Teachers often have students with learning disabilities. Some of those students stay in the general education classroom, while others receive individual instruction in different parts of the school.
As a teacher, you can welcome students with learning disabilities and make them feel valued. You can also create a classroom environment where their peers welcome students with differences. The first few weeks of school will have a big impact on how students (and their parents) feel. Follow this guide to create a welcoming, inclusive classroom all year long.
Choose Clear Terminology at the Start of the Year
Before you start meeting with parents and getting to know your students, determine how you plan to talk about your students with disabilities. Even if your school uses terms like special needs and special education, you might not want to use these words.
Elizabeth Barker, an accessibility research scientist, highlights the use of language in the classroom and how it affects students. In particular, saying a student has “special needs” is viewed more negatively than saying a student has a disability.
“A disability is a mismatch between a person and their environment…[this term] helps us see that a student and their environment simply aren’t compatible,” says Dr. Barker. “Accessibility is the correction of that mismatch.” Using terms like disability and accessibility are more productive and have better connotations.
Additionally, embrace people-first language. This is where you define the person before their disability. Instead of saying you have a blind student or autistic child, you would say you have a student who is blind or a child with autism. This emphasizes the person first.
Students with disabilities likely don’t need to be reminded about their conditions and certainly don’t want to be defined by them. A child in your classroom isn’t just “the student with autism,” but rather a learner with interests, strengths and personality.
Understand and Acknowledge Hidden Disabilities
People often associate disabilities with their physical manifestations. You might associate deafness with someone speaking sign language or picture wheelchairs and other assistive tools to help those with physical disabilities. However, many disabilities have no visible cues. These are called invisible or hidden disabilities.
The team at Accessibility.com says invisible or hidden disabilities typically do not “manifest in ways that are immediately obvious to others.” Examples of invisible disabilities include:
- Chronic pain or fatigue.
- Cognitive or learning disabilities or differences.
- Head or brain injuries.
- Hearing disabilities or impairments.
- Vision disabilities or impairments.
For example, someone might have arthritis which makes it painful to move. At first glance, they might look fine, but no one knows what levels of pain they are living with.
“Students with [invisible disabilities] face challenges in the classroom that might not be addressed—or might even draw disciplinary actions—if teachers or administrators aren’t informed of the diagnosis and related symptoms,” says Robyn Welling, editor-in-chief at ParentsTogether.
Welling uses the example of a student resting their head on a desk. A teacher might think the student is bored or intentionally not paying attention, when in reality they could feel fatigued by a chronic condition or overwhelmed by the current classroom environment.
Additionally, not all students want to make their disabilities known or public on the first day. Bringing up these concerns is intimidating – especially if a student worries they will be bullied.
“Students with disabilities may not feel comfortable approaching teachers directly, and their disabilities may not be documented in school records,” says Michael Ida, a math and computer science teacher. “Create avenues for students to provide you with input that doesn’t involve direct conversation.” During the pandemic, the use of Google Forms and other online features created these channels.
Ida understands how hard it can be for students with hidden disabilities. He has a visual disability that isn’t immediately noticeable. While not technically blind, there are some tasks (like driving) he is unable to do. As a student, it was embarrassing and awkward to have to ask for accommodation (like sitting close to the board) and to immediately have to discuss his disability with teachers on the first day.
Although you may have notes on students with disabilities, there may be some students in your class that are hiding disabilities from you or who have yet to receive diagnoses.
Consider the Different Ways Students With Learning Disabilities May Present
Ahead of the school year, rethink what it means to have a developmental disability and who might have one. Typically, white male students are most likely to receive disability diagnoses and treatment, but they’re not the only ones.
“Women are socialized to mask their autistic traits, and even when they don’t succeed in hiding the signs, autism is perceived by many as an exclusively male condition,” says Claire Barnett, a neurodiversity advocate, writes at ADDitude. “The older an autistic woman gets without a formal diagnosis, the more likely clinicians are to be skeptical when she seeks an autism evaluation.”
Barnett highlights the overlaps in undiagnosed women with ADHD and autism. Many females miss several years of childhood support because they never receive a diagnosis and instead have to live with feeling different without knowing why.
Additionally, students of color are also undiagnosed or misdiagnosed compared to their peers. Teachers are more likely to assume their actions are related to behavioral problems instead of a disability.
“Data show that Black kids are more often undiagnosed, misdiagnosed, or under-diagnosed than White kids and therefore, are less likely to receive interventions, the lack of which can alter the trajectory of their lives negatively,” says attorney Eve Kessler, contributing editor at Smart Kids with Learning Disabilities. “White society sees Black kids as older and less innocent and gives more negative attention to their challenging behaviors—especially those involving lack of impulse control and hyperactivity.”
Racial bias affects parents as well as students. Parents often have to be advocates for their child’s needs. It can be incredibly frustrating and hurtful when a parent doesn’t feel heard or their concerns are dismissed.
Taylor Harris, author of “This Boy We Made: A Memoir of Motherhood, Genetics, and Facing the Unknown,” shared her experiences advocating for her son with an undiagnosed disability.
“Ideally, every educator would make room for the nuance of [my son’s] situation,” she writes. “They would leave space for the unknown physiological elements that likely affect his engagement, processing speed and overall mood.”
Instead, Harris received constant pushback and even questions about the validity of the disability. She started to ask: What if the roles were reversed? What if their son were white? What if more of the teachers were Black? Why does getting support have to be this hard?
Without a clear diagnosis, students of color with disabilities are often labeled problem children. They are more likely to have disciplinary actions taken against them and historically receive harsher punishments.
Researchers Renee Ryberg, et al. reported on the use of out-of-school suspension in 2019 compared to 2011. While the number of out-of-school suspensions decreased across the board, Black students were considerably more likely to receive a suspension than their white peers (7.8 percent compared to 3.6 percent). Students with disabilities were also more likely to be suspended (8.5 percent vs. 4.0 percent).
This means that Black students with disabilities are the students who are most likely to face disciplinary action and the least likely to receive diagnoses, treatment and compassion.
Develop Inclusive Practices
As a teacher, you can help fight these stereotypes of what disability looks like and prevent bias and exclusion in your classroom. There is a growing push to integrate classrooms so students with disabilities can have a more inclusive experience with their peers. This can boost social skills and reduce bullying in the classroom.
Lisa Simpson, an associate professor of special education at San Jose State University, highlights data that shows only six percent of students with intellectual disabilities spend more than 80 percent of the school day in general education classrooms.
“Inclusion can be difficult at times if we don’t give children and teachers the support they need to succeed, but investing in our students and including them with their nondisabled peers can significantly reduce long-term costs to society brought on by keeping students with disabilities in segregated settings,” Simpson explains.
An inclusive classroom also sets a bar for students with learning disabilities. They can learn and face challenges alongside their peers. Instead of isolating students with developmental disabilities in rooms with one or two others, students in an inclusive classroom receive support from a paraeducator while participating in group work and class activities.
“[There is a] strong correlation between teacher’s high expectations and higher academic achievement of students with disabilities,” writes Anton Piddubnyi at K-6 educational materials provider Studies Weekly. “When you set high expectations for all of your students, you send a clear message that children with disabilities have the capacity to reach their highest potential just like everyone else.”
There are multiple ways to build disability inclusivity in your classroom. Nikhil Kishore and Carl Cooper, a student disability advocate and social studies supervisor, respectively, encourage educators to build disability into the curriculum. This helps students with disabilities develop a better understanding of who they are while also helping students without disabilities better understand their peers.
Examples of building disability into the curriculum include incorporating disability into historical narratives and choosing books that center around people with disabilities.
Understand Where Parents Are Coming From
In the same way that you want to create communication channels and welcoming spaces for students with learning disablities, take steps to make sure parents feel welcome.
“While kids attend school about six hours a day, they may only have a few minutes of a teacher’s undivided attention in a class,” says Ann Logsdon, a school psychologist specializing in developmental disabilities. “Many guardians and parents have the opportunity to sit side-by-side with their children, working through homework and other learning activities for extended periods. They may be the only adults who closely observe students’ work and get feedback from their children.”
Any pushback you receive from parents might come from poor experiences in the past.
When Mildred Boveda, associate professor of special education at The Pennsylvania State University, was a special education teacher in an elementary school, she recommended that a Black student receive special education services to help with her reading ability. The student’s mother, who had also struggled with reading, did not want her daughter to be sent to special education services.
The mother described her own experiences with special education. “She was put in a small classroom away from her other classmates,” writes Boveda. “She remembered reading books below her grade level and frequent conflicts between her classmates and teachers. Because of this, she believed she received a lower-quality education.”
Parents do the best that they can with the information they are given. If they have reason to believe that something is bad for their child, they will do what they can to change the situation. Through clear communication, you can assure parents that you are acting in the best interest of their child.
“Working with parents is so important,” says special education teacher mentor Heather Cacioppo. “Parents have the opportunity to make or break your day. How many times have you come home feeling defeated because a parent made a comment about your teaching? Or blamed you for their child’s struggles?”
No one wants to feel othered because of a disability. No one wants to feel like they are worth less than their peers or that they have to learn in isolation. By taking small steps through clear language, learning and inclusion, you can create a safe and positive space for students with learning disabilities. Your entire classroom will benefit from these efforts.
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