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Curriculums and Special Needs Students

Written by: Michael S. True, M.Ed

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     In the early 1970's, the concept of developing alternative curriculums for special education classrooms was taking a new turn. Up until this point, most children with significant special needs were either sent to state institutions or "special schools", such as for the blind or deaf. Most public schools in the United States were ill-equipped or prepared to provide on-site training. However, with federal, (PL94-142), and state laws pushing for children's rights to a free and equal education, the public schools had to decide how best to serve these students.

     The concept of the Individualized Education Plan was developed by educators and approved by the federal government. It was a more complete view of each individual student's particular strengths and weaknesses and reflected both the developmental skill model, and education model.

     If a student's disabilities were limited, plans could be drawn up to augment, or add to his/her normal classroom schedule with periods including remedial training, especially in math and language arts. Most of these students were assigned to "resource classes". Additional behavioral goals might be included in the plan if social adjustment was a difficult area for the student. For those with mild learning disabilities, the regular education curriculum was often "watered down".

      For the more moderately handicapped, Special Day Classes were developed.These students were seperated from the regular education classes, usually spending most of the day in one room, even at higher grade levels. Each student was allowed to move through the regular grade curriculum at his/her own pace, without fear of failing a grade level. Unfortunately, these Learning Disabled or Learning Handicapped classes often absorbed students who were either resistive to learning, lacked appropriate motivation, or came from socio-economic backgrounds differing from the mainstream student population. In most instances, these students have been placed back into regular classrooms over the past two decades as a result of discrimination lawsuits by parents.

     Today, the majority of students with mild and moderate disabilities now participate in regular classroom activities with their peers, but with a modified curriculum written to meet their individual needs. A second grade student who cannot yet read, for example, would be allowed to listen to a story. Then, instead of writing a fill-in-the-blank book report, would be allowed to draw or paint a picture representing what he/she thought was the best part of the story. In some cases, speech therapy, physical therapy, and adaptive physical education components are added to the daily schedule. Goals are specifically written for these areas, as well, to insure progress is being made.

     This "evidence of progress" factor has been a major force in the development of school programming for the more severly handicapped student. Because little academic progress can be charted for these students, a more sophisticated breakdown of skills is needed to insure that the development of "basic life skills" is, indeed, taking place. Skill areas identified as part of this new curriculum include: self-care, socialization, functional academics, fine and gross motor development, communication, pre-vocation, and behavioral issues. Each of the training areas have been "broken down" into a series of goals and objectives which are developmentally sequenced. These students are assessed for skills matching those of younger children, (from birth to age six, in most cases). As each skill is matched, appropriate goals are selected reflecting the next step on the developmental ladder. Programs and materials are then modified to create needed training experiences.

     Since the mid-1970's, most of the severely physically, mentally, and emotionally challenged students were also isolated in Special Day Classes, (Severely Handicapped and Severely Emotionally Disabled). More recently, the public schools have been attempting to integrate, or " mainstream" many of their most severly handicapped students into the regular classroom. This is an effort to normalize, or decrease the effects of segregation, especially on a social level. Having I.E.P.'s written to guide the regular classroom teacher, with the support of special educators and instructional assistants, is critical to the future success of these students.

     In this model, students are considered to be on a parrallel track. The focus of training has become the teaching of functional skills. Instead of being directly involved in a class math assignment, for instance, the student may be practicing telling time on a digital watch or identifying coins. In addition, trips into the community would add direct experience in shopping, going to the post office, or using other community resources.

     All of this is truely a trial-and-error approach to providing new and better ways of improving student learning. The process of defining training goals and creating opportunities which will give realistic learning experiences known to benifit the most severely handicapped is ongoing. For the learning disabled student, the opportunity to observe and interact with non-disabled peers has also proven to be more effective in motivating these students to learn. However, if you ask any teacher if there are problems in the delivery of these services, the usual answer is, "yes." One-on-one assistance is usually costly to the school system. Schools must provide adaptive devices such as personal communication units and find funding for these, as well. Regular education teachers are often untrained in dealing with specialized techniques for positioning, feeding, and toileting. Behavioral problems and meeting other demanding needs often interrupt the normal routine. As with the process of determining the best course for regular education students to excell in their studies, curriculum development and teaching methods for the special needs student are continually undergoing change, as well.

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