily until the student has mastered the information.
With some learning differences, even once a student seems to have learned the material, they will forget it again. If you find this happening, present the information to them again and repeat until they master it again.
This three steps forward, two steps back approach can make it feel like you’re getting nowhere, but it really does work over time in even the most difficult cases.
Use a Multi-Sensory Approach
Early childhood teachers are usually experts in this area, but it’s applicable to all ages.
Provide multiple ways to interact with the information as they repeatedly work with it.
In order for your students to get the most benefit from the information they are trying to learn, remember the rule of four modes: they need to be using their eyes, ears, hands, and voice, or they need to “see it, hear it, write (or create in some other way) it, speak it”. Many specialists use these modes to increase the amount of learning accomplished.
Disabilities, low academic achievement, and even low intelligence are no match for the diversity of the human spirit. Every child is unique and individual. Yes, there are often ways to group and categorize children, but never underestimate the possibility that your student will defy every category and prediction you attempt to use to educate them in a systematic, predictable manner.
One thing successful special education teachers and specialists have is more important than anything else, and many general education teachers should cultivate this: tenacity.
When you’re a special education teacher, there is nowhere else to go. You are the final stop. If some strategy doesn’t work, or a student isn’t learning, you just keep trying. You research, you try crazy things, you use whatever the student is passionate about, and you just keep trying until the learning “sticks”.
Try pretending that special education doesn’t exist. What would you do to help your student then? You never know what kind of problems you might solve if you never give up. We live in a world of infinite possibilities. You may be the inventor of the next great thing that will happen in education.
Don’t limit your students, and certainly never limit yourself.
The IDEA was a step in the right direction. Thanks to science, we know so much is possible. It’s up to us to make that happen. It’s up to you.
You are the pioneer.