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Volume 3 , Issue 1 Date: Spring, 2003 Topic: Expectations Through Life's Passages

High Expectations and Developmental Disabilities

by William Henderson, Ed.D.

High expectations are one of the most important factors in determining students’ outcomes in schools. It is critical that both professionals and family members demonstrate, through words and actions, a conviction that each child can succeed at high levels. Without experience or exposure to children with disabilities, educators tend not to look at the strengths first, but instead to focus on what they cannot do. Unfortunately, many young persons with disabilities encounter lowered expectations. Stereotypes and negative attitudes about impairments cause some professionals and even some family members to doubt their ability to learn and succeed. Exposure to people with disabilities in a variety of settings is very important in raising expectations. Therefore, people are more willing to accept those with disabilities and as a result have an increased awareness of the potential strengths individuals with disabilities possess.

I have an eye condition called RP (retinitis pigmentosa). When I was in my mid- 20’s, an eye specialist told me that he thought that my vision was going to deteriorate significantly in the following 5-10 years. Despite the fact that I had received a BA from Yale University and that my initial years as a teacher had been relatively successful, the doctor told me that I should “get out” of education. Although the doctor had a great deal of knowledge about the physical conditions of eye disease, he had little knowledge about the capabilities of blind and visually impaired persons in the field of education and other careers.

Over my 30 years as an educator and from discussions with many persons around the country, I am well aware of the additional challenges faced by students with developmental disabilities. Since most of these students have cognitive delays and some of these delays are quite significant, some professionals and parents focus, on all the things these children cannot do. Such fixations on limitations definitely lower expectations. Indeed, many do not believe that students with developmental disabilities can be successful.

The O’Hearn Elementary School, located in the Dorchester section of Boston, Massachusetts, became an inclusive school in 1989. The school’s mission is to help all children, with or without disabilities, succeed. Currently, about 25% of the student population has a disability. Many of these children have significant cognitive delays, yet all learn in classrooms with their non-disabled peers. While I do not believe that inclusion should be the only model considered for educating students with disabilities, it should be a first consideration upon entering school. Children usually enter the school at 3 years of age. The inclusive setting, therefore, becomes natural to them as they are living it and gaining exposure to children who present differently than they do.

Teachers and parents at the O’Hearn School have committed to help all students learn and succeed. The professionals who work at the O’Hearn School demonstrate attitudes that are proud of diversity and who focus on each child as a “whole”. Although not every student has achieved all that staff and parents have hoped for, most students have made substantial progress. Overall, O’Hearn students have performed at relatively high levels on state and district assessments, and parents of children with and without disabilities have selected the O’Hearn School as one of the system’s top choices.

Success in schools is not only measured by academic tests. Although we want students with developmental disabilities to do the best they can on the traditional or alternate state and district assessments, we also encourage them to be contributing members of their classrooms and communities. All students with developmental disabilities have talents and gifts to be developed. It is so important that we help prepare them to believe in themselves and their capacities to contribute. While it is true that not all parents have high expectations for their children when they present with a disability, we show them what other children with similar challenges have achieved, highlighting their accomplishments and exhibiting their work in every way possible. By focusing on the child’s ability, rather than his or her disability, we can raise the parents’ hopes and, as a result, help them to motivate their child. High expectations are definitely a critical first step in realizing this human potential.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA97) is the federal law guiding services for students with disabilities. IDEA 97 stipulates that all students with disabilities, regardless of placement or specific impairment, are entitled to an education in the least restrictive environment and must participate in the general curriculum. Regardless of the cognitive ability of the child, we want them to be involved in all subjects of study. This may mean simplifying the material for students, providing accommodations, and acting creatively in order to engage the child in the learning material to the best of their ability. Most students with disabilities need additional supports and specialized instruction. However, it is my belief that under IDEA, students with developmental disabilities should receive such services in the context of the general curriculum – while they are studying subjects like reading, writing, mathematics, social studies, science, physical education, and the arts.

Under IDEA97, teachers and parents should first consider what they could do to help students with developmental disabilities work toward the same standards as those students in the same general curriculum. Adaptations in materials and instructional techniques should be identified and used to maximize students’ progress. This often requires routine meetings and professional development of school staff and use of all available resources. Many students with disabilities have far surpassed what some thought possible due to the convictions and skillful work of their educators and family members.

The O’Hearn School endorses a positive framework. This framework is a belief built on recognizing strengths and prioritizing areas of growth. There are indeed some students with developmental disabilities who, despite the belief and efforts of educators and family members, have not kept up with the same skill levels of their non-disabled peers. In some cases, alternate standards have been recommended for students with significant cognitive delays at IEP (Individual Education Program) meetings. Even with such alternate standards, high expectations remain critical. We challenge students with Down syndrome as well as our most academically advanced students to read as much as they can. We challenge our students with cerebral palsy as well as our fastest runners to exercise as much as they can. We challenge our non-verbal students as well as our most polished speakers to communicate as effectively as they can. We challenge our students with autism as well as our “social butterflies” to interact as positively as they can. The goal for every child at our school is to “get smarter, feel smarter, and act smarter.” The reward is, therefore, intrinsic for each child as they come to believe in what they can do and how to act on it in order to achieve to the best of their ability. Educators and family members need to continue to do everything possible to stretch these children to attain the highest possible levels in their schoolwork and participation. Such effort is important not only for the individuals involved but also for the school community as a whole.

Bill Henderson has been an educator in Boston for 30 years. Bill holds a B.A. from Yale University, a M.A. from Goddard College, and an Ed.D. from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Bill began his career as a teacher at the middle school level. He has worked as a staff trainer, curriculum specialist, and assistant principal. Since 1989, Bill has served as principal at the O’Hearn School. He has also presented extensively at conferences and for school systems and universities.

The Patrick O’Hearn is a small, urban elementary school serving children from diverse ethnic, linguistic, and ability backgrounds from early childhood through grade 5. The O’Hearn has gained national recognition as an excellent inclusive school. Students who are involved in regular education; students who have mild, moderate, and severe disabilities; and students considered talented and gifted learn together and from each other. Teachers and support staff team to work with all children in integrated classrooms.

When not working, Bill enjoys exercising, gardening, playing the saxophone, reading, and spending time with family and friends.

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