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 inclusive practices 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 teachers. Will you be one of them? 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?


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.


Print Friendly, PDF & Email
By |2017-05-16T21:36:56+00:00May 1st, 2017|Special Education|25 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.


  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”

    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

      • Maritess April 8, 2018 at 4:08 pm - Reply

        Can you point me to where the state mentions the quota? Thanks –

    • Beth Tolley April 8, 2018 at 10:45 pm - Reply

      Thank you!

  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!

    • Kim Jones November 4, 2017 at 5:48 am - Reply

      All of this is too much for a regular ed teacher, with minimal special ed training. I personally feel it’s unfair. If I wanted to teach special ed students, I would have enrolled in a special ed program. When you have a class of 25 second graders, with 10 of them having IEP’s it’s unrealistic to think 1 teacher can meet the needs of all of these students. In addition, the teacher has to teach the regular ed students and make sure they understand the content. What if they’re struggling, do we just ignore them because they do not have an IEP. It’s Too Much!! I need to be a regular ed teacher advocate and contact a lawyer to protect these teachers from all the laws protecting special ed students and teachers. They are asking way too much of regular ed teachers who had or have no desire to teach special needs students. That’s why colleges offer programs for both. If I knew I was going to be forced to teach special ed students/inclusion, I’m 95% sure, I would have chosen a different career path. I left a 3 hour IEP meeting for an autistic child and it was in my opinion, just too much. I have nothing against special needs children, and believe they have a right to an education. I just feel regular ed teachers who have no desire to teach these students shouldn’t be forced to. I know plenty of special ed teachers who love teaching special ed students and are very passionate about their jobs and students. So, I suggest to please only allow these teachers to educate these students. Just my opinion. Signed a frustrated regular ed teacher.

      • dan laf April 10, 2018 at 2:06 am - Reply

        “If I wanted to teach special ed students, I would have enrolled in a special ed program.”

        Well speaking as a disabled who was a pioneer deaf mainstreamed in 1960’s us disABLED have fought to be treated as EQUAL as we can be and that is the Point of Mainstreaming

        Things change, in 1960’s there was Nothing much at all for disABLED
        now accommodations and such are being done.. I have to say that Teaching has changed, requirements have changed because no longer can disABLED be treated as 2nd class. It seems the problem is the colleges aren’t teaching this aspect of the job… those colleges still teaching teachers in the old way
        without much if any covering of what teachers will need to do for any disABLED are the problem. Those are turning out teachers who dont have training..

        And perhaps the colleges teaching and giving degrees for teaching are not
        making it clear what teaching these days demands… Do the descriptions of the degree programs even mention teachers will have to work with disABLED?

        Its likely the problem is at the Head- The colleges with degree programs in teaching. Any going to college to learn to be a teacher SHOULD know when working for that degree that they WILL have to work with disABLED as teachers. If that Degree program doesn’t mention it.. doesnt much if at all teach how to work with DisABLED, then you have Teachers starting out who sudden find they have to accommodate special needs

        Every degree program for a teaching degree should have a number of courses in special needs, etc and so many credits of that to do to get a teaching degree in my view these days.

        That will shift out those not suited to teach in all aspects needed.

      • Angry Mom April 10, 2018 at 5:43 pm - Reply

        Kim Jones – I hope you never have to be a parent of a special ed child. Or maybe I do. this is the most selfish thing i’ve ever heard.

      • Carol April 15, 2018 at 10:07 am - Reply

        Kim, If I wanted my ‘special ed’ student to be in the SPED class only how does that serve her in life after school? Will there be a special work place? Yes, it’s called sheltered workshops! I do not think my child will be a good fit for this so we will insist on inclusion in school so that she understands how to interact with the 90% of her peers who are not disabled. Sadly, your teacher bias is what this article is all about. Maybe you do need to go work in a different field. PS. Just remember that disability is a category that any of us can immediately be thrust into….hope you don’t have a stroke or become paralyzed and need any accommodations or anything.

      • Samantha B April 18, 2018 at 1:48 am - Reply

        its not too late—you can still choose another career path! No one is forcing you to remain in a position you’re not willing or able to fill.

      • Jfsd November 3, 2018 at 12:26 pm - Reply

        how about CO-TEACHING? Get up to speed

  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

  10. Beth Tolley April 8, 2018 at 11:03 pm - Reply

    We can do better. All school personnel are required to have continuing ed, isn’t that so? Build in requirements for education and training about how the brain functions (to help all personnel understand the enormous role of the flight, fight, freeze response and stop confusing that for willful misbehavior), ACEs and trauma informed classrooms, implicit biases, Collaborative problem solving, and self reflection.shut dow the school to prison pipeline in the process.

  11. dan laf April 10, 2018 at 1:48 am - Reply

    As a Deaf disabled born hearing, losing it at 7 YO in 1960’s and was mainstreamed, oral deaf, have to say that its sad that despite more things for disabled, despite ADA etc That still disabled don’t get all they need and should get is sad. There were no IEPs, etc in my time , No accommodations beyond having lipreading teacher at school 2 days a week (in grade school we used the Music time period for that..I never took music) nothing much else.

    People like I were the pioneers and schools should have learned what was needed by such as I…but seems not.

    In one post above ..that sub teacher showing off with ASL, if had occurred to me I’d been grossly insulted as a student.

  12. joeseph changling September 6, 2018 at 10:35 pm - Reply

    I am not trained in special ed. I feel I have done as much as I can with a student that cries most of the day and has no aide but has an iep. It’s all about inclusion of the special ed student. THAT is biased. It sucks for my 20 other kids. Where are their rights and protections. Kids like this should be out of the gen ed room!!!!

  13. Michael Carpenter October 31, 2018 at 6:39 am - Reply

    God morning Joseph!

    A suggestion: convince our Federal legislatures to pass those rights and protections.

    Good luck with that, though. It was these very same legislatures that promulgated the 14th Amendment, ADA, IDEA.

  14. Sarah Mattie December 4, 2018 at 12:52 pm - Reply

    I have ZERO training in working with children with needs, outside of short workshops I have attended during my summers and usually on my own dime. We need some major reform in PDs and how the school day is used, and we need significantly more paras and aides.

    But boy, do I LOVE having an inclusive classroom! I am far from perfect at working with my kids who have challenges, but every day is a great day to try to improve.

    When I became a teacher, I thought I wanted to work at one of those exclusive prep schools, with IQ tests and everything. I thought that I wouldn’t have the patience for kids who weren’t 100% ready and able to learn every day. I am so glad I ended up subbing in a special education classroom one day, as it changed the course of my life. I became a dedicated sub for that room, and never looked back.

    While I definitely couldn’t do what SPED teachers, paras, and aides do every single day, I couldn’t imagine my day without ALL of our amazing kids.

Leave A Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.