“Girls, it’s time to do your math homework. Come sit down at the table.” I called out to my kids like I had done so many afternoons and started putting out the paperwork.
“No!” I heard from a far corner of the living room. “My friend says homework is stupid. Math is stupid.”
That got my attention. My 6-year-olds argued with me about a lot of things, but homework had always been non-negotiable. Plus, they usually loved math.
I crossed the dining room to see one twin with her arms crossed on the couch, and the other frozen in motion, halfway across the room, hesitant now to follow my instructions since her sister was taking a stand.
I told my sitting daughter that regardless of what her friend said, math was something we had to do, and if she wanted to play outside later, she’d better do it now. She did it. But later, she admitted something to me. The girl who said those things wasn’t actually her friend, but her class partner. And she spit at my daughter and threw things at her and kicked at her with her feet under the desk.
The next morning, I spoke with the teacher. She shifted from foot to foot and looked over my shoulder when she said, “I’m so sorry. She’s having a lot of trouble at home, and she also has special needs, including learning disabilities,” she told me. She sat her next to my daughter “so that she might have a role model to look up to, someone to help guide her a little bit.”
A million thoughts raced across my mind all at once. First, that poor girl. Was there anything we could do to help? Second, my poor girl. Is it fair to ask a 6-year-old to be responsible for another child, even in the slightest of capacities?
Ellen Mandinach, senior research scientist at WestEd, said this responsibility is falling to the children because the idea of mainstreaming those with special needs was implemented without necessary base changes in teacher training and classroom format.
“The unfortunate thing is most teachers are dealing with a classroom of 20 to 30 kids, and the disruptive kids are the ones who are gong to get the attention,” Mandinach said. “The teachers only have so much attention to give, and if they’re in a regular classroom, they’re not going to have the appropriate training to handle behavioral issues. There are supposed to be administrators and specialists to help the teachers try to figure out situations, but in reality those are lacking.”
Mainstreaming is the integration of students of similar ages who had been separated up until the early 1990s into regular classrooms and special education classrooms. According to Sherri McCarthy, a professor of educational psychology at Northern Arizona State University, the idea behind it was to have teachers trained in both regular and special education, and to have two educators per classroom so that everyone would be able to stay on task.
“In reality, what has happened is that mainstreaming has been interpreted as putting all the kids in the same classrooms, but we don’t have the resources to put another teacher in there,” McCarthy said. “Now we just have a mix of kids with different needs.”
Mainstreaming is meant to help children of all types learn how to work with others in a diverse population, said Mandinach. “My experience is that it is best to mainstream kids so that they’re not feeling ostracized or different, and try to have them exist together as best as possible,” she said. “After all, when they get out of school, they’ll be in society at large, and they’ll have to know how to collaborate. It’s not just how they play with other children, but how they can then function within society.”
McCarthy had been a huge supporter of mainstreaming education when the movement came into fashion 15 years ago, but she said the follow-through on the policies has been lacking and has thus put more strain on the very system the policies were meant to relieve.
“Right now, kids are getting hurt on both sides, at least as much as they were in the old system,” she said. “Many kids are still being ostracized in a way, because they’re integrated, but not well. They’re still seen as different, only now they’re face to face with their peers all the time.”
I had the option of moving my daughter’s seat, but it was the middle of the year, which means others before me had done that. How many times before that girl started to feel alone or unlikable? We may have gotten rid of the segregated special education classes of the 1980s and 90s, but we hadn’t yet gotten rid of the stigma attached to specialized learning. And along with that stigma comes the issue of different demographics facing different odds within our school systems.
“Parents who are more educated or more alert to their children’s needs tend to be more vocal advocates,” Mandinach said. “And so this becomes a haves-versus-have-nots situation. Those parents who are less informed, or working full-time, need to find other advocates for their child. Now you’ve got cultural and ethnic issues being played out in the classroom, as it’s been shown that there are certain demographics who are prone to benefiting more from special education programs.”
I decided to keep my daughter where she was and dealt with whatever behavioral upheaval it caused us on a case-by-case basis. McCarthy said the only way to avoid these issues would be to change the entire school model. Mainstreaming right now, she said, is an attempt to fit a new system into an old model. And it’s not working.
Moving forward, she advocates a return to the one-school-room model of old. She said through putting children of various ages together—in sets of first through third and fourth through sixth grades—where children could move forward as quickly or slowly as they needed, teachers could truly utilize the peer-tutoring method. “Children would learn the material, then practice applying it by showing their classmates how to do it,” she said.
McCarthy’s ideal features classrooms of 30 students of various ages and strengths, with two teachers available at all times. This way, she said, students wouldn’t be forced into a curriculum meant for a certain age. When they are ready to move on to the next level of learning, they would do so fluidly, without any pomp or circumstance.
Without this system, she said mainstreaming is “a system working against itself.”
“Right now, instead of using the technology we have for this cross-aged model, we are preventing its implementation with this leftover habit of age-based learning,” McCarthy said. “What we want is for kids to move at their own pace, but not in a way that stigmatizes them or holds others back.”
Still, without the money to back this change up, school classrooms are apt to remain the same for the next number of years. And so I’ll take comfort in the knowledge that my children are privileged enough to be able to concentrate on school while there—that they’re not hungry or scared or worried about more important life basics—and allow them to lend that stability to any child who may need it, however imperfect that stability actually is.
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