The Importance of Raising Expectations for Students with Special Education Needs
In a pointed, highly personal open letter addressed to unnamed “school administrators, school board attorneys and the educators who cannot see past my daughter’s disability,” Jennifer Ryan brought to light a question with which many parents wrestle: how to help their children with special education needs get an appropriately challenging education. In the letter—which was published in 2018 on The Mighty, a website with a mission to “empower and connect people facing health challenges and disabilities”—Ryan explained that her elementary school-aged daughter has both autism and Williams syndrome, two conditions that require a great deal of intervention and support at school.
Brimming with frustration, the letter included a reminder that any advocacy on behalf of her daughter comes with legal backing thanks to the federal Individual with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). This law requires that students with special education needs receive a “free and appropriate public education,” which is often determined by the level of special education services a student requires according to his or her Individual Education Plan (IEP). However, the mandate to fairly and adequately educate children with special education needs does not necessarily come with a guarantee that such an education will actually be provided. In fact, according to many parents and advocates including Ryan herself, students with special education needs are subject to disturbingly low expectations.
This issue has come to light in many ways. For instance, a 2018 investigation of the Berkeley, California public school district’s approach to special education students conducted by local news site Berkeleyside exposed the struggle many parents face when attempting to ensure their students have enough school-based support. One mother of a special education student reported having to quit her job and become a classroom volunteer after her son was put into what she said was an under-resourced mainstream setting, and the district was sued by the Disability Rights and Education Fund for failing to sufficiently identify or support students with dyslexia, as required by law.
According to an Education Week article on a panel at the federal Senate Committee on Education that was focused on the educational experiences of students diagnosed with dyslexia, “panelists highlighted the damaging cycle of low expectations related to dyslexia,” which was named as the most common learning disability students face. Panelist David Boies, a prominent lawyer who has dyslexia, advised all in attendance to help students struggling with dyslexia to understand that they “are not stupid” and they can indeed achieve academically.
But how can teachers help students with special education needs reach their full potential? Here are three tips that may prove useful for educators.
Know the power of expectations
In her Education Week article about the dyslexia panel, teacher and writer Kyle Redmond advised her fellow teachers to acknowledge that their expectations for students are “often self-fulfilling,” in a phenomenon she termed “unearned power.” She went on to warn that “If this power is mismanaged, we can unintentionally reinforce student fears about their intellectual potential.” Her first piece of advice for teachers wishing to avoid such negative outcomes: work to better understand conditions like dyslexia so that the associated struggles—challenges with decoding and spelling, for example—do not overwhelm students’ greater potential.
Redmond also pointed out that because students with dyslexia are often gifted in other areas, teachers would do well to highlight their strengths while also employing “simple tools and adjustments” that make it easier to perform basic academic tasks.
Encourage grade-level work
According to the title of a 2017 Hechinger Report article that documented the experiences of several students with special education needs, “For Students with Disabilities, Overcoming Low Expectations Can Be Half the Battle.” Indeed, Mark Nelson, a learner profiled in the piece, described being routed into lower level classes that were far too easy for him—all because he was diagnosed with dyslexia and verbal apraxia. Instead of being challenged academically, Nelson found himself whizzing through with all As and, in one instance, being offered all the answers to an upcoming test by a special education teacher.
Eventually, Nelson and his parents hired a special education advisor who helped them advocate for his unique needs. Under the threat of a lawsuit, Nelson’s public school district eventually agreed to support (and pay for) Nelson’s transfer to a private school, where he immediately began doing grade-level work and was finally able to access the college prep work he was seeking. Today, he has an associate’s degree and is contemplating a transfer to a four-year college.
Incorporate soft skills as essential tools
Unfortunately, Nelson’s experience echoes the findings of another Hechinger Report study of students with special education needs. As part of a larger examination of high school students with disabilities, Hechinger Report journalists found that the “vast majority of special education students can grasp rigorous academic content.” The report cited research estimating that up to 90 percent of special education students are capable of completing college prep work in high school, yet noted these students are often missing instruction in one very key area: soft skills.
According to the article, students diagnosed with any number of disorders—including ADHD or dyslexia—typically have “weaknesses with executive functioning,” which means they may lack the ability to manage their time effectively or speak up and advocate for themselves in a school setting. Although direct instruction in social skills, communication strategies, and study skills may be exactly what’s needed to help students with special education needs overcome low expectations and thrive after high school, parents and advocates allege that such tactics are not being adequately taught in K–12 settings.
Also called “transition skills,” these valuable soft skills can focus on more than just college readiness. Incorporating lessons on how to hold a job, live independently, or keep up with a steady stream of assignments may all be considered important ways to meet special education students with high expectations for the future—wherever that may take them.
Research has shown that children of all abilities thrive when we hold them to high expectations. Why should our expectations for students with special education needs be any different?
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