How classrooms buckle under the strain of including special needs children

By Daniel Kitts - Published on Sep 01, 2015
Ontario is investing $2.72 billion in special education for the 2015-16 school year. School boards say it isn’t enough.

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When Cathy Cully’s son entered kindergarten, there was another boy in his class with a particularly short attention span. The teacher would struggle to keep the boy from constantly walking around, talking and making loud noises. His behaviour made it difficult for any of the students to pay attention to what was being taught.

As the years went by, it got worse. The other boy continued to disrupt classes on a regular basis, year after year. There were also two other children in the grade that Cully and other parents felt had serious behavioural issues. One of them had aggressive tendencies and, Cully says, once smashed another child’s head against a brick wall. At one point, the class had four adults supervising it – one teacher and three teaching assistants.

It was still chaos.

“I think if you have children that are so disruptive, what happens is it’s very hard to teach,” says Cully. “My son needs a little bit of quiet (to learn) and it never happened. He would come home traumatized.”

Cully finally got the school board to agree to transfer her son to another school in Grade 4. She says other parents actually moved out of the neighbourhood to get into a different school catchment.

What happened to Cully and her son may be an extreme case, but it’s an illustration of the problems that can occur when including children with exceptional challenges in regular classrooms. There are good reasons for including special needs children in the larger classroom setting, and the Ontario government spends billions of dollars a year to support the education of students with learning, behavioural and physical challenges. Despite that, and the best efforts of many teachers, there are times when classrooms can become overwhelmed trying to help a child or children with special needs. And when that happens, it can hurt not only the special needs child but all of the students in the classroom.

Special education is a broad term that covers children with learning disabilities, emotional and behavioural disorders, physical challenges and intellectual impairments. Previously children with special needs were taught separately from the rest of the student population. While special needs children today will still get help outside the normal classroom, over the past several decades there has been a trend towards inclusive education: the idea that, as much as possible, children with exceptional challenges should learn alongside other students.

The main reason for this is that special needs children were stigmatized by their segregated status. Many of these children would do poorly at school and then struggle in adulthood. Education experts say an inclusive model makes those with special needs feel less stigmatized and therefore better able to succeed, and helps all students to be more accepting of difference and welcoming of diversity.

“There are definitely upsides to social inclusion,” says Lawrence Barns, president and CEO of the Learning Disabilities Association of Ontario. “The more people are around a diverse group, the more accepting they are, the less stigma we’re going to see in the adult population in terms of employment and other things.”

Today 83 per cent of students with special education needs in Ontario schools are fully integrated into the regular classroom at least half the day, according to a report by the public education watchdog group People for Education. That translates to a lot of children and a lot of classrooms: “On average 17 percent of elementary and 23 percent of secondary students per school (over 331,000 students) receive special education services and supports,” the report states.

About 6 to 10 per cent of people in Canada have a learning disability, according to Barns. That means a class with 30 kids would have an average of two to three students with a learning disability of some kind. That figure doesn’t include children who have other special needs, such as physical challenges, and may also require extra attention. 

That can put a strain on teachers. Vittoria Iozzo has taught a variety of elementary and middle school grades over the past eight years. In one of her classes, there was a child who would become overstimulated and act out, sometimes several times a day. When that happened, she was supposed to take the child out for a walk outside the class to get the child calmed down. That solution was completely impractical, however: as the only adult in the classroom, she would have had to take the entire class with her on these walks.

“One (lower functioning) autistic student who has his schedule upset, or a behavioural child who is having a bad day can ensure, quite easily, that math isn't taught to anyone that day,” she says.

Iozzo says she has taught in five different schools, and the issue of exceptionally challenging children disrupting the learning experience of other students has been a constant in all of them. She describes a kind of guilt she feels as an educator: unable to give the special needs children in her classes adequate support, while at the same time feeling like she’s shortchanging her other students by spending so much time tending to those with special needs.

“It’s not uncommon to hear from my special education teachers and my classroom teachers on a regular basis that they feel there is not enough support in their classrooms,” says Patricia Minnan-Wong, president of the Toronto Elementary Catholic Teachers. “And by support, that means resources and that means physical staff.”

Gary Wheeler, spokesperson for the Ministry of Education, says the government has invested $2.72 billion in special education for 2015-2016. Nevertheless, the Ontario Public School Boards Association recently said that there are more identified children with special needs within the system than there are adequate funds. The need is only growing.

“The diagnosis rate is just going up and up as the science improves,” says Barns. “We’re having more and more children being identified. So this system is seeing this kind of continuous growing curve in terms of the number of students that are involved.”

Compounding the problem of rising rates are the varied priorities in school board spending. Barns says some school boards do exceptional work on the special education file, but others may have additional demands – such as crumbling infrastructure or a high population of English as a second language students – that make devoting adequate resources to special education difficult.

Minnan-Wong says when budgets are tight – as they are now – areas such as support staff, educational assistants, and child and youth workers are often the first boards consider for cuts.

“Those are people that directly service those identified as special education kids,” she says. “The teacher is now left with less time to spend with kids who aren’t identified as special needs.”

Both Minnan-Wong and Barns say that the best special needs programs offer a mix of regular classroom instruction and special help outside of the classroom.

“We’re very concerned that we don’t try and get into a one-size-fits-all classroom because that just won’t always work,” says Barns. “So how do you look for inclusion that still meets the basic human right of access to education – which is the underlying issue we’re concerned about.”

Barns says that the system does work for a lot of children with exceptional challenges. His son, who has had to cope with a learning disability affecting his ability to write, recently graduated from George Brown College as a chef.

Yet Barns says he realizes there are some situations, such as what Cathy Cully’s child experienced, that would make parents and even some teachers wonder if an inclusive model is hurting the overall classroom environment. And that risks stigmatizing special needs children in a whole new way.

“If my ‘normal child’ is having a negative educational experience because of a special needs child, then we’re missing some of the very goals that we’re aiming to create in the system, which is that social understanding and awareness,” he says. “We’re kind of setting these kids up as a problem in the classroom.”

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