Special Education

How a Mindset Shift Can Help Solve Special Education Misidentification

By Isaiah Hayes — June 27, 2024 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

The misidentification of special education students is a problem for many educators, and some experts say the solution is more individualized than some may think.

In a recent ‘A Seat at the Table’ webinar, focused on proven interventions for academic success in special education, panelists agreed there are a handful of issues that contribute to the misidentification of Black and brown students as needing special education, with one being the mindsets educators have.

The number of students in special education in the United States has doubled over the past four decades, from 3.6 million in the 1976-77 school year to almost 7.3 million in 2021-22, according to the Pew Research Center.

See Also

Student standing in front of a school that's distorted, hinting at changing realities.
Nicole Xu for Education Week

When it comes to special education, students of color can be misidentified based on teacher bias, as shown in a 2020 National Center for Learning Disabilities report. Some experts say that the solution to this challenge depends on teachers’ mindset.

“Due to bias within the education system (including within assessments and academic and other policies), students of color can be misidentified as needing special education, and are then placed in more restrictive settings,” says the 2020 report.

Refining support systems and prioritizing data-driven engagement with students can help educators change their mindsets, as panelists discussed.

“When we have a mindset that every student comes to us with strengths and assets, and things to learn ... and every part of their identity is beneficial and an asset to our community, that goes a long way,” Spencer-Iiams said.

Jennifer Spencer-Iiams, an assistant superintendent of the West Linn-Wilsonville school district in Oregon, believes mindset plays an important role in developing special education services and programs for students.

Individualized support is fundamental in understanding the resources students need on a case-by-case basis, instead of generalizing students’ needs, Spencer-Iiams added. She emphasized the importance of believing in every student’s strengths to be able to develop an appropriate support system.

Tiffany Anderson, the superintendent of the Topeka, Kan. public schools said it is important to train educators on what it means for a student to require a special education curriculum. Otherwise, teachers may categorize students as needing the special education curriculum when they actually need an alternative.

“An aligned, standards-based curriculum that is culturally relevant makes a difference in ensuring that there is not an overidentification or a disproportionate number of Black or brown students labeled as special education,” Anderson said.

She also emphasized the importance of “systems of support” that include parents to help them better understand how to advocate for themselves and their children. These systems also include the necessary instruction at home for students to “work within a space [in] which they can self-regulate their behavior,” she said.

Dorothy Valentine, a teacher in Spencer-Iiam’s district, added that support systems should be demystified to better serve students, and “explicit instruction” works for general education as well.

“It’s not just a special education thing, especially in literacy and foundational skills that all students benefit from explicit instruction,” Valentine said.

She says it’s important for educators to look at the makeup of their students, given their different individual needs, and redesign instruction to meet those needs.

When Valentine noticed some of her students having literacy struggles, instead of classifying them as needing special education, she dug further into their backgrounds. Finding that many were English-language learners, she redesigned her approach to student learning.

“I probably spent the first six to eight weeks really digging into self-regulation and tools, ... and in the end, that really served my students long term, and it served them academically as well,” Valentine said.

Valentine describes her classroom as “just a classroom,” where all students are treated equally. She says that mindset helps students more than immediately classifying them as a part of the special education system.

Spencer-Iiams, West Linn’s assistant superintendent, speaks to school leaders nationally, emphasizing the importance of diverse systems that work to meet students’ needs, instead of a generalized method of special education.

“We as leaders have to make sure there are truly well-developed systems of support where we’re not [defaulting] to disability,” Spencer-Iiams said.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
School & District Management Webinar
Leadership in Education: Building Collaborative Teams and Driving Innovation
Learn strategies to build strong teams, foster innovation, & drive student success.
Content provided by Follett Learning
School & District Management K-12 Essentials Forum Principals, Lead Stronger in the New School Year
Join this free virtual event for a deep dive on the skills and motivation you need to put your best foot forward in the new year.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Privacy & Security Webinar
Navigating Modern Data Protection & Privacy in Education
Explore the modern landscape of data loss prevention in education and learn actionable strategies to protect sensitive data.
Content provided by  Symantec & Carahsoft

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Special Education Impact of Missed Special Ed. Evaluations Could Echo for Years
The onset of COVID-19 slowed special education identification. Four years later, a new study hints at the massive scale of the impact.
6 min read
Blank puzzle pieces in a bunch with a person icon tile standing alone to the side.
Liz Yap/Education Week with iStock/Getty
Special Education Who's Eligible for Special Education Services? Schools Struggle to Keep Up
Many states now require schools to offer special education services to students until they turn 22. Costs and logistics can be daunting.
9 min read
Teacher helping adult special-needs student with computer.
Special Education How to Make Gifted Programs More Equitable
Experts discussed new, equitable models for advanced education, moving away from traditional "gifted and talented" programs.
6 min read
Student in classroom who is focused and working hard.
Special Education Video Students With Disabilities 'Have Gotten Their Dignity Back' at This High School
A state partnership involving 16 schools aims to ensure that students with disabilities spend more of their time in mainstream classrooms.
3 min read