Sharon (name changed), an elementary school teacher in London, England, taught a challenging class last year. Out of a large group of 30 students, three were diagnosed with autism, one with dyspraxia, three with ADHD, and two with ODD. Despite her 25 years of experience, she felt stressed balancing the needs of these students with the needs of the class as a whole, and almost resigned from her position.
Many teachers can identify. Students with special needs are often placed with teachers who have received no training or resources to help. This occurs in schools that have welcomed students with disabilities, but are not yet fully inclusive. Schools like this are said to be integrated.
According to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, in an integrated school, students with special needs are placed in existing educational systems. In contrast, inclusion involves making changes to the entire system to allow all students to have access to a learning environment that best suits their needs. These accommodations can range from specially formatted worksheets to in-class tutors to special technologies. The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities states:
“Placing students with disabilities in mainstream classes without appropriate structural changes to, for example, organization, curriculum and teaching and learning strategies does not constitute inclusion.”
Many schools fail to provide teachers with appropriate resources. And teachers’ training programs do not sufficiently prepare teachers for working with students with special needs. The lack of support places significant stress on teachers who struggle with the dual challenges of educating a large class and catering to each student’s individual needs. In an interview with the Trauma and Mental Health Report, Josee (name changed), an elementary school teacher in Ontario, said:
“It’s stressful. It’s a lot, especially because I have big classes… and they are two different grades…There are times when I just feel very overwhelmed.”
And it’s not just teachers who are stressed, students are affected as well. Tammy (name changed), who teaches elementary school in Berkley, California, said in an interview that she has observed students suffering self-esteem issues due to their needs not being met in the classroom. In her words:
“It’s heartbreaking to see a child that just has no confidence in their own abilities because they aren’t able to do the work they see their peers doing. It’s a vicious cycle too, they can’t do the work so they check out, and then they fall even farther behind. I try my best to celebrate and make visible some kind of success that child has had, whether it’s social or physical or artistic or whatever, just to give them a more positive self-image, but it’s a really hard thing to spend every day struggling to understand what’s happening around you.”
According to the CDC, in the United States, 15% of children ages 3 to 17 have a neurodevelopmental disability; this includes all developmental disorders, learning and intellectual disabilities, and motor and language disorders. The number of children in the same age group with mental, emotional, or behavioural disorders is estimated at 13% to 20%. These students often require individualized learning and attention within the classroom.
However, without adequate training or resources, teachers find it difficult to give students the help they need. Rebecca (name changed), an Ontario elementary school teacher explained in an interview:
No teacher knows exactly what to do with each kid and each diagnosis. Yes, there’s accommodations for academics, but it’s not always the academics that needs help, it’s the behaviour, it’s the self-esteem, it’s their growth, their confidence.
To better help their students, teachers require additional training on how to work with students with various disabilities, as well as assistants or co-teachers in the classroom to share the load. Other resources include technologies to better help students and the ability to consult with specialists. With these resources, schools can take the final steps towards become fully inclusive.
And, in schools that have successfully adopted a philosophy of inclusion, the benefits are significant. In a study conducted by Thomas Hehir, Professor of practice in learning differences at Harvard University:
“There is clear and consistent evidence that inclusive educational settings can confer substantial short- and long-term benefits for students with and without disabilities.”
Schools should keep working toward their goals of inclusion to create classrooms where both students and teachers are given the tools they need to succeed.
-Roselyn Gishen, Contributing Writer