Kids of All Abilities in the Same Classroom
In any given public school classroom, a teacher could have one student with autism, another with a physical disability, and two or three who need extra help in reading or speech. Instead of shuttling these students off to a special class for most of the day, school systems in Massachusetts and nationwide are integrating these kids into the regular classroom.
“It’s a belief that everyone belongs, and everyone benefits,” says Judy Levin-Charns, assistant superintendent for student services at Newton Public Schools. Special educators believe that including these students in the classroom, with modifications, benefits kids with and without special needs.
“For the typical kids, it’s really important for them to learn to live in a world where people do things differently. Teaching tolerance, teaching about diversity is really important,” says Robin Fabiano, elementary student services department head for the Westwood school district. “For the community in general, I don’t think it makes sense to teach that people should be separated based on ability.”
How the System Works
A number of laws specify exactly how special needs students should be taught in the regular classroom. Both classroom teachers and special educators spend time figuring out how these children will learn best, Levin-Charns says.
In Massachusetts, special education is governed by both state and federal law. The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) regulates how states provide early intervention, special education and related services to more than 6.5 million children with special needs.
IDEA mandates that students with disabilities should participate in a school’s general curriculum – the same one their peers are using. And the law says that a student with special needs must be educated with his non-disabled peers to the maximum extent appropriate for that child.
Teachers, along with parents and special education staffers, make a plan for each special needs student called an individualized education program (IEP). They also may make some of the following modifications:
• Academic support – Special education teachers make changes to a special needs student’s curriculum, rewrite quizzes or exams so that the student can understand and complete them, or just highlight key information to make information easier to digest. Classroom teachers might do things as simple as letting a student sit at the front of the class, allowing extra time on tests or repeating directions.
• Behavior support – Teachers create behavior plans for a student. They might set a timer, for example, so that a student knows how much longer he needs to stay on task before taking a break.
• Technology – Increasingly, special education teachers are using technology such as computer programs for students who need extra help with reading or writing.
• Meetings – The special education staff meets frequently with classroom teachers and teacher’s assistants to go over plans, distribute class materials and share strategies to make sure students with special needs are learning.
• Out-of-class work – Special education students might leave the regular classroom during part of the day for therapy sessions in areas such as occupational skills, speech and language, vision or counseling.
Often, students without a disability benefit from the extra work special educators do to make things like worksheets or quizzes easier to understand. Sometimes, in fact, after classroom teachers see a modified worksheet with extra graphics or formatting, they decide to use it for the whole class.
A Few Challenges
Special education officials see few drawbacks to including children with disabilities in the regular classroom, and they say teachers are adept at teaching to all levels of children in the class. Still, some parents of special needs children find that being in the regular class could make their child lose out on having a peer group.
Many times, as special needs students get older, they realize that they aren’t the same as their friends in class, Fabiano explains. Parents have trouble connecting with other parents whose children might have the same disability. “I think that can be isolating,” Fabiano says. “There are parent support groups, and we try really hard to connect families.”
Parents can serve on their local parent advisory council, which helps guide special education services for the school system. According to Massachusetts law, every school system needs to have this council, and it can provide a way for parents to connect with others who have children with special needs.
Special education students need to be educated in the least restrictive environment possible, according to the IDEA law. For nearly all special needs students, that means attending their neighborhood school in the same grade as their peers.
“If you’re 8 years old and you have Down syndrome, you walk into second grade, and that’s where you spend your day,” Fabiano says.
It’s up to special education teachers, in conjunction with classroom teachers, to make sure the students have the help they need to learn in the regular classroom. School administrators hope that having special needs children in the classroom will help everyone learn.
“We’re all the same. They’re all kids,” says Mozelle Berkowitz, who worked in elementary student services in Newton. “They both need to understand how to relate to each other, and they need to live in a society that’s integrated at the end of this.”
Jessica Hanthorn is a freelance writer in Braintree.
A Special Education Timeline
If your child might need special education services, here is the process the school system must follow:
• Within 5 days of someone noticing an issue with your child, the district needs to notify you and seek consent to evaluate the child.
• Within 30 school days of your consent, your child will be evaluated by specialists.
• Within 45 school days of your initial consent the evaluation team determines whether your child is eligible for services. Then, if your child is eligible for services, the team will develop and write an individualized education program (IEP) for your child. Read our article, “An Introduction to IEPs,” at BostonParentsPaper.com/IEP.
Within 30 days of receiving the IEP, parents need to consent to the IEP.
• Throughout the year, children receive special education services and parents get updates at least as often as non-special needs students do.
• Annually, the team reviews and rewrites the IEP.
• At least every three years, the school reevaluates your child.