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The Best Ways To Integrate Special Needs Students


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Jennifer Ludden, in Washington. A troubling new video has reinvigorated the debate over special needs education. A father was told his special needs child was unruly, so he sent him to school wearing a wire. On the recording, his son is harassed and mocked by a teacher and aide in a special needs classroom.

The video is only the latest example of a widespread sense of frustration about special education. What to do? Advocates often want special needs students to get their own classes, but school districts say that's expensive, and certainly in a time of budget cuts, mainstreaming is on the rise.

If you're the parent or teacher of a special needs student, what works? Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION. Later in the program, why some schools are forcing kids off their bikes and into cars.

But first, best practices for mainstreaming special needs students. Joining me now is NPR's education correspondent Claudio Sanchez here in Studio 3A. Hi, Claudio. Welcome.


LUDDEN: So this is a trend that's been growing in public schools, but mainstreaming may not be a term that everyone's familiar with. Can you just tell us what it means?

SANCHEZ: Mainstreaming means that a child's instruction takes place in a classroom with non-disabled kids, regular kids, a decision based often on the special needs of that child. So, yes, there's an attempt to have this kid feel inclusive, be inclusive, but often it has to be tailor-made. That's where something very crucial here has to happen, and that is that an individual education plan be designed for this child, which calls for special accommodations, certainly special attention if necessary.

And this is all, of course, in the law, the 1975 law that actually was originally called the Education for All Handicapped Children's Act. It later became the Individual Disability Education Act, and that was, for the most part, kind of reauthorized in 1990.

LUDDEN: So, for decades, there's been this effort - so there was a sense beforehand that special needs kids were kind of shunted away and kept out of sight. Parents wanted them in the mainstream. And yet, as I understand it, there have been a lot of bad experiences in these mainstream classes.

SANCHEZ: And remember, they weren't just shunted away. They were literally kept out of school. I mean, for many, many years, these kids were warehoused somewhere else. Schools didn't deal with them. You know, it took several legal cases and challenges to that, most - especially in 1972 in Pennsylvania, which literally led to the creation of the law.

But you're right. The problem has been money, in many ways. You know, there's been an acceptance that these kids can learn, should be mainstreamed, but the money issue is huge. The federal government, when it authorized this law, more recently said we're going to contribute 40 percent - this is Congress talking - 40 percent of the funding for special education.

To this day, it's never been more than 18 percent. So that means that local and state education folks have to come up with the money somewhere, and we're talking about tens of thousands of dollars for every child, every year. So it's a very - it's a very difficult problem for schools because they don't have the money.

LUDDEN: And I guess more so now with - we've seen so many cuts at local school districts.

SANCHEZ: Exactly. And certainly in this time of austere and very limited budgets, I mean, where do you go? The federal government is not coming up with more money, believe me. States are obviously cutting left and right. So, I mean, often, it comes down to litigation on the part of parents. And if you have a good attorney, sometimes they get money out of the district to pay for these services or to put the child in a private program.

LUDDEN: So this terrible, painful video has surfaced of this child's experience. But I take it that's not a surprise to people who look at this field, that there's been a series of studies recently that show this these kinds of instances.

SANCHEZ: Yes, although I would say that the - you know, it's difficult to really document, certainly, every instance of abuse, but they are pretty common. You know, there are cases - there was on in Georgia, a 13-year-old boy committed suicide after being sent to an eight-by-eight, concrete-block time-out room in Gainesville, Georgia, at the public school there.

For students, this was a place that they put students in for behavioral problems. Then there was - you know, there are these famous screaming rooms that some schools have where teachers put kids when they're acting out, when they're out of control. And, you know, there was that famous case, I forget where, it may have been Kentucky, where a child was - who was misbehaving, a special ed kid, had been found stuffed in a duffel bag.

I mean, you know, you hear about these things, and you say this can't be. This has to be the exception to the rule. But you'd be surprised how often - I mean, some of these things aren't even reported, but it happens.

LUDDEN: I think, actually, let's have a call now with Carla(ph) in Eugene, Oregon. Hi, Carla.

CARLA: Hi. Yes. Well, that all sounds very familiar to me. My daughter was - has autism and was in forced-placed. I would say the supposed process of the IEP team coming together is more often than not like a - the parent getting corralled into accepting their predetermined placement options.

LUDDEN: You didn't feel you had a lot of say in the individual plan for your child?

CARLA: Not at all. And - so she was force-placed into a special ed room. She had been in a general classroom doing quite well, but at third grade, I was informed they either go into this room, or if they can be independent in the general population, then they're fine. But otherwise, they get shunted over into the special ed room, where her behavior deteriorated, rather than improved.

And she ended up, you know, terrified all the time. I got 40 incident reports, many of which she'd been put into one of these closets like you're talking about for up to 45 minutes, to an hour-and-a-half in a day.

LUDDEN: Oh, my.

CARLA: She was terrified and frightened, and it, of course, just destroyed our family. So at the end of the year, that year, after I'd been on the phone to the district and everyone under the sun, attorneys and whatnot, she ended up - they recommended we put her in a psychiatric day treatment facility, put her in a cab and send her across town to this psychiatric place, which was completely inappropriate for her.

So I did get an - you know, hired my attorney, and we proceeded with the process, and we got a settlement. And we have since placed her in a private setting that is perfect for her and uses only positive behavior supports. And within two months, she was a happy camper, and she's been doing awesome ever since.

LUDDEN: So Carla, I'm so sorry to hear about all of that. What do you think would improve the system, though? What would you...

CARLA: OK, what I think would improve the system is if the districts would go and observe what's working in private settings. And if the teachers, the special ed teachers don't need to just be trained in special education, which has more to do with paperwork and things like that, they need hands-on behavior training. They need to be mentored. They need to have somebody come in and - like a behavior specialist who's like a certified behavior analyst come in and critique and assess and refine their procedures. And they need to have things that are more flexible in the moment.

Like, any time that my daughter misbehaved, the teacher would call the service district, which was like a third party that handled their problems, and it would be like two weeks. And then the service district would come in and recommend they use some kind of pictures to describe what my daughter needs to do - just ridiculous, slow-moving, laborious procedures. And it was basically punishment-based rather than positively based.

LUDDEN: All right, Carla, well, thank you so much for sharing your story, and good luck.

CARLA: Thank you.

LUDDEN: Claudio, what are the requirements for teacher training? And I imagine that's expensive, as well.

SANCHEZ: Sometimes that boils down to, again, the same thing I've been insisting on, which is money. Most teachers are poorly trained to deal with this population, if they're trained at all, and special ed teachers are very hard to find. They're in short supply.

Now, it's important to mention here that the range of disabilities or learning disabilities, physical - is enormous. And we're talking about kids with ADHD, autism, developmental, emotional, behavioral disorders, dyslexia, deaf and blind kids. I mean, it covers everything.

CARLA: And I guess if you take a look at the position that I guess school boards or school districts are in, I mean, to have access to experts and to counselors and to advisors to cover the range of issues that some of these kids are dealing with can be very costly and very difficult. And again, we're talking about a whole range of school districts: rural, small town - yes, large city school systems that may have more resources.

SANCHEZ: But, still, it's a very difficult problem. I don't think that there is a training requirement - at least not codified in the law. But clearly, if you're going to have a law that says here's what you have to do for these kids, here are the accommodations, here are the services that they're legally - that they should have legal access to, then you would think that the policies at the local and the state level would say, well, here are the resources that we have available.

Again, all of that kind of is moot when you consider that the only thing the districts can do often is to paper it over. The - Carla was saying that, you know, the laborious - you know, the laboriousness of this thing is very real. You call someone, and maybe, if you're lucky, in a couple of weeks, someone will intervene and do something. And whatever they do clearly is not enough. It just isn't. And the advantage that private operations have, of course, is that it's, you know, it's the kind of help that every school should have, but can't afford.

LUDDEN: We're going to be joined by an expert in this area in a moment. But Claudio, in the last few seconds we have, are there any success stories out there that you have covered or that you're hearing about?

SANCHEZ: I've seen and I've witnessed and done stories about programs - or at least even within school systems that are struggling with this - you know, schools that are doing the right thing, that are actually somehow putting together good programs, sufficient - and are responsive - and this is the key thing, that are most of all responsive to the parents, who listen to parents, who listen to the children and say let's work together, versus the adversarial relationship that seems to exist. But they are few and far between.

LUDDEN: Claudio Sanchez, NPR's education correspondent here in Studio 3A. Thank you so much.

SANCHEZ: You're welcome.

LUDDEN: We're talking about special education. How do you do mainstreaming right? Parents and teachers, call and tell us what works: 800-989-8255. Or send us an email. The address is talk@npr.org. I'm Jennifer Ludden, and this is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.


LUDDEN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Jennifer Ludden. We're talking about public schools and how they handle students with special needs; mainstreaming, the practice where schools put students with special needs into regular classrooms. It's been a trend for years, and with many schools facing budget cuts, it continues to grow.

So how do you do it right? If you're the parent or teacher of a special needs student, what works? Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org, and you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

We're joined now by Thomas Hehir, former director of the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Special Education Programs. And he's now professor of practice at Harvard's Graduate School of Education. Thank you so much.

THOMAS HEHIR: Glad to be here.

LUDDEN: So with so much mainstreaming happening and schools saying they can't afford other options, can you give us an example of what can work and I guess, you know, in a cost-effective way for a local public school district?

HEHIR: Yeah, I think there's a few points that I would like to clarify from the last remarks. One, not all kids with disabilities require tens of thousands of dollars in resources. There's a lot of diversity among the population of children with disabilities, and some children require relatively little additional resources, and some children require quite considerable additional resources. I just want to clarify that.


HEHIR: And secondly, American education system has made a significant in the education of children with disabilities, though I agree with Claudio that the federal government could be giving significant amounts of - more money than they are giving and should be in my view.

LUDDEN: I mean, they said they were - he said that that was in the law, but it just never happened.

HEHIR: It certainly hasn't, and it should, in my view because, again, it puts too much of the fiscal pressure on states and local school districts, and I think it should be a better partnership than it is. That being said, there are schools that have done a very effective job of educating kids with disabilities in inclusive settings.

I just finished a book on effective inclusive schools in which I looked at schools, three schools in particular in the city of Boston that were inclusive of both kids who had significant disabilities as well as kids with milder disabilities and had high test schools for both kids with disabilities as well as kids who don't have disabilities over a period of time who served these kids in inclusive settings.

I think a lot of the abuses you talked about earlier had to do with children who were in segregated settings, and one of the things that we've learned - and this is not my opinion, this is well-established in research - I just did a major research study here in Massachusetts that verified this - that in general, most kids with disabilities do better in inclusive settings, particularly if they get the supports that they need, significantly better.

So the move towards integration or inclusion or mainstreaming is - clearly has some support in the data. However, as, you know, Carla's comments in the previous segment pointed out, those settings have to be made appropriate for kids with disabilities, to respond to their needs.

You know, her examples I think were perfect. Her daughter needed people not to punish her behavior. She had autism. But what they need to do is teach her the appropriate behaviors in school and respond more positively to them.

In the book that I just finished on inclusive schools, there are several things that emerge from these schools that I think other schools can do. Number one, they look at their resources as in a sense all being devoted to improving the instructional program for all kids. They don't look at the special ed budget or the bilingual budget. There is a budget for the schools, and the schools use those resources effectively.

Secondly, the principals of those schools and the teachers of those schools value disability, value the inclusion of children with disabilities, and they provide supports in classrooms for kids in those classrooms but also provide opportunities for teachers and school administrators to do problem-solving around the issues that these children have.

But one of the things that we found in this study was that - and this is from the teacher interviews, and this is very deeply felt by the teachers. When they have figured out how to effectively educate kids who have various types of academic and behavioral challenges in typical classrooms, they feel that their classrooms are better for all kids.

And I think that it's important for people to start understanding that, that kids who have disabilities have a right to be educated in inclusive settings to the degree that is appropriate, but people who run schools also have an obligation to make sure that the teachers and the children get the types of supports that they need.

LUDDEN: All right, we have a call from a teacher here, Mary(ph) in San Antonio, Texas. Hi there.

MARY: Hi, how are you?


MARY: I just want to say I'm a first year teacher at one of the largest public high schools in San Antonio, and during my first year, I somehow managed to receive all of the special education students in the ninth grade because they thought it would be a good idea to stack them.

So I have, out of hundred (technical difficulty) I have 70 special education students, and they (technical difficulty)...

LUDDEN: We're losing you a bit there, Mary, your phone is fading.

MARY: Sorry.

LUDDEN: There you are, go ahead. Speak up.

MARY: OK, no I was just saying out of 175 students, I have 70 special education students, and they range in disability. But some of them have been coming from middle schools where they have back(ph) units, which are behavior units, and essentially they're put in a room with seven other students, and they're sort of left to do their, you know, screaming or their - whatever their behavior issue is categorized as.

And then all of a sudden, in high school they get thrown into a classroom with 30 other students, and they're expected to behave, so...

LUDDEN: How's it going?

MARY: It's been - it has been a very steep learning curve. I mean, like I said, it's still my - it's my first year. So in addition to all the normal first-year-teacher learning, I also have an incredible amount of special needs students, and...

LUDDEN: And were - did you, Mary, did you get any training for the special needs kids specifically?

MARY: No, I did not. I just had to be certified, which meant I had to take a test.

LUDDEN: Oh, OK. So what would you have liked to have seen done differently there?

MARY: Well, I know for a fact that I needed more training. I did not know - I mean, I've learned a lot this year, but walking in day one, I didn't know how to deal with a student who was going to stand up in class and cuss at me for 10 minutes straight. I didn't know how to deal with a student who was really struggling with basic literacy and how to reach them.

I didn't know how to deal with a lot of the situations I've seen. And I have a huge amount of emotionally disturbed students, and I needed more training. I needed so much more training, and I feel like I've really in some ways failed these students this year.

LUDDEN: Mary, thank you for calling.

MARY: Thank you so much.

LUDDEN: Thomas Hehir, that's hard to hear. What is - is there no training required for mainstream classroom teachers who will have these students?

HEHIR: In most places there isn't, and I would also say in Mary's case that I think we're very fortunate to have someone with her attitudes going into the education profession. But it is - this is not a good practice that she described of assigning a lot of kids with disabilities to a brand new teacher.

So even if she had the best training, I would also want to see her having more support as it related to kids who had challenges in her classrooms. Again, one of the things that's of - the schools that I've done research in that are highly effective, teachers don't teach alone in these schools. They have other teachers that they work with, that they can problem-solve with, that they can figure out what to do with these kids.

And also her description of these kids being segregated up until they went into high school is also very problematic. How are these going to learn the behaviors they need to have in school but I would also say in life if they're placed in a segregated classroom with only kids like them?

LUDDEN: All right, let's get another caller on the line. Kelly(ph) is in Clinton, New Jersey, go right ahead.

KELLY: Hi, I had a question, actually. My daughter was recently diagnosed with epilepsy, and she has (unintelligible) seizures. So mostly she blanks out. And for the first part of the year, when we weren't sure what was going on, it was clearly they thought she was having behavioral issues, which I've read a lot about that, and it seems to be a common issue.

Well, then she was diagnosed, and we've been putting on the medication, and the medication has caused its whole own criteria of issues. And so my question is, you know, how - it seems like it's a really underrepresented disability. So the teachers, the principal, the guidance counselor, I feel like I'm having to educate them and that it's going sort of on deaf ears because they don't understand it. And because it's sort of inconsistent and hard to understand, they're - it's treated more negatively than proactively.

LUDDEN: All right. Kelly, thanks so much for the call. Thomas Hehir, it does seem like, in many cases, the actual getting to the diagnosis is part of the battle, that people don't know what quite to do with kids and - without a diagnosis or - I mean, what does qualify as special needs?

HEHIR: Well, I think that - I think diagnosis is very, very important. I think one of the things that is important for both parents and for people in schools is to have an accurate understanding of the nature of a disability that a child may have and what are the accommodations and support that child may need. Many kids with disabilities don't necessarily need special education. Many kids with epilepsy, diabetes, various types of medical conditions, may need accommodations in schools, but they don't necessarily need special education.

In the case that the mom was just talking about, her daughter with epilepsy, I think what's important when you have - number one is that child get a good diagnosis, but then after that diagnosis, constantly revisiting how are the meds working, how are accommodations in classrooms working, and with a positive attitude, the notion that this child has a right to go to school and to not be discriminated against because they have a disability.

LUDDEN: All right. We have an email from Kenny(ph) in San Rafael, California, who says he has nonverbal learning disability on the Asperger's syndrome. He was mainstreamed until sixth grade, then went to a special needs school for four amazing, great years, and then was eventually mainstreamed back into a San Rafael high school. He says: I had amazing support from my parents in school and none of the problems that some of your guests have mentioned. I'm very sorry to hear about them. My only complaint was that I was not helped as much as I could have been with what to do with myself after high school. I've been struggling in college, but I think that may be a different story.

So it's good to hear a good story there. Let's hear from Dina(ph) in Nashville, Tennessee.

DINA: Hi. I am the parent of a 22-year-old young man who has an autism spectrum condition. And he spent the first 10 years of his school experience being presumed to be much less competent than he was. And we were very fortunate, after 15 years of me being his attorney, for me to be able to move to a small, rather rural town in the Tennessee area that fully included students with nearly all disabilities.

There are only about five or six students with significant medical needs that spend a portion of their day in a contained setting. And because of that full inclusion model, my son has developed phenomenal social competency. He graduated with a 3.1 honors diploma, and he was the manager of the ice hockey team.

And as a result of that, he - you know, a lot of boys with special needs spend their time primarily around women caregivers or women special educators. But because of the hockey team, he not only learned how to be socially appropriate, but he kind of learned(ph) the guy code for social interaction, which is very different than what women would teach boys.

LUDDEN: Right.

DINA: And I'm proud to say that he has developed the capacity to be independently functioning. I train around the country and leave him at home for four or five days at a time. He's had one successful semester away at college, and he'll be leaving for Marshall University's autism program in June.

LUDDEN: Dina, that's wonderful.

DINA: My theory is, if they spend their whole day in a room, learning how to fold towels or make pizza boxes, even if they have the capacity for a GED, without exposure to the general ed curriculum at some level, they're just not going to have success. And they do need to survive in the mainstream population. So we didn't know if a diploma was possible, but we knew that he needed an opportunity to learn as much as possible and to have those typical role models.

LUDDEN: Dina, thank you so much.

DINA: Thank you.

LUDDEN: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Thomas Hehir, a good story there.

HEHIR: I think it's a great story, and I think it's important for listeners to not come away from the show with a totally negative attitude. There are lots of success stories of students with disabilities, of school districts that have engaged in effective, inclusive practices for kids. One of the things that - I'm 62 years old, and I started off in this field back in the early '70s. And we know so much more about how to effectively educate these students. We know what effective practices and the results of them can be.

But one of the things that I think that Dina alluded to was her early experiences in schools, where people didn't believe that her son was capable. And that is very common. It's still common in the education system. It's what I refer to as ableism - many other people do as well - of kind of a prejudicial attitude towards disability. And the most ableist assumption I think people make is that children are not capable, or as capable.

And some of the studies that have been done around young adults with disabilities who have been highly successful, is one of the factors that predicts whether they're going to be successful, is the attitudes of their teachers and their parents. Do they really believe and act on assumptions of capability? Or do they focus all of their efforts on the symptoms of disability and negative approaches towards disability? And there's still far too much of that, but there are many, many, many success stories throughout the country.

I have students at Harvard who have very significant disabilities, who are students at Harvard University. And those students are all success stories. And so, again, I wouldn't want people to come away from this program thinking that there aren't success stories, because there are.

LUDDEN: All right. Well, we are going to leave it there on the positive note. And thank you so much. Thomas Hehir, professor at Harvard's Graduate School of Education. He's a former director of the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Special Education Programs. His recent book is "Effective Inclusive Schools: Designing Successful Schoolwide Programs." And he joined us from studios at Harvard University in Cambridge. Thank you so much.

HEHIR: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.