Abstract Students identified for special education programs, either for the gifted or for students in need of more intensive instruction, are often identified solely by their qualifying label or diagnosis in close to all circumstances. The emphasized focus on this one attribute often results in a lack of acknowledgement for the culture of the child and how that culture affects learning style and social behavior. The students in these programs may not have the self-awareness to know and be proud of their heritage nor might their peers have an idea of how each are the same and different because of these ancestral qualities.
This lack of recognition disrupts the efforts that both schools and communities put forth in establishing multicultural environments for learning and socializing. It causes people to view special education students with a narrow perspective which then affects the manner in which they ultimately view all other groups. Reversing this trend and helping people to consider special education students as whole persons is achievable through simple yet intensive education of both students and professional educators.
A combination of special education curriculum and professional development focusing on differentiation between cultural characteristics and label-related behaviors would provide the framework, tools, and training needed to implement a consistent education about cultural diversity as well as broaden the awareness of administrators, teachers, and instructional staff regarding different cultures and ways of life. Resistance from districts or schools would be challenged with research based findings and statistics as well as active experiences from educational establishments already piloting the program.
By infusing a diversity curriculum for special education and helping professional educators to consider these students for all of their natural qualities, including but certainly not limited to their qualifying factors for special education, the multicultural movement is perpetuated. Teachers are the greatest role models for both students and community members. Providing curriculum and training in the area of cultural diversity empowers teachers to make subtle and grand changes to their schools and communities.
Throughout our education system, students are labeled and categorized so as to ensure proper delivery of instruction and academic services. This labeling process occurs via a series of assessments, observations, and includes correlation with any accompanying medical diagnosis or characteristics of such. Students whose assessment results place them outside the average or normal range are grouped either as “gifted” or “in need of more intensive instruction” and placed in special education.
Once in a special education program, these students are primarily identified by their diagnosis, such as autistic or cerebral palsy, or label, such as gifted or savant. While this information is crucial to developing an academic plan that will challenge the student and initiate academic growth, these labels tend to cause educators and instructional support staff to lose sight of the student as a whole person. By failing to identify the cultural characteristics of students in special education, the school system makes itself vulnerable to failing the child.
Children and their behaviors are shaped by their lifestyles at home and in the community. Households adhere to a variety of procedures and routines from how to manage hygiene to cooking practices to sharing and interacting with others. For students with additional traits that yield enrollment in special education, it is crucial to consider the cultural aspects of their lives so as to enhance the effectiveness of instruction and learning.
By disregarding cultural characteristics, the students are at risk of being seen only for their disability or label and provided instruction based on statistics and research taken on other children with similar labels rather than truly individualized for each student. As a special education teacher, I can attest to the simplicity of developing lesson plans based on the disabilities seen in the classroom.
Particularly if the classroom is tailored to one diagnosis, such as Autism, using pre-determined and proven methods that lend themselves to the disability are an easy way to deliver instruction and leave oneself believing the lesson was the best it could be. Unfortunately by adhering to published numbers and data collected about other students, scholars suffer both a diminished accessibility to the curriculum as well as misidentification of demonstrated behaviors during both academic and social time.
When blinded by published data, educators are more prone to eliminate behaviors that are undesirable under the heading of the disability or label even though the same behavior is common in the culture of the student. Scholars are unable to fully connect with instruction or activities because cultural traits related to learning may be redirected or stopped.
In a way, by identifying the student only by qualifying label and not also by gender, culture, or race, the school system is inadvertently causing the students to become more engrained in the shortcoming of their disabilities rather than giving them the knowledge and tools to overcome their obstacles. Additionally, the school forces the students to assimilate to a model of non-culture which results in a total loss of culture identification. In the case of gifted students, not emphasizing cultural differences leaves these leaders of the future short-handed in both social and networking skills.
They will lack an understanding of themselves which can isolate them from their cultural peers as well as damage their ability to associate to their peers and colleagues both as children and as adults. Students, professional educators, and the community would benefit from a combination of diversity curriculum and professional development addressing the topic of cultural diversity in special education. As role models for both the students and the community, teachers will reap the most benefit from implementing such a program as well as have the greatest influence over the effectiveness of the results.
By establishing a cohesive awareness about the cultural identities of students in special education, the manner in which the students and the community view all social groups will be improved. (MAISD, 2013) Curriculum written to the level of special education students would help both gifted and underachieving students gain a greater understanding and perspective about cultural diversity, allowing them to identify themselves and their peers as members of rich and honorable histories.
(Minnesota State Colleges & Universities, 2013) This curriculum would parallel that of general education curriculum but with modifications to make it more accessible to the target audiences of special education. Additional lessons and activities about self identification and awareness, stereotypes of different cultures, comparison of cultural practices, and comparison of specific cultural behaviors and disability-related behaviors provide the foundation knowledge that many special educations students are lacking.
Curriculum for special day classes would include creating consistent visual cues for identifying different cultures and the basic characteristics associated with each one. Gifted students would be given opportunities to delve into deeper thinking about their own heritage in comparison to that of their peers, the pros and cons of how different cultural lifestyles and attitudes affect society and the economy, and project how different cultural attributes may affect the future. (Schroeder, 2011).
Implementation of this curriculum would be coupled with professional development for all school personnel. The professional development would focus on identifying students in special education by culture, gender, and race in addition to diagnosis or qualifying factors. Participants would receive a general foundation education about how different cultures look in the classroom and how those behaviors mimic the behaviors related to different disabilities or levels of genius. For example, students with Asian heritage tend to avoid eye contact which is also a classic trait of Autism.
An Asian student with an autism diagnosis should not be encouraged to make eye contact with adults even though eye contact is an area of social interaction that many autism programs focus on improving. Data taken on the student’s behavior should not include frequency of eye contact because results will yield poor performance that may or may not be related to the disability. In addition to increasing understanding in this area, teachers will be given the knowledge to find students whose cultural behaviors may have led to a misidentification for special education.
Our public school system continues to demonstrate a disturbing number of students who have been wrongly identified for special education due to cultural characteristics or inability to relate to assessment tools because of cultural experiences or beliefs. By learning to differentiate between cultural and disability/label related behaviors, teachers will have a first-hand opportunity to ensure that all students are placed in appropriate classrooms offering them a just-right challenge.
Professional development will include information about different White cultures for these students are often lumped together as “cultureless” and therefore disregarded as displaying behaviors that can be attributed to their heritage. (Perry, 2001) White students come from a myriad of ancestries; French, South African, Australian, Spanish, Welsh, and German to name a few, and each display their own unique array of culturally related behaviors. For example, the French culture adheres to hygiene practices that are different than most cultures. As a result, a French special education student may be adverse to water because of lack of exposure.
It is important to refrain from automatically attaching the adverse reaction to sensory disregulation or irrational fear, two common characteristics of many disabilities. A special education student with South African roots may only eat meat and avoid vegetables, which reflects the heavy meat diet enjoyed by persons in this region. (Oplan, 2013) It would be easy to label this as “finicky eating” and relate it back to a diagnosis of Autism or Down Syndrome, disabilities that often manifest a very limited diet. Doing so, however, damages the child and his perception of his culture as it relates to American society.
Implementation of curriculum and professional development would be relatively simple as long as districts and schools are willing to make an attempt. Upon introduction to school districts, both the curriculum and training would be supported by research based findings and statistical information regarding instances of misidentification for special education, the rise of disability diagnosis as compared to the increase of culturally diverse students in public school, parallels between cultural and disability related behaviors, and rates of school failure of students whose cultural needs were not served in the classroom.
The program would include additional training for district selected educators to act as support personnel for both the curriculum and training as well as regional support contacts. An online live chat forum would be established and made available 24 hours per day, seven days per week to allow educators to exchange ideas, discuss challenges, and share successes. Teachers would have opportunities to provide feedback so as to keep the training and curriculum current as well as help them feel acknowledged and empowered to continue implementing the program.
Education of special education students beyond the basics is crucial if they are going to have the tools and knowledge needed to actively participate in their communities as adults. In order to interact socially with others as well as protect themselves from bigotry and slander, these students need to understand cultural differences and how those differences both benefit and plague society. They need to know what their role is in establishing a greater sense of multiculturalism in school and the community and be able to share information so as to educate others.
Gifted students need a well rounded education about the world and how it interacts, most especially as related to cultural differences. They need to know how to find the threads of commonality among cultural groups while simultaneously celebrating diversity. By maintaining these skills, the students will be in the best position to have a positive influence on society and increase cultural awareness and understanding as well as diminish misguided stereotypes about both disabilities and cultural behaviors.
Minnesota State Colleges and Universities. (2013). Building Respect for Diversity. Retrieved from http://ctlrespectdiversity. project. mnscu. edu/index. asp? Type=B_BASIC&SEC= %7B9F44AF3C-4968-437C-88B2-3AFE80A0D1DD%7D MAISD. (2013). Multiculturalism and Diversity. Retrieved from http://www. muskegonisd. org/ academicservices/for-community/multicultural/ Schroeder, Connie. (2011) Infusing Diversity into the Curriculum. Retrieved from http://www4. uwm. edu/acad_aff/climate/2011_campus_conversation/march11-infusing-diversity-presentation.
ppt Perry, Pamela. (2001). White Means Never Having to Say You’re Ethnic: White Youth and the Construction of “Cultureless” Identities. Retrieved from http://jce. sagepub. com/content/ 30/1/56. abstract Oplan, David. (2013). South Africa. Countries and Their Cultures. Retrieved from http://www. everyculture. com/Sa-Th/South-Africa. html#b Banks, J. A. & Banks, C. A. M. (2012). Multicultural education: Issues and perspectives. (8th Ed. ). Danville, MA: John Wiley & Sons, In.