Special Education

Most Classroom Teachers Feel Unprepared to Support Students With Disabilities

By Corey Mitchell — May 29, 2019 5 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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 a look at the National Center for Learning Disabilities and Understood.org report:

Forward Together NCLD Report by corey_c_mitchell on Scribd

Related Reading

Overlooked: How Teacher Training Falls Short for English-Learners and Students With IEPs

Special Education a Growing Priority in Teacher Training Circles

What it Takes to Make Co-Teaching Work

Survey Offers Front-Line View Into Special Education

Image Credit: National Center for Learning Disabilities

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

Commenting has been disabled on edweek.org effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Teaching Webinar
6 Key Trends in Teaching and Learning
As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and a return to the classroom for many—we come better prepared, but questions remain. How will the last year impact teaching and learning this school
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Student Well-Being Webinar
Attendance Awareness Month: The Research Behind Effective Interventions
More than a year has passed since American schools were abruptly closed to halt the spread of COVID-19. Many children have been out of regular school for most, or even all, of that time. Some
Content provided by AllHere
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
School & District Management Webinar
Ensuring Continuity of Learning: How to Prepare for the Next Disruption
Across the country, K-12 schools and districts are, again, considering how to ensure effective continuity of learning in the face of emerging COVID variants, politicized debates, and more. Learn from Alexandria City Public Schools superintendent
Content provided by Class

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Special Education Opinion Inclusive Teachers Must Be 'Asset-Based Believers'
Four veteran educators share tips on supporting students with learning differences as they return to classrooms during this pandemic year.
16 min read
Images shows colorful speech bubbles that say "Q," "&," and "A."
Special Education Opinion 20 Ways to Support Students With Learning Differences This Year
Embed student voices and perspectives into the classroom is one piece of advice educators offer in this third pandemic-affected school year.
16 min read
Images shows colorful speech bubbles that say "Q," "&," and "A."
Special Education Schools Must Identify Students With Disabilities Despite Pandemic Hurdles, Ed. Dept. Says
Guidance stresses schools' responsibilities to those with disabilities, while noting that federal COVID aid can be used to address backlogs.
2 min read
School children in classroom with teacher, wearing face masks and raised hands
Special Education Attention Deficit Rates Skyrocket in High School. Mentoring Could Prevent an Academic Freefall
Twice as many students are diagnosed with ADHD in high school as in elementary school, yet their supports are fewer, a study says.
4 min read
Image of a child writing the letters "ADHD" on a chalkboard.