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When Special Education Fails
The designating categories of special education have been carefully conceptualized by educators and are conscientiously considered in the cases of students who appear to have a barrier or barriers to learning. Most cases referred to school psychologists are straightforward and well understood. The majority of students referred and evaluated clearly meet criteria for one of the designating categories and is appropriately served as a result of the designation specified. Time and time again we have seen that when the student, designation, and assigned services match, the services received by the students lead to their progress.
However, there is a growing number of students in every school district each year for whom we cannot seem to find an accurate match. These students continue to baffle educational professionals, despite their best efforts to understand and intervene. These are often the students who arrive to school, no matter how young, with a significant history already in the making. Some have been asked to leave their daycare or pre-schools. Some have been given disciplinary transfers from one school to another. Others come to school with long, often conflicting psychological and/or medical reports from outside agencies and hospitals with various diagnoses and recommendations, some tried, some abandoned, or are students quickly acquiring such reports. Numerous traditional forms of intervention were tried with little success. School psychologists review, observe, and consider what the situation may be with these students but cannot seem to put their finger on the specific challenges and needs of the students – on what the actual barrier to their successful education is. Designing and implementing effective interventions becomes futile because the problem is not clearly understood.
When the problem is not clearly understood, we miss not only the opportunity to intervene within general education in an effective way but also the opportunity to use the designating categories of special education in a more accurate and comprehensive way. Some designating categories are broader and more encompassing than their current use implies, Other Health Impairment and Traumatic Brain Injury, specifically. They are underused as a result. A number of the more baffling students assessed would be better understood as having health impairments or brain injuries because of their significant medical histories or traumatic experiences. Educators have not yet considered these designations for many of the students who need them, most likely due to limited knowledge of current brain and nervous system research. The findings of the last decade – “the decade of the brain” – are critical to the work we do. Such findings point to the importance of considering pre- and peri-natal development, trauma, and stress, in both the student and the student’s caregivers when we assess for potential barriers to learning.
Rather than simply identifying the problem and developing solutions for the problem as defined, we need to understand the source of the problem. That is what we do when we consider pre- and peri-natal development, trauma and stress. Understanding the source of learning and behavioral challenges is more important to best practice than ever before. In light of compelling research on the developing brain and its effect on the nervous system and self-regulatory capacities, we now know that without understanding the source of the problem, we do not understand its solution. Re-consideration of both the criteria for the designating categories, as well as the use of the categories, is implicated.
Identifying barriers to learning is one of the most important things we do as educators. Within general education we have identified poor attendance, cultural and environmental conditions, second language issues, chronic illness, and economic disadvantages among others. Within special education we have assessed for developmental delays, physical disabilities, learning disabilities, emotional problems, and health impairments among others. There remains a group of students, however, whose inability to access their education with success is still not understood. There remains, in this twenty-first century, a misunderstood child.
We first heard about the “misunderstood child” in the 1980’s when the book by the same name was originally published (Silver, 1984). The author helped us put a name to those students who were struggling with learning disabilities that at the time we did not know enough about. We rose to the challenges then of those students and learned to intervene with them in more effective ways. We learned at that time, just as we continue to learn today, that when we misunderstand children, we leave them behind.
This is a new era. Twenty years after the publication of Misunderstood Child: Understanding and Coping with Your Child’s Learning Disabilities, we have new challenges to face in education. Post-9/11, in light of numerous school shootings, terrorist attacks, and natural disasters, and with media and internet access at an all-time high, our students experience exposure to local and global violence in frightening proportions. We would not only be naïve but also dangerously ignorant to think that this exposure is not having a significant impact on our students. In fact, we witness that impact in our classrooms and on our playgrounds every day. We hear more now than ever before about bullies, crises, and school violence. The growing focus of education on prevention and intervention in these areas is because we realize these problems are on the rise.
As we face this new era, having committed to “no child left behind,” a reconsideration of our priorities and commitments in education is called for. We need to ask important questions. Have we identified, in either general or special education, all the possible barriers to learning and behaving in school with success? Are the designating categories as they are currently being used comprehensive enough to account for the barriers our students face? Why is there a growing number of students who do not fit into the categories as they are currently being used? Who are these students who do not fit? What are the barriers to their education? What do we need to start doing to assess them more accurately, identify them more comprehensively, and serve them more effectively?
In an attempt to answer these questions, the groundbreaking book, Why Students Underachieve: What Educators and Parents Can Do about It, was written to review current research findings on the developing brain and nervous system – research that is completely relevant to education yet largely ignored. The findings of this research demonstrate that there is a direct and significant effect of experience on the brain and ultimately on learning and behavior. While the findings point to a single barrier that may underlie the struggles of both general and special education students, we must also acknowledge that our own limited awareness of these findings and their implications is also a barrier to the success of our students. We can only know how to help them when we know how their experiences have impacted their development. As the relationship between experience, the developing brain, and subsequent learning and behavior is made evident, it will become clear why no one needs this information more than educators.
© Regalena Melrose, Ph.D. 2009
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