Addressing Special Education: Rethinking Support for Students and Teachers

Addressing Special Education: Rethinking Support for Students and Teachers

For students who have special education needs, the classroom can pose a considerable challenge, with undiagnosed or untreated learning disabilities often proving particularly troublesome. An article devoted to this topic in the Hechinger Report online education journal offered some alarming insights—for example, of the thousands of minors arrested each year, up to 70% are thought to have some type of disability, “ranging from emotional disability like bipolar disorder to learning disabilities like dyslexia.” 

Citing government data, Hechinger Report writers Jackie Mader and Sarah Butrymowicz noted that most adults in prison also have a disability, a fact that some experts believe can be traced back to “deep problems in the education of children with special needs.” Indeed, it is easy to see how children with unmet or undiagnosed special education needs may languish in schools that are inadequately staffed or otherwise lacking the appropriate resources, which surely diminishes their future prospects.

Moreover, it is important to note that special education has never been fully funded at the federal level. As a result, many states dip into general education funds to cover the cost of educating all students, which puts teachers and school districts in a tough spot. Still, allowing students to pass through—or drop out of—school without adequate skills or special education services can clearly bring about negative consequences.

Here are some ways to avoid overlooking special education students.

Teacher support

Although there is a trend toward mainstreaming students who require special education services, some observers argue that general education teachers are often not prepared to handle such divergent student needs. As a 2017 article in The Atlantic penned by Hechinger Report contributor Jackie Mader noted, “general education teachers in a teacher-preparation program reported taking an average of 1.5 courses focusing on inclusion or special education, compared to about 11 courses for special-education teachers.”

Despite this discrepancy, a rising number of general education teachers are being expected to differentiate instruction for a range of learners, including advanced students and those with special education needs. Ultimately, Mader asserted, “Teachers must have the time, support, and training to provide a high-quality education based on a student’s needs,” even when class sizes and funding constraints might make this a challenge.

For teachers seeking guidance on identifying and supporting dyslexic students, the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity provides a grade-specific list of the signs of dyslexia, and the International Dyslexia Association offers a more comprehensive but still accessible guide of its own. While such materials do not replace more formal classes or instruction for teachers, they can be helpful to consult as a first port of call.

Early assessment and intervention

Whether educators have a special education focus or are general education teachers who have students with special education needs in their classes, they are more likely to be able to assess any learning issues that arise if they receive adequate training and support. And time is of the essence, since many experts insist that it is paramount to identify special education needs as early as possible.

Although early and accurate identification of learning disabilities is critical, “many of the 1 in 5 children with learning and attention issues are not formally identified with a disability,” according to the National Center for Learning Disabilities. Undiagnosed problems can lead to a sense of frustration and failure on the part of students, who may act out in the classroom and disrupt both their own learning and the education of their fellow students. 

The NCLD also pointed out that “when these children receive the right interventions and informal supports, many can succeed in general education”—but securing this support is crucial. Such a perspective likely inspired this straightforward declaration from the National Association of Special Education Teachers: “The importance of assessment should never be underestimated.” 

For anyone unconvinced of the trouble that can ensue when special education needs go unaddressed, a blog post on the website offered this cautionary note: 

For adults, having an undiagnosed learning disability can affect career choice, limit job advancement, and lead to a number of psychological and emotional issues, including depression and feelings of low self-worth. This is particularly true when the person interprets his or her past educational failures as personal faults and experiences feelings of embarrassment and shame because of a perceived intellectual deficiency.

Rethinking instruction

One way to better address the needs of students with learning disabilities is to implement programming that covers many bases; for instance, reading instruction approaches designed for those with special education needs may be the way to go for all students. In a 2016 post for Idaho Education News about the push to “rethink literacy for special education students,” Melissa Davlin shared this observation: “Much of what educators and researchers know about effective literacy instruction comes from the special education field.” 

Davlin based this conclusion on an interview she conducted with Idaho literacy expert Dr. Evelyn Johnson, who believes that regular classroom instruction can be improved by paying attention to when, where, and how students struggle—especially when it comes to literacy. According to Johnson, who works for a Boise nonprofit literacy and learning support center and advocates for more comprehensive teacher training, “When professionals understand why the learning process breaks down, they can better understand learning for everybody.”

More specifically, the “effective literacy interventions” described by Johnson entail targeted assessments and interventions based on a student’s identified level of need, which can have a welcome ripple effect by deepening educators’ understanding of what literacy skills can and should include. 

Johnson’s approach seems to offer a more positive view of special education, underscoring the idea that students’ learning disabilities and challenges can be seen as an opportunity to boost the potential of all students through a deep, thorough, well-researched dive into the overall learning process. While this may be difficult to implement for a variety of reasons, the risk of not prioritizing special education needs—or not insisting on timely assessment procedures—can lead to unfortunate consequences, as noted by the NCLD:

Learning and attention issues that remain undetected or unaddressed can lead to lifelong difficulties that include low self-esteem, underemployment, and increased risk of involvement with the justice system. For these reasons, it is imperative for researchers to help schools and families understand more about why some students with learning and attention issues are formally identified while others are not.

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