Written by Jenalyn Agena, Gabrielle Boecker, and Haley Churchill and reprinted from The Community Psychologist Volume 54, Number 3, Summer 2021
Many believe that the best way to “help” people with disabilities is to give them a separate space where their specific needs can be met. It was only in 1975 that the Education for Handicapped Act guaranteed all people with disabilities the right to public education (Kirby, 2017). By 2014, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics, 132,000 students with disabilities were receiving assistance from the federal special education program (Rogers & Johnson, 2018). Despite this law, stigma and inequality persist and contribute negatively to the learning of students with learning disabilities (LD). Inclusive classrooms provide meaningful and accessible education for students with disabilities consisting of appropriate accommodations that allow students to gain access to the general education curriculum (Agran et. al., 2014). Within general classrooms, stigma continues to harm the social-emotional health and academic ability of students with LD and has stalled the implementation of instructional and classroom-environmental changes that would produce a truly inclusive classroom setting for all students.
There is strong empirical evidence to support that inclusive classrooms are more conducive to the social, behavioral, and academic success of students with LD. A study in which eight matched pairs of students with LD were cross-examined in general and special education classrooms concluded that students observed in general classrooms displayed significantly higher levels of communicative interaction than their matched peers in the special education classroom (Foreman, Arthur-Kelly, & Pascoe, 2004). Furthermore, their levels of communication increased with classroom aides and their peers, which facilitated positive connections and the building of social skills. These findings are corroborated by Fisher and Meyer’s two-year longitudinal study conducted in 2002 which looked at 40 students with LD. It was found that when in a general classroom, students with LD achieved higher levels of social competence and social-emotional wellbeing (Rogers & Johnson, 2018). Based on this evidence, inclusive classrooms support the social-emotional learning of students with LD to a greater degree than special classrooms.
However, we continuously see arguments against inclusive practices based on the faulty assumption that inclusive classrooms are not conducive learning environments for students with LD. This has been shown to be false, as students with LD were found to be more awake, alert, and report higher levels of conceptual activity (i.e., academic tasks such as literacy and numeracy) when in inclusive classrooms (Foreman, Arthur-Kelly, & Pascoe, 2004). Additionally, when in an inclusive classroom, students with LD scored higher in math, science, language arts, and social studies compared to students with LD attending a school where special education classrooms were used (Rea, McLaughlin, & Walther-Thomas, 2002). Despite the evidence supporting inclusion, general education classrooms fail to meet the proposed definition of an inclusive classroom. This can be partially attributed to the unwillingness of administrations to restructure classrooms, ongoing stigma, and the labeling effect.
Why General Classrooms Are Not Inclusive Classrooms
There is a general consensus among the literature examined that inclusive classrooms are beneficial for students with LD. The pressure from disability activists pushed policymakers to pass laws requiring that “students with disabilities (a) are provided a free appropriate public education (b) are educated with nondisabled peers to the maximum extent appropriate, (c) participate and make progress in the general education curriculum, and (d) are educated in the least restrictive environment” (Agran et al., 2020, p.6). With this said, why does there continue to be a lack of inclusive classrooms and limited success of students that are in general classrooms? Agran and his colleagues discuss and dissect the determinants that inhibit the success of inclusive classrooms and the lack thereof such classrooms. Despite the evidence suggesting the effectiveness of inclusive classrooms, “policymakers are either uninterested or unwilling to make substantive changes in placement practices” (Agran et al., 2020, p. 5). This unwillingness comes from the assumption that students with LD are inherently flawed, and policymakers falsely assume that they must be kept in special education classrooms to compensate for their disability (Kirby, 2017).
Agran et al. (2020) identified six determinants of classroom placement of students with LD; we will be focusing specifically on perceptions of competency and resulting placement policies, and biases. Perceptions of competency lead to struggles with placement policies. It is implied that students with LD require specialized settings and teachers in order to succeed. This results in people not treating “students as individuals but rather as members of a generic category” (Agran et al., 2020, p.6). This falls in line with what is known about labeling theory, “that labels produce stigma by altering others’ perception and legitimizing stratification” (Shifrer, 2013, p. 463). In other words, labeling causes people to only see students with LD as their learning disability, meaning they are no longer viewed as part of the general population but a separate group, and as such should be kept separate. Thus, separate classrooms reinforce the faulty assumption that a learning disability is a negative attribute that requires separation from the general population.
Even within general classrooms, students with LD are affected by how they are labeled. Biases held by parents and teachers shape the perceptions and labels of students with LD. Some educators actually fear needing to teach and accommodate students with LD under the assumption that these students are not capable of academic achievements (Downing, 2008). Once a child is labeled as disabled, the student is treated differently from non-LD peers. Parents and teachers have lower academic expectations for students with LD than their peers who achieve similar academic success (Shifrer, 2013). Comparing higher education goals, 82% of teachers had lower expectations for students with LD predicting that they would achieve no college education, with parent’s expectations being 43% lower (Shifrer, 2013). According to labeling theory (Shifrer, 2013), perceptions of others, including parents and teachers, cause the labeled group’s behavior to align with what the label portrays them as. In the case of students with LD, this manifests in lower levels of academic achievements as expected by teachers and parents. This results in unsatisfactory grades and test scores that are by default attributed to the learning disability. The biases possessed by teachers and parents negatively impact the academic achievements of students with LD and prevent teachers from looking at the student’s potential instead of just their disability.
Because learning disabilities continue to be stigmatized, students with LD have worse mental-emotional health than students without LD at the same level of academic achievement even in general classrooms (Lackaye & Margalit, 2006). Students with LD reported significantly lower levels of hope, self-efficacy, and a less positive mood compared to their peers (Lackaye & Margalit, 2006). How students with LD are treated in schools and the stigma that exists not only impacts academic abilities but also emotional health. Lackaye and Margalit (2006) found that social-emotional profiles, including self-efficacy, act as significant predictors for the effort investment of students with LD which is linked to their academic performance. This shows that self-efficacy has been linked to effort investment, meaning that when students with LD perceive themselves to be incompetent (which according to Shifier (2013) can partially be attributed to the low expectations of teachers and parents), students with LD invest less effort into the assignment resulting in lower academic performance. The stigma surrounding learning disabilities affects how these students perceive themselves and can be damaging to mental health and self-efficacy. When parents and teachers fail to recognize the stigma affecting students with LD, it prevents them from facilitating a truly inclusive classroom setting in which students with LD can succeed.
Moving forward, there are clear evidence-based instructional practices that have shown great success and accommodation for students with LD. These practices are recommended by the National Center on Educational Restructuring and Inclusion. They have distinguished five evidence-based practices that have been effective for accommodating students with LD in general classrooms: (1) Augmentative and Alternative Communication devices, (2) micro-switches, (3) embedded instruction, (4) specialized instruction, and (5) wait time (Rogers & Johnson, 2018). These strategies align with three overarching psychosocial mechanisms: identity, competence, and experience of body and mind. These practices allow for students with LD to be autonomous in the classroom. They are able to develop competence and fully participate in the learning experience just like their non-LD peers. These interventions alone are not enough to create a fully inclusive classroom; rather, they should be supplemented by the five key environmental aspects: structures and organization, peers, adults, space, and objects (Arakelyan, et al., 2019). It is imperative that the practices reflect positive psychosocial skills and are conducted in a safe supportive environment for both students with and without LDs. These components take into consideration what implementations will best support students with LD, changing general classrooms into inclusive classrooms.
Keeping with the practices, mechanisms, and environmental aspects, here are a few accommodations that uphold these standards. First, Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) devices are small tools that allow for other modes of communication by students whose disabilities make it difficult for them to communicate in traditional forms of verbal language. This practice works best with a highly qualified paraprofessional to help facilitate both the student and their peers, helping them understand how these accommodating devices work (Rogers & Johnson, 2018). Similar to AAC devices are micro-switches. Micro-switches are another simple practice that gives students with LD the opportunity to participate and respond in class through an alternative, such as eye movements or cues that give the students control of their environment to the extent to which they are comfortable participating (Roger & Johnson, 2018). Both of these practices would fall under objects vital within the environment for learning and within the psychosocial mechanism of identity and competence. It is imperative that students with LD are able to communicate and participate in a way that not only makes them feel valued as a member of the classroom but equally as capable as their peers. Identity and competence go hand-in-hand with how well students perform. It has been noted that both students with LD and non-LD students perform and behave better when they feel like they are capable of doing so (Arakelyan et al., 2019).
In addition to AAC devices and micro-switches, teachers should implement embedded instruction, in which teachers adjust their method of giving instructions to ensure that all students can understand what is being taught and what is expected of them (Rogers & Johnson, 2018). Here, the psychosocial mechanism of competence is enhanced by structural and organizational changes in the environment through the implementation of embedded instruction (Arakelyan et al., 2019; Rogers & Johnson, 2018). Students with LD typically have difficulty learning and understanding instructions that have been standardized. Embedded instruction works with paraprofessionals or support staff to provide “multiple trials of the skill throughout natural routines rather than all at once within the context of the subject” (Roger & Johnson, 2018, p. 6). This practice is specifically structured to be ‘embedded’ and prevent disruption of ‘normal’ flow within the class, disputing claims of disruption and lack of flexibility for such implementation. Specialized design instruction is similar to embedded instruction, as it targets adjusting the context of the material to be more relatable. This works to change the learning experience with the support of adults and peers. Material is also flexible within these more specialized contexts so that each student may do what is best for their learning style in the general classroom environment (Rogers & Johnson, 2018).
The final evidence-based instructional practice is wait time. Wait time requires that the teacher simply provide students with LD a moment to process and formulate their response without feeling the pressure to respond quickly, giving them the chance to participate. This also prevents learned helplessness, a common effect when students with LD are unable to respond to questions in a timely manner and become accustomed to not participating due to their slow response. There is abundant evidence suggesting that adults (i.e., teachers and staff) are fundamental players in creating opportunities for participation and in shaping the quality, regularity, and range of the student’s role by showing positive attitudes and being sympathetic to their needs (Arakelyan et al., 2019). This is a technique that works to change the learning experience with the support of adults and peers.
These recommendations can make an immediate impact, but for true change to occur, the structure of the special education system in the United States will need to change. The stigma surrounding people with LD is deeply ingrained and will take time and conscious effort to change. The first step in this process is acknowledging what research has already shown—inclusive classrooms are necessary and wholly beneficial for students with LD. Stigma continues to harm students with LD within general classrooms, limiting their academic abilities and harming their emotional health. For these classrooms to become truly inclusive, instructional practices and environmental aspects need to be altered, allowing students with LD to utilize their accommodations to the full extent and participate in a manner that is equal to that of their non-LD peers. It must be understood that people with LD are not the problem in need of solving, it is the systems held in place by the stigma that must be fixed. Only by addressing this stigma can the United States public school system finally achieve full inclusion of students with learning disabilities.
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