Learning can be difficult for all children at times, but when a child has a learning disability or other special need that inhibits him from comprehending new concepts as readily as his peers, school can prove to be a real challenge. Of course, these students are not the only ones faced with a challenge. Parents and teachers have the difficult job of making decisions that affect where and how these children learn and ensuring that they receive the best education possible.
Laws protecting children with disabilities mandate that every effort must be made to place children with special needs in a regular education classroom. According to this legislation, children with learning disabilities and other special needs learn best when they are placed in the least restrictive environment possible. In order for these children to learn alongside their “average” peers, teachers are required to provide accommodations and modifications to the curriculum according to the child’s IEP, or Individual Education Plan. These plans may include special instructions such as preferential seating or certain testing accommodations. Some children may attend resource classes during specific times of the day such as during math or language arts, for instance, to receive additional instruction and remediation from a certified special education teacher.
Is Inclusion Effective?
Most experts agree that inclusion is best for most children, but of course, there are exceptions. Children with severe disabilities often receive one-on-one instruction from a special education teacher as opposed to being mainstreamed into a regular education classroom. There are also some opponents of inclusion, even for children with mild disabilities. They generally argue that a child with special needs requires more attention than a teacher with a couple dozen other students in her care can provide. Some even say that inclusion robs average students of the education they deserve by taking up too much of the teachers time and preventing the class from exploring more challenging concepts. Typically, though, inclusion does work—for everyone involved. Special needs students benefit from greater learning opportunities, and average students have the opportunity to work with a diverse set of peers. Plus, since everyone learns differently, all students thrive when teachers employ differentiated instruction for students with varying skills and abilities.
Testing for Students with Special Needs
Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), students with special needs must participate in standardized testing and high-stakes testing. While there are some advantages of testing students with special needs including an increased emphasis on academics and teacher accountability, there are also some serious risks. With more schools implementing promotion tests that dictate whether or not a student will continue to the next grade level, special needs students are in danger of being held back. Since research shows that grade retention is directly correlated with both school dropout and unemployment, this can be a scary proposition for students with disabilities. Furthermore, since many special needs students do not pass high school exit exams—the assessments that some schools require for a high school diploma, alternative diploma programs are now being implemented such as IEP diplomas and certificates of completion. Often, these diplomas have little real value and could be seen as tantalizingly easy way out of the academic work necessary to prepare these children for life after high school.
The Need for Advocacy
No one knows a special needs child better than his or her parents. While there’s no easy solution to the problems a learning disability presents, one thing is for certain—students with disabilities perform significantly better in school when their parents are actively involved in making decisions about their education. Whether it’s an issue of educational settings or diploma options, parents must let their voices be heard and advocate for their children every step of the way. The best way to do this is to become educated on special needs legislation and stay on top of the trends and best practices in special education. If you need a place to start, check out the wealth of information available from the North Central Regional Educational Laboratory.
We’d love to hear from you about these highly debated issues in special education. Do you think schools are meeting the needs of children with disabilities?