January: Special Education, Ideology and the Spaces Between

I am passionate about the role that special education plays in our society. Even as we consider that the ultimate success of special education will be when it no longer needs to exist, there are so many things that, when it is done well, speak to me in ways that other educational spaces do not. I love the fluidity of special education that allows a malleable blending of curriculum, life skills and a highly personalised dialogue with each student that allows us to understand who they are and the unique journey they are on. I love the relationships we establish with families, and I love how much special education teachers talk about teaching, which as we know is the primary way to get better as a teacher, to talk about teaching, I see this all the time in special education staff rooms as teaching strategies and students are discussed in ways that often feel like mini-hackathons.

I do though sometimes feel we don’t necessarily discuss the purpose of special education enough with each other, and what the ideologies are of what we are seeking to implement, whether in a school for a specific purpose, an integration class, a learning support team, or what have you, or, of course, importantly, with our students, their families, other educators and professionals we work with. It is important for us to open the dialogue with everybody about what we are doing with the particular flavour of special education we’re working with — say for families, what is it that they want from our special education delivery? And, I believe we have a responsibility to bounce ideas back and forth here, to challenge our own preconceptions and frames of reference, and the preconceptions of others — what could we really achieve here in partnerships, if we imagine big?

Where I particularly challenge is the idea that special education is a tool in which to help students get ready for, or quote catch up to, mainstream peers, as if there were some model mainstream student who fits within the middle of this imagined goal. I think we all know better than this — within any mainstream classroom, who is the average representative of that community? And, of course, not only if there no average representative who is without their own individual needs or their own individual journey that belongs to them and them alone, but we are discrediting the immense opportunity to bypass mainstream trajectories if we embrace the potentials of more unique ways of learning and developing.

I value the individual and the contribution of the individual to local community — I do not value global academic rankings and the trajectories of mainstream, mass collective attempts to move in direction of this. Does the majority ever have a grasp on truth, or is it always wrong until it is late to the party? We know that it is always the outliers that determine the future, so why relegate special education to a space where it is working towards averagian outcomes? Special education at its best can be enough of an outlier, can be experimental and individualised enough to inspire radical new realisations not only in the success of our students but in other educational systems. So many times we see the practices of special education adopted by the mainstream — the adoption of emotional regulation strategies, of visual timetables, of explicit social skills instruction.

I’m about to say something very biased, because I think it’s true, but as a special educator, you really do have the opportunity to build the future instead of replicating existing, normalised power structures. Be proud of this, and don’t look towards mainstream as the goal, but rather recognise that mainstream is forever needing to adopt inclusive measures to improve itself in ways that are nearly always guided by us. The same goes for mainstream society outside of schools. Students in the mainstream should be given the privilege of beta testing the sort of experimental strategies and dynamics in special education, and in some schools with reverse integration opportunities you can see this working really well. But for this to really happen well, special education practice has to be good, really good, and lead the way in thought and in practice.

Let’s consider one way we might improve our special education practice. Let’s think about the sort of terminologies and categories of description we use in special education to talk about the children and young people we work with, and to do that I want to start by describing the way that some very clever computer software works, and how we need to work in even more clever ways if we are going to do the best by our students, their families and ourselves as a profession.

There is software out there, particularly a few very impressive apps that have come out in recent years, like an app called Seeing AI, that uses machine learning and optical recognition algorithms to see something like a room, or a face, and label all the things it can recognise. For example, some accessibility apps can be scanned across a room and it will label a table, a chair, a television, a book on a table. Or the Seeing AI app I mentioned, it can scan a face and tell you the approximate age of the face, the expression of the face, and sometimes even who they are. We see this technology all the time now on social media, where apps can identify faces in a photo and tag the friends that those faces belong to.

This technology is very impressive and has some wonderful functions. But I sometimes feel that we want to observe and describe children as if we were one of these very clever machine learning apps. We observe the actions, the behaviours of a child, and we label them with the categorising tools in our brain — child, nine years old, needs relating to emotional regulation, receptive processing, sensory integration, executive functioning. If we held up an app to scan a classroom and it labeled these definitions on a child, we might initially be quite impressed, but what would our main critique of it be? Surely our critique would be that the technology can’t completely see or know everything about this child, and that the terminologies it has brought out to label the child — emotional regulation, receptive processing and so on — are estimations at best and really say very little about this human in front of us. We would say, But think of all it cannot see, of all that it is not describing, you can’t just relegate this child to a few easy categories and think that this sums up who they are and how we will support them — and yet, I feel that we do this ourselves, and the way we observe and talk about children, more than we might like to admit.

As special educators, therapists, practitioners, it might be said that we sometimes make it easy on ourselves when we talk to families, colleagues, and indeed to ourselves, through the terminologies of our profession to describe the children we work with. Theory of mind, hyperlexia. But I do sometimes wonder if we are doing our students, their families, our colleagues and ourselves a disservice by relying on describing and positioning our observations of children into these categories of definition, instead of giving air to the spaces between these terms.

I notice this most readily in transdisciplinary situations, when students are being observed or discussed by a team of therapists and educators. We immediately seek to scan the child and label them with categories of definition that will relegate them to a particular field of therapy — is the child exhibiting a behaviour that can be best understood by a speech therapist or an occupational therapist, or a psychologist perhaps, or maybe a behavioural optometrist, or a specialist in literacy or assistive technology. Is this an emotional regulation issue or a sensory issue. And while these designations of terminology and categorisation are what the science of our observations and strategies rely on, there is a real risk of doing a disservice to our students who we know are not born with these labels tattooed onto their brains and their bodies, these are not the reality or the truth of who our students are, and we do not want to simply be label identifiers like some advanced piece of optical recognition machine learning software that captures a behaviour in view and assigns it a label, like I earlier mentioned.

Consider this challenge — the next time you conduct observations and take part in a learning support team meeting, talk about (or, hopefully, with the child if they’re part of the dialogue) what you observed without using any professional or diagnostic terminologies. Consider the child in other ways — be experimental in your language and your thoughts. Don’t just replace a well worn term with another word, but instead reframe and refresh the humanity of experience you are observing. Consider the child who nowhere within or on them are any DSM categories, but rather acknowledge that they are blood and bone and muscle and electricity and magic and myriad unknown dimensions, with thoughts beyond words and behaviours beyond label. See the child in this way and think in the most human of ways, the messy, playful, experimental and uncertain ways that don’t pretend that truth can always be conjured through expertise or an understanding of certain developmental pathways, but rather it is about using more than just your professionalism, it is about recognising the spaces in between easy categorisations in order to move beyond labels. We say this all the time about not labelling children in broad ways, a child is not to be defined by this or that label, and yet on a diagnostic, observational level we still do this all the time, and there are definite ways we can move past it if we recognise what we are doing. We need to think in ways that software cannot. Instead of seeing a child and recognising a receptive processing and a social skill need, instead consider what the child is really doing. What would labelling software miss that you won’t let yourself pass over.

I’m not interested in playing philosophical word games, or denying the language and the associations we have constructed simply by romancing humanity to a space beyond categories — I am first and foremost a pragmatist, I am invested in practical outcomes. The reason I encourage observations and discussions beyond diagnostic labels is because I have seen the change in which people talk about children and the way they are able to reimagine what they’re experiencing and the true potentials in front of them.

I am not at all dogmatic about suggesting that this approach or another approach in education, or in parenting, is going to be more or less successful in helping children to learn and develop. On the contrary, everything I have seen and understood about child development is that children are extremely resilient and will become the people they are meant to be regardless of the fine print in the pedagogies or parenting styles we adopt. A child in a classroom in Oman proceeding through a version of structured teaching, a child in South Africa in an exploratory classroom free of curriculum, a child in Greenland in an inclusive mainstream setting — so long as there are caring adults who want the best for the child and are serious about doing a good job, regardless of how they go about it, I see children who grow up and flourish alongside all the random change and uncertainties that shape our lives in ways we cannot control but that time and momentum always do.