It’s Time to Address Teacher Bias Against Special Education Students

About Teresa

Teresa Cooper is a 30-something wife, mom and teacher from Havelock, North Carolina. She has a Masters of Science in Education for Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment from Walden University and a BA in Psychology with a minor in Creative from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Having struggled with anxiety and depression most of her life and later having birthed a child with autism, she is passionate about spreading awareness and acceptance of mental illness and autism and has been writing for Embracing the Spectrum since 2011. She also writes for The Mighty, The Huffington Post, and The Educator’s Room.

As a special educator for eight years, I can honestly say that most teachers have good intentions when it comes to reaching all children. That said, not all teachers are comfortable with, or even express happiness with, having special education students in their classrooms. Not surprisingly, a study conducted by MacFarlane and Woolfson (2013) found that teachers with a more positive attitude toward students with special needs engaged in more inclusive practices. Further, teachers with greater experience working with these children had more negative attitudes than newer teachers, which may be explained by a lack of inclusion training earlier in their careers. Regardless, teacher bias against special education students is real, and given the fact that a more positive attitude leads to more positive results (MarFarlane and Woolfson), it must be addressed.

Teachers with a more positive attitude toward students with special needs engaged in more… Click To Tweet

Teacher Bias in Beliefs about Rewards

Teacher bias may be reflected in a few ways. One is with a resistance to rewarding students with special needs for working hard. As one teacher stated, “I often encountered a resistance to accommodations, particularly [with] modifying [the] amount [of work] for kids with slow processing speeds. I was also told on several occasions that if an EC kid made honor roll they shouldn’t be EC. These were kids who struggled but worked extremely hard to succeed.” Another teacher concurs with this assessment, providing an example of a situation going on at her school currently, “Right now, awards ceremonies are being planned. A few teachers do not believe that children on Tier 3 interventions for behavior should be recognized or celebrated. Seriously. They don’t want to reward the ‘bad kids’ for doing what is expected. Some of these children are homeless. Some are hungry. Some are in their 5th foster placement this year. Some have mental health issues. But let’s go ahead and tell them they cannot have the big party that you are giving every other child, just because they have a motivation plan.”

Is it fair to fail to reward students who have to work harder at behaving and getting good grades just because they carry a label? The obvious answer is “no” but for some teachers, the decision isn’t so easy. It’s time to start a conversation around these ideas and determine a fair way for all students to feel successful.

Biases in Relation to Accommodations

Another way teacher bias is seen in special education is when it comes to accommodations. As an earlier teacher stated, it can be difficult for teachers to understand that an intelligent student might need modified work due to processing speed issues. Another teacher expressed frustration over how students are treated when it comes to their accommodations, stating, “If the child needs accommodations for this assignment, it’s his responsibility to let me know. They are in 3rd grade now. If they need help, they know they have an IEP and can ask. We know how our kids understand their own needs, as well as how they need assistance. But let a child mention that they have an IEP, and the tone changes–those kids feel so entitled because of it…. Can’t win for losing.” Further, one special education teacher says that teachers may struggle in that “they don’t believe that the student needs the accommodations listed on IEP because they ‘appear’ to do fine. They often don’t understand that parents are working for hours with them nightly or have hired tutors.” In these areas, it may be beneficial to have an open discussion between the specialist (special education teacher) who often knows these families intimately and the regular education teacher to dispel some of the myths about accommodations and whether or not students need them.

Beliefs about Ability Levels and Behaviors

Finally, teacher bias is observed in teachers’ beliefs about the ability levels and behaviors of students with disabilities. As one teacher puts it, “Often, unless they have SPED training, they assume that the students either can’t learn, will be a behavior problem, and will increase their workload.” Some might even believe students don’t need accommodations, but this same teacher states that that’s why she “really like[s] the co-teaching model so that these biases can be addressed/discussed before they affect the student’s learning.” Perhaps more of these discussions should occur and special education teachers should speak up more for these children in a non-threatening, conversational way. This might prevent episodes like the ones yet another teacher observes where there are, “multiple instances of teachers believing that behaviors associated with ADHD, or even autism, are willful.” Until those of use trained in helping these types of students help educate and provide strategies for dealing with the behaviors that may come with some disabilities, these events are more likely to occur.

Students with disabilities can become successful learners with the right tools and the right… Click To Tweet

Changing Our Beliefs

When teacher bias presents itself, the teacher may or may not be conscious of it, so it’s important to have an honest look at ourselves to see if we hold beliefs that potentially damage our ability to education and form relationships with our students. When it comes to special education, often times this seems difficult, but Ashby (2012) says that the tools teachers use to education students should be a reflection of a “strengths- and needs-based approach to determining supports and useful teaching strategies” (p.96). Even more importantly, however, Ashby asserts that focusing on students successes rather than remediating deficits should take precedence and building positive student profiles may help when building an inclusive lesson-planning template. Furthermore, teachers need to become problem solvers, which sometimes means consulting experts and communicating with others (Ashby). Students with disabilities can become successful learners with the right tools and the right teachers. Will you be one of them?

References

Ashby, C. (2012). Disability studies and inclusive teacher preparation: A socially just path for teacher education. Research & Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities, 37(2), 89-99.

Macfarlane, K. & Woolfson, L. M. (2013). Teacher attitudes and behavior toward the inclusion of children with social, emotional, and behavioral difficulties in mainstream schools: An application of the theory of planned behavior. Teaching and Teacher Education, 29, 46-52.

 

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By | 2017-05-16T21:36:56+00:00 May 1st, 2017|Special Education|12 Comments

About the Author:

Teresa Cooper is a 30-something wife, mom and teacher from Havelock, North Carolina. She has a Masters of Science in Education for Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment from Walden University and a BA in Psychology with a minor in Creative from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Having struggled with anxiety and depression most of her life and later having birthed a child with autism, she is passionate about spreading awareness and acceptance of mental illness and autism and has been writing for Embracing the Spectrum since 2011. She also writes for The Mighty, The Huffington Post, and The Educator’s Room.

12 Comments

  1. Heather True May 1, 2017 at 9:06 am - Reply

    I know I did well by everyone (at my own expense, which is another story). I did as I was trained. Set realistic goals with students and scaffolded everyone to success. Built confidence and stamina. Challenged the gifted. Motivated ownership over their own learning. I had pretty high expectations for struggling learners, but broke them down into short-term goals, with the time, tools, and encouragement to reach them.

  2. Josie May 16, 2017 at 9:44 am - Reply

    Great article. I’ll be sharing with my team. Just an FYI, there is a typo in the second sentence of the last paragraph.

  3. Sandy Goodwick May 16, 2017 at 8:40 pm - Reply

    It’s endemic in education. Totally ENDEMIC. Before we can start changing existing sped teachers’ attitudes, we need to look at the paternalism in teacher prep… there are many prospect discussion and new teachers (with disabilities!) who are dissuaded from teaching. The sped professors themselves are biased… I met a visually impaired candudate for a VI credential – and she told me the system didn’t want VI teachers with visual impairments.

    Hell… I presented on thud very topic at the TASH conference in Chicago, in 2013.

    Look at CEC… the quintessence of paternal mindset. They do NOTHING to even CONSIDER whether a teacher with disability ADDS to the school community.

    In 2015, our Quality of Work life survey showed that teachers with disabilities were bullied/harassed more than any other minority group.

    This us nothing new! And it’s deeplybsad, because all kids need good role models.

  4. Janice Lintz May 19, 2017 at 7:50 am - Reply

    See my article, “10 Misconceptions Teachers Should Know About Children Who Are Hard Of Hearing” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/janice-s-lintz/10-misconceptions-teacher_b_11360592.html

    Janice Schacter Lintz, CEO/Founder, Hearing Access & Innovations

    • Lee Wygand June 26, 2017 at 12:28 am - Reply

      Thank you! I’m an itinerant teacher of Deaf and Hard of Hearing and run into these and other misconceptions about my students! I have to fight so hard for their rights.

  5. Vera Meier-Bennett May 23, 2017 at 1:00 am - Reply

    As a pediatrician who takes care of children with special needs and is qualified to diagnose Autism and ADHD, I frequently run into issues with schools that don’t want to take the time to deal with these children. Just because a disability isn’t visible, doesn’t mean it isn’t there. I try explaining to parents and educators by comparing it to a child with a more visible challenge. It can often get the point across.

    • Sam June 24, 2017 at 11:18 am - Reply

      Under law, ADHD doesn’t automatically qualify for services. The student must have “a significant educational impact”. Don’t blame schools. The state has a quota of how many students with which type they are allowed to qualify

  6. Marianne Bryant June 8, 2017 at 5:34 pm - Reply

    It also takes a committed family to help support the special needs Childs education and help fill in the gaps as much as possible at home. My daughters school readiness in math in K was a 0.01%. That was 18 years ago. Math is still her greatest area of weakness but she graduated high school with high honors and six scholarships. She graduated with a BA in Communications from Stetson University and is now working on her MA. She has Autism and ADHD. Each year we worked with her teachers some great some not so great. I worked around the not so great and we kept moving forward. Her performance rate in K was 32%. Sometimes it pays to just move forward and don’t look at the negative go with the strengths and work on the weaknesses but family has to take responsibility as well as the child themselves as that can be taught at home. Just my opinion but it worked for our family. I had 3 other children too and it’s the message I’ve tried to convey to parents they have to be there to support the schools in helping their child succeed.

  7. Lee Wygand June 26, 2017 at 12:24 am - Reply

    As an itinerant teacher of Deaf and Hard of Hearing I can attest to general education teachers not accommodating my students. Some have refused to wear the transmitter of the student’s Hearing Assistive Technology (HAT), which sends their voice directly to the receivers attached to their hearing aids, some have not called me when their HAT isn’t working properly because “They seem to be doing fine without it”, and there was a substitute teacher that decided he would show off and sign to one of my students who doesn’t know ASL because she is oral Deaf! I have even encountered resistance from case carriers who have told the IEP team the student doesn’t need an IEP as they are not two years behind and try to remove the student from an IEP. I have to argue with them that the student STILL has a hearing loss and need the accommodations of an IEP!

  8. Yafa Crane Luria June 27, 2017 at 8:48 pm - Reply

    YES! Great article!

  9. Kat July 13, 2017 at 6:45 am - Reply

    Like the article overall. I’d like to see some reference to the statistics about what portion of regular classroom teachers feel prepared to help students with learning differences. Just because a student has an IEP and gets some help from a special ed teacher doesn’t mean that the regular teacher doesn’t need to be prepared to serve him as well. If 20% of students are dyslexic for example, how in the world are all teachers not better prepared to teach dyslexic students? Colleges are handicapping teachers by not better preparing the regular classroom teacher to identify, accommodate, and serve the special education students who are in their classrooms already.

    • Travis August 8, 2017 at 8:08 am - Reply

      I agree that there are some issues with colleges not preparing our teachers for effective strategies to differentiate instruction to meet the needs of our special education students. There’s too much emphasis on philosophy, and not enough on practicality. Compile that with teachers that are becoming certified in Special Education by only taking the Praxis test. One of the things I’ve been working with our special education coordinator to work on is holding workshops/online activities through our LMS (Schoology) to help provide resources and options. It’s had positive results so far, mainly because our coordinator knows our students and is able to provide effective strategies

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