This makes for rather dry blogging, but it’s worth posting to give a clearer idea of the research I’ll be doing in Kolkata. There’s some good background on the state of special education in the US, too.
The objective of my research is to understand the best practices for dealing with the social stigmas attached to special education. I will do this by studying the ways in which students with special needs are served by their school and perceived by their classmates at the Loreto Sealdah School in Kolkata, India.
Much research in special education has been focused on the influence of inclusionary classrooms on the academic achievement of young elementary/primary school students. Some studies have examined special education in high schools, but varying teaching methods between academic disciplines make consistent data collection a challenge. Not much recent research has covered the social effects of inclusionary special education practices specifically at the middle school level.
Research has shown that students with special needs are not readily accepted by their non-special needs peers, and two assumptions have been tested to determine the cause of the limited level of acceptance that mainstreamed students with special needs encounter. A 1990 study (Wiener, Harris, & Shirer) found that American students with learning disabilities are consistently less accepted by their peers without learning disabilities, largely as a result of being labeled as having “special needs”. A 1995 study (Conderman) of American sixth- and seventh-grade students with learning disabilities came to similar conclusions about peer acceptance. However, both of these studies are over 15 years old. A more recent study (Bakker & Bosman, 2003) of self-image and peer acceptance of Dutch students in special education found that when compared to low-achieving students who had not been designated as having special learning needs, students with special needs had greater self-confidence and were more readily accepted by their peers. Bakker and Bosman asserted that this was because the Special Education students receive an adaptive form of education that limits their chances of failure, also in the eyes of their peers. This study, unlike the older American studies, examined academic achievement levels as a potential cause of peer exclusion and non-acceptance of students with special needs.
Much of the debate around inclusionary practices and “mainstreaming” students with special needs has centered on these questions of peer acceptance and social integration. Internationally, many countries have completely done away with special education programs and opted instead for completely mainstreamed schools in attempt to avoid discriminating against students with special needs. India’s 1995 Persons with Disabilities Act provides equal opportunities, protects rights, and promotes societal participation for those with special needs. In 2005, Minister of Education Tharman Shanmugaratnam established a plan for inclusive education for students with special needs.
How do Loreto Sealdah students with special learning needs relate to their peers and classmates who do not receive special assistance at school? Additionally, how do the non-special needs students perceive the students with special needs?
In order to answer these questions, I’ll need to examine a few other areas as well. How does Loreto Sealdah define “special needs”? What quantitative data and/or qualitative characteristics are used in determining “special needs” status at Loreto Sealdah? How does Loreto Sealdah account for the poverty that up to half of the Day School population faces when evaluating the special and different learning needs of students? What type of assistance/support does the population of students with special needs receive? Are the students with special needs isolated in separate remedial classes, are they pulled out of their base classes for extra assistance, or do resource teachers come to the students’ classes to provide aid in the base class environment? Is “special needs status” designated in such a way that could isolate students from their non-special needs peers? How do classroom teachers’ interactions differ between students with special needs and students without need of extra support? Do Loreto Sealdah teachers and staff members see social stigma as a significant obstacle for students with special needs to overcome?
I will be conducting my research at the Loreto Sealdah School, a Catholic girls’ school in Kolkata. The day school has approximately 1,400 students. Sr. Cyril Mooney, the school’s administrator, developed a program in 1979 that cut in half the number of traditional, fee-paying students from middle-class families. The other half of the student population consists of poor children who attend school free of charge. Sr. Cyril also developed the Rainbow School in 1985, which turned the covered roof of Loreto Sealdah into a night shelter for 250 girls who live on the street. The Rainbow program provides these girls with a safe place to eat, wash and sleep. If the Rainbow children choose to stay at Loreto Sealdah during the day, the students in the traditional day school tutor the Rainbow children as part of Loreto Sealdah’s service-oriented curriculum.
I will use middle school students (grades six through eight) as the subjects of my research. I plan to focus on this population because adolescents tend to be quite sensitive to categories of difference and patterns of inclusion.
Research Design and Methods
I will be able to successfully answer my two main research questions by gathering information from three areas.
1. Defining Special Needs—I must understand what Loreto Sealdah’s definition of “special needs” entails before I can target a research population of students with special needs. I will do this by interviewing administrators and teachers and learning about the metrics that Loreto Sealdah uses to determine which students are in need of extra support.
2. Providing Special Assistance—Before I can examine the interactions between students with special needs and students without special needs, I will need to observe the ways that the school supports students with special needs. Depending on the model that Loreto Sealdah follows, students with special needs could be completely isolated from non-special needs peers or completely immersed in general classrooms; in another case, the students with special needs could split their school time between academic support situations and regular classroom time. The amount of time that special and non-special students spend together will be an important factor to consider in my research of peer acceptance.
3. Examining Student Interaction—Once I have established a population of students with special needs and determined the ways in which they receive assistance, I can then survey students. I will have one general survey for all of the students in my population (grades six through eight, approximately ages 11-14). I will survey students with special needs as well as students without special needs and ask questions about feelings of social inclusion and exclusion, belonging to a group, having friends who are different, etc.
Significance of Research
This study of social interaction and acceptance between students with special needs and their non-special needs peers will shine a light on the effectiveness of inclusion-based special education. Knowledge of the existing barriers to social inclusion and acceptance that students (especially adolescents) with special needs encounter is necessary and essential for all people who are advocates for students with special needs. In order to fully understand the issues surrounding special education and inclusionary practices in the United States, it is helpful to understand the barriers that other countries and education systems are facing. After comparing issues, noting similarities and learning from the areas where India has had success in implementing inclusionary special education, I hope that I will be able to use my findings to further the cause of American special education in the “least restrictive environment” that the 1977 PL 94-142 (a predecessor to the 1990 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) mandates.
I intend to present my research findings at the Undergraduate Scholars Conference at the University of Notre Dame and to submit my prepared report to the Journal of Undergraduate Research. I plan on entering the field of educational policy upon graduation from Notre Dame. I will be able to use my experience at Loreto Sealdah to be an advocate for learners with special needs in the US. Because I understand that social stigma attached to special education is one of the biggest barriers to effectiveness, by examining special education in a different culture, I will learn about best practices and bring a fresh perspective to similar problems in the US.