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Bias Issues in the Special Education Classroom

Instructor: Clio Stearns

Clio has taught education courses at the college level and has a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction.

One of the biggest challenges for teachers is bias. This lesson explores common biases based on abilities, race, class, and gender and sexuality, as well as strategies for overcoming bias and discrimination.

What Is Bias?

Relationships in education are crucial. Perhaps particularly in the special education classroom, where students and families can feel particularly vulnerable and misunderstood, it is necessary for teachers to confront internalized biases that might prevent effective work with students and families. A bias is a belief, often unconscious or semi-conscious, that favors one group over another. Though it can be extremely uncomfortable to confront our own biases, it is only by admitting to them that we can prevent discrimination, or unfair acting out based on internalized biases. Teachers who are unable to admit to their own biases might treat students and families unfairly, and this, of course, hinders students' development and families' trust in schools. Now let's look at some of the most common forms of bias and why they are especially relevant in special education.

Abilities

Though it may seem counter-intuitive, bias with regard to abilities is actually quite common in special education. We might feel like some disabilities are somehow better than others. Children on the autistic spectrum, for instance, are often seen as difficult and unpleasant, whereas children with Down Syndrome are seen as sweet and loving. These biases can actually negatively affect all students since they prevent students from being seen as individuals. As teachers, we are often tempted to favor students who seem somehow more teachable. It is natural to have these feelings, but acknowledging them can help us step back and start from square one by getting to know students as whole people rather than representatives of particular disabilities.

Ask yourself what assumptions you make when you first encounter a student or group of students. What biases might be hidden in these assumptions?
test your bias

Race

Racism can be particularly difficult to talk about, but it comes into play intensely in special education. Across the country, students of color are far more likely to be labeled as having behavior problems and learning disabilities. These students are also more likely to be considered oppositional and channeled directly into remedial programs or strict behavioral models. Statistics show that students of color are more likely to be targeted for minor offenses in school. So are those who have learning disabilities, come from lower socioeconomic classes and have histories of abuse and neglect. In special education, it is crucial to confront racism. Are we labeling students because of their race or because they are in need of help? Are we helping, or are we punishing? Talking openly about race and racial bias with students, families, and colleagues is one of the best tools we have for fighting racism.

Class

Like race, socioeconomic status can be a huge source of bias in special education. As teachers, we might be more inclined to look favorably on families who are very involved in their students' programming, but it is important to remember that these are often the families with the most time and resources. We might be biased against families who seem not to care about their children but actually simply lack for the material wealth they need in order to buy books, engage lawyers for advocacy, and secure ancillary services for speech therapy, occupational therapy, and other assistance that may or may not be provided by schools in a timely manner.

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