What Are Classrooms Like for Students with Learning Disabilities?
By: Kate Garnett
How do general education classroom environments respond to individual differences and needs? How readily do teachers alter their forms of classroom organization; how readily do they modify approaches?
Common classroom conditions can and do affect many students adversely-to some degree, at one time or another, in one way or other-but, some students are especially vulnerable to classrooms' hazards (e.g., children of poverty, nonnative speakers, those with attention deficits). Students with learning disabilities are among the most vulnerable-at chronic risk for "not learning" under the aforementioned conditions, for long-term academic and social problems, and for lifelong debilitating side-effects of their classroom experiences.
Classrooms can be perilous in a number of ways for students with learning disabilities. Remember:
Classrooms are crowded environments, arranged to maximize general, not close, observation of students. Being a member of a crowd is hazardous to Keesha's learning; she fades into the woodwork.
They are busy places, filled with rapid interactions. Rapid verbal exchanges leave Dan with a consistent residue of confusion and misunderstanding (and he equates asking questions with being stupid).
Mostly driven by clock time, they rarely operate in the flow of time. And yet, despite time pressure, much of students' classroom career is spent either waiting or being interrupted. Transitions and interruptions batter Nicholas' already fragile orientation in time and space. His frustration flares up when he loses his grip in time/space and, what's more, he is convinced that you take pleasure in constantly not letting him finish what he's doing.
Public arenas for students
For students, classrooms are public arenas. The public spotlight can, at any moment, bare this child's failings (or that one's worthiness), making clear the official pecking order. Jose experiences the spotlight of public attention as shame, even though you have no such intent. This perception determines his behavior during anything he senses is intended to "teach" him. Avoiding exposure is habitual now and has stunted his willingness to try.
Private for teachers
For teachers, classrooms are private domains, rarely encroached for any length of time or depth of observation by another adult. The privacy of a teacher's domain confines what can be seen about what's going on. More adults, seeing from more angles, might notice that Daniel has extraordinary powers of concentration, except during reading and spelling (when he has attention deficits and behavior problems).
Teacher talk predominates in classrooms, especially during times of intentional teaching. Student talk is minimal, especially during times of intentional learning. In order to understand and remember content area information, both Dan and Jose need to talk a lot, formulating, rehearsing, and verbalizing the steps of study tasks. They need to talk just when their teacher believes that they should be quietly "working." Further, they require coaching in how to do this.
Overwhelmingly, classroom instruction relies on whole group instruction, accompanied by large amounts of loosely overseen seat work. Without frequent clarifying interchanges, Keesha and Nicholas are left in the dust of group-focused lessons and semi-supervised seatwork.
The instructional focus is largely at the activity level, with teachers' expressing satisfaction when "things are going well," with students enjoying themselves. When the teacher's focus is on the activity flow, it is not evident that Jose is mentally on the fringes, not learning much of anything. He is terrific at engaging in an aspect of an activity that doesn't push his edges. Notably, Jose loves copying.
Progress is monitored
Checking in on students' performance is frequent, but uneven; probing individual students' understanding, providing instructive feedback or monitoring individual progress is rare. It is crucial to give Dan corrective feedback as he practices reading words and to keep weekly track of his word reading progress. Because advancement is slow and in smaller than-common steps, both Dan and the teacher need to see the tangible traces of his learning in order to stay motivated.
These students' particular needs get inadequate attention in most general education classrooms as currently constituted. Common, often central, characteristics of classrooms are at odds with the kinds of activities, interchanges, and consistency their learning requires. While it is possible to remold classrooms to respond more effectively to Dan, Jose, Nicholas and Keesha, there are a number of sizable barriers to such change. One has just been outlined: "not seeing" how particular classroom features are directly affecting what happens (and doesn't happen) throughout the school day and, importantly, how changes in these features can alter classroom dynamics and learning.
Differentiation and the "fairness doctrine"
- Ensure that Keesha and Dan actively contribute and ask questions during discussions. This will require teaching them how to ask questions, as well as changing their beliefs about the act of questioning in school (i.e., that it is mostly proof of their stupidity or a rude challenge to the teacher).
- Situate Nicholas in time with a personal timer and time chart, altering how you approach him. (Perhaps: "Nick, we have Art in 5 minutes, could you set your timer for blast off?") Also, unlike others, he needs a buddy to navigate the halls, as he gets lost easily. Further, his severe math difficulties require him to work at a foundation level, with materials and procedures not used by the other students.
- Handle Jose with extreme care to avoid his becoming wallpaper for the rest of his schooling. He may well need you to treat him very differently, making bargains about different assignments, using private hand signals to gain his assent before calling on him, arranging a period a day of unpressured work that he chooses, having a daily private conference with him.
- Work intensively with both Dan and Jose on reading skills that your other students acquired with ease three years ago, as well as on explicit strategies for taperecording their essays and using taped books to keep up in social studies.
These are a diverse lot of instructional strategies for a mixed bag of difficulties, strategies tailored to particular youngsters and it is a partial listing, at that. If the goal is for these youngsters to "fit in," such an array of adaptations and alterations is unnecessary. In fact, making these accommodations will expose Jose and company to increased public view, with attendant discomfort and embarrassment.
But, what if their learning requires these? Fitting in and learning may be at odds … not an easy situation. These students' learning requirements seem to go well beyond what is possible for one teacher to run around and meet, given the other students and priorities in the general education class. So it is understandable that teachers do not add many such adaptations to their already full plates.
In fact, teachers in general education classrooms, even those viewed as "the cream," make minimal accommodations for students with learning disabilities and tend to sustain only those they feel benefit their entire class (e.g., graphic organizers make a topic clearer for all, extra practice helps everyone). There is a prevailing belief that treating students differently is somehow detrimental — either bad for the individual, not good for the group, or both-voiced with particular concern for "fairness." This "fairness doctrine" has the ring of one of those cultural assumptions, worthy of closer examination, given the unfair facts of classroom life.
In actual practice, neither instruction nor discipline is evenhanded in classrooms, differing along lines of gender, race, class, and more. Different students are, in fact, treated substantially differently in all classrooms. Some of this is intended, as when one student spends much time parked outside the principal's office, while another goes there only on high-prestige errands. But much is unintended, even unnoticed. As but one example of such unacknowledged differential treatment: students with learning disabilities receive decreasing academic challenges over time in general education classes. Eventually many of their teachers settle into unspoken agreements with them — "I won't demand of you, if you don't bother me." Thus, "achieving" youngsters receive a continuing diet of cognitive challenges, while many of their classmates who have learning disabilities are dished up less and less.
By high school, the latter are often like phantoms, sliding in and out of classes with little effect. And frequently this complicity is neither desired nor fully "seen" by either teacher or student.
So, in fact, fairness, in the sense of sameness of instruction, or equity of instruction, or even in the sense of "each challenged to near capacity," is not very operative in classrooms, certainly not as much as we might like to think.
So, why the staunch resistance to purposefully treating the Dans, the Joses and the others differently, resistance in the name of fairness? I'll hazard that this concern, voiced by many teachers, has to do with some implicit "rules of the game" that have been handed down via the culture of schools and probably also by the culture at large. School participants, enculturated beings, "feel" when these rules are being violated, and will commonly rush to uphold them-even when they are not in the best interests either of the individual learner or the " rest of the class." Put another way, for classrooms to more fully accommodate students with learning disabilities, it may well take a cultural shift in the current way of "doing school," a more fundamental shift in how the enterprise operates overall, not only for those few. Now that is a tall order and one requiring approaches from multiple directions.
But, wait a minute!
What about the special educators in general classrooms-the consultant teachers, team teachers, collaborators- aren't they doing the needed individual adapting? Well, that certainly is the intention, with the assumption that the special educators' "close-up kid view" will complement as well as rub off on their colleagues. As it turns out though, evidence points in the other direction: special educators, set down in the midst of general education classes, adapt to the prevailing focus on activity, activity flow, and the group's overall engagement and responsiveness. They become supportive regular classroom teachers, even generalizing their "special" advice in stereotypical, rather than kid-specific, terms.
For example: "Semantic maps help kids with learning disabilities."
Instead of "Dan really has to organize his studying into semantic maps, with color cues. He can do it for stories now, but not for information, like Science News. Also, we need to get him to verbally rehearse his maps-then he really remembers! But you know, I've been watching Nicholas — and he's thoroughly confused when you put students' ideas into semantic maps on the board. We need to walk him through these on his own, making the thing very explicit verbally."
The surprising evidence that special educators in regular classrooms do not maintain this sort of student-specific focus suggests that there are sizable "cultural" forces pulling on classroom participants.
Ideas to investigate
The first step is to look with new eyes at what actually may be there to see. Special and general education colleagues could alternate roles as observer and observed to gain new views. Here are some ways that might work.
Idea 1: For one week, each take notes on how "different strokes for different folks" is both beneficial and problematic for your students. In addition to noting these when you happen to notice, also take five-minute respites from "doing," and just "be" eyes and ears noticing: Who is doing what-when-for how long? Who is actually getting how much of what? Wait till week's end before comparing notes and chewing over what you've each seen.
Idea 2: Together select just one student — Keesha, for example. Uncover what she is actually learning and how she "sees" things at various times during the day. Observe her during whole-class discussions, during paired work, and as she works on her own. But also remember to interview her, caringly probing for what she actually came away with from a discussion, what she remained confused about. Assume that up until now you have only seen 10 percent of who she is and what she's learning. Try constructing a fuller portrait (80%?) of Keesha as a learner. Again, share your notes at week's end. Does your new picture point to changes you can make for her?
Idea 3: If everybody is to learn and make their best progress, then they will all need somewhat different amounts and somewhat different ingredients. Learning and progress are the goals that your students need to buy into. Brainstorm (with colleagues and/or your students) ways to re-orient classroom activities so that "different strokes for different folks" is viewed as a value in pursuit of learning. Try one of the ideas for six weeks, supporting one another as the experiment unfolds.
Currently, many general education classrooms make little adaptation to the individual characteristics of students with learning disabilities. It seems that adding adaptations as "one more thing you have to do," is largely unworkable. Some broader change or restructuring of how classrooms operate seems called for. But, remolding classrooms is not simple, involving something like a "cultural shift." Formidable, though not impossible, this is rather like rearranging the living room with an invisible elephant in the middle-the more you "see" where it is, the less it tramples your efforts.
Garnett, K. (2010). Thinking About Inclusion and Learning Disabilities: A Teachers Guide, pp 7-12. Division of Learning Disabilities of the Council for Exceptional Children.
For more information about teaching children with learning disabilities, visit TeachingLD.