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The regular education initiative: patent medicine for behavioral disorders.

The Regular Education Initiative: Patent Medicine for Behavioral Disorders

We are concerned about the reduction of special education services for behaviorally disordered (BD) students which may result from the movement known as the regular education initiative (REI). The REI emanated from statements of leaders in the U.S. Department of Education (e.g., Will, 1984, 1986a, 1986b), as well as assertions of special educators. The crux of this movement is integration of regular and special education to better and more economically serve all students. Will stated that the initiative is a "commitment . . . [to] serve as many children as possible in the regular classroom by encouraging a partnership with regular education" (Will, 1986a, p. 20). Throughout this article "behaviorally disordered" is used to refer to students categorized as "seriously emotionally disturbed" in federal regulations.)

Earlier, Will (1984) identified barriers to integrating handicapped students into general education programs and listed her views of the shortcomings of current special education: A large group of children characterized as "slow learners," "environmentally disadvantaged," or otherwise having learning and behavior problems are not benefitting maximally from education; learning disabled (LD) students are notoriously overidentified; research demonstrates little difference between instruction in general education and special education; special education is inherently unequal to general education, and therefore discriminatory. Will contended that a variety of models demonstrate that handicapped children can be served effectively without removng them from the educational mainstream.

Stainback and Stainback (1984, 1987) asserted that two distinct types of students--normal and handicapped--do not exist. They argued that arbitrary distinctions between children are based on inadequate, unreliable criteria and that research has failed to identify distinctive instructional methods for special populations. The Stainbacks characterized the current system as unnecessary, expensive, duplicative, and as fostering competition rather than cooperation. The current dual system, according to the Stainbacks, reduces curricular options and opportunities for all students while restricting handicapped youngsters' access to regular classes.

Calls for reform have ranged from proposals to develop a closer alliance with general education (e.g., Reynolds, Wang, & Walberg, 1987) to proposals to totally dismantle special education services (e.g., Gartner & Lipsky, 1987; Lipsky & Gartner, 1987; Pugach, 1987; Stainback & Stainback, 1984, 1987). Reynolds et al. (1987) characterized the current service delivery system for children with special needs as "disjointed incrementalism" and proposed a melding of services and government-supported, experimental, integrated programs for mildly handicapped students. Others have been less moderate. Stainback and stainback (1984) stated flatly, "this . . . dual system [of education] is no longer needed. . . . The time has arrived for special and regular education to merge into one unified system structured to meet the unique needs of all students" (p. 102). Pugach (1987) urged "the very bold step of phasing out the preparation of teachers of mildly handicapped students as it now exists" (p. 313). Hagarty and Abramson (1987) opposed any programs serving mildly handicapped children which entail removing children for a period of time from the mainstream on grounds that "this split-scheduling approach . . . is neither administratively nor instructionally supportable when measured against legal requirements, . . . effective schools research, . . . or fiscal considerations" (p. 316).

We share most of the concerns regarding the inadequacies of current special education. Nevertheless, we feel that some of the reform proposals have been proffered with little regard for either available data or their political and pragmatic ramifications. Especially with regard to BD students, radical restructuring has not been carefully considered. We argue the following:

1. Some BD students require special educational environments.

2. These students can be identified in many cases on the basis of their problem behavior(s).

3. These students are notoriously underserved.

4. These students are usually labeled by peers and teachers as deviant and different before special education is considered.

5. The technology for meeting these students' needs is different from that required for most students.

6. Teachers of these students need highly specialized skills and attitudes different from those required for most teachers.

7. The REI jeopardize the meager services available to these students and probably would cause many to be shunted out of education altogether.

Issues regarding the REI are most logically organized around the topics of integration and right to treatment within a continuum or cascade of services model, which we believe is essential to appropriate services for BD students.


Overidentification for Special Education

Shepard (1987) suggested that 90% of special education students are very mildly handicapped, if at all, and are indistinguishable from other low achievers. Reynolds et al. (1987) considered three-fourths of special education students to be "judgmentally handicapped." Other writers (e.g., Algozzine, Ysseldyke, & Christenson, 1983; Biklen & Zollers, 1986) also have suggested that students now receiving special education--including those considered BD--have been misidentified and inappropriately placed. Critics have suggestedthat special education is characterized by rampant overidentification that heightens rather than reduces risk for students.

The assumption that most students now served by special education should not be considered handicapped is particularly doubtful in the case of BD students. Arguments that BD students represent an overidentified group in special education run counter to both prevalence data and most expert opinion (cf. Kauffman, 1984, 1985, 1986, 1988). Federal reports show that just under 1% of public school students are served under the Seriously Emotionally Disturbed (BD) category and describe BD students as "underserved" (e.g., U.S. Department of Education, 1986). Leaders in special education believe that 3% is a conservative prevalence estimate (e.g., Morse, 1985).

Even if it is assumed that many BD students are presently classified as LD or mentally retarded (MR), arguments for overidentification do not hold. The percentage of the population served as mildly handicapped has never been as high as government prevalence estimates (Hallahan & Kauffman, 1988). Recent federal figures indicate an actual decline in the percentage of the school-age population served by special education (U.S. Department of Education, 1987).


We share in the concern regarding the stigma of the label "behaviorally disordered," even more the stigma of "seriously emotionally disturbed." The label itself has little value other than channeling services. But to argue that BD students' stigma derives from their label misses the point that these students become social outcasts before they are referred for special education (Coie, Dodge, & Kupersmidt, in press; Coie & Kupersmidt, 1983). We also note that there are few advocates for disruptive, defiant, abusive, or otherwise socially alienated students. There are no national advocacy groups, such as the Association for Retarded Citizens or the Association for Children and Adults with Learning Disabilities, for BD youngsters. Little sympathy or understanding is found for students who drop out or are "elbowed out" of school or for those who are socially withdrawn or depressed. Serious problems must be talked about with serious language at an "official" level, else the students' difficulties are trivialized. Descriptions such as "naughty in class" (e.g., Shepard, 1987) and other euphemisms used to characterize LD and other mildly handicapped students--and by implication BD students--suggest that their problems are minor. The likely consequence of such language will be reduction in services for an already underserved group.

Regular Class as Best for All Students

Challenging the concept of mainstreaming for all students invites a quick and hostile response from some of our colleagues. We do agree that the mainstream is most appropriate for many handicapped students and that no students should be removed from the regular class until it is clear that effective programming cannot be provided there. Nevertheless, we are convinced that, contrary to the assertions of some advocates of the REI (e.g., Gartner & Lipsky, 1987; Lipsky & Gartner, 1987; Stainback & Stainback, 1987), not all BD students can be appropriately served in regular classes. Research clearly does not support the assertion that all students can be managed and taught effectively in regular classrooms (Fuchs & Fuchs, in press; Hallahan, Keller, McKinney, Lloyd, & Bryan, 1988; Lloyd, Crowley, Kohler & Strain, 1988). At the secondary level, full integration of all students is simply not feasible; it is an invitation to failure (Edgar, 1987; Schumaker & Deshler, 1988). Moreover, analysis of the microeconomic realities of finite classroom resources (teacher time and effort) indicates that better education for all students, all in regular class settings is a misinterpretation of the meaning of school improvement research and scholarly rhetoric (Gerber, 1988; Kauffman, Gerber, & Semmel, 1988).

BD students placed in regular classes present particular problems because their characteristics demand additional instructional resources, including specially trained staff to manage extremely disruptive and dangerous behavior. Other students' rights to a safe and supportive learning environment are neither minor nor moot when the assumption that no student should be segregated forces the integration of BD students. As noted in federal regulations.

Where a handicapped child is so disruptive in a regular classroom that the education of other students is significantly impaired, the needs of the handicapped child cannot be met in that environment. Therefore regular placement would not be appropriate for his or her needs. (34 CFR #300.552, p. 51)

Biklen and Zollers (1986) suggested that students should not be blamed for their disabilities. Nevertheless, a number of studies indicate that disruptive or dangerous behavior results in peers' rejection and teachers' lack of tolerance of these students (e.g., Coie et al., in press; Coie & Kupersmidt, 1983; Kerr & Zigmond, 1986; Walker & Rankin, 1983). We agree that most teachers should improve their behavior management skills and that some students are inappropriately identified, labeled, and placed in special education due primarily to their teachers' intolerance of or lack of expertise in managing ordinary "naughtiness." But to assert that all regular educators have the expertise or can readily be provided support to serve all students is not only unfounded and illogical, but also a disservice to general educators.

Teachers' Attitudes, Skills, and Priorities

The REI is misnamed. It is an initiative proposed by special educators for reform of general education. Literature showing widespread enthusiasm of regular educators for the REI is nonexistent. A favored hypothesis of some proponents of the REI is that general educators can and will readily develop, through in-service programs and working in teams with special educators, positive attitudes toward and expertise in teaching difficult-to-teach students that will allow all students to be successful in regular classrooms (e.g., Biklen & Zollers, 1986; Lipsky & Gartner, 1987; Stainback & Stainback, 1984; see also Reynolds et al., 1987). Not only is support for this hypothesis lacking, evidence to the contrary is available.

Gersten, Walker, and Darch (1988) found that teachers who used more effective instructional procedures were less tolerant of students' behavioral excesses and deficits and expressed less willingness to accept difficult-to-teach students in their classrooms. BD students have been found to be among those least preferred by regular classroom teachers, who felt that such students should be segregated in special classes (Johnson, 1987). Schloss, Miller, Sedlak, and White (1983) found regular classroom teachers to be significantly less tolerant than special education teachers of students with conduct problems who were returning from mental health facilities. Campbell, Dobson, and Bost (1985) reported that teachers perceived the behavior problems of nonidentified and physically handicapped students as more serious and more deserving of coercive treatment than the misbehavior of mentally handicapped students. In a study of teachers' concern for higher and lower achieving students, Mitman (1985) found that teachers who showed relatively more concern about higher achieving students and less concern about lower achieving students were rated as more effective--they were rated by observers as "being more prepared for instruction, having smoother group lessons, being more academically task-oriented, accomplishing more of their instructional goals, being more efficient in their classroom management, and devoting a greater percentage of their time to academic instruction" (p. 157).

Expecting all teachers to take a measure of pride in overcoming instructional problems and to develop expertise in managing children's behavior is realistic. Expecting general education teachers to welcome, successfully teach and manage, and tolerate the most disruptive and disturbed students is extremely naive and illogical, both from the viewpoint of common sense and from the perspective of available research.

Research on direct instruction does not engender great optimism about achieving reliable and widespread change in teachers' instruction and behavior management skills without very intense, sustained effort (Gersten, Carnine, & Woodward, 1987). Advocates favoring radical restructuring or merging of special and regular education fail to recognize the magnitude of the task, the enormous effort required to achieve the laudable goals of the REI. We doubt that special education can be significantly "downsized" without serious negative effects on the availability of services provided to BD students.

Effects of the Excellence in Education Movement

The REI and the current push for excellence in American public schools represent conflicting priorities for regular classroom teachers. A teacher cannot have as concomitant priorities both maximum mean achievement of the class (the desired outcome of the excellence movement) and the maximum achievement of those students who are low achievers (the priority of special education). Teachers face the unavoidable choice between these priorities (Gerber, 1988; Kauffman et al., 1988), and the implications are particularly evident for BD students.

Where the excellence movement is underway, two major trends reflected in the public's attitudes toward schools (see Gallup & Clark, 1987) exacerbate the problems of BD students: (a) higher and inflexible academic performance standards for grade promotions, accompanied by emphasis on content areas in which BD students typically do not do well; and (b) more stringent and inflexible discipline policies. We have observed that where academic standards have been increased, difficult-to-teach students are experiencing an escalating cycle of conflict in which layers of failure, frustration, acting out, disciplinary actions, and alienation are piled one atop the other. The association between school failure and behavior problems is well established (cf. Kazdin, 1987; Patterson, 1986). The general education teacher is caught up in the conflict by being made to feel accountable for tightening academic standards and enforcing discipline policies, while at the same time being expected to remain calm and empathetic in response to students' noncompliance, nonperformance, and emotional outbursts.

We do not argue against higher academic standards or firmer discipline policies in public schools. We believe that most students will benefit from such standards and policies. Those students who do not, however, will become increasingly visible and will require additional or separate program resources. Furthermore, in the case of BD youngsters the anti-labeling arguments are moot: Teachers and peers know who these students are and reject them because of their aberrant behavior patterns (Coie et al., in press; Kauffman, 1985; Mullen & Wood, 1986). We note here the frequent call for marking only services, not the students who receive them; and we note also that students are inevitably marked by the services they receive, such that the real choice is either marking or not serving. What policies, then, ensure the right of BD students to equitable education?


Eligibility for Services

Federal legislation guarantees all handicapped students' right to appropriate education and related services (i.e., to treatment). As already stated, many BD students remain unidentified, and we doubt that they are unserved because of educators' belief in integration. Rather, we fear that students' offensive behavior is viewed as their problem and that schools prefer to deal with these students' problems through the less complicated disciplinary processes that stress punitive measures and exclusion from school. What assurances will be provided under the REI that even more students will not be denied appropriate help? Not all parents, nor all students, resist identification and labeling. Many have struggled long (sometimes fruitlessly) to obtain appropriate services (Kauffman, 1988).

Right to Privacy

Most BD students are aware that they have been identified as having difficulties that set them apart from their peers; most would also prefer to eliminate attention to their personal difficulties by remaining unidentified within their peer group. When attention to what they consider "their business" is unavoidable, that is, when intervention is necessary, most also prefer to have their difficulties treated as privately as possible. A special class setting may be a more private setting for working out personal problems than a regular class, in which students are already identified and special procedures heighten the visibility of their differences. Particularly at the secondary level, BD students may not welcome efforts to integrate them into what they consider a humiliating environment in which their academic deficiencies and behavioral differences are highlighted (see Edgar, 1987; Fizzell, 1987). Furthermore, some students experience so much distress in a large regular class that they seek identification with a smaller group of peers in which their individuality is more easily accommodated. It seems highly unlikely to us that general education will be reorganized in ways that will address these concerns.

Appropriate Interventions

Many BD students require interventions that are complex. Some can be used successfully in regular classrooms by general educators, but reliable data do not support the contention that special education services can be reduced if these interventions (e.g., cooperative learning, prereferral teams, consulting teachers, peer tutoring) are used in general education settings (Lloyd et al., 1988). Accommodation of academic needs is important, but in itself far from sufficient for most BD students. Advocates of the REI assert that among the needed changes that would occur in merging special and regular education is the inclusion of social skills training in regular classes. We endorse teaching social skills in general education but question the adequacy of these efforts in meeting the needs of exceptional students. In a curriculum already strained by the demands of various special interests, who will decide that yet another curriculum component will be added? How will social skills training be scheduled, particularly in secondary schools? Which regular class teachers will be expected to receive training and to teach social skills?

Questions need to be raised about other interventions for students with disordered behavior. Behavioral contracting, token reinforcement, time out, behavioral rehearsal, conflict resolution, crisis prevention, crisis intervention, counseling, and related services may be considered essential program components for many BD students. Will interventions be provided with the frequency, intensity, and duration necessary to make them effective? Will general educators be trained to provide these? If fewer students are served by special education, will the roles of school psychologists and social workers change to include more time in direct services and less emphasis on assessment? When counseling is needed, will the student not be pulled out of the regular class?


We strongly support efforts to provide more effective and humane educational programs for all students. We encourage the strengthening of partnerships among all educators, parents, professional organizations, and students themselves. Teacher training should be improved, with incentives to attract and retain highly skilled teachers. We encourage research and development of effective programming to serve more handicapped students in regular classrooms. In our opinion, however, the REI threatens to undo much of the yet unfinished advocacy for appropriate education of BD students. We see it as an appealing but ineffective remedy for special education's painful and endemic ills, a patent medicine "cure" with particularly hollow promise for the serious complaints engendered by students' behavioral disorders.


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SHELDON BRAATEN is Coordinator of Harrison Secondary School, Minneapolis, Minnesota. JAMES M. KAUFFMAN is Professor of Education, University of Virginia Charlottesville. BARBARA BRAATEN is Behavior Specialist, Anwatin Junior High School, Minneapolis, Minnesota. LEWIS POLSGROVE is Professor of Education, Department of Special Education, and Institute for the Study of Development Disabilities, Indiana University, Bloomingham. C. MICHAEL NELSON is Professor of Special Education, University of Kentucky, Lexington.
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Author:Braaten, Sheldon; Kauffman, James M.; Braaten, Barbara; Polsgrove, Lewis; Nelson, C. Michael
Publication:Exceptional Children
Date:Sep 1, 1988
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