Including Special Needs Students In General Education
By Dr. June Stride View more articles
Jalyne silently sat at the table looking at the slice of pizza getting cold on her plate. She asked herself why? Why was she having such a hard time revealing her biggest worry to her best friend since elementary school? As neighbors, she and Carla had walked to grade school together, shared a seat on the bus to junior high school and now were preparing for the first days of senior high school. As Carla finished her pizza, she rambled on and on about the first day… what to wear, how to fix her hair, and about all the exciting times they would have with the new kids from the other junior high school. Carla, at first, seemed not to notice that Jalyne barely said anything.
Then, interrupting her own monologue, Carla blurted, “Okay, Jalyne, what’s up? I’ve known you for so long that I recognize that silence as a warning sign. Talk to me!”
Jalyne, quietly and hesitantly replied, “It’s not the clothes or hairdo that has me worried, Carla. It’s the kids.”
Surprised, Carla turned to Jalyne, asking, “What do you mean, the kids? You never had trouble getting along with the kids before!”
Jalyne’s composure left her. With tears gathering in the corners of her eyes, Jalyne moaned, “Everyone will know how stupid I am! I was always in special classes before. When I couldn’t read or spell or remember the answer, the kids in my classes didn’t laugh at me. This year I will be in regular classes. It won’t be long before the school knows how dumb I am. Oh, Carla, what am I going to do? How will I survive high school?”
Jalyne’s problem should not be hers alone. She should not have to bear in silence the worry of adjustment to regular classes nor the very real concern about her academic success. She shouldn’t have to think in terms of surviving high school, yet I suspect that she is not alone with this worry, especially with the dual influences of the push for higher standards and the expectation of increased inclusion.
For some, inclusion is the answer to prayers of providing a less discriminatory and more challenging educational experience for special education students segregated from their general education peers while receiving instruction in separate classrooms. For others, inclusion has not been a thumbs-up favorite educational trend. Many parents worry that their special education students will not get the necessary individual assistance that they formerly got. Many special education teachers nervously contemplate adjustment to different educational models, perhaps co-teaching or consulting for teachers in an inclusion setting. Regular education teachers are anxious about dealing with ‘special’ kids who may cause behavior problems and drag down their percentage-passing statistics. Some admit deep resentment at the possibility of relinquishing total classroom control and ‘sharing’ their classes and class time with a co-teacher.
Administrators are concerned with implementation issues such as staffing inclusion classes, building in shared planning times, and working with staff to figure out how to close achievement gaps that could plague their educational successes. Notice how easy it could be, when attempting to deal with these weighty issues, to overlook the anxiety and fears of those very students who are coming face to face with a vastly different educational environment.
The Jalynes of our classrooms will have new opportunities and new challenges to face. They are deserving of support, emotional and academic, preferably prior to being included, but certainly after they are placed in the general education setting. Having said that brings us to the critical issues: how to support and in what ways to provide that support in order to promote academic success.
Wise people have often said that we learn more from our mistakes than from our successes. If you subscribe to that notion as I confess that I do, I should be a very learned person for I have made mistakes most of which cannot be excused by my good intentions. My inclusion teaching and administrative experiences have been varied over the course of many years working in a large New York multi-ethnic suburban high school. The 2000 plus student body, made up of approximately 38% Hispanic, 37% Afro-American and the remainder from about 56 different ethnicities, in pre-inclusion times had approximately 250 identified special education students. As you might expect, the preponderance of our special needs students had spent many years being educated in special rooms by special education teachers skilled in individualizing and supporting but perhaps not certified in content areas.
Our district, attempting to deal with the latest state and federal guidelines while overcoming problems of severe financial shortfalls with a rapidly growing student population and a critical need for more classroom space, had also to deal with a professional morale problem that had resulted in a rapid and constant turnover in staff. It was into this environment that inclusion had its beginning in our high school, rather unceremoniously and without considerable preparation. One year inclusion was a word mentioned occasionally at professional meetings.
The next year we began including!
Not surprisingly, the students and staff involved in inclusion, as well as the student body and staff at large, learned a lot during the early years. We especially faced the truth that the ‘way it had been done’ was probably not the ‘way it would continue to be done’. General education teachers who had been ruling monarchs in their own classrooms received word that they would be co-teaching with a person that they barely knew personally and certainly not professionally.
Further, they learned that the class roster would now include a number of special needs students. Some of those special needs students, like Jalyne, were poor readers, could not spell well and lacked confidence in their ability to succeed academically. As for those special needs students, they were greatly surprised when they arrived at class and found that they were in the mix of the general population. It did not take them long to conclude that teacher and peer behavior, supports and expected level of academic performance had been mightily altered.
Quite honestly, those first years were ‘sink or swim’ for all involved. Our educators tried to adjust and at the same time, tried to discern how best to serve students, all students, in a time of rising academic standards.
The results of our first year of inclusion gave us much cause for reflection.
- Most of our special education students reported feeling ‘more normal’ in the general education setting. They made an effort not to attract peer or teacher attention by acting out.
- Many special education students reported that they would rather fail in the mainstream than pass in a “happy class” (a.k.a. special education class).
- The failure rate was unfortunately high. Students admitted that although they might need support they wanted nothing that would single them out as needing special help.
This is where ‘the power of one’ thinking became a guiding mantra. Yes, there were many things that the school should have been doing to improve the learning environment. Yes, there were many things that other staff members could have done that would have been beneficial. I could point fingers at their previous instructors, their parents, their home environment and any number of other plausible factors that may have contributed to dismal academic results. But the truth was that finger pointing would not change things. I had to accept that I could only begin to work on those things over which I had influence and control. By diminishing the focus, it was easier to evaluate what was effective or ineffective about my classroom instruction, assignments, environment and teaching techniques and strategies. What could I, as an individual, do to make a positive difference and a more productive learning environment? 10 Tips for modifying curricular presentation.
Over the years of inclusion, I had first hand opportunity to experiment with some of the suggestions of educational experts. My personal experience, supported by research of Zemelman, Daniels, & Hyde (1993) and Stride (2004), suggests that student learning improves when a teacher does the following:
- Lectures less and involves students more in active learning experiences.
- Decreases passive listening and engaging students more, perhaps utilizing technology or study aids such as partial note packets to be completed during the lesson, as well as the use of highlighters.
- Decreases lengthy silent reading requirements and develops techniques to promote informed group discussions.
- Decreases the focus on memorization and detail and refocuses on broad concepts and relation to smaller sub-concepts, making every effort to show relevancy of the topic to students.
- Encourages student responsibility (and record keeping) for academic and behavioral performance and decreases punitive measures.
- Encourages alternative methods of demonstrating subject and skill mastery rather than solely relying on pen and paper tests.
- Avoids reliance on autocratic decision-making and engages the class in democratic decision-making, when appropriate, regarding such things as choice of topic, presentation style and perhaps selection of partners in collaborative work.
- Establishes and posts lesson objectives for the class period and encourages student use of them in an end of class summary of the lesson.
- Circulates the classroom, stopping to encourage and assist all students, promoting on-task behavior as well as accuracy of response and mentally evaluating level of mastery.
- Keeps the interest high by varying the pace of the lesson, varying tone of voice and inflection and making lessons multi-modal to accommodate differing learning styles.
Unfortunately, I cannot claim that that these 10 tips will miraculously close the achievement gap between your special needs students and your general education students. They certainly improved the classroom-learning environment for me and for most of my students who seemed to appreciate a more learner-centered approach. As for you, they probably can be added to your repertoire for improving academic achievement. I suspect that you will need quite a bit more help but these should spur you on to realize the power of one, your power to help all of your students, even your Jalynes. Hopefully, they will also begin to narrow that gap to achievement.