Special Education

Most Classroom Teachers Feel Unprepared to Support Students With Disabilities

By Corey Mitchell — May 29, 2019 5 min read
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Less than 1 in 5 general education teachers feel “very well prepared” to teach students with mild to moderate learning disabilities, including ADHD and dyslexia, according to a new survey from two national advocacy groups.

The survey found that only 30 percent of general education teachers feel “strongly” that they can successfully teach students with learning disabilities—and only 50 percent believe those students can reach grade-level standards.

Overall, the findings depict a teaching corps that considers itself ill-equipped to meet the needs of millions of children with disabilities in the nation’s public K-12 schools and clings to misconceptions about student learning and attention issues.

In compiling their report, the two groups—National Center for Learning Disabilities and Understood.org—surveyed a nationally representative sample of 1,350 teachers; convened teacher focus groups in California, Ohio, and North Carolina; researched teacher certification requirements in all 50 states; and distilled the findings from 150 academic articles to learn more about effective teaching methods for students with disabilities.

At least one-third of the respondents reported that they have not participated in professional development on serving the students with disabilities in their classrooms. (Education Week wrote about how many teachers lack training in how to meet the needs students with disabilities for a special report on blind spots in professional development.)

In one of the more surprising findings, a quarter of the survey respondents indicated that they believe ADD/ADHD diagnoses result from poor parenting, evidence that “some teachers express beliefs suggesting they are unaware of scientific findings showing that learning disabilities and ADHD are based on differences in brain structure and function.”

Overall, the survey respondents indicated the problems begin in teacher preparation programs, well before education students lead a classroom: Many teachers reported they were not required to take courses in working with students with disabilities or found that the courses they did take left them unprepared to work with all students. The work also details how states’ policies for educator certification have set a “low bar” for preparing general educators to teach students with disabilities. According to the National Center for Learning Disabilities research, fewer than 10 states have specific coursework requirements for teaching students with mild to moderate learning disabilities

“In effect, almost every state has failed to bring their licensure or certification standards in line with our new reality: Every general education teacher will surely have students with these high-incidence disabilities in their classroom,” the report finds.

The report’s definition of mild to moderate learning disabilities includes: dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia, ADD, ADHD, processing disorders, or other language-based learning disabilities. The definition does not include students with autism spectrum disorders, oppositional defiant disorders, or unrelated emotional issues.

In an attempt to address some of the concerns general education teachers have, the report authors outline steps that teachers, school leaders, district leaders, families, and policymakers can take to improve education for students with learning disabilities and a glossary to help readers understand key terms. The recommendations include creating more time for collaboration among teachers and education specialists, focusing on family engagement, advocating for dual certifications in general education and special education, and prioritizing professional development opportunities for teachers and principals. The report also identifies eight key practices, including targeted instruction and universal design for learning, that educators can use in classrooms to boost the achievement of all students.

Differing Opinions on IEPs

The findings square with the conclusions of a survey released by the Council for Exceptional Children earlier this year. That survey found that special education teachers are concerned about the ability of general education teachers and supervisors to work with students who have disabilities.

Of the special education teachers who participated in the Council for Exceptional Children’s survey, fewer than 15 percent thought their general education colleagues were highly prepared to work with students with disabilities.

Both sets of teachers felt they weren’t given ample time to plan with peers and had questions about their ability to co-teach with colleagues.

The two surveys do highlight a key difference in how special education and general education teachers view IEPs: the special education teachers see the individualized education plans as essential documents that play a large role in determining student and teacher success; their general education colleagues are more likely view IEPs as mere paperwork.

Of the general education teachers who participated in the National Center for Learning Disabilities and Understood survey, just 56 percent of teachers believed IEPs provide value to students, and just 38 percent believe IEPs improve their teaching.

“Focus groups and teachers surveyed both point to the challenges of remembering accommodations for each child and to the perception that IEPs and 504 plans often include accommodations or services that are not necessary,” the report found.

That clashes with the findings from the Council for Exceptional Children survey, where respondents indicated that having adequate resources to meet student IEP requirements and the support of administrators during the IEP process were among the top three things that special education teachers need to be successful.

While general education teachers were pessimistic about their ability to work with students with disabilities, many of the survey respondents expressed an interest in learning how to better support them.

“When teachers felt negatively about inclusion, the feelings were driven by concerns and frustrations about their own ability to meet the students’ needs,” the report concludes.

Here’s the National Center for Learning Disabilities and Understood.org report.

Related Reading

A version of this news article first appeared in the On Special Education blog.