Special Education Students and the Truth of Mainstreaming

whisperAs I said in my last article, I hear some really appalling things from people out in the community. Previously, I worked as a health care coordinator for children with special needs. Often I found myself in their defense mostly from people who just didn’t understand what life was like for these parents and kids. Not that I can even begin to, either.

One of the more popular questions was “Why are kids with special needs in the classroom? Aren’t they just a disruption?”

Typically, it was a case of simple ignorance regarding the supports in place in school, the roles of the staff and caregivers in the home vs. those the child worked with in school. You see, it’s a very complex system of relationships that helps many of these kids thrive and grow. Other times the ignorance gave way to more hurtful comments such as, “Why do they even bother sending that kid to school? She’s basically a potato. What’s she gonna do anyway? Seems like a waste of taxpayers dollars to me.”  Ouch. But you boil that down and you are left with many of the same fears and many of the same questions as last time.

How is this affecting MY child?

How is this affecting me (as a taxpayer & citizen)?

What does this mean for our schools and teachers?

This is a hard article to tackle because there is just so much variety in the extra help that some kids need. Essentially, it all starts with evaluations. Figuring out what is the child struggling with so that we can come together to make a game plan to help these kids out. Is it just purely physical or health issues? Some interventions by the school may be as little as special writing tools to help with dexterity and fine motor skills or sitting near the front of the classroom due to vision or hearing issues. Perhaps it is a child with a mild learning disability that simply needs a longer test time or questions read to him/her due to dyslexia or other difficulties with written language. Sometimes it’s more than that or a combination of issues. Is it emotional or behavioral? What sort of intervention is effective for this particular student? These ideas all get formed into a plan called an IEP (Individualized Education Plan). This allows for the parents, teachers and all other staff to have concrete goals and interventions to help this child succeed.

Let’s start with the less dependent, emotional behavioral disability (EBD) students. These are students are defined as having:  social, emotional or behavioral functioning that so departs from generally accepted, age appropriate ethnic or cultural norms that it adversely affects a child’s academic progress, social relationships, personal adjustment, classroom adjustment, self-care or vocational skills.  To be determined EBD a child must be academically failing and the issue must be severe, chronic and frequent. So who is this? This might include children on the autism spectrum, children with Down Syndrome, a child with an eating disorder, tourette’s syndrome, severe ADHD, and this is only to name a few possibilities. These are the kids that most people/students are talking about when they complain of classroom disruptions as some of these kids may be prone to outbursts (vocal and physical) or other distracting behaviors. It can be hard to understand why kids with EBD issues persist in our mainstream classrooms and how our own kids can learn in what sounds like a loud and chaotic environment.

Besides being District Cultural Evaluation Consultant, Tyson Zitzow is also the school psychologist at Talahi elementary and assists with the IEP assessments & conferences regarding children with special education needs. I spoke with him about the concerns I have heard from parents in the community. He pointed out that at the root of this conversation we must remember that all of the children in our community are federally protected to receive the same education as any other child. To hinder or prevent this would be against federal law. When you stop and think about it, it’s a wonderful thing, isn’t it? Our country is founded on the idea that we are all created equal and entitled to the same rights. Education isn’t a privilege, it’s a right for all children regardless of the situations they are born into.

[bctt tweet=”Education isn’t a privilege, it’s a right! #unitecloud #educate”]

Once we move beyond that, it’s important to recognize that

All behavior is functional. There is a reason why we do absolutely everything we do. Throughout the special education process we hope to identify why the child is doing what they are doing. – Zitzow


A Functional Behavioral Assessment (FBA) is completed as part of the child’s special education evaluation. Following an FBA, a Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP) is created to help all staff recognize these behaviors manifesting in the classroom environment and how to intervene, to correct, and stop the behavior. Not only does this provide the staff the knowledge they need to deal with the child most effectively, but it provides the child with consistency of care thereby helping to decrease behavior and interruption to the class in the long run. This may be as simple as positive reinforcement for appropriate behaviors, loss of privilege for inappropriate behavior, verbal corrections, moving the child away from the group until he/she is able to return to baseline, breaks, visuals, or even removing the child from the classroom to return once the behavior has been fully addressed. The plan is frequently reviewed and adjustments are made as needed.

Zitzow notes that there are children that are more disruptive than others and that these kids have different needs not only for themselves, but for their peers. Kids that are prone to creating frequent disruptions and that are more poorly self regulated may need to be out of the classroom for portions of the day. They are observed to see what portions of the day are “working” and which ones are not. It may be that the child is capable of participating directly with peers during art, music, and PE, but need separate training during times like math class. During this time the child is free to work with SPED teachers on items such as social skills instruction, physical therapy, occupational therapy or other areas as determined in their IEP, which was driven by the assessment qualifying the child for service in the first place.

Really, the goal is to have that child be with their peers as much as possible. That’s the goal and it’s part of federal law, too. -Zitzow

It is also worth pointing out that schools, including Talahi, conduct FBAs on students who are not being assessed for special education services. In fact, in most cases, if a child is exhibiting significant behaviors at school, an FBA is completed to understand why a child is engaging in the behaviors and implement a Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP) based on the hypothesized function of the behavior. If the BIP does not result in a positive change, it is typically modified at least one more time prior to deciding to move the child on to a special education assessment. Reason being, in most cases, the behaviors will improve if an appropriate plan is implemented. It is in cases where a child does not respond after various plans that they are sometimes moved onto a special education assessment. The key difference between a child not on an IEP with a BIP and a child on an IEP with a BIP is that the child on an IEP can receive specially-designed services from a special education teacher. This means there may be times when the child is not receiving instruction with their peers, usually during times identified through the FBA as times the child exhibits maladaptive behavior.

Schools like Talahi do tend to have more students with challenging behaviors, regardless if they are on an IEP or not. Reason being, many of these students have high ACE scores – Adverse Childhood Experiences.  Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are potentially traumatic events that can have negative, lasting effects on health and well-being. These experiences range from physical, emotional, or sexual abuse to economic hardships, parental divorce or the incarceration of a parent or guardian. It is not the fault of these kids, but rather a direct result of the lives these children were born into and the experiences they’ve had. Teachers are doing everything they can to meet the needs of these students, but sometimes there are occasions where it just isn’t enough. It is amazing the affect that these situations can have on a child as a whole. The stress of severe and chronic childhood trauma – such as being regularly hit, constantly belittled and berated, watching your father often hit your mother – releases hormones that physically damage a child’s developing brain. This type of ongoing, toxic stress can be a large factor in health issues later in life including increased violence, higher divorce rates, more broken bones, more drug prescriptions, more depression, more auto-immune diseases, increased likelyhood of obtaining an STD, more likely to commit suicide, and have more work absences.  When you see a child act out, whether it be at school or in the community, rather than judge the character of the child or parent, instead think about the function of their behavior and take a systematic look into why they child may be acting out (i.e. ACE study). And don’t blame the parent- they likely have a high ACE score as well.

Zitzow also notes that a level IV setting is being built this year in St Cloud. This facility will be more equipped to work with kids that to date haven’t been best served in the traditional setting. These are students who may have such an intense program they spend little to no time in the classroom with their grade-level peers, and when they are with the special education teacher the behaviors continue to be severe. Here they will be able to continue to work on academics, but they will have the greater support needed to work with their individual challenges and access to counseling and social supports that they need.

I know what some of you are still thinking, that’s all fine and good, but what about MY kid?! That isn’t easy to answer. As a mama bear myself, I know that it can be hard when you feel like your kid isn’t getting the best. With it being a requirement of federal law, there is little that can be done to change this so what can be done? What options are left? As a parent, I have had to examine this more objectively and ask myself,

“How much is my kid really missing out on in class?”  

“Is she still grasping onto the concepts?”

“Is it really affecting her education only negatively or could she be taking something from these instances, too?”

So, I challenge myself to look at this from the perspective of how this might possibly benefit my child. My daughter has a child that has some compulsive issues (mostly shouting and running around the room) who has been in her class for the last two years now. It’s become an item we talk about. I ask who she works well with in class and who she has difficulty with. The children she works well with seem to rotate, but the same name always comes up when we talk about difficult to get along with kids. I know that I could be angry, but one of the things that I have been working on is brainstorming with her things she can try when those situations arise. No, she doesn’t always have the opportunity to intervene and it really isn’t her job. However, it does instill in her the value that even when we have to work with people that we may not easily pair well with, we still need to find ways to work together and to do it well. I find this lesson applicable not only in all of the work environments I have been in, but even in my everyday life. Some days she comes home frustrated, but others she comes home triumphant because she was able to help out. My attitude has helped to mold hers. I am seeing that the more patience I can show the more she is able to. If frustration is our reaction then impatience will be theirs. So I am forced to ask myself, “What traits do you want your child to adopt?”

Zitzow was visibly upset when I spoke to him about the comments I had heard regarding severely delayed and disabled children.

What’s a better alternative for them?! We know the institutions didn’t work.- Zitzow

WacosaIn regards to cognitively delayed (CD) children, Zitzow reminded me again of the federal law that allows these children the same rights as every other kid. In fact, in 1975, the federal government enacted the Education of All Handicapped Children Act, now called the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which requires states to provide a “free appropriate public education” to all students with disabilities. He acknowledges that SPED costs more, but not as much more as people think. Really, it seems like a moot point given that there is no other legal alternative. You might not like that answer, but when you look at the ability that many of these kids do have to contribute and give back to the community the costs seem worth it. Look at Wacosa and all the wonderful employment placements they have facilitated within our community and the ways their clients have been able to give back. Without a dedication to helping CD kids reach their potential we fail our citizens. Instead of seeing kids for what they can’t do, we need to see them for what they can achieve.

[bctt tweet=”Instead of seeing kids for what they can’t do, we need to see them for what they can achieve. #unitecloud”]

As Zitzow points out, we need to look at how we can engage these kids. They may have very low cognitive ability in some cases, but they can still engage in some way. It might be a yell, a laugh, or simply turning their head. Staff works with these CD kids to work on skills at their level. It may be as simple as learning the basic idea of cause and effect.

To have a parent of a child see for the first time that their child is able to establish cause and effect and indicated it in some way, maybe with a button or a switch, is… it’s huge! -Zitzow

The best part of all of this? Mainstreaming, that is? The personal stories. The things behind the scenes that we as parents don’t often see.

We’ve seen some of our most difficult, behaviorally challenged kids connect with these students of lower ability and they become a kind of caregiver to them. To have that child in the classroom is really good for both of them. The kid with lower cognitive ability has this connection, this go-to friend and this other child is able to learn all these great skills about how we take care of each other because we are all here, this is our school, we’re in it together. We’re a team and we’re a family. -Zitzow

Zitzow shared the story of a child from Madison Elementary of a young CD boy whom the class “adored”. This is a story I have heard over and over again, though not this particular child, from parents of CD kids, from pediatricians, and from other parents. Kids fighting over who’s turn it is to help ___ get to his classroom. Who gets to sit by him. By having these kids part of the classroom with their peers it not only benefits the CD child, but helps to teach his/her peers about diversity, about caring for your fellow human beings and raising one another up.

Relationships are the answer to everything. This is just another way to facilitate positive change- not only with the teachers and the kids, but kid to kid as well. -Zitzow

For more information on Functional Behavioral Assessments, visit this link:

For more information on the ACE study, visit the following links:

*This article is a guest post, written by a local member of our community.