The majority of students with disabilities are now served in general education classrooms as we embrace inclusive practices in our schools. The primary dynamics of the general classroom are changing due to these inclusive measures. Continuing scarcity of special education teachers and movement toward team teaching or co-teaching impact the process that districts approach special education as well. The lines are blurring in diagnosis, pedagogy, and instruction between a general education classroom and special education approaches to instruction.
The classroom is changing. The focus of educators is becoming more about supporting students who face trauma, catastrophic events, multiple disabilities, and special talents, all without the benefit of a clear diagnosis. This is leaving general education classroom teachers responsible for a greater need for understanding student learning.
Let’s take a deeper look into some of the top five issues that are currently trending in the world of special education.
As technology continues to substantially alter the classroom, students with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) are especially targeted for extra support. By leveraging technology, classroom instruction can be enhanced with individual learning occasions, which allows teachers greater flexibility for differentiation in instruction through blended learning opportunities and the variety of Web-based, evidence-based practices. No longer are students stuck in a classroom they don’t understand, learning at a pace they can’t keep up with.
Students and educators are often faced with dire situations far outside their control. Managing these situations and addressing the emotional impact can make day-to-day instruction feel trivial in comparison. How do you face a traumatic event and continue to learn fractions?
This school year, we have of course all been part of a global pandemic, which many consider traumatic events! The National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN) counts natural disasters as traumatic events. The NCTSN defines a traumatic event as a “frightening, dangerous, or violent event that poses a threat to a child’s life or bodily integrity.” Each student reacts to trauma in their own way. While there is no clear-cut set of cues to spot, there are many resources describing possible signs of trauma to keep an eye out for. According to the NCTSN, there is a variety of behaviors that you might observe in students affected by trauma.
These students are dealing with issues that are far outside of the classroom, yet impact learning. How students deal is unique to them, but they do not qualify for special education services immediately. Trauma screening resources are available for educators to help providers identify needs. Knowing the signs and resources is a first step to managing a general education classroom with these special students.
Students who face trauma certainly require special accommodations. Their world and work are significantly impacted by forces outside of their control. There are behaviors we can look for and resources we can put in place, but as educators, and often participants of the same catastrophic events, we need to be aware of the resources and act as part of the solution, not the only solution.
Educators are well aware of the impact of poverty on students and learning. But, do you know how many of your students are homeless? This is a challenge being faced by more students than you might expect, with an increased focus is being placed on monitoring the academic growth of this specific population. Again, these students fit outside the realm of traditionally acknowledged special education students.
For homeless students, the classroom could be the one safe, stable place in their day-to-day lives, an important tether to the safety and security of routine and, perhaps most critically, an essential support in the journey out of poverty and into a better situation. These students are being forced to deal with significant, difficult, and interrelated challenges outside of the classroom that inevitably impact academic performance and the ability to participate in instruction.
At this point, it should come as no surprise that for children already identified as needing special education services, the stresses of homelessness can exacerbate learning problems. After all, transitions are often hard for children with exceptionalities—can you imagine anything more transitional than being without a consistent place to sleep every night? However, not all homeless students have gone through the evaluation process (or need to), so providing educational support and resources is not an option, but consider how difficult it must be for general education students to deal with the uncertainty of circumstances and continue to maintain focus on classroom instruction.
One of the challenges teachers face, in addition to everything else on their plates, is providing material that is appropriate in content and grade level for every child. When discussing students with special needs, this can often refer to age-appropriate and skill-appropriate content. There is another population of students that must be reviewed with an eye toward their special needs. These children often get lost, and because of their talents, these students often find themselves hiding in the “average” populations.
In education, students who qualify for gifted programs, as well as special education services, are described as “twice-exceptional” learners. Twice-exceptional (or “2E”) students demonstrate significantly above-average abilities in certain academic areas but also show special educational needs, such as ADHD, learning disabilities, or autism spectrum disorder. Because their giftedness often masks their special needs, or vice versa, they are sometimes labeled as “underperforming,” even though that is not the case.
Educators recognize that 2E students exist—often in the shadows—of the classroom. However, the real challenge is how to accurately identify these students, understand the challenges that they face, and implement whole-child-based strategies to best support them. Savvy teachers are now learning how to allow these students to experience the same opportunities available for gifted students, learn in ways that highlight their strengths, and address their challenges at the same time.
We have talked at great length about some of the issues that students and teachers are facing within special education. Many of these topics are outside of the identification of diagnosis and recognition of special ed disabilities and guaranteed services. However, one common theme we have not discussed is the approach that must be considered when meeting with parents. You, as their child’s teacher, may be the very first person to indicate that there is an issue with their child. Starting the conversation is hard—you can be met with anxiety or resistance. The main thing to consider is that this is their child and that you only know one small piece of the puzzle.
It is important from the beginning that you are part of the one unified team that supports students in the best way possible. At the end of the day, you and your students’ parents want the best for the children, and it’s important to remember that. You play an important role in students’ lives, so make sure that you’re making your voice heard, but be sure that you’re listening to what parents have to say. Keep children’s best interests in mind. Remember, you are an advocate, but they are the parents. Create a plan that you can all agree on—one that will find students where they are.
Next Steps for Educators
Classroom teachers are amazing. It’s as simple as that. More and more students, either diagnosed or not, are showing up in the general education classroom. This puts significant pressure on general education teachers. Continuing education, individualized instruction, and flexibility are paramount for these teachers.
This means that classroom teachers must be aware of how best to teach everyone in the classroom and not turn over the keys to a special education teacher. Teachers with special education certification may not be there or may be spread across many classrooms. Communication is key. Work with other teachers, parents, and students to create an environment of shared practice and success. Be sensitive to the journey your students are on; it may have hidden barriers we might not know about.