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'Mainstreaming' Still A Problem in Special Education

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Washington--Many of the tensions that have arisen for students, teachers, and parents as a result of "mainstreaming" and other changes brought about by the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975 remain to be addressed, according to participants at a recent conference here on the subject.

Despite the widening acceptance by educators of the terms of the complex law, P.L. 94-142, the problems of students classified as handicapped--particularly the "learning disabled"--and of both the regular and special-education teachers who work with them are not yet clearly understood, said speakers at the annual meeting of the Association for Children and Adults with Learning Disabilities.

Dramatic Growth

Children with learning disabilities account for most of the dramatic growth in the number special-education students in regular classrooms that has occurred since the passage of P.L. 94-142, according to a recent Education Department report to the Congress. Of the more than four million school-age children receiving special-education services, over 35 percent have been identified as "learning disabled."

Unlike children with physical handicaps, children with learning disabilities usually show no obvious signs of their handicap and when mainstreamed are able to blend in with their peers in regular classrooms, speakers at the conference pointed out. This, they said, places strains on regular teachers who do not know how to adapt instruction to such students particular needs.

'Weaker Social Skills'

Research studies have found, for example, that some children with learning disabilities also have weaker social skills than other children and do not relate well to their peers, according to Gaye McNutt, professor of education at the University of Oklahoma. But regular teachers may not be aware of this phenomenon, she suggested.

"It's a frustrating problem [for many teachers] to look at a student who seems normal and can grasp a problem one day and then not understand it the next day," Ms. McNutt said.

"Regular-education teachers think that special-education chil-dren are 'fixed' when they return to the regular classroom," said Eileen Stan Spence, a special-education consultant. But, she added, that is not the case.

Ms. Spence said that because regular teachers are not trained to modify curricula for their learning-disabled students, they often resent being asked to accept them.

"It is the misperceptions that cause fear" among regular teachers, she said. Such misperceptions can be corrected if teachers become aware of the problems associated with teaching handicapped children.

The onus of dealing with these misperceptions and of building closer relationships with regular teachers usually falls on the special-education teachers, according to several speakers at the conference.

"It's always been the burden of the special-education teacher to do something nice, to stroke regular-education teachers in some way, so that they will see that the children are nice," Elinore Ehrlich, principal of P.S. 226 in Brooklyn, N.Y., told a group of parents and teachers.

In the past, according to Ms. McNutt, special-education teachers neglected to develop close working relationships with their counterparts in the regular classrooms.

"Mainstreaming was a new concept and perhaps special-education teachers thought they knew it all," she said. "It's taken us a while," she added, but education schools are now providing teacher candidates with "consultative" skills so that they can work with children as well as adults.

Strained Relationships

J. Lee Wiederholt, professor of special education at the University of Texas, agreed that strained relationships between special-education teachers and regular teachers are a problem in some districts. But that problem should be viewed in a larger context, he argued.

Society, he added, has demanded too much of teachers--first with the integration of minorities into the schools and the problems that has created and now with the mainstreaming of the handicapped.

"I don't think teachers are opposed to having handicapped students in their classrooms," Mr. Wiederholt said. "They are reacting negatively [because they think] they can't do all they are being asked to do."

Mr. Wiederholt said he believed that the that teachers focus their anger on handicapped students, when in fact they are angry about the overall lack of parental support for education in general. Ms. Ehrlich said that in her school, regular teachers and their classes are paired with special-education teachers and their students so that they will learn to work together.

She recommended that school adminstrators promote a positive climate so that teachers and students will agree that "everyone belongs in the school."

More teachers need exposure to handicapped students, according to Ms. Ehrlich. "We have to show that children are more the alike than they are different," she added.

Ms. Spence agreed, noting that stereotypical images of handicapped students are promoted when special-education classrooms are located in the basement of a school building in "a former boiler room." Ms. Spence, reflecting on an earlier period in her career as a special-education teacher, told of special-education classes in Vermont that were conducted in an old ski lodge. "When it snowed they had to move to another room," she said.

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