Q/A on Inclusive Education

  1. What is a learning disability and what, in your opinion, is the bright side about school boards making an effort to make education inclusive? (or advantages of children with learning disabilities attending mainstream schools)

A learning disability is a neurological disorder. Some brains are wired differently and such students learn differently. Such students may have trouble learning through the traditional teaching methods.

Learning disability is an invisible disability, and most students, in the absence of any medical condition, cannot be identified merely by looking at them as there is no obvious outward sign of learning disability. Teachers get the impression that the reason such students are not doing well in school is because they have a bad attitude, are not motivated or have a depressed IQ (stupid, dull, slow, and other such terms are used)

There is no correlation between having a learning disability and IQ levels. Students with LD can be found anywhere on the IQ bell curve. Famous successful artists have admitted to struggling with LD as students. On the other hand, LD is also frequently found as a comorbidity with other conditions such as Down’s, autism or physical disabilities.

LD is the single largest group of students among all disabilities. Fully half of all disabilities is LD. This is a huge section of our population. Neglecting to nurture the potential of such students is a disservice to the students and to our country. As previously mentioned, students with LD can be found everywhere on the IQ graph, which means that there are several bright students with LD who are dropping out of our sphere of influence due to our (the system’s) apathy. Such bright students, if properly supported by our education system, would be successful contributing members of society.

It is commendable that boards are now open to supporting such students by making education inclusive. Schools should be a microcosm of the society we live in. All students should learn to coexist comfortably with each other. This can only happen when all children are exposed to children different from themselves in some way from a young age. Education is truly inclusive when children from all socio-economic groups, religions, genders, sexual orientations or abilities study together.

All children benefit from inclusive education by learning to accept differences in a matter-of-fact way, and becoming comfortable in their company.

Children with LD definitely benefit from an inclusive education because they have the potential to succeed with support. Willfully releasing thousands of such students from our sphere of influence prematurely (giving up on them) is a dangerous social disaster. We don’t want ill-educated children with no skills, but with enough intelligence to get into trouble, to grow into under-employed and bitter adults. It has been proved by studies that supporting students with LD to stay in school will lead to a lower petty crime rate.

http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/02673843.1991.9747697 (there are other such studies as well)

  1. How beneficial do you reckon are the CBSE’s relaxations for students with learning disabilities? 

Most of the concessions are focused on visual impairment and other visible disabilities. The following seem applicable to students with LD.

General guidelines for deciding concessions – it should be highly INDIVIDUALIZED. Not every student needs everything that’s offered. Every student should be given what s/he NEEDS. That’s the only way equity can work in an inclusive class.

A parent of a typically developing child feels it’s unjust for one child to get a copy of the class notes, and not her own son/daughter. So concessions will only work when the principle of equity is uniformly enforced – EVERY child gets what s/he NEEDS, including typically developing students. Arbitrary capricious heavy handed giving of concessions dilutes the spirit of offering APPROPRIATE help. The same big hammer cannot be employed for every nail.

Fears about giving concessions – All concessions have to be weaned slowly over time. (But not all concessions can be removed entirely. Some students will need some concessions all through life.) But as students, they need concessions on a regular basis to succeed, and they need to get used to succeeding. (Their self-esteem will already be low from chronic failure over time). The same concessions cannot be given throughout the entire school career. Some will be removed, others will be added. Concessions are not supposed to be a lifetime free pass.

This fear is because the Indian education system has not defined a clear final goal of a school education. One of the goals is INDEPENDENCE. Whatever we do for students has to move them towards this goal. Hence we wouldn’t be very good educators if we sent out a student into the world saddled with a meaningless concession. It behooves us to make the student as independent as possible, empowered with meaningful concessions.

http://www.smartkidswithld.org/getting-help/the-abcs-of-ieps/examples-of-accommodations-modifications/ I can assure you this is only a partial list of possible accommodations and modifications. Accommodations and modifications are decided by the special educator to suit the situation at hand.

Scribe – Not all students with LD need a scribe. In fact, I don’t remember assigning a scribe to even one student with LD over my career, and I’ve had many many students with LD. A scribe is given if there is a chronic fine motor issue, or an extremely ADHD/ADD situation (even this is very rare. We use several other strategies to avoid using a scribe.) I did assign a scribe to one visually impaired student. I assigned a scribe based on need for a scribe, not based on the name of the disability.

A fine motor disability can be seen in many students for many reasons, maybe Down’s, maybe autism, maybe physical disability, maybe CP, etc. So there has to be a solid reason to assign a scribe; the decision is not made based on the name of the disability.

Compensatory time – Again, not a good blanket concession. First, it has to be determined whether students are actually using the regular time given to them. Are they actually using the entire 2 hour exam period, are they fully engaged the whole time? If they are, and they are not able to finish the exam despite their good faith efforts, THEN extra time is called for. The special educator needs to establish a history of past testing behavior before deciding if extra time is warranted.

Counterpoint – it is downright cruel to lock an ADHD child for an extra hour in his/her seat in the name of giving extra time.

A better solution would be to give the test in short 15 min/half hour bursts, in as many sessions as required to finish it. The right attention span would only be determined after classroom observation by the special educator. Such a concession would be slowly weaned off, increasing testing time increments gradually, and POSSIBLY ELIMINATING the need for extra time by the time board exams roll around.

Exemption from 3rd language – Very good concession. It is an excellent idea to reduce the academic load on struggling students, as they are using significant mental bandwidth to manage their LD.

Flexibility in choosing subjects – excellent concession. For the same above reasons. Also, students typically do better in their subjects of choice. When they have a strong purpose to learn (interest), they put in more effort.

My problem is with the medical certificate for LD. LD is not a medical condition. It’s not diagnosed, it’s identified. It’s not a blood test or MRI test. It is the purview of educators. Apart from a psychologist administering an IQ test, there’s no place for a medical input, unless there’s a comorbid medical condition. (Even then the LD itself should be off limit to doctors).

  1. In addition to offering concessions during examinations, what approaches do you think help a school board be truly inclusive? (IEP, teacher training etc.)

Teacher training / Solid pedagogy – teaching a heterogeneous classroom comes with a unique and new set of challenges and skills. Teacher training is critical to the success of inclusion. One can’t change the education system and forget to tell the teachers. ‘Oh, oops, yes, now you have got to cope.’

IEPs – a well-supported child will be more productive, and hence leads to easier classroom management

Resource rooms – Invaluable. I don’t mean a room where special ed kids go for instruction (this too, but this is not its primary purpose). This is NOT a sneaky way to segregate education within inclusion. ‘Special education is a service, not a room’. A resource room is just that – a room with valuable resources. It would be a room where low tech assistive technology, alternate curriculum, and high tech assistive technology would be kept for use by all teachers as needed. It would include space for quiet or separate testing if necessary. It would also serve as a quiet room for overstimulated students to decompress, when they feel overwhelmed. A lot more can be said about this.

Special educator – An invaluable member of the child’s IEP team. Special educators come with a knowledge base both broad and deep, and would be the case managers of students with special needs. A ratio of about 30 students to a teacher is manageable.

Alternate curriculum – if a child could learn at the same pace, and with the same methodology, as all students, then we wouldn’t be having this discussion. Schools need to relax and let go in order to accommodate the use of TLM that suits the needs of different students.

Alternate testing – same point as above… students with LD don’t test well. Assessing knowledge is not the same as scoring well on a test. So teachers need to consciously assess knowledge in the modality that works for the student.

Content knowledge of teachers – A content knowledge test for teachers before entering a B.Ed or D.Ed programs would ensure that all teachers have deep knowledge of the content that they would teach. They should also teach only in their area of expertise.

Ancillary service providers – if inclusion is to happen, then schools need to have SLPs (speech Language Pathologists), OTs, PTs, lip reading teachers, braille teachers, sign language teachers, educational psychologists, behavior specialists, etc. If a child can’t use braille, but is sitting in a mainstream class with a teacher with no training, optimal learning cannot happen. It’s just a stressful situation all around. If, in addition, this is a frustrated child with anger issues, it will lead to a very sad classroom management problem.

How would a school provide so many services? Well, these professionals wouldn’t be full time employees of the school, rather, contractors who visit on a regular schedule if there are such students at the campus.

  1. Do you have any thoughts on grading methods is equitable for children with learning disabilities in an inclusive setting?

Wow! Big question, and a hot button issue! Equity in grading… if a student tries and continues to fail, it won’t be long before the student stops trying. This is common sense. So how does one motivate while acknowledging that quality of content is not up to par?

Effort grades can be helpful in helping to motivate a student to try harder. The content (subject) teacher then assigns content grades on the same scale as the whole class. The student’s grade is then the average of the 2 parts. This is a direct lesson in how hard work can help them raise their grades. Over time, students do improve in their content knowledge. It goes without saying, alternate testing and testing accommodations should already be in place.

Grading apart, the tests themselves need to get inclusive. If a student struggles with reading, and fails a Math test with word problems, did he fail Math or did he fail reading? Did we measure his content knowledge (Math), or did we measure his weakest link (reading)? Tests have to be rigorously constructed to measure content knowledge by bypassing the weakest link. This is a very difficult trick, and the reason to train teachers, and hire a special educator at every school. Board exams need to adhere to this rigorous standard as well.

In Closing:

Finally, for inclusive education, schools have to get inclusive, boards have to get inclusive, text books and other TLM have to get inclusive, teachers, attitudes, testing, grading, infrastructure, training, doctors and other service providers, ayahs, bus drivers and other support staff have to get inclusive, and last but not the least, other students, parents and society have to get inclusive. Work has to happen in all these areas.