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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

The Stigma of Special Education

By Peter DeWitt — August 11, 2011 5 min read
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After the blog I wrote about safeguarding LGBT students a few weeks ago I heard from many readers. However, Christine, a special education teacher from Minnesota said, “Many of my students are also ostracized because of their behavior, socialization style or lack of style, and/or learning difficulties. It is not ok to treat anyone disrespectfully. It is amazing to me that this is 2011 and we as a society are still struggling with this concept.” After Christine’s e-mail I reflected on the past sixteen years I’ve been in education and the stigma I have seen that is attached to being classified in special education.

There is still a stigma for our special education students. When we sit at meetings, after many months of communication with parents, and classify their child under special education, many parents go through stages of grief because they worry about their child being labeled. Sadly, when some students are labeled they are ripped out of a general education classroom and put into a special education classroom that is sometimes segregated away from the rest of the school.

Many states have an average that is around 12% but there are schools that have a much higher percentage than that. Some students do not need more of the same, they need something different and special education services offer that to our students.

We can all agree that preparation for high stakes testing and the results from the test themselves contribute to a child being recommended for special education but until NCLB is repealed, we can’t change that. We can, however, improve how we teach and talk about this stigmatized group of students.


Unfortunately, parents of special education students feel the same stigma their children do. Parents feel that they must have done something wrong while the child was an infant, or that they did not read to them enough, and that they could have done something differently to change the outcome of being classified.

Some children that are classified merely learn at a different rate or have a different set of strengths than their peers. Other students were not exposed to the same vocabulary and learning opportunities as their peers. The more we only focus on the weakness, the more the students will only focus on their weakness and never see that they have strengths. In addition, the more that we include a weak-based educational program instead of a strengths-based approach, the more we run the risk of having more parents think that the school system is out of touch and outdated.

This stigma does not end with the student either. Teachers who historically teach inclusion or special education are left with the stigma as well. Any student placed in their inclusion class may be at risk of being made fun of by their peers. We know it’s the kids who are seen as “different” that become the target of bullying.

For seven out of eleven years I taught inclusion and was known as the inclusion teacher. It didn’t both me because I liked the challenge of meeting the needs of a wide range of learning abilities. I learned a great deal from the special education teachers that I team-taught with and they showed me some of the best instructional techniques.

Many years, the special education teachers in my classroom provided me with professional development because I watched what they did and learned from their expertise. I did not think the special education students belonged to the special education teacher and the general education students were mine. All of the students in our classroom were our responsibility. All of our students had strengths and weaknesses. Some of those students just happened to need extra help in certain areas.

Once You Get In, You Never Get Out

Do you remember the commercial for the Roach Motel by Black Flag? One of the concerns with special education is that...once you go in, you’ll never get out. We need to do a better job to change that.

There will always be a population of students who will be classified and need the help from elementary school through middle school into high school and even in college. However, there are other students who may be classified at a young age and get the help they need, find their strengths and become declassified as time and experience brings them up to another academic level.

Educators need to find collaborative methods to best meet the needs of their special education students. They also need to find methods that will be fluid and help maintain a positive self-esteem for their students.

• Inclusion — Mainstream special education students in a fluid way so that they are in the least restrictive environment. Expose special education and general education students to one another because when you break it down to its finest parts, they are kids and need to interact.
• Team-teaching — a special education and general education teacher need to work together on planning and instruction. Special education students are both the general education teacher and the special education teacher’s responsibility.

Changing the Stigma

Changing the stigma starts from the top down. Administrators need to make sure they are setting a tone where they have a zero tolerance for students who make fun of one another because of an academic disability. We need to incorporate children’s books that focus on differences into our daily instruction, and make sure we sponsor weeks like “No Name Calling Week,” so that we set a tone of respect.

In addition, we need to make sure we send our faculty research-based articles that have teaching techniques that can be used for all students. Any instructional technique that is good for a special education student is also good for a general education student. We also need to expose all of our students to other students with diverse learning needs, and perhaps even find a way to get them to work with those students so they understand that they may be different in some areas, but they are the same in others.

Lastly, we need to make sure that as educators, we are treating all students with respect because if we are not, other students sitting in the class know we are not and may follow our lead.

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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.