The role of special education teachers continues to grow

Lauren Banbury works with first graders at Kaneland McDole Elementary School in Montgomery.

Today’s teachers need a variety of strategies and teaching methods to accommodate the growing number of children who require special education and related services.

Lauren Banbury works with first graders at Kaneland McDole Elementary School in Montgomery.

In 2019-20, 7.3 million students, or 14% of all public school children ages 3 to 21, received special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics. Of those receiving special education services, the most common category (33%) was for learning disabilities.

The ability and willingness to adapt to change, especially after the past two years of the pandemic, has been crucial to educators and students. Technology has helped.

“Teachers today have more tools to effectively educate students with disabilities,” said Bill Roseland, executive director for the Southern Will County Special Education Cooperative in Joliet. “Today’s teachers utilize technology into their daily lessons and even into student homework. Most districts have invested in technology and training for staff and students.”

Teachers have also adapted to the new classroom.

“Teachers throughout the cooperative have adapted their instruction due to the many needs of children with special needs, especially our youngest students,” said Laurie A. Fane, executive director of the Bi-County Special Education Cooperative in Sterling. “Many young students were instructed remotely for two years and just entered a public school building this fall. Teachers have shown unbelievable patience and drive to meet the many emotional needs of students in our community.”

Kimberly Dahlem, assistant superintendent of student services and special education for Crystal Lake-based Community High School District 155, said providing additional support to special education students today is vital.

“Teachers are implementing additional social-emotional support within the classroom and partnering closely with related service personnel,” she said. “Being mindful of how our students are processing their own needs is key. We meet them where they are educationally and social-emotionally.”

Dahlem’s district, which has experienced an increase in case study evaluations, features a full continuum of programming. Its highly qualified personnel assist with increased needs while strong community partnerships have created a linkage for students and families outside of the school setting.

Supporting 11 school districts in Whiteside and Carroll counties, the Bi-County Special Education Cooperative also continues to see the number of children with special needs increase.

“The number of special education students is growing daily,” Fare said. “And the support they need for instruction is intensifying.”

Roseland noted the overall number of children with special needs being served remains stable where he’s at in Joliet although there’s been a noticeable increase in the number of children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.

While the overall percentages have remained relatively stable, students with certain disability types such as emotional disabilities have presented much more intense needs more recently,” he said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 44 children in the U.S. was diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder per its most recent data in 2018. Boys are more than four times more likely to be diagnosed with autism than girls with 1 in 27 boys identified with autism and 1 in 116 girls.

One of the most successful tools being incorporated into special education today is a collaborative approach to instruct that involves more than one teacher. This co-teaching method generally brings together a general education teacher along with a special education teacher. They work in tandem to plan and implement instruction for students with disabilities.

“I think one of the most beneficial changes in special education is co-teaching,” said Lauren Banbury, a special education teacher at Kaneland McDole Elementary School in Montgomery. “Through co-teaching, more students are being serviced in their least restrictive environment. Through this model, I have been able to provide genuine functional support that is more meaningful in a large group setting.”

Banbury acknowledged that her approach changes for each of her students as she believes in seeing the whole child.

“When I look at each student, I want them to be confident and courageous in their learning, so I incorporate their interests, strengths and learning preferences while working on difficult skills,” she said. “It makes learning less scary and reduces students shutting down.”

It’s a different approach than when Banbury first started teaching in special education.

“My first couple years as a special education teacher, I believed that my students would only learn through direct instruction in a small group,” she said. “Now, I give my students the power to choose how they learn best. While I still provide direct instruction, I give my students more choice.”

Requiring her students to track their data with her has made her students more goal-oriented.

“They decided how they want to spell their words: shaving cream, pop-it, whiteboard, stamps, or where they learn best: small group, whole group, in an alternative setting,” she said. “Now I make it a conscious effort for my students to advocate for their learning while guiding them to make good choices.”

Jason Toth received his introduction in special education while teaching at Rotolo Middle School in Batavia for a half year before moving on to Batavia High School, where he’s spent the past four years.

“From my perspective teachers are becoming more flexible and patient serving children with disabilities,” he said. “The number of students with disabilities is increasing and the district is serving the needs for these kids by providing a variety of staff support through a high number of teachers, social workers and psychologists. The curriculum is also designed to meet the needs of students with disabilities.

Districts continue to invest in additional staffing and training despite the fiscal challenges presented, understanding how significant this need is for their students.

“The current teacher shortage makes this a daunting challenge for many districts,” Roseland said. “Beyond investing in their own staff, districts increasingly utilize out-of-district programming such as special education cooperatives to serve their neediest students.”

Fane acknowledged that many districts are providing increased professional development to help deal with special education students who show trauma experience due to the pandemic.

“Districts are providing more collaboration for teacher teams to brainstorm ideas for instruction,” she said. “As a cooperative, we are trying to provide incentives to help with morale and keep everyone’s spirits up with weekly drawings for various gift cards.”