My Spec Ed Part 2 Learning

As a requirement of my Trent University Additional Qualifications course, Special Education Part 2, I will be completing ongoing reflections over the next 6 weeks. Here, I'll record my shifting thinking as I move through the course, the readings, and the online discussions with my co-learners. 

Assignment 1: Throughout a teacher’s career there will be many opportunities to reflect on personal beliefs/philosophies and to better understand current and evolving practices in education. With this in mind, think about students who have been deemed disabled and identified as exceptional. How do we as teachers, parents and society often view and conceptualize these students? Does this conceptualization make a difference to their success and to our practices? Are our current understandings based on their strengths or on their deficits? Does it matter?

In their book, Early Childhood Curricula and the De-pathologizing of Childhood, Rachel Heydon and Luigi Iannacci present an interesting argument about the pathologizing of children and childhood, especially those who are labelled as exceptional or who identify as minorities: as educators and adults, we often proscribe our (and society's) expectations onto children, thus creating an imbalance of power which identifies some as normal and some as abnormal or "other". When we deem some as abnormal or exceptional, we then expect them to change or become what is perceived to be "normal"; institutionalized education focuses on helping students who are identified to better "fit in" through accommodations. The focus on one's deficits - especially as a child in "abnormal" or "unusual" circumstances - has led to this pathologizing of certain behaviours, many of which are actually logical responses to a given set of circumstances. 

Heydon and Iannacci begin by telling the story of many educators - a story of an angry child who is later saddled with the label of "oppositional defiance disorder", even though many of his responses are logical expressions of his experiences (he has good reason to feel angry and defiant!). Many educators are frustrated by the lack of supports in schools or outside social services; we often know what supports would help a student, but they are not available. Then, when we don't provide the supports needed, we somehow wonder why students continue to act out or demonstrate unacceptable behaviours. Thus, a cycle of action continues which is entirely focused on negative behaviours; we keep on focusing on trying to change or remedy the identified deficits.

I'm intrigued by this concept of patholization and wonder how to build more on student strengths in order to assist students who are identified. For example, as a Student Success Literacy Lead in my school board, our programs focus on identifying "at-risk" students and tracking our interventions to help them graduate. Most "at-risk" students are identified or exhibit behaviours which are deemed unacceptable; in many ways, we categorize/identify them based on their needs, weaknesses, or disabilities. Student Success initiatives focus on creating programs to meet the needs of these students (sometimes outside of the "normal" school day or facility), but if we start with a deficit model, how successful can we really be? How we define success matters; this necessitates thinking more about a strength-based or asset-oriented model. 

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Assignment 2: What is pathologizing? Who is getting pathologized and why? What are the implications of pathologizing in terms of students identified as exceptional and inclusion? What are your initial understandings of an asset-oriented approach? What are the links between this approach and inclusion?
The fundamental principle of inclusive education is the valuing of diversity within the human community.... When inclusive education is fully embraced, we abandon the idea that children have to become "normal" in order to contribute to the world.... We begin to look beyond typical ways of becoming valued members of the community, and in doing so, begin to realize the achievable goal of providing all children with an authentic sense of belonging (Kunc).
Heydon and Iannacci define pathologizing as "the processes by which persons belonging to a particular group are seen by a more powerful group as abnormal" (3). In the case of students with exceptionalities (as well as those in identified "minoritized" groups, such as FNMI students, students of colour, or students who identify as LGBTI), there's a distinct sense of normal versus abnormal or "us and them" that is apparent in our schools; educators continue to struggle for full inclusion of students who are identified as "different".

An excellent example of pathologizing is the pre-occupation with boys' behaviour and achievement; the Ministry of Education continues to focus on characterizing many behaviours as problematic (when many are easily explained away by the classroom environment - when was the last time you sat in an uncomfortable chair for 75 minutes without being permitted to move?). Similarly, we see the "underachievement" of boys a particular focus of Ministry initiatives because of differing results for boys and girls on EQAO's grade 6 and 10 standardized tests. Heydon and Iannacci point out that some of the behaviours identified as problematic in the classroom are in fact desirable in some contexts, such as sports (12). 

More interesting is the argument that "disability as a social marker may be pathologized, yet disability to an individual with a disability may instead be another form of knowing and identity" (Heydon and Iannacci, 12). Many of our students live with their identification for years and by adolescence, it clearly is a part of their identity. I think this is part of the shift towards assets-based educational approaches. We need to honour the knowledge and strengths of children and adolescents as they are forming their identities, moving away from deficit-models that emphasize what disabilities an individual might possess. 

Ontario Ministry of Education initiatives (eg Learning for All; Growing Success) clearly promote the notion of inclusion, yet we continue to struggle with not only the philosophy of integration in our classrooms, but also the implementation of of differentiated instruction to meet all students' needs. The lack of specialized, trained support for students, especially when the number of students with formal identifications is increasing, is a troubling trend. According to a People for Education (P4E) study, “in Ontario elementary schools in 2014, there is an average of 37 students with special education needs per special education teacher. While this number has remained relatively stable for the last four years, it is a substantial increase from ratios pre-2010. The ratios range across the province, from a low of 26 to 1 in the GTA, to a high of 52 to 1 in Eastern Ontario.  In secondary schools, the average ratio is 74 students for every one teacher.” (Gallagher-Mackay and Kidder, 2).

Increasingly, teachers are expected to differentiate and meet the needs of all learners in their classrooms but are not always provided adequate training or support in order to do so. Secondary school "streaming" continues as not all pathways are viewed as challenging, engaging programs for students to develop their critical thinking, creativity, collaborative and communication skills. Perhaps a shift to an assets-based philosophy would support greater success for ALL students.

Assignment 3: What are at-risk discourses? What practices/processes are the result of at-risk discourses? How have at-risk discourses conceptualized/defined our understandings of disability and the service-delivery models we offer? What is ableism/an ableist perspective? What is the impact of this perspective in relation to students identified as exceptional? How can educators resist these discourses/perspectives? How can they foster “at-promise” understandings of learners with exceptionalities and enact asset-oriented practices? 

The assignation of “at-risk” as a label to children and youth, which focuses on a deficit-model (identifying people as “at-risk” of failure inherently does this) has created the pathologization of individuals based on race, ethnicity, language, class, family structure, geographic location, gender, and/or ability, whereby some are privileged (“ableist”) and those identified as “at-risk” are not (Heydon, 2008, 19). As such, children and youth are blamed for conditions over which they have no control and supports from various agencies – medical, psychological, social, etc. – are limited unless a family works within the system to receive help.  Policies and curricula are designed from a deficit-model perspective rather than through the celebration of students’ abilities as seen through “early intervention strategies” and screening for “disabilities” (25). Interestingly, Heydon argues that the criteria used to identify students as “at-risk” or that marginalizes individuals also identifies people as incapable of participating fully in society - an ableism/an ableist perspective (23 - 24). Theorists and economists, in a narrow and over-simplified view of complex issues, often focus on individual strengths and weaknesses, with a focus on how people struggle and therefore perceived as unable to contribute to society in a productive manner (or at least one which directly contributes to the province’s or country’s economy). Thus, individuals who struggle with poverty are viewed as burdens to society or people who struggle with literacy are deemed unemployable. Heydon further relates how the pathologization of identification, especially in young students has led away from the original intent of some of the programs, that is, universal supports for all students: “Although few would dispute that social supports should be inclusive, what is disquieting is the omission of the discussion of privilege, particularly the privilege to which middle-class children are born” (28).

Interesting, Heydon’s research also posits that a different view is possible – one that accepts individual differences and focuses on the potential of individuals in their capacity to contribute to society: “at-promise” thinking. Strategic planning for supports is narrowly defined by Heydon to focus on the promise of students: “being strategic means knowing what one wants to accomplish and what or whom one is working against, and then developing in place a way of proceeding” (29). Heydon argues that we need to deconstruct our approach to better identify why and how support will be provided with a focus on individual potential and promise. 

“When we make decisions for children, when we structure their curricula, when we construct policy that affects their lives, we must fight the urge to colonize them, to see them as empty or deficient, or without knowledge. Rather, we must respect where they have come from, listen to them, and attempt to develop strategies for establishing their rights in terms that protect their personhood and recognize their knowledge.” (Heydon 30).

Assignment 4: Thinking About Pathologization - Consider the case of Craig from the Heydon and Iannacci text who was identified with a behaviour exceptionality. How was he pathologized? How was this pathologization inadequate in addressing his needs and circumstances? What is an ethical pedagogical praxis as it relates to special education? What is your reaction to Craig’s case? What might you do if you were faced with a similar situation as his teacher?

Craig was born into a situation from which our current education system will make it difficult to escape. The cycle of poverty, violence, and lack of opportunities are almost reinforced by the system with the identification of his anti-social behaviour as oppositional defiance disorder, a general learning disability, and depression. The IPRC process pathologized and framed almost all identifiers of Craig as problematic: “high impulsivity, attention difficulties, significant academic delays, born to an adolescent mother, a single-parent household with minimal resources, a physically abusive father, onset of difficulties at infancy, and male gender” (Heydon, 2008 p84-85). Soon after identification, the best option for treatment appeared to be the removal of Craig from his home for intensive, residential treatment far from his community and home. From the beginning of her pregnancy, Craig’s mother Sarah, lacked support from either her family or an institutions; even when she sought help, it was either difficult to come by or unavailable altogether (88). Approaches to helping Craig seemed to exacerbate problems, likely by focusing on his weaknesses and challenges rather than his desire to have a friend and participate in activities with others.

Heydon posits a praxis – based on her “lived experience as a special education teacher” – that follows a 5 step, “do no harm” ethic in the actions taken by an educator to help students like Craig (90):

“it juxtaposes a variety of theories and practices; deconstructs the general, special education duality while challenging functionalist approaches to behavioural differences on several fronts; understands its historical context; has a decisive anti-sexist, anti-racist, and anti-classist mandate that constructs the teacher as an action-oriented educational worker who strives to alleviate others’ suffering; and attempts not to replace one authoritarian discourse with another.” (Heydon 2008, 90)

I struggle to answer the question, “what would you do?” in this situation. I know that I’d be overwhelmed and would seek a team approach for assistance. Our system is set up so that Craig’s case would go to the IST, then the CST, which would include (hopefully! and after long wait times) board experts (psychologist, social workers, community supports). In my system, the same outcome (the institutionalization of Craig) would likely occur. I’d like to think that there, he’d receive appropriate support, but…

I’ve met a student with similar needs and was overwhelmed (and also physically attacked by the student when he was in grade 9).  Much of the story of R. is the same as Craig, but the key difference was that my student had 4 siblings, all of whom had been identified with learning disabilities or as “at-risk” in multiple ways. And, interestingly, his case is shockingly similar – including the involvement of social services (including removal – and return, and removal - of the children from the home) and ultimately, the institutionalization, although this was a short term stay for R. This student has bounced around our system and continues to attend school, but is extremely credit poor (he’s 16 and still has only a handful of credits). As near as I can tell, he’ll continue to bounce around our system’s programs, until he might accumulate enough credits to graduate, mostly through co-op options whereby he’ll hopefully learn some workplace skills (although he’s already been “fired” from multiple co-ops). Our teams have spent much time trying to support this family in order to set up the children for success, but the systemic barriers that Heydon writes about are also similar to the barriers in our system.  Despite the best efforts of our staff, we all worry that the family will continue in the vicious cycle of poverty, violence, low education... 


Assignment 5: Can students with Autism be effectively educated in an inclusive and differentiated general classroom? What supports are currently available? What other supports are needed? What are some issues surrounding the implementation of PPM 140 and the use of ABA in schools? What are some of the political and pedagogical issues surrounding these changes? Some universities are now offering a Special Education Additional Qualification in Autism. Should this be a requirement for all teachers of ASD programs? Please feel free to discuss other issues related to Autism education.

I recall our earlier discussions around goals of integration in Ontario schools and the legal and ethical  nuances; I think that the treatments for Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) challenge many beliefs about integration. Almost everyone is in agreement that for students with severe ASD, highly trained and skilled staff are required to successfully integrate programs which might include strategies related to Metacognition, Assistive/Adaptive Technology, and Picture scheduling (Picture Exchange Communication System). In most cases, students with severe ASD would need to be in a classroom that didn’t have a lot of external stimuli (such as many other students) in order to work on their highly individualized program. “Some autism treatment programs require more than 40 hours per week of one-on-one work between a child and a trained therapist--which can cost between $40,000 and $80,000 per year--and many school districts argue that such expensive services are not necessary for a child's education, let alone affordable” (Winerman, 2004). In order to support students with such severe communication and social challenges, it seems prudent (although not cost-effective!) to run specialized programs. If our school systems want to help integrate students with ASD into their school culture and later society, then early, extensive interventions are necessary.

I think it’s a great idea to have university programs which would better train teachers in Special Education for students with ASD; certainly the prevalence of students on the spectrum necessitates that we have more teachers better able to support students (and staff). Additionally, it’s noted by psychologists that “children should receive ABA therapy both at home and in school, where they can learn skills in a more natural setting and with more exposure to social situations” (Winerman, 2004). The problem, of course, is that this is an expensive proposal. However, if more funding was spent up front to train teachers in college or university certified programs specific to the disorder, school systems would be better able to allocate funding for this specialized training of teachers. Our Ministry of Education could do much more to encourage staff to become highly trained as well – consider, for example the funds to support elementary teachers to take Math AQ courses.

All that said, it’s important to remember that not all students “on the spectrum” need to be withdrawn from classes; many of us have taught students who have ASD and we’re able to accommodate and/or modify programs accordingly. In fact, there are a number of students with ASD who I’ve felt responded much better than others (notably students with LD) to the use of assistive technologies or routines; for students with milder forms of ASD, for example, very little withdrawal to the resource room may be needed. Although, it may be that my experience with secondary students is different as these students often have developed working strategies and routines by the time they get to high school.

Assignment 6: What have you learned about enacting de-pathologizing practice? How will this impact your practice as a teacher of students identified as exceptional?

In Ch. 3 of the Heydon and Iannacci text, we were provided with a concrete example of a school struggling with pathologized programming. The school board used a very narrow set of criteria (e.g. a biomedical approach) to identify that the students (and families) of Elmwood P.S. were deficit in literacy skills, not really taking their social-emotional context (the upheaval from one school to another with no planning) or cultural contexts (such as the multitude of cultural perspectives represented in their very diverse population). “The biomedical approach favours the physical and cognitive to the extent that other factors that influence literacy practices are absent or marginalized (Heydon and Iannacci, 44).  Narrowing the definition of literacy to the exclusion of the importance of an emotional or cultural response (what is frequently today called reader response theory) meant that many of the students did not progress at the specified, “normal” rate, to the extent that large swaths of the population were deemed to be necessary for testing.

It is clear that the school didn’t really use an approach that would differentiate to meet students’ needs (after the needs had been determined by a culturally relevant and respectful diagnostic assessment). As stated in the module resources [and in Growing Success, as well as Equity and Inclusive Education in Ontario Schools: Guidelines for Policy Development and Implementation (2014)], “assessment methods should be suited to the backgrounds and experiences of the students”, ensuring that educators do not privilege some perspectives over others, and that “interpretations of assessment results should take account of the backgrounds and learning experiences of the students” (module 5 notes). students of Elmwood needed an approach which would be multi-faceted and take into account their social-emotional as well as cultural needs. Literacy needs to be viewed as a continuum, for children cannot be expected to reach “norms” at specified times and ages given their different perspectives and needs; supports need to be provided when appropriate, when necessary, and based on specific student needs (not whole school or cohort approaches).

“…[W]e do not blame individual teachers for the processes of pathologizing, but recognize that all educators, as citizens of the miniority world, are implicated in a web of deficit-driven discourses and curricula that pathologize children and can rob people of their sense of agency; being blinded by dominant ways of doing and being is what makes hegemony hegemony.” (Heydon and Iannacci, 161). 

Offering an alternative perspective, Heydon and Iannacci suggest that educators can focus on an asset-based model, one in which educators – using their professional and ethical judgement – are able to challenge  normative thinking and pathologizing in order to best meet individual student needs (which may be in conflict with the prescriptive, top-down version of curriculum expectations).Teachers are to ask questions to understand students’ assets:  “Who are my students?, What resources do they possess? Are these resources being accessed or ignored in lieu of experiences that may render them deficient?” (Heydon and Iannacci, 167).  Further, they argue for an “adhocracy” in which children, families and educators collaborate to establish goals and values for students’ education (Heydon and Iannacci, 170).

Interestingly, current approaches to curriculum include inquiry-based learning or problem-based learning – which are based on student interest to drive learning and are gaining momentum in schools and, more importantly, are entrenched in the new play-based Kindergarten curriculum as well as the Social Studies (gr. 1-8), Canadian & World Studies (gr. 9-12) and Social Sciences & Humanities (gr. 9-12) curriculum documents. Ontario curriculum and supporting documents (see especially, the Adolescent Literacy Guide, Growing Success, etc.) are changing to better focus on meeting individual student needs. Of course, getting teacher practice to change is another matter; educators must continue to challenge the practices which pathologize children.

As the previous Minister of Education, Kathleen Wynne wrote in the policy document,  Realizing the Promise of Diversity: Ontario’s Equity and Inclusive Education Strategy (2009), of the promise of an excellent education for ALL students in our publicly funded system:

“Embracing diversity and moving beyond tolerance to acceptance and respect will help us reach our goal of making Ontario’s education system the most inclusive in the world. We believe – and research confirms – that students who feel welcome and accepted in their schools are more likely to succeed academically. We believe that everyone in our publicly funded education system – regardless of background or personal circumstances – must be welcomed and accepted, and thereby enabled to reach their highest potential.” (pg. 2) 

Using an asset-based approach which celebrates the diversity of our students, this vision of education is attainable. 


Hutchinson, N. (2009). Inclusion of Exceptional Learners In Canadian Schools: A Practical Handbook For Teachers. Fourth Edition. Toronto, ON: Pearson Education Canada Inc.

Gallagher-Mackay, Kelly and Annie Kidder (2014). Special Education: A People for Education Report. Retrieved Feb. 14, 2015, from 

Kunc, Norman. (1992). The Need to Belong: Rediscovering Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

Heydon, R.M. & Iannacci, L. (2009). Early Childhood Curricula and the De-pathologizing of Childhood. (Paperback) Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press.

WINERMAN, L.  (Dec. 2004). “Effective education for autism: Psychologists are working to help struggling schools--faced with limited budgets and increasing enrollment--educate children with autism.” Monitor on Psychology. American Psychology Association: December 2004, Vol 35, No. 11, p. 46.

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