Clio has taught education courses at the college level and has a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction.
What Are Special Populations?
As educators, we know that children must be viewed as individuals and not as representatives of a particular group. At the same time, it's important to remember that some students belong to groups that might put them at an educational or social disadvantage. These students often need a different kind of attention from teachers.
Special populations are groups of people with needs that require special consideration and attention in an educational setting. Students can belong to more than one special population at a time. While no two students will ever have identical needs, awareness of the special populations in education will help you understand the challenges your students may be facing and develop ways of meeting them.
Students With Disabilities
Students with disabilities have historically been maltreated and undervalued by the educational establishment. Disability is complex to define but generally refers to a mismatch between the cognitive ability, developmental pace, or learning style of the students and the expectations of the outside world. Students with disabilities include:
- Students with behavioral and emotional disturbances
- Students with learning disabilities
- Students with developmental delays or differences
- Students with intellectual disabilities
- Students with physical disabilities
Many students with disabilities have IEPs, or individualized education plans, that detail educational goals and accommodations specific to the students' abilities, and it is the responsibility of teachers and school administrators to see that the mandates in these plans are met. Teachers must be prepared to address the social and emotional challenges students with disabilities face in the school setting.
Students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds may struggle in school for a number of reasons. If students do not have enough to eat at home, adequate access to clothing, or consistent shelter, their ability to perform in school will be compromised. Additionally, children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds tend to be exposed to fewer words and literacy experiences, such as bedtime reading, than wealthier children. Also, the continual economic stress often takes a great psychological toll on a family, and this, in turn, can negatively impact students' emotional health.
It's the responsibility of the school to close these gaps between children of different backgrounds. Many schools provide wraparound services that help meet the needs of struggling families, including healthcare, clothing and food, and childcare for after school hours. A teacher can make a huge difference in a student's life by connecting the family with available resources.
English Language Learners
Students who are learning English, sometimes called English language learners (ELL), contribute a great deal to the classroom environment, including cultural and linguistic diversity. However, they might struggle with language and literacy-based tasks even after they have acquired conversational English, and if their language needs are overlooked, their academic progress can fall behind that of their peers. English language learners sometimes receive extra support outside of the classroom.
Teachers should be aware that families of ELL students might have limited or no English skills and, therefore, be reluctant to interact with the school without assistance. It is the responsibility of the classroom teacher to work with ELL students to make sure they understand material and that appropriate communication continues between the school and family.
Racial & Ethnic Minorities
In many schools, students who are racial and ethnic minorities are also considered special populations. This can be a confusing concept because it is not always easy to disentangle race and ethnicity from socioeconomics. Many schools work to separate test scores by race so that teachers can understand which students are not being appropriately supported by the school. Teachers also need to pay attention to experiences students have had with racism and other forms of discrimination that might be impacting their learning.
Special populations are groups of people whose needs have not historically been appropriately met in the school setting. Teachers should pay particular attention to how they are helping students from these groups. In particular, students with disabilities, students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, English language learners, and racial and ethnic minorities deserve extra focus from the educational establishment.
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