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Leveling the Playing Field

Schools will always have some children who struggle with learning, attention, or behavior difficulties. We know that a percentage of these children will eventually be identified as disabled in some way. Secular educators have been acknowledging this and accepting these children for decades. Interestingly, virtually all public schools in America now have at least one special educator or learning specialist to assist children with disabilities. This notwithstanding, public schools still expect regular classroom teachers to provide for the needs of these children as much as possible in the mainstream setting. Both regular and special educators, then, share a collaborative role in educating children with disabilities.

Private Christian educators, on the other hand, continue to grapple with whether children with disabilities even exist in their circles, and if they do, whether or not they should have a place in their schools. Many cling to the belief that they are serving an elite group of exceptionally "gifted" children who are free from struggles. Others simply hold that all learning, attention, and behavior difficulties in children stem from one's sin nature (humorously referred to as the "Adamic Syndrome").

Although it is admirable and desirable for Christian educators to strive for excellence, it is pretentious to think that Christian Schools embody an exclusive group of children whose abilities are so accelerated, so advanced, that absolutely no legitimate disabilities exist. Moreover, to attribute all school problems that a child may have to his sin nature is to disregard the overwhelming body of research that definitively proves the existence of disabilities is their potential rejection of specific passages in the Word of God, for there are numerous accounts of disabled persons in the New Testament alone.

The truth is that many, if not most, Christian schools will enroll children from the same communities and types of families as the public schools do. In short, Christian schools will have their share of children with disabilities too. They will have some children who do not learn and master material at the same rate as others. They will have some children who, although sincere and spiritually right, cannot free themselves from distraction and are unable to focus and concentrate during a class hour as they should. They will have some children who, because of some physiological, metabolic, or biochemical limitation allowed by God, cannot control their behavior as they should. There is one clear differentiation that can be made between Christian schools and their public school counterparts, however, and that is that Christian schools are (or should be) enrolling children who are spiritually regenerate.

Aside from failing to acknowledge children with disabilities, only one other more incredibly sad scenario exists in some Christian schools, and that is for a teacher to disregard completely a child who has a desperate educational need and to allow that child to continue to wallow in his failure. I am reminded of a mother and father (an experienced teacher himself) who came to me at the end of the school year asking for help with their son. The boy had just completed third grade at a Christian school and was going to be retained in third grade for another year. They explained that the boy's teacher was fresh out of college and that the class had only eleven (that's 11!) students.

The boy's report card clearly showed that he had been failing from the start, for there were D's and F's that could be traced all the way back to the first grading period. The father had approached the new teacher at the beginning of the school year and asked if there was some way that the instruction could be modified to meet the child's needs. The teacher retorted sharply, "You don't really expect me to individualize instruction for your child when I have ten others in here too, do you?" What a heartless response! I cringed at the thought of how this novice teacher might have reacted if she had had 25-30 children in her classroom.

Christian educators must come to the realization that all children are not the same. Children will vary in their academic, emotional, and spiritual needs. If Christian schools knowingly enroll children who struggle or who have documented disabilities and accept tuition from their parents who, in good faith, assume that their children will be getting an education that truly meets their needs, then Christian school teachers ought to do right by these children.

Doing what is morally and professionally right by these children means that Christian educators will need to alter their attitudes and actions in at least two ways. One, they must acknowledge and accept children with disabilities, for who they are, for how God created them, and with all their limitations--educationally and spiritually. Two, Christian school teachers must learn to "level the playing field" by making the necessary instructional modifications and accommodations these children need so that their opportunities to succeed will be maximized and they will be able to show what they have learned.

Learners with Limitations

Perfection. Only the Lord Jesus Himself has experienced perfection on this side of eternity, because He was and is the only Perfect One Who has ever walked the face of this planet. Both the present and future of mankind would be dismally bleak, though, if there were no hope of a life without sin and its consequences. But we know that the redeemed in Christ will be perfect one day, for the Scripture promises that we shall be changed (I Cor. 15:51), and we shall be like Him (I John 3:2). As wonderful as these truths are, we will nonetheless have to bear the limitations the Lord has placed upon us while we remain on this earth.

The limitations that most people will probably have to bear during their lifetime will be little more than the usual aches, pains, and worries that have accompanied every man and woman since Adam's fall. But for some, limitations may involve diminished abilities and skills to some degree. For example, some individuals have great difficulty communicating publicly and wince at the thought of having to speak before an audience of more than two or three. Yet these same individuals are generally able to express themselves effectively on a one-on-one basis. Others may have two "left feet" and lack the agility necessary to participate, even leisurely, in sports and athletic activities. Yet these same people are quite capable of walking and getting around in a day-to-day, routine way.

For a certain segment of our population, though, God allows limitations of a more severe nature, typically called disabilities, which may significantly impair their learning, behavior, emotional, or physical capabilities. According to the U.S. Department of Education (1992), a little more than 4.8 million children (or approximately 10% of the school age population) had some form of disability and were being served in public school special education classrooms during the 1990-91 school year. The more prevalent disability--specific learning disability--represents almost half (49.1%) of all children with disabilities in America.

Learning Disabilities. The term "learning disability" was coined by Dr. Sam Kirk in the early 1960s and was officially defined by Congress in Public Law 94-142 in 1975. Prior to this time many terms were used to describe this unique group of children including "minimal brain injury," "cerebral dysfunction," "central nervous system disorder," "conceptually handicapped," "perceptually handicapped," and "educationally handicapped," to name a few.

Although learning disabilities in children have only recently been recognized and acknowledged, while other disabilities such as retardation and blindness have been recognized for centuries, there have no doubt been individuals with learning disabilities since the beginning of time. Historical evidence proves that a number of important and famous people through the ages have had learning disabilities, including Nelson Rockefeller, Thomas Edison, Auguste Rodin, Woodrow Wilson, and Albert Einstein.

Describing a learning disability (LD) can be difficult, since "symptoms are not the same from person to person" (Beechick, 1992). That is, not all LD students demonstrate the same array of characteristic behaviors. What we do know for sure, though, is that the characteristics of learning disabled (LD) students are numerous and varied. After analyzing a large group of LD students from across the country, Clements (1966) identified the following ten most frequent symptoms: hyperactivity, perceptual-motor problems, general coordination problems, emotional lability (frequent mood shifts), attention disorders, impulsivity, memory/thinking deficits, specific academic problems, speech/language/hearing problems, and neurological irregularities (abnormalities in brain activity). Learning disabled students may also demonstrate difficulties in information processing, learning strategy acquisition and usage, motivation, and social skills (Hallahan & Kauffman, 1991; Lerner, 1989).

The definition of specific learning disabilities adopted by the federal government in Public Law 94-142 and reiterated more recently in Public Law 101-476 (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) has been the most commonly accepted standard for identifying learning disabled students (Hallahan & Kauffman, 1991). The definition is lengthy, laboriously worded, and even ambiguous in places, but from it we can glean the following key identifying criteria. The child must show/have:

  1. Normal to above intelligence. This criterion rules out low intelligence as the cause of the child's learning difficulties.
  2. Underachievement manifested in one or more academic areas. Thus, terms like "visual learning disability" or "learning disability in attention" are not legitimate forms of learning disability since they clearly are not academic in nature.
  3. Severe discrepancy between the child's potential to learn (i.e., his intelligence quotient or IQ) and what he has actually learned (i.e., his achievement).
  4. Psychological processing difficulties--generally problems associated with visual and/or auditory processing of information.
  5. Learning problems not attributable to any other disability such as visual impairment, hearing impairment, or environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage.

A child must meet all five criteria in order to be classified, and formal testing is required to determine this. The federal definition further specifies only seven possible forms of learning disability: (1) basic reading or reading decoding; (2) reading comprehension; (3) written expression, including spelling; (4) listening comprehension; (5) oral expression; (6) math computation; and (7) math reasoning. A child may have one or more of these forms. The reading/language arts related forms are more common.

Making Modifications

Most Christian schools adopt commercially produced curricula (i.e., textbooks, workbooks, and teacher manuals) as the primary vehicle of instruction in their classrooms. Although there are some very good curricula on the market today, curricular materials alone will not be able to meet all the unique needs that a struggling learner may have. More important, Christian educators should be reminded that most curricula are designed for average, typical learners, not learners who may have learning, attention, and/or behavior difficulties. In short, teaching from standard commercially produced, grade-level curricula is simply not enough for struggling learners (Sutton, 1994).

In order to "level the playing field," regular classroom teachers will need to provide instructional modifications and accommodations for struggling learners. Modifications help children compensate for, or work around, a barrier or limitation in their lives that may be preventing them from learning at optimal levels like their nondisabled peers. Regardless of the type or degree of modification the classroom teacher provides the child, one principle should be kept in mind. Instructional modifications and accommodations are legitimate and appropriate only if academic integrity is preserved and not compromised in the learning process.

When modifications give the student an "edge" or advantage rather than allowing him to compensate for and work around the barrier of his limitation, then the modification ceases from being of any real educational value to the child. For example, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to justify allowing a student with a learning disability in reading to use a calculator to complete a mathematics assignment, when he has no prior history of learning difficulties in mathematics. Giving him a calculator would, in effect, reduce the quality of his learning by preventing him from exercising his computational skills.

Modifications and accommodations can be as varied as the teacher's creativity. Typically, struggling learners, including learning disabled children, will need modifications in three main areas:

  1. Studying/class preparation--providing study guides, assisting the child in getting copies of lecture notes, organizing volunteers to help with audiotaping textbook chapters, etc.
  2. Assignment completion--allowing the child to give oral reports instead of written reports, securing transcribers for written assignments, more frequent meetings with child for long-term projects, etc.
  3. Test-taking--allowing the child to give oral responses instead of written; audiotaping test items; giving the child more time to complete tests, etc.

Conclusion

Instructional modifications and accommodations will not be enough for some struggling learners to reach their God-given potential. Some will need more intense help and remediation that only a special educator (resource teacher, learning specialist, etc.) can give. This means, of course, that many Christian schools will need to begin thinking about planning for a special education program of some sort in the near future.

We reject the pejorative attitude among some Christian school officials that providing special education or modifications will only serve to "dumb down academic standards." If these same Christian educators are emulating Christ Jesus, our Master Teacher, as they should, then this attitude should have no part in their thinking and philosophy. Christ never second-guessed the importance of serving the needs of disabled persons in His day, nor did He ever think that including them in His earthly ministry would "dumb down" the power of the Gospel. Leveling the playing field for children who struggle or are disabled in our Christian schools is simply the right thing to do. These children, like their nondisabled peers, deserve a Christian education tailored to meet their unique needs.

References

Beechick, R. (1992). Hope for dyslexics. Homeschooling Today, 1(2), 45-49.

Clements, S.D. (1966). Minimal brain dysfunction in children: Terminology and identification. NINDB Monograph No. 3, Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare.

Hallahan, D.P., & Kauffmann, J.M. (1991). Exceptional children: Introduction to special education (5th ed.). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Lerner, J.W. (1989). Learning disabilities: Theories, diagnosis, and teaching strategies (5th ed.). Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.

Sutton, J.P. (1994). Standard curricula not enough for LD students. NATHAN News, 3(1), 9.

U.S. Department of Education, (1992). Fourteenth annual report to Congress on the implementation of individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Washington, DC: Author.

 by Joe P. Sutton. Updated October 21, 2015.

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