Neglecting the Education of Children with Learning Disabilities

7th grade geography activity

7th grade geography activity

7th grade geography activity (Photo credit: Kentucky Country D

Who Benefits From the Inclusive Classroom?

Can a Classroom with a Large Majority of Special Needs Children also be an Inclusive Classroom?

Would you want your child to be in a grade seven class of 30 students if 25 are identified as having special needs?  Would you want your child in that class if she is identified as having special needs?  Would you want her there if her first language is not English?  Would you want her there if she is a regular, ordinary student?

A colleague recently observed one intermediate school where the two grade seven regular-English classes were predominantly Special Education students.  By[SDS1] predominantly, I mean roughly 25 out of 28 or 29 in one class and half the students in the other class had been identified or were about to be identified as students with special needs.  By special education students, what I mean is students with learning disabilities or behavioural problems.  Gifted students were not included in those classes.

Melissa visiting the Gifted Education Centre4

Melissa visits the Gifted Education Centre4                                      (Photo credit: nznationalparty)

The students in these two classes receive some support through a Special Education teacher joining their class on a regular basis, usually for Language Arts and math.  This teacher is intended to support more than the grade seven classes, probably both the grade seven and eight classes, so she is not available full-time, half time or even quarter time to support the students with learning difficulties.  For many students, the support time may be sufficient; for others it won’t be.

Do These Classes Serve The Needs of Identified Students?

Consider a class where 25 students need Special Education support.  Yes, with two teachers it is less daunting, but there are 30 students.  The classroom teacher has responsibility for the five regular students as well as the rest.  What would this class would be like.

Remember that each child identified has been identified as having a particular need; this is why they are called special needs children.  In the 25 may be students with students with ADD, ADHD, personality disorders, behavioural problems, physical disabilities as well as gifted students and those with learning disabilities.  Not only does one size not fit all, but each child has an appropriately individualized program the teacher is required to follow.

Now try to imagine what it is like when the subject teacher is alone, trying to teach geography, complete with graphs or history with the need to learn to read non-fiction.  Where will the support be then?  How will students respond?  Will they be able to learn in a class of that size with so many other students competing for help?

The Inclusive Classroom: More Motto than Pedagogy

The school cited states that these children’s need are met following the inclusive model set out by the 2006 Expert Panel report on Special Education, Education for All.  For my comments, summaries and charts derived from Education for All, go to the tag or category marked Education for All on this site.  The point of the document was that by following the concept developed by the architectural community of universal design, almost all students can be taught in an inclusive classroom.

The point of the inclusive classroom was to integrate children with exceptional needs into classrooms of regular children.  Instead, in this example, regular kids are being integrated into classrooms of exceptional children.  Only those students who are gifted are exempted from being integrated with regular students or having regular students integrated with them.

Why Are There So Many Special Needs Students in 1/3 of the Grade Seven Classes?

This particular school states that it has a “Junior/Intermediate system LD class for students who have been identified with severe learning disabilities.”  This would account for the larger percentage of identified students in the regular classes. In this school  there are six grade seven classes , a normal sort of number for a middle school.  You are probably wondering why there are so many identified students (teacher talk for students with special needs) in the two classes.

A special education teacher assists one of her...

A special education teacher assists one of her students.                                                   (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Of the six classes in this grade seven cohort, only two can possibly have students with learning difficulties integrated into their class .  Some of you may doing the math:  If one assumes that each classes has 30 students and there are 25 identified students in one class and half of another class is identified i.e. 15, students, that makes 40 students out of 180 who have learning difficulties of some sort or another.  (Not speaking English does not count as a learning disability although it does disqualify you from being gifted.)

So 40/180 means that 22% of the students in the grade seven of this middle school have been identified as having special needs (if you ignore the gifted – and they are seldom ignored).   Depending on which studies you read, learning disabilities range from roughly 5% to 12% of the population; both those figures are from studies cited by Statistics Canada.  It does seem a bit of a stretch that 22% in one grade in one school would be identified, especially if we were not including the gifted.  You need to remember that this school has a system Junior/Intermediate class for students with severe LD;  it is fair to assume that even these children with severe LDs have been integrated into regular classes.

So why do only two out of the six grade seven classes have identified students integrated with them?

French Immersion, Where Everyone Can Learn But Only The Unidentified May Stay

First there are three French Immersion classes.  Students can’t expect special education support in Ontario’s FI classes; for some of the reasons, please see my post: French Immersion: Is It Accessible to All Students? There are no special education teachers certified to teach in French and therefore there is no support or, more accurately: there is no support provided for FI and therefore there are no special education teachers certified to teach in French.  I am sure the school boards will say there is no money for it.  To find out where the money isn’t going, see my post: Is French Immersion a Money Maker for School Boards?

Students with learning disabilities and their parents are likely to be told by their grade six teachers or principals that these educators will not support the child going into French Immersion.  This is counter to the principle that ANY child can succeed as well in FI as they could in the regular program IF they have the same level of support as they would in the regular program.  As I have pointed out before, in most boards across the country, support for special needs students in French Immersion is not provided.  French Immersion students must succeed, move into the regular program or their parents must pay for tutoring.  Not only is the support not provided, but parents need skill at reading between the lines to appreciate that it is not going to be available.

Gifted Students AKASpecial Needs Students Who Are Exceptions to Inconvenient Rules

The fourth class of the six is the academically gifted class.  Two or three students in the gifted class may have learning disabilities or behavioural problems, but as long as their primary exceptionality is giftedness, they are eligible for the class.  These students traditionally do not get any support outside the class since the assumption is that as the teacher is a specialist in special education, she will undoubtedly know how to handle other exceptionalities.  And she usually does or learns very quickly.

I have pointed out in earlier posts Gifted and “Education for All” and Commentary on “Education for All” that although the inclusive classroom is mandated as the default placement for all special needs students, somehow administrators processing the gifted have missed the memo.  Please see Education for All:The Report of the Expert Panel on Literacy and Numeracy Instruction for Students With Special Education Needs, Kindergarten to Grade 6, 2005

One or two classes in a school system or a province are not proof of systemic problems.  However, they can be an example of what can happen and has happened when every child’s education is not a priority.  I am not sure what it says about the children, their parents, their community, their school or their teachers.  I do know what I think it says about our school system.  It says that our school system is about appearance, not pedagogy. One has to question the thinking of administrators who allow system classes  if the children are going to be integrated into regular classrooms.  When they do the math, isn’t it obvious that what will happen is essentially reverse integration i.e. the integration of regular students into classrooms of identified students among who are children with “severe” learning disabilities”?
Not an Aberration

This is one example but I doubt it is an exception.  The problem is probably less severe in the primary grades before students are siphoned off into the gifted program and when only some students are segregated in the French Immersion program.  In the primary grades there will be a smaller learning gap between regular students and those lagging developmentally or with learning disabilities.  As the children grow, however, the gap in learning grows until some students will fall as much as two grades or more behind.  A regular grade seven teacher will inevitably be facing a class with some students working at levels as low as grade five.  There may also be English as Second Language students whose math may be at a grade seven level or above but are not yet able to read, write or speak fluently in English.

Last, But Not Least, A Look at The Numbers       IMG_1854

Below is the section of the Ontario Education Act that deals specifically with the maximum number of students who may be in any Special Education Class, including the gifted classes.  The ceiling ranges from six to twenty-five.  The unlucky souls integrated into the inclusive classrooms under the flags of equity and political correctness are in classes exceeding the 25.  In fact, regular intermediate classes have almost always been larger than 25 in spite of the fact that even 20 years ago teachers and administrators knew that these classes were heavily larded with students with special needs, behavioural issues or carrying the extra load of learning English as a second language.

That these identified students, some with severe learning disabilities, are being taught in classes larger than allowed for the gifted is a disgrace.  It is more than a disgrace.  If you analysed the makeup of race, gender, socio-economic class and religion, you would find it very different from that in French Immersion or Gifted classes at the Intermediate level.  It is discriminatory.  It is laziness and cowardice on the part of administrators who prefer to do the politically expedient thing rather than the pedagogically sound.

Those Parents Have Not Complained

Why is nothing done about it?  As a principal said to me in a similar context:  “Those parents have not complained.”  And that, gentle reader, is the essence of how many if not most educational decisions are made.


Education Act

R.R.O. 1990, REGULATION 298

Consolidation Period: From May 31, 2009 to the e-Laws currency date.

Last amendment: O. Reg. 206/09.


31. The maximum enrolment in a special education class shall depend upon the extent of the exceptionalities of the pupils in the class and the special education services that are available to the teacher, but in no case shall the enrolment in a self-contained class exceed,

(a) in a class for pupils who are emotionally disturbed or socially maladjusted, for pupils who have severe learning disabilities, or for pupils who are younger than compulsory school age and have impaired hearing, eight pupils;

(b) in a class for pupils who are blind, for pupils who are deaf, for pupils who have developmental disabilities, or for pupils with speech and language disorders, ten pupils;

(c) in a class for pupils who are hard of hearing, for pupils with limited vision, or for pupils with orthopaedic or other physical handicaps, twelve pupils;

(d) in a class for pupils who have mild intellectual disabilities, twelve pupils in the primary division and sixteen pupils in the junior and intermediate divisions;

(e) in an elementary school class for pupils who are gifted,

(i) twenty pupils, if the class consists only of pupils in the primary division,

(ii) twenty-three pupils, if the class includes at least one pupil in the primary division and at least one pupil in the junior division or intermediate division, and

(iii) twenty-five pupils, if the class consists only of pupils in the junior division or intermediate division;

(f) in a class for aphasic or autistic pupils, or for pupils with multiple handicaps for whom no one handicap is dominant, six pupils; and

(g) on and after the 1st day of September, 1982, in a class for exceptional pupils consisting of pupils with different exceptionalities, sixteen pupils. R.R.O. 1990, Reg. 298, s. 31; O. Reg. 191/04, s. 10; O. Reg. 29/08, s. 4; O. Reg. 297/08, s. 1.

See also:

Education for All: The Report of the Expert Panel on Literacy and Numeracy Instruction for Students With Special Education Needs, Kindergarten to Grade 6, 2005


One response to “Neglecting the Education of Children with Learning Disabilities

  1. I enjoyed your piece on the number of SE students in a regular class; it should never exceed 25% to 30% of the total if the additional teacher is expected to help all of them. To have 25 out of 28 is simply ridiculous and totally inefficient as the teacher must constantly make sure that all mods and accommodations are applied correctly as per IEP

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