Children and Special Education Services (page 3)
Improving Educational Programs for Pupils with Disabilities
For educational programs for pupils with disabilities to improve, several things must occur:
- Regular education personnel must become collaboratively involved in identification, instructional adaptation, IEP development, and the monitoring of the learning progress.
- Special education personnel must become collaboratively involved with regular education personnel and develop a close familiarity with regular education curriculum goals and materials.
- The educational focus for pupils with disabilities must become success on achieving state academic standards in the regular classroom.
- Special education must be viewed as a short-term intervention in most cases, and some near-term end point must be identified when a student will no longer need special education support.
- Special education programs cannot be administered from afar. Each school must have the flexibility to design appropriate interventions without much regard for past practices or some standard program.
- Accountability for academic acceleration of the academic growth of students with disabilities must be implemented.
Children and Special Education Services
Three categories of special education classifications account for about two of every three children identified as pupils with disabilities: learning disability, attention deficit disorder with or without hyperactivity, and behavior disordered/emotionally impaired. Because these classifications are so prevalent and because so little evidence exists to support current educational interventions as providing any substantial academic benefit, we discuss each of these classifications in some detail.
It has been 30-plus years since learning disability (LD) became a recognized (and reimbursable) handicapping condition. Today over half of all children receiving special education services are pupils identified as persons with learning disability. Spear-Swerling and Sternberg (1996) provide a readable and comprehensive treatment of the development of the LD field and the issues to be confronted. Suffice it to say that even today there exists little evidence that children identified as having learning disability differ cognitively from other low-achieving students. The former are usually children experiencing difficulty in learning, especially in learning to read and write. They are usually children from low-income families. They often exhibit some difficulties in social skills or aggressive behaviors. They often exhibit difficulties in language-learning areas. But LD is a socially constructed belief system, not a demonstrated cognitive/neurological disorder or deficit. Identification of learning disability depends on the beliefs of the school personnel, not on a particular array of behaviors or test results. The child with LD in one school is the child with attention deficit disorder in another, the slow learner in another, the emotionally disturbed child in another, the remedial reader in another, and the language-impaired child in yet another school (Allington, 2002b).
This is not meant to deny that some children experience substantial difficulties with literacy learning. Instead, it is meant to point out simply that the label of learning disability does little to address the instructional problems some children present. There is good evidence that children identified as having learning disability benefit most from larger amounts of higher-quality literacy instruction than is usually needed by other children to succeed (Foorman & Torgeson, 2001). There is no good evidence that children with learning disability benefit from specific curricular approaches often touted as the solution to their problems. Some children simply need more and better instruction, and children with LD are among those children. Vellutino and his colleagues (1996) provided dramatic evidence that only 1 to 2 percent of students proved resistant to intensive remediation. He provided individual tutoring or very small-group intensive remediation to all K–2 students who needed it, regardless of the reason (e.g., absences due to illness, inadequate classroom instruction, difficulty learning). His tutoring was generally modeled after the lesson design offered in Reading Recovery sessions (Clay, 1991) and offered lots of reading and writing combined with explicit skills and strategies instruction. At the end of second grade, roughly 1 percent of all children met the achievement criteria for identification as children with LD, far fewer than the roughly 5 to 10 percent of students so identified in most schools.
Mathes and her colleagues (Mathes, Denton, Fletcher, Anthony, Francis, & Schatschneider, 2005) contrasted effects of two quite different early interventions. One was a direct instruction intervention with scripted lessons and a sequential organization of decoding lessons. The other provided no scripted guidance and offered no sequential organization of decoding; it instead relied on the tutors to organize lessons based on student responses. Intervention lessons were offered to groups of three low-achieving readers daily. The interventions were delivered by certified special education or reading teachers who selected which intervention model they would teach.
The results indicated both interventions were comparably effective with both reducing the proportion of kids performing below the 30th percentile to roughly 1 percent of the total population. Both had comparable impacts on achievement as measured by effect sizes. Small differences did appear with the direct-instruction students demonstrating better word attack, while the responsive intervention students had better fluency performances. But there were no differences on broad measures of reading achievement. No child characteristics were found to interact with intervention type. In other words, both early intervention models worked to accelerate the reading achievement of struggling readers. This raises the question of whether we debate the specifics too much while ignoring the generalized finding that intensive, expert early intervention is a critical component in schools where all children become readers and writers.
These researchers noted that many of the children they served found learning to read difficult. But these children were not "disabled" in any medical, physiological, or neurological sense. They just needed more intensive and more expert instruction than most children. We agree with the researchers' assessment. The danger in identifying such children as "disabled" is that expectations have often been lowered, curriculum was watered down, and the intensive intervention needed was not offered.
In addition, the current fragmented curriculum that many students with learning disability receive produces disastrous results, which seem to stem from the fact that these children benefit most from a consistent and coherent curricular approach to teaching them to read and write. Very simply, LD might be thought of as "cognitive confusion" about literacy learning. Programs that present children with LD with multiple curriculum emphases and changing curriculum demands cannot be expected to produce "cognitive clarity" and successful literacy acquisition. But many schools continue to buy and use an alternative curriculum approach in a pull-out program with these students. Unfortunately, such decisions reflect nothing that we have learned about teaching struggling readers, including students with learning disability, to read.
The exemplary teacher studies (Allington & Johnston, 2002; Pressley et al., 2001; Taylor et al., 2000) suggest that the best hope for children with LD is a strong classroom literacy program taught by an expert classroom teacher who is provided adequate support in adapting instruction in a highly personalized fashion. Currently, children with learning disability are among those students most likely to drop out of school and most likely to enter adulthood with low levels of literacy and limited employment skills. Obviously, the programs now in place too often fail to provide substantial academic benefit to those students.
ADD and ADHD
More recently, the number of children (most often boys) identified as exhibiting attention deficit disorders (ADD) or attention deficits with hyperactivity disorders (ADHD) has dramatically increased. Often, the ADD or ADHD classification is linked to identifying a child as having learning disability, although this is not necessary (Snow et al., 1998). The most common treatments for ADD and ADHD, unfortunately, seem to rely heavily on the use of stimulant medications such as Ritalin, prescribed for at least half a million children (according to some estimates the number is nearer a million) (Coles, 1987). One is tempted to recall a similar period in the 1970s when hyperactivity was a common diagnosis. However, the landmark report by Schrag and Divoky (1975) seemed to quell the surge in administering pharmaceutical stimulant drugs common at that time. Today, children are again being identified as "immature," "antsy," "inattentive," "hyper," and so on, and many are again being administered stimulant drugs as a primary treatment. Thus, it would seem important to summarize what is currently known about ADD and ADHD and the effectiveness of the drug treatments.
Swanson (1993) and Purdie, Hattie, and Carroll (2002) summarize the research on the effects of stimulant medication on children identified as exhibiting an attention deficit. Their analysis demonstrated that such drugs are more effective in influencing behavior than in enhancing learning. One can reasonably expect a temporary improvement in behavior, especially in impulsivity and overactivity, and a decrease in aggressive behavior and negative social interactions. At the same time, the researchers note that no significant improvements in reading skills, athletic skills, or positive social skills should be expected nor should long-term improvement in academic achievement be expected.
It seems obvious that ADD/ADHD is a "transactional disorder," a difficulty some children exhibit interacting with their social world. While exhibiting no intellectual deficiencies, these children are more active, more socially abusive, and more often disliked by peers and harder for adults to love. Many of these children do not "outgrow" the behavioral style that sets them apart. As adults they are more likely to change jobs frequently, have legal difficulties, especially involving substance abuse, and experience problems with long-term relationships. But this is not true for all such children. About half the children identified as exhibiting ADD/ADHD seem to function quite well as adults (Henker & Whalen, 1989).
Obviously, children vary in their level of physical activity and social skills, they differ in literacy development, and they differ in their interest in school-related learning. Some parents worry about children on the passive end of the scale, though few teachers seem to show great concern about the shy "bookworms" who would rather stay inside and read than go out and engage in physically active play. In school, it is the child at the other end of the activity spectrum who draws attention. Children who are very active, are often inattentive, and have difficulty with peer relationships are a cause for concern. But before such children are labeled and subjected to drug therapies, an honest judgment must be made as to who is most likely to benefit from such a course of action. The research offers little promise of long-term academic or social benefits to the child who is labeled and medicated.
Some evidence shows that nondrug therapies, such as cognitive-behavioral approaches, work to reduce inappropriate behaviors and enhance academic performance (Reid & Borkowski, 1987). In some cases, such methods have been used with medication with good results. Similarly, drug therapies combined with a 10-step parent-training program have demonstrated positive effects on social and academic performances (Anastopoulos, DuPaul, & Barkley, 1992). The 10-step program focuses on developing a more supportive home environment that emphasizes a consistent approach to behavior management and social development.
The widespread use of pharmacological treatments may be related to educator naivete about what the research has demonstrated. In a survey of both classroom and special education teachers, Snider, Busch, and Arrowood (2003) found that teachers did not know much about the research on ADHD and/or stimulant medications. All teachers believed medications improved school performance but special educators were more positive. Using the NIH Consensus Statement on the diagnosis and treatment of ADHD as a base, the researchers asked a number of questions. They found 90 percent of teachers believed that ADHD was brain dysfunction/neurological in source although research doesn't support that view. In addition, 94 percent thought medication improved academic achievement although research does not confirm this either. Over half of the respondents knew of none of the important documented side effects (e.g., tics, insomnia, stunted growth, drug abuse) of stimulant medications.
As with most other issues of importance, school communities should examine the long-term effects of current policies concerning children identified as exhibiting ADD/ADHD. Where do most referrals for ADD/ADHD come from? Do most children receiving medication benefit academically? For those children with normal intellectual capacities, academic success would seem a reasonable expectation if drug therapies are intended to address academic learning. Do these children graduate from high school and become productive citizens in the community?
There will always be children who are more active, distractible, and bothersome than others. The central question is, What sort of responses to such children might schools consider? For instance, would regular opportunities to engage in large-muscle movement activities stem some of the activity problems (as recess periods have been reduced or eliminated, have more children been identified as having ADD)? Can classroom teachers develop more effective routines for engaging all children in their work (do classrooms have sufficient collections of books that low-achieving children can read and want to read)? Can cognitive control strategies be developed in children having difficulty staying on-task or interacting with peers (making rules and routines explicit seems to assist some children; allowing greater flexibility in rules and routines assists others)? Decisions to employ stimulant medications with difficult children cannot become routine. Using such medications on active children seems to benefit adults (parents and teachers) more than it benefits children.
Unfortunately, ADD/ADHD is still in the eye of the beholder. The criteria include items that describe nearly every child at some time:
- Fidgets with hands or squirms in seat, has difficulty waiting turns
- Blurts out answers
- Has difficulty playing quietly
- Has difficulty sustaining attention to tasks
- Interrupts or intrudes on others
- Loses things necessary for tasks at school
- Fails to finish chores
- Does not seem to listen
In school, such behaviors often follow from difficulty meeting the demands of the work presented or from a less-than-keen interest in the more passive activities common to classroom learning.
Probably no child produces problems with so few workable solutions as the seriously misbehaving child. Most schools have but a single strategy for dealing with children who are aggressively misbehaving—sending the child away. In some cases, the child goes to another school or to a self-contained classroom with other misbehaving children. Few schools have an effective intervention plan for altering the child's behavior and returning the child to the classroom with substantial improvement in ability to control emotions and behavior. This is not to condone the aggressive, belligerent, and potentially dangerous behavioral displays that some children exhibit. But it is necessary to ask how current programs benefit the child exhibiting the misbehavior. We see the need for developing a school strategy for working more effectively with such children and their families in an attempt to improve behavior and socialization. Removing such children from the regular classroom or from the school solves the school's problem but rarely addresses the child's problems in any useful way.
We suggest that school personnel first take stock of current resources for addressing the issue of the seriously disruptive student. Who has the responsibility for evaluating the situation and implementing any sort of intervention? In our work in schools, we have found that in too many cases no one is charged with such responsibilities. Instead, many different staff members are seen as potentially responsible. For instance, classroom teachers are told to "bear with it" or to attempt to implement a reward/punishment scheme—to develop clear rules about behavioral expectations. Rarely, however, have teachers had much training with designing and implementing such classroom approaches. Principals often find unruly students sitting in the outer office, waiting for some form of punishment or using the area as a cooling-off site. But for seriously disruptive students, the wait in the outer office can turn that location into a maelstrom (although one principal told us that keeping a journal on hand and having students write about the incident that resulted in their being sent to the office had a wonderfully calming effect).
In some schools, the special education teacher is asked to serve as a resource, either in the classroom or by working with the child outside the regular classroom. In other schools, a guidance counselor or a social worker or a school psychologist is asked to intervene, but these staff members do not necessarily have the time, skills, or training to implement any sort of effective intervention. For instance, simply scheduling the seriously disruptive student into a small group-support session for 30 minutes a week is unlikely to provide an effective resolution. The more recent addition, an in-school suspension room, also removes the child from the classroom but typically offers little in the way of an effective plan for resolving behavioral difficulties.
Generally, the seriously disruptive child is no stranger to punishment. These children often come from homes where they have been punished quite severely though often inconsistently for misbehavior. They are also likely to receive many more commands from parents than other children, often with no explanation. Employing control-oriented approaches to behavioral problems, approaches that emphasize imposing external standards, has not worked nearly as well as approaches emphasizing internally derived standards (Becker, 1992). These children do not respond positively to escalating penalties and harsher behavioral standards and punishments. Instead, they simply grow angrier and more disruptive.
Schools might consider a variety of approaches in better addressing the problems that seriously disruptive students create. For instance, at Boys Town, where many such children are enrolled, a long-term staff development project has focused on helping teachers develop more effective routines and responses to such students. One strategy is to help staff learn to break the cycle of aggression–counteraggression by developing responses such as lowering the voice (instead of raising it), shifting to less confrontational postures, and using third-party observers in the classroom to identify teacher responses that generally create increased negative reactions by students. (Such students are likely to perceive sarcasm, criticism, shouting, and posturing as aggressive attacks and respond with increased aggression.) Other strategies include helping teachers learn to provide four positive comments for each corrective they issue, role-playing and rehearsing specific incidents and appropriate responses, providing meaningful rationales for behavioral routines (rather than dictums), and developing effective consequences for maintaining appropriate behavior (Dowd & Tierney, 1992).
Schools that work well for all children make a concerted effort to help children develop personal responsibility for their own actions. Children need to accept responsibility for their learning as well as for their behavior (often the two are related). At the same time, schools must accept the responsibility to help all children learn more effective self-monitoring strategies. We are of the opinion that simply ordering children around is not the preferred model for schooling. Thus, in addressing the issue of behavior problems, we offer summaries of three interventions that focus on developing students' competence.
Glasser's Control Theory work of William Glasser (1986, 1990) provides one of the most sensible and comprehensive treatments of behavior problems (including lesser problems such as motivation). He argues that all human behavior is an attempt to satisfy one of five basic needs: survival, love, power, fun, and freedom. He attempts to show that all of us control our own behavior and to show how coercive school power creates many of the difficulties often attributed to children. His characterizations of schools as holding fast to the "Boss–Teacher" model in an era of shared decision making is quite compelling.
Glasser's work is provocative in other respects as well. For instance, he counsels that calling parents of misbehaving children into the school is an admission that the school cannot handle its own problems. He suggests that students often benefit from being transferred out of classrooms where they have built up a negative reputation, because even after they have learned control strategies they find themselves in an "old" environment where they may be "discriminated" against because of past incidents. He emphasizes ignoring who was at fault and focusing on looking for solutions generated by the child. His approach involves students—in whole-class groups, cooperative teams, and individually—in social problem solving, curriculum problem solving, and outcomes assessment. His work in schools has earned him accolades from a wide range of educators, and his work has the good supporting documentation.
Dreikurs's Logical Consequences Less well known and older, but still with substantial credentials, is the Logical Consequences model of Rudolf Dreikurs (Dreikurs, Grunwald, & Pepper, 1982). In this approach all behavior is again seen as purposeful. People behave in certain ways to gain attention, exercise power, exact revenge, or display an inadequacy. Dreikurs identified several subtypes of attention-getting behaviors and argued that, generally, children worked in a hierarchical sequence from gaining attention to displaying inadequacy. The approach rests on a democratic teaching style that provides reasonable guidance but emphasizes developing understanding that decisions are linked to responsibility. Children are involved in setting portions of the academic agenda as well as general routines and rules for classroom deportment. Like Glasser's Control Theory, Logical Consequences focuses on trying to understand why children behave the way they do and how to help children learn the consequences of their behavior. Evidence from schools adopting this approach indicates a reduced incidence of minor and major behavioral problems.
Conflict Resolution Another effort that schools might consider is adopting one of several new approaches to conflict resolution. Because many behavioral displays result from personal conflicts between students, these approaches can stem much of the aggressive behavior found in many schools. Approaches to conflict resolution usually involve two sets of activities: training professional staff in conflict resolution strategies and training students to resolve conflicts through peer mediation. Both activities work to develop shared norms and strategies for dealing with conflicts (Johnson & Johnson, 1993).
School Violence There seems to be a school violence report in the media nearly every week. Public concern about the topic is at an all-time high. Media coverage of homicides increased by 721 percent between 1992 and 1998 even though the actual homicide rate dropped by 20 percent (Hinds, 2000). The reality is that violence in schools has declined over the years and schools are just about the safest public environments available. Public Agenda, a nonprofit public opinion and research organization, recently produced an issues report on school violence. They note three approaches that might be taken to address the issue:
Choice 1. Promote a nonviolent culture. Reduce children's access to violent games, videos, movies, and television programs.
Choice 2. Provide more help to children at greater risk of violence. Create a system for identifying the few very troubled children and families, and fund appropriate interventions.
Choice 3. Provide greater moral discipline. Use child-centered child rearing methods at home and school but establish clear rules and consequences.
Each approach has its advocates. Each has vociferous opponents. In the Public Agenda report (www.publicagenda.org) each approach is detailed with examples of the approach in action. None of the choices is simple.
The central question that must be asked is, How can this school more effectively solve the problems of students who exhibit serious and continued misbehavior, students who seem prone to reacting violently to perceived injustices? Segregating these children into special classes or special schools offers few benefits to anyone. For schools, segregation is incredibly expensive while being largely ineffective both behaviorally and academically. For a segregated child, this approach typically leads neither to improved self-control nor to improved academic achievement. The child simply grows up to be an angry, illiterate adult who can do real damage (or society can support the person in prison for the rest of his or her life, another expensive outcome).
There are no easy answers here, but it does seem that schools need better programs than what now usually exist. Perhaps it is time to think about short-term segregation with intensive intervention and a scheduled return to a regular classroom (though we believe Glasser is correct in suggesting a return to a different classroom). All children benefit from learning to take greater control over their actions. But as in most other areas of learning, some children need more and better support than others to achieve these goals.
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