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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Special Education: A Delicate Balance Between Educating & Enabling

By Peter DeWitt — December 20, 2012 6 min read

Although public education changed a great deal for special education students after the 1970’s, many classified students found that they were being pulled out of classrooms by their special education teacher and taught in the hallway or basement. To be classified brought a stigma but to be taught in the hallway while peers were taught in the classroom only increased that stigma.

As time went on many teachers began co-teaching with special education teachers in inclusion classrooms. The co-teaching experience, when done correctly, can be a great model for students and teachers because it brings two skill-sets together and provides an opportunity for teachers to learn from one another. In my own experience working with special education teachers I learned a great deal about center-based and hands-on learning because they knew how to do it far better than I did early in my career.

Unfortunately, this collaborative experience does not always happen in classrooms and the pressure of our high stakes testing era does not help the situation. Special education students are seen as the special education teacher’s students, instead of a more fluid model where the general education teacher and special education teacher work together. Although students may spend time in the same classroom, the students are sometimes split between who belongs to the general education teacher and who belongs to the special education teacher.

This relationship will only get worse as we go deeper into accountability. Teachers’ jobs are on the line and some worry about who will bring their HEDI score down. Sadly, accountability has brought out a “your’s” and “mine” attitude rather than the philosophy that all of these students are “our” responsibility. Ultimately, this will not help the teacher or the students.

In an effort to get special education students the services they think they need, some students end up get enabled instead of educated. There is a very delicate balance between getting students the level of support they need and making sure that they don’t get so much support that they no longer have to do things for themselves. In addition, an increased level of support may bring about more time out of the classroom and an increased opportunity for stigmatization.

Special education teachers are the experts when working with special education students because they know the process and understand the needs of the students. In fact, many special education teachers work multiple years with the same students so they not only create a strong bond, they are the ones creating the I.E.P. that provides the individual attention those students need. However, the general education teacher can also be a “fresh set of eyes” and can provide important insight as well when the two adults work together.

Why Pay Attention to an I.E.P?
Recently Teach.com published an article giving insight into the special education process. Most educators know that an I.E.P. is an Individual Education Plan and they are used to help special education students find success. Muldanado says, “To be an effective educator, good communication must be maintained with all of the team members and the Individualized Education Plan (IEP) must be followed at all times. IEPs are essentially the blueprint for a student’s education, so creating one is not a process to be taken lightly” (Meeting Their Needs: A Guide to Individualized Education Plans).

In these days of increased mandates, doing more with less, and an increased focus on standardized testing, teachers are feeling strapped when it comes to meeting the needs of all of their students. They get lost in the daily grind and have a hard time keeping up with the paperwork. What happens when they mistakenly don’t follow an I.E.P? What happens when they don’t feel they need to follow the I.E.P?

First and foremost, it’s a legal document. If a teacher is not following the I.E.P. they are putting themselves and their school in legal jeopardy. In addition, they are not helping the student get the vital services they need. If a teacher doesn’t know that a child has an I.E.P. there is an even larger issue which begins with communication. However, if they are not following the I.E.P. because they have not read it or they do not believe in everything that is written on it, they are creating more issues than they are solving.

I.E.P’s are not written because teachers and parents have spare time and want to put a document together for fun. They are written because a child is developmentally delayed in an area and need specialized attention. To not follow it or ignore what is on it because the teacher does not feel it is necessary is falling into educational malpractice.

Muldanado goes on to advise,"The key word in IEP is “individualized.” The student must always be the central focus, and in order to keep the IEP process a positive one, it is best to focus on a student’s strengths rather than his or her weaknesses. A special education teacher does a child a great disservice by not listening closely to input from all team members and keeping an open mind when it comes to trying new approaches. The more you know about a student, the stronger the IEP and educational experience will be, so establish open communication early on with parents, service providers and other educators.”

What About the Principal?
Leslie Vollor, and elementary special education director in upstate, N.Y. says, “A critical role that the principal plays is in brokering the relationship between the general education teacher and special education provider(s) so that each has voice yet autonomy.” Those two parties have valuable input and have to work together in order to find the best resources to help the special education student.

In addition, the principal plays a vital role in helping special education students through discipline issues, if that is in fact, part of their disability. Vollor goes on to say, “In terms of discipline, the principal needs to discipline in a way that does not “punish” a student for disability related issues while maintaining a safe learning environment.”

Principals too, have to take an active role in advocating for special education students and also making sure that the stigma is as non-existent as possible. Principals should also keep abreast of changes to a student’s I.E.P. and what the student needs in the classroom. This takes communication between the administrator, special education teacher and general education teacher.

In the End
Special education has come a long way since legislation in the 70’s but it still has a long way to go. Students who are classified, and their parents, feel the stigma that comes along with the classification. When students are pulled out of class they are at risk of feeling insecure about who they are. Although some of that may never be able to change because some students need a smaller setting throughout their day, it’s important that the educators and administrators working with the students find ways to provide minimal impact.

In addition, there needs to be a delicate balance between getting the special education student the services they need and providing them with every service under the sun. All students deserve the chance to be educated rather than enabled. Sadly, in these times of high stakes testing, if teachers keep getting forced to teach to one type of learner, these issues will only increase rather than dissipate.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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