Children who have learning disabilities or other conditions on the autism spectrum often find themselves placed in special education. The idea behind special education is a positive one. It allows teachers to give more attention and care to students that need it the most. It also allows teachers to design specific curriculum that is designed for students with learning disabilities and other struggles.
The special education system does have some downsides though. Kids in special education often find themselves completely isolated from other students, as they are never in classes with so called "typical" students. This can create a sense of social isolation which can lower self-esteem and make it harder for the students to enjoy going to school. There is also a problem when neurotypical children treat special education children as different or, in the worst case, lesser. Many neurotypical children won't interact with a special education student, which makes it harder to empathize and understand their struggles. In some cases, children in special education programs face vicious bullying from typical students, who see special education students as easy targets for their hateful and abusive behavior. Educators have attempted to come up with a system that prevents some of these things from happening. The integrated classroom system is a development that might do just that.
What is an integrated classroom?
Many people see "integrated classroom" and assume that atypical students are just thrown into regular classes with everybody else. There would obviously be many difficulties arising from that, but luckily that is not what the method is about. Instead, educators choose a handful of neurotypical students that join special education classrooms for one year. This is typically done at the primary school level where it is easier to integrate curriculum for both special education and neurotypical students. The neurotypical children spend one year learning alongside children with autism, dyslexia, physical disabilities like blindness or deafness, and a host of other educational challenges.
What good does it do?
Many parents might find this idea concerning for a few reasons. Many parents may feel that their typical child will "fall behind" learning with students who have learning disabilities. Others may fear that their child will be subject to bullying by other neurotypical students who assume that they are a special needs child themselves.
In reality, this type of program is looking to solve those problems, not reinforce them. The truth is that even with learning disabilities, many special education students can learn common, math, science, and reading concepts. Children who go through an integrated classroom program rarely find themselves so far behind that they can't catch back up to their typical peers. Integrated classrooms are also designed to prevent bullying through interaction and empathy. Simply put, it is often a lot easier for people to pick on and tease others who they never interact with. This is because they see the other person as different from themselves. When typical students learn alongside special needs students, they find themselves interacting and socializing with these students. This leads them to realizing that special needs students are not unlike themselves, and this can also increase their empathy and understanding of why other students may struggle. Many typical students who go through a year of integrated classroom programs often end up being kinder and empathetic towards special needs students, and will be more likely to stand up for them if other children try to bully or demean them.
What are the benefits for children with autism?
While it certainly helps neurotypical children understand the struggles of their special needs peers a bit more, the question many parents have is what the other students get out of the deal. Unsurprisingly, special needs students often receive numerous social and intellectual benefits from interacting with neurotypical students on a day to day basis. Interacting with these students can help atypical students by allowing them to feel less like an outcast, and it also gives them experience socializing with people unlike themselves. Some teachers find that the neurotypical student will inspire the special needs student to do better in their schoolwork. Many typical students end up helping their classmates with homework and studying, which gives the teacher some extra help in getting the point across.
Another big point is that this type of classroom setting promotes tolerance and understanding, which will hopefully curb bullying in the future. Bullying is a very big problem for many special needs students, and this type of setting can help them by reducing this type of bad behavior.
How can I support children with special needs?
Integrated classrooms are still uncommon in many places, although certain schools have programs where neurotypical students can take a period to help atypical students in their studies.
Some of you may be reading this article and wondering what you can do to help special needs children that you know or are in your area. You may even have a special needs child or work with special needs children and wonder how you can help them excel in their schoolwork. Below are just a few tips on supporting special needs children in their academic endeavors:
Interact - Many adults try interacting with special needs children only to find that they aren't as receptive as neurotypical children (this obviously differs from child to child, but it is common). Some adults take this to mean that special needs children don't like or aren't interested in interaction, but this is not the case. Special needs children are like everyone else in that they want to interact with others. In most cases, they often don't seem receptive because they are scared and overwhelmed by their surroundings. They also may need you to do certain things like smile or say hello to understand that you are a friendly face. Even something as simple as greeting a special needs child can go a long way in building their confidence and social skills.
Be flexible - Every child is different. Some children with special needs may not respond unless you verbally tell them something, and others may only write things down. Many adults refuse to treat special needs children any differently than regular children, stating that accommodating them will make them feel different or lesser. In reality, this can hurt the child in the long run. Finding out a child's strengths and weaknesses is key to figuring out the best way to help them.
Be consistent - This may seem like the opposite of the statement above, but it isn't. While certain techniques require flexibility and understanding, a lot of adults often fall into a trap of creating different guidelines and rules for students with special needs. This creates issues with many students not understanding why the rules are different for everyone else. For example, a child that is aggressive and rough with other students may get a pass from naïve teachers who believe it is just their way of playing. Special needs students still need consistent boundaries to learn right from wrong, and ignoring the bad deeds of special needs students will only hurt their personal growth in the long run. Do make sure that you sit down with the child and explain why their behavior is unacceptable and why it needs to stop (you could explain how their behavior is hurting other children for example). Simply punishing them with no explanation will just leave them confused and frustrated.
We hope this article has shown the importance of interacting with and supporting children with special needs whenever possible. For more information on autism, learning disabilities, and more, be sure to visit the rest of our website.