Students with learning disabilities are meant to be part of the class, but are they?
This issue’s Talk Back columnist is a vice-principal and educator in southwestern Ontario. She is a mother of three adult children.
In Canadian schools, the term ‘inclusive education’ has replaced expressions like ‘mainstreaming’ and ‘integration’, which were prevalent in the ’70s and ’80s. In 1982, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guaranteed fundamental rights for minorities and persons with disabilities, including in schools.
Some school boards still segregate according to ability, but these smaller classrooms are within mainstream schools; opportunities to learn with other students are available where appropriate and enrolment in special classes is voluntary. Other school boards are strictly inclusive and all students take part in activities and learning in integrated classrooms. In reality, though, what often occurs is one-on-one instruction with an educational assistant in another classroom.
I have been a teacher since the late 1970s, and soon after took the extra courses required to become a special education teacher. My new role was to help children with learning disabilities or lower intellect in their non-core ‘integrated’ subjects. When I appeared at the door of the science or history classroom, the cold winds of resistance from the teachers made me feel most unwelcome. Ponder how the students felt.
At that time, technological innovations, inclusive attitudes and variety in teaching techniques were rare. I remember reading books into a tape recorder so students could access reading using both eyes and ears. This was considered to be radical and innovative. It was a rare teacher who had heard of autism or Attention Deficit Disorder.
Fast forward to 2011! Now teachers must try to use differentiated assessment and programming to meet the needs of all students in their classroom, including those with:
- Asperger Syndrome
- learning disabilities
- mobility/ hearing/vision challenges
- intellectual needs at the low and high end of the continuum
- mental health behaviours that significantly interfere with their own and the learning of others.
In my current role as a school administrator, I evaluate teacher performance. When discussing inclusion with them, I have learned that while many agree in principle, they don’t all agree with its practice. Why?
- Lack of training. Special Education Part I, an additional qualification course for teachers, is a way for staff to acquire basic knowledge, but it is offered outside the work day and is paid for by the teacher.
- Work load. Picture a group of 28 Grade 4 students, five with significant learning issues, two with Asperger Syndrome, and two who need the depth and breadth of their program expanded. This is reality. The job is impossible, teachers say.
- Parent perception. Some parents do not see their child the same way as the school does. Many are in denial. Some refuse to partner with the school. Many believe the school is ‘pushing drugs’ and refuse to hear that their child needs a medical work-up first and foremost.
- Attitudes vary. Some teachers still blame the students when they don’t learn.
- Lack of experience. Expertise in dealing with inappropriate behaviours varies. Many teachers are terrified of some children.
- Lack of support. There is simply not enough support to go around for the variety of students with special needs.
An inclusive environment in a classroom and school must start with the principal, school secretaries, teachers, educational assistants, child and youth workers, and custodial services all working together with students, parents and community on the common goal of creating a community of participation.
There must be support in the form of teaching coaches, appropriate and accessible technology, training and support personnel for effective inclusion to occur.
Is it a lot of work? You bet. But it’s the law.
Published in March 2011.