Special Education

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

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.

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