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Special Needs Learners

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Special education has grown in leaps and bounds from the time it started in 1975, to date. The evolution of this form of education had seen it recognized as a second system with a complete component that involves special teachers, administration officials, designed programs, process of accreditation, and budgeting criteria (Thoma, William & Davis, 2005). This evolution also came with it the need for an integrated approach or mainstreaming. However, failures with the system have also surfaced with equal measure since the inception of special education programs. There is a general agreement that the current system of special education is dysfunctional, less effective, costly, and causes segregation and stigmatization to physically challenged students in mainstream systems. Blenk & Fine (1995, cited in Brownell, 2005) observe that these students could as well be served in the traditional educational settings in a more effective way, if all the tenets of special needs are taken care of before integration. In 1986, however, the desire to correct this dysfunctional system saw the introduction of Regular Education Initiative (REI), which provided the opportunity to completely reorganize education services that would put emphasis on an integrated system of regular classroom for all students irrespective of the physical status.

More concerns have also been raised as far as special teachers’ commitments to the course of special education. In many instances, when college students training to become teachers are asked why they want to be teachers, the common response goes like, “I want to be in a position to make a positive difference in the lives of students who will pass through my tutelage. Many teachers also say that they want to leave a legacy that will be remembered by their former students. Others also want to improve the teaching profession by being better than the teachers they passed through. However, there is a revelation that the axiom that teachers usually teach just like they were taught. These compelling dysfunctions highlight the importance of reviewing and analyzing the role of teachers and teaching methods they offer to the students’ fraternity, focusing on the special needs group. The goal of this paper is to analyze the actual role special needs students have played in the teaching process, focusing on how this role has affected teaching and teachers.

Literature Review

The introduction of Regular Education Initiative (REI) in 1986 saw the abolition of the much controversial second educational system that focused on treating special students differently from others by developing their own schools complete with administration team and separate budgets. According to Brownell (2005), the major reorganization of the educational services was meant to change tact from the segregated system to regular or all inclusive classrooms. The restructuring provided the opportunity to change how regular, special remedial related within the compensatory. It was also meant to include all students in a unified system that would provide effective integration of the learning process.

Despite the proliferation of scholarly materials about inclusive programs intended to assist stakeholders make informed decisions in the program implementation (Baker, et al., 2009), limited sources have directly how the teaching process is affected by the initiatives. Put differently, few of these publications have directly addressed how teachers fare on in the implementation of the programs or teaching initiatives in regular classrooms comprising of children with disabilities. A few years before the introduction of the unified system, some two much publicized studies were conducted, which appeared to suggest that most of the regular education teachers were not actively engaged in addressing the most critical needs of the mainstreamed students. In other words, these teachers were not keen to give special students any special treatment in the teaching process.

Brownell, Ross, Colon & McCallum (2005) conducted a study to investigate significant features of special education teacher preparation and compared the results with those of general teacher education. The researchers cited a pioneer study by Schultz, conducted in 1982, which investigated several regular elementary teachers with regard to their concerns about the proposed unified system of integrating special students with disabilities in the regular classroom. They poked hole into the study, citing simple focus on regular teachers who have not undergone any special training to understand special needs education. Using a theoretical framework derived from a general education system and special education, the researchers reviewed the practices involved in the evaluation and description of special education. The result revealed that regular teachers did not know their role in the facilitation of the learning process for students with disabilities. It also emerged that these teachers lacked planning skills for individual differences in relation to the execution of curriculum and following instructions provided in the teaching manuals. Moreover, teachers’ confusion as concerns their roles and responsibilities when teaching disable children revealed a serious gap in the knowledge and skills of teachers tasked with such responsibilities. However, this study only focused on characteristics of special education, ignoring the much important attitudes of teachers and challenges to task of teaching an inclusive classroom, with special and regular students. While highlighting these features is equally important to the teachers, it may add not value if they are presented to the teachers as a package of instructions to be followed. Moreover, the authors admit that by the time of their review, there were limited studies touching on special education and inclusive learning strategy. Subsequently, it is possible to assume that the review was limited by the lack of enough literature on inclusive learning strategy.

Another study, Arthaud, et al. (2007) explored collaborative relationship between pre-service of special and regular education. They discussed the implications for change affecting teachers being prepared with practical skills. The level of teachers’ participation as well as their preferred degree of participation in the execution of plans, programs, and placement process for special students with a disability was also investigated. Executing the interview among the teachers in minority and majority communities, the researcher focused the questions within the confines of teachers’ knowledge and willingness to use integrated methods. The study revealed that nearly 30% of respondents admitted that they lacked knowledge of special students in classes they taught. The most astonishing part of the result is that approximately 85% of the educators interviewed stated that they did not provide any specific provision for the disable students within the integrated classes. Of the 15% of the teachers who had made accommodation, only two percent were found to be socially inclusive to the students by providing individualized lessons or learning materials.

In an attempt to investigate what first year special education teachers need and the implication this has on the induction program, Whitaker (2000) approached her study through focus groups targeting teacher-students at the beginning of their studies. Within this study, the researcher also investigated the attitudes of these student-teachers’ mentors and administrators. The result revealed that teacher mentors who easily adopted integrated program in an inclusive manner applied creativity and flexibility in the implementation of teaching programs. There was also the revelation that despite efforts teachers made to ensure success of inclusive programs, they still lamented lack of support and expressed sense of isolation within the execution of inclusive programs. However, it also emerged that more information on the type of modifications as well as accommodations is required. It must also be recognized that as teacher forms the backbone of teaching service provision and any other included deliverable, there is a need to acquire the information on the type of adaptations they find comfortable in the process. That is there is a need to be aware of what they are willing to adopt if we are to establish any probable difficulties and make necessary preparations for the successful practice of inclusion.

There is a common belief that instilling self confidence among students with disabilities is one step towards ensuring the success of teaching inclusive classes. However, Thomas, William & Davis (2005) pointed out that self confidence without self determination can be counterproductive approach to ensuring teaching process is successful in the inclusive process. Reviewing literature from 24 journal articles published between the years 1995 and 2002, the authors stated that self-determination is essential for the success of teaching inclusive classrooms.  Citing a study dubbed “National Study of Inclusive Education” (1995), they also revealed that no specific category was more effective than others on its own in the success of the integrated programs. However, statistics from the national practice surveys show that many schools do not include students with severe disabilities in the general class programs (Baker, et al., 2009). This indicates that there is a possibility that teachers’ perception on students with severe disabilities is that of being difficult to include in the teaching programs or classrooms.

Lee, Simpson & Shogren (2007), focusing on the students with autism’s ability to consistently and effectively use Self-management of their own behaviors, did a meta-analysis of their results. They importance of self-management as a tool, as well as a means to facilitate students’ quality if life through empowerment. The researchers used autism as a single subject to highlight the importance of this tool in ensuring that school going youths with autism are able to manage their own behaviors. By synthesizing and analyzing the interventions and participants’ characteristics, the researchers found out that self-management interventions is an important part of managing autism among youths.

One important observation about these studies is the overconcentration on how to help students with special needs without thinking of how teaching and teachers are affected in the increased focus towards inclusive classroom for students with disabilities and regular ones. Teachers, as the main agents of successful implementation of any inclusive learning program, must form the core of decision making and their inclusion in any review and analysis cannot be overemphasized.  

The Need for Support

The above reviews reveal that including a child with special needs into regular programs for learning triggers a lot of changes in all the parties involved, particularly the teacher. Thus, the process requires adequate support t ensure the concept of integrated learning becomes an effective venture in everyday program. Within all the requirements for the need for changes, support has become a recurring theme. However, the term ‘support’ does not give a clear meaning in the overall practice of inclusive teaching. Moreover, the inclusion of the term support in every requirements of teaching an inclusive classroom reveals a lack of knowledge and support structures.

Teachers have all along cited frustrations with the rampant lack of resources, inadequate link with resource personnel, extreme workload, and the feeling that they have been isolated with “dumped” students (Whitaker, 2000). In their investigation of the strategies of implementing the consultative teacher model in a secondary inclusion of students of different abilities, Bowden & Allen (2007) found minimal or no support from stakeholders; especially from education department or administrators within their schools. This is despite the implementation of the much publicized No Child Left Behind Act. Some of the most common concerns teachers expressed are inflated number of students in classrooms due to an influx of special needs students, regular students suffered due to insufficient attention from the educational stakeholders, and the overall feeling that medical emergencies leaves teachers helpless and frustrated with their work. The other concern highlighted was a lack of classroom autonomy, particularly when special education teachers are engaged one-on-one with severely impaired students.  These studies confirm the notion that support for teachers, in terms of their needs and concerns, is as important as the support given to special students.

Discussion

Typically, special education stakeholders have focused their attention on improving the needs of children with special students. However, the need of regular teachers teaching these classes equally have many needs, after the introduction of many special needs students in classrooms. The success of the teaching programs will depend on how the regular teachers and students are treated in equal measure (Lee, Simpson & Shogren, 2007). Put differently, teachers must have the necessary support in dealing with the concept as well as a practice, which include students with severe handicaps in classrooms. The teachers’ identified needs can also be considered as part of the feelings they harbor and lack of know-how in the mainstreaming of the inclusive system. The most common and accepted explanation to the fears  teachers experience is their lack of knowledge about students with severe handicap and the fear that they would fail despite the efforts made to help them. However, it has been established that in practice, recognizing teachers’ fears and anxieties is likely to eliminate such fears and foster a united teamwork.

Other than the effort to address the negative feeling of lack of adequacy, efforts to effectively fulfill the teaching task in the inclusive classroom brings out many challenges for the teacher involved. These challenges may include individualization and adaptation of instructions, fostering of positive peer relationships, collaborating with stakeholders such as parents and many education professionals, and managing classrooms with a large number of students with expansive abilities and social needs. In order to accomplish this requirement, teachers' needs retraining on how to handle and expose their own strength, weakness as well as counter their weaknesses. Pre-service and professional in-service teachers who are exposed to students with disabilities eliminate some of the fears among many regular teachers (Arthaud, 2007). Instead, this exposure leads to teachers’ confidence and increase their’ ability to teach diverse students.

Support of teachers is also demonstrated through another important approach which allows teachers to have a direct role in the making of decisions that affect their professional work and lives. In this approach, teachers are engaged in the run-up to crucial decision-making stage. For example, when decisions are made to increase the number of children with disabilities in classrooms, the teachers need to be consulted so that they don’t get frustrated during implementation. Such initiative will also promote positive attitudes and commitments on the side of the teachers. As a reminder, it important to note that teachers often complained of being left powerless in the implementation by being told what to do, how to do it, and who to work with. With consultation, they will also be make meaningful opportunities in the decision-making process and analyze what affect their professional lives at large.

In contrast, Kubicek’s study (1994), reported by Whitaker (2000), revealed that many of the educators have positive attitudes when it comes to inclusion of students with disabilities in regular classrooms, and more importantly, are willing to in make students feel welcomed, if they were involved in the planning of the initiative. This approach permitted teachers to have a choice on what they wanted in terms of available support and assistance. Most often, support begins after the stakeholders agree on the decision to include students with disabilities in the regular teaching programs. However, the teachers’ preference is always to be part of the process and a team that work on the involvement before training as well as in the initiation of in-service training.

Initiative to integrated special needs children must be accompanied by some sort of careful preparation, which includes training of teachers in two fronts. This involves training with a focus on a general base, and offering of training on specific teaching strategies as well as skills. In order to help the teaching staff change their belief systems and embrace the mainstreaming or inclusive idea, the teachers need to have a belief and understanding about the principles involved in the process. That is, they need to understand and believe that they have the ability to appropriately serve all students in equal measure. The teachers are engaged in the process of integration, frantic efforts should be made so that the philosophy of the groundwork is laid to facilitate the understanding of the reasons for such initiatives. Kubicek emphasizes that, “all stakeholders, particularly school community must understand and be comfortable with the school philosophy of inclusion” (Kubicek, 2000, p.31).

To provide a strong base for teaching fraternity, various skills have been identified to give base from which to act. In this perspective, instructional strategies, skills to manage inclusive classrooms and communication skills are some of the most needed areas by teachers. Some of the recently proposed practices include areas such as outcome—oriented instructions, learning through cooperative systems, analysis of behavioral attitudes and techniques to management, and training on social skills management. Teachers have also been asked to embrace collaborative approach so as to effectively manage inclusive classrooms. Effective teams, other than being able to offer new skills and allowing sharing of knowledge, are essential in helping each with the use of specialized equipments, as well as, technical aides. Such teams also help junior teachers learn from experienced teachers who have worked in the integrated classes in the past. Of more significance is the fact that such teams always include specialized individuals such as professionals in social work, psychology, and therapy. The successful integration into such teams will largely depend on the teachers’ ability to effectively participate in executions of plans and solve problems.

Inclusion models of education have become popular in the educational system. However, its popularity has also opened critical aspects of learning and teaching that needs scrutiny. While it has been embraced by many education stakeholders as an important part of making educating special needs successful, inclusive or mainstreamed programs are believed to be the most effective way to successfully offer educational services to students with disabilities.

Studies reveal that teachers suffers anxiety, cite lack of skills to manage special needs students, lack of support among the stakeholders, and insufficient or no financial backup meant to facilitate inclusive teaching program. From these highlighted dysfunctions, proposals have been made across the board to help facilitate right learning in integrated classrooms.  The first proposal is to ensure teachers are oriented to the integrated system right from the beginning of their training years. Retraining and acclimatizing teacher trainees also helps in eliminating anxiety and improves concerns and productivities. Collaborative approach also needs to be embraced by the stakeholders, with the aim of sharing necessary skills from various professionals such as psychologists, sociologists among many others. Collaboration also helps teachers prepare psychologically on how to deal with mainstreamed classroom.

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