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Teacher to teacher: How we can break down barriers between general and special education

By Kareem Neal, MA

Understood's resources for educators are backed by research, vetted by experts, and reviewed by classroom teachers.

Understood's resources for educators are backed by research, vetted by experts, and reviewed by classroom teachers.

I’ve taught special education in a self-contained classroom for the past 22 years. Over the years, I’ve often worried about how other students and teachers view my students. 

I’ve seen my students call their peers who are typical learners “friends.” But those peers seemed to look at my students with pity. 

I’ve heard colleagues say things like, “I could never do what you do. I’d feel too bad for them.” Sometimes, other teachers would invite my students to their classrooms for games or movies. But it was not the best way to help everyone understand the stigmas and stereotypes my students face. 

I knew that if everyone in the school saw my students learn and interact, perceptions would change. 

Learning with my students 

I began reaching out to teachers, asking them to bring their students to my class. I explained that I didn’t want their students to “help” my students. Instead, I wanted their students to learn with mine. A few teachers took me up on this idea and we gave it a go. 

Sure enough, now many of the teachers I collaborate with have changed the way they see and talk about my students. Most importantly, their students are now engaging with my students in typical peer relationships. My students who learn and think differently are being seen in a more positive way.

This mindset shift is also going beyond our classroom walls. We’re noticing that the more our students interact with each other in the classroom, the more willing they are to interact with peers outside of their social groups. 

So far, I’ve learned a lot from this work of breaking down the invisible barrier between general and special education. Here are three pieces of advice I have on changing mindsets to build a healthy school community: 

  1. Make sure students who learn and think differently have opportunities to see and be seen. Encourage your colleagues to open up their learning spaces to all students. Talk to other teachers and figure out times when collaborating makes sense for your lessons and students. Make sure to plan learning opportunities in both sets of classrooms.

  2. Create meaningful collaborations that benefit both sets of students. It takes more than exposure to others to change mindsets. When planning opportunities between classes, make sure each student will be an active participant. Students should not just observe or “help” other students. All students should have learning objectives for the lesson of the classroom they’re in. Modify the objectives when appropriate.

  3. Value strengths over needs. If we focus on the gaps students have in their learning as opposed to where they excel, we keep the divide present and pervasive. Instead, let’s celebrate and build off of the strengths of every student.

A school community isn’t going to reach its full potential until all of its members feel like they’re important. We need to ensure that we’re not leaving students out. 

Teachers, we’re on the front lines of making this happen. There are so many wonderful things going on in all classrooms. Let’s make sure that we don’t deprive anyone of these learning opportunities. 


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  • Coming soonGoogle Classroom