SPECIAL EDUCATION

Why Special Education is Necessary:

Before 1980, special education was not a requirement in Ontario. Schools had no obligation to include students with special needs. But, following in the footsteps of the American civil rights movement, which spread to include special needs advocacy, the Ontario government began mandating the inclusion of special needs students, making it necessary for schools to develop strategies to accommodate them. The resulting special education movement generated increased attention and awareness for severe intellectual needs and learning disabilities. Generally speaking, this movement has been positive for education. More students are allowed in schools, educators are promoting greater empathy and, as Hattie’s list previously pointed out in 2015, special education programs generally create a positive increase in learning outcomes for classes. However, there are some common mythologies that exist regarding special education, and there are potential pitfalls within any special education program. 


The Myths Surrounding Learning Disabilities: 

Myth: Learning Disabilities include diagnoses such as ASD or ADHD. 

Reality:

People often assume that Learning Disabilities, Behavioral Disorders, and Intellectual Disabilities are all the same type of issue; however, each issue is radically different. A Learning Disability is diagnosed by identifying that a student has a specific learning gap. If a student has multiple learning gaps (not caused by insufficient or ineffective education), it is considered an Intellectual Disability. While this is sometimes referred to as the diagnosis of Multiple Learning Disabilities, the two diagnoses are distinctly separate and should not be confused. Someone with a Learning Disability does not have an Intellectual Disability by definition. Behavioral Disorders including ADHD and ODD, while correlated with Learning Disabilities do not have any direct relation with Learning Disabilities. Referring to a student with ADHD as having a learning disability is, therefore, incorrect. 


Myth: Learning Disabilities are neurological conditions

Reality: 

Although Learning Disabilities can be caused by neurological factors, they do not necessarily have to be. A Learning Disability is diagnosed by identifying that a student is far below grade level in a specific subject, not by an MRI test. In fact, a Learning Disability can be caused by psychological, sociological, or neurological factors. For example, if a parent has a dislike for foreign language classes, a student could apply themselves less intensely in a subject like French, creating the appearance of a non-neurological Learning Disability. However, the idea that a student could have a neurological disability that extends to a new language and not his or her first language, is obviously laughable. 


Myth: Having a Learning Disability Means You Cannot Learn a Subject

Reality: 

All students are capable of learning. If a student falls behind in a subject, he or she may simply need more time, motivation, or support than other students to learn the specific material. Even if the student has a neurological learning disability, the student can still learn the curriculum; however, his or her response to learning stimuli may be lower than other students.


Myth: Dyslexia Means a Student Flips Their Letters and Words

Reality: 

Dyslexia, among many other learning disabilities was recently removed from the  Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, -in part because the diagnoses were often misinterpreted- and replaced with the term Specific Learning Disability. Dyslexia, is now listed only as a possible sub type of (SLD) and is not listed as a specific condition, within the DSM. While some students diagnosed with Dyslexia have reported flipping their letters and words, Dyslexia only referred to a student who was far below grade level in reading. Flipping letters is also common to all beginner language students.  The specific problem of students flipping letters and words could be a potential cause of some dyslexic cases, however, is not dyslexia itself. The term Dyslexia was changed to Specific Learning Disability, because there is little value in differentiating Dyslexia from other learning disorders when both diagnoses refer to a specific weakness in student learning not associated with an intellectual disorder. 


Why Students with Learning Disabilities Require More Intervention Time:

If educators fail to realize that students with Learning Disabilities can still learn, they can unnecessarily lower academic expectations and excuse students from work. However, once we understand intelligence and how learning happens, it becomes abundantly clear that the first step for a Learning Disabled Student should be to give the student extra learning time and work to help him or her catch up. If a basketball player could not perform a layup, a coach would not excuse that player from layups, but would rather request that he or she spend more time practising layups. The same concept applies to teaching. If a student is falling behind in math or literacy, that student needs to spend more time learning the material to catch up. A meta-study on the impact of reading interventions on neurobiology showed that the brains of students identified with Dyslexia had physical differences when scanned under MRI machines. More importantly though, the same meta-study showed that short reading intervention programs could begin to reverse some of these physical differences. This suggests that, with enough high quality reading interventions, it may even be possible to overcome many, if not all, of the challenges of dyslexia. If such a strategy works for Dyslexia, it would likely work for all learning disabilities. The truly challenging part is triaging the needs of a student. Taking an identified student out of literacy class to practice literacy with a special education teacher does nothing except lower the specificity of that student’s learning in relation to the classroom teacher’s assessments. Special education interventions have to take place in addition to the student’s regular learning, which can mean working with the student during recess, gym, art, or music. It can also mean keeping the student after school. These interventions might seem like harsh realities for the student; however, they are the only ways we can truly make a difference for the student’s long term learning success. 


The Dangers of Labelling a Student

Labelling Theory teaches us that giving students labels, like dyslexic, ADHD, or intellectually disabled, can potentially negatively impact how those students perceive themselves. If you tell a student that he or she has dyslexia, that student could potentially stop trying as hard to learn how to read, or he or she may become convinced that learning this skill is not possible. Moreover, the same risk is present with a teacher. If a teacher knows that a student has a learning disability, it might make the teacher feel less accountable for that student’s success, afterall, working with a learning disabled student does require more effort than working with a non-challenged learner The best tool for dealing with this problem, is the application of a growth-mindset metacognition strategy. Teachers need to be conscious of never making a student feel incapable, and they need to encourage their students to work toward overcoming their difficulties, rather than internalizing them - to view such challenges as hurdles instead of boundaries.


Interested in learning more about this topic ? Check out our podcast at: 

 https://podcasts.apple.com/ca/podcast/pedagogy-non-grata/id1448225801 


And also this fantastic parents booklet, from the University of Albany:  https://www.eltep.org/parentbooklet.cfm 


Written by Nate Joseph,

Last edited on 5/28/2019

References: 

L, Barque, N, Davis, L, Cutting. (2014). Neuroimaging of Reading Intervention: A Systematic Review and Activation Likelihood Estimate Meta-Analysis. PMCID: PMC3888398
PMID: 24427278. 

K, MacMaster and L, Donovan. (2002). The Effects of Being Diagnosed with a Learning Disability on Children's Self-esteem. Child Study Journal. Vol. 32 Issue 2, p101-108, 8p

S Bennett, D Dworet, and K Weber. (2013). Special Education In Ontario Schools. Highland Press. 

International Association of Dyslexia. (2012). DSM-5 Changes in Diagnostic Criteria for Specific Learning Disabilities (SLD)1: What are the Implications? Retrieved from https://dyslexiaida.org/dsm-5-changes-in-diagnostic-criteria-for-specific-learning-disabilities-sld1-what-are-the-implications/

J, Hattie. (2015.) Hattie Ranking: 252 Influences And Effect Sizes Related To Student Achievement. Visible Learning. Retrieved from https://visible-learning.org/hattie-ranking-influences-effect-sizes-learning-achievement/.

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