K-12 Teaching and Learning From the UNC School of Education

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Bridging Spanish language barriers in Southern schools
These articles provide background on Latino immigrants in North Carolina, administrative challenges in binational education, and strategies through which teachers can build on what Latino students bring to their classrooms to create a learning environment that meets the needs of all students.
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What is the history of special education in Mexico?

In the 1990s, the inclusive education movement gained extensive ground globally and Mexico was among the countries that embraced this concept. Inclusive education would recast the role of the special education teacher: Rather than teaching special needs children in alternative classrooms and facilities, special education teachers would assist regular classroom teachers, accommodating special needs children in regular classrooms. Inclusion implied a change in the mindset about the ways in which schools should serve children. Proponents of the inclusion model touted increased intellectual benefits and improved social skills.

Mexican law guarantees that the state will serve all people with disabilities and special education needs, and enlists the education system in a policy of educational integration. (In Mexico, the term “educational integration” is used to describe the mainstreaming of special education students in regular classrooms, while “inclusion” is the more widely used term in the US.)

The General Education Law (Ley General de Educación) of 1993 was the first federal mandate obligating the state to address the needs of special education students in Mexico. Since then, Mexican educational, health, and social welfare agencies have made significant changes in the services provided to children with special education needs. Current special education policy discards the parallel curriculum model in favor of the using same curriculum for all students, adapting it to meet various needs. An attempt at integration is obligatory, but if it fails for a given child, the child has the right to be in an alternative setting. The idea implicit in the policy is that the child’s learning is dependent on the learning context, so some students’ learning speed and rhythm may differ from others’.

What is the current state of special education in Mexico?

Current Mexican educational policy is based on the premise that special education students need additional resources to learn the content included in the national program of studies and need additional resources. Mexican educators no longer focus exclusively on the particular problems exhibited by individual students. Instead, a holistic approach is encouraged, which considers factors such as the school, home, and community environment as well as teaching methods issues that may affect a child’s progress or exacerbate a problem.

As of this writing, students in Mexico are put into five categories when assessed for special education services. As the chart below illustrates, no category exists for learning disability or reading disability, and this absence appears to underscore a general lack of understanding and identification of this category of special education in Mexican education. The following chart explains the terms and codes used in official school documents in Mexico to indicate identified student disabilities:

Student handicapKey
Auditory handicap
Discapacidad auditiva
Intellectual handicap
Discapacidad intelectual
Motor skills handicap
Discapacidad motriz
Visual handicap
Discapacidad visual
Others (specify)
Otras (especificar)

How are services provided for children?

The two models in Mexico for service delivery are:

  • Regular Education Support Services Unit (Unidades de Servicios de Apoyo a la Educación Regular or USAER)
  • Multiple Attention Centers (Centros de Atención Múltiple or CAM).

According to Todd Fletcher of the University of Arizona, USAER and CAM serve children with and without disabilities who have special learning needs, akin to combining 504 plans with disability categories. A student, therefore, may not be assigned a disability category, but may receive services for special learning needs that teachers and USAERs have identified, but have not specifically labeled. For example, hyperactivity (ADHD) is not considered a disability, but special education professionals are aware of it and any intervention associated with hyperactivity would be provided by mental health professionals such as psychologists or psychiatrists. There are educational associations that focus on ADHD-type conditions, but teachers generally do not have knowledge or training in how to deal with it in the classroom (email communication, Todd Fletcher, 2007).

The USAERs conduct psychopedagogical evaluations similar to holistic assessments in which they gather information, such as student history, educational experience, and student work samples. Special education personnel conduct informal non-standardized assessments to determine learning needs (email communication, Fletcher, 2007). USAERs usually consist of a social worker, a psychologist, a speech and language therapist, and a special education teacher. They serve four or five schools, spending one day per week in each. USAERs conduct studies of the school operations and environment, and of the community the school serves as well.

USAERs are designed to integrate special needs students into regular classrooms. Special education teachers in these units collaborate with regular classroom teachers to help build success among special needs students in the classrooms. Primary objectives of USAER are: initial evaluations, intervention planning, intervention, and ongoing assessment, and monitoring. The USAER uses curriculum-based assessments to determine progress. Students are provided with curriculum adaptations in the regular classrooms according to their needs.

CAMs are alternative settings or special schools designed to provide education to preschool through high school students who are unable to integrate successfully into regular classrooms and need additional accommodations. The centers are organized by group and age and work to provide instruction to students with diverse disabilities in the same group. Each center maintains autonomy in organizing, planning and instruction of their students.

What is the reach of the special education services in Mexico?

Two overarching observations sum up the answer to this question: many students receive services, but have no special education or disability categorization given or recorded AND very few total students are served when compared to the entire school-aged population in Mexico. Therefore, the reach of the special education services is not far and not deep.

USAERs operate in over 2,300 locations and serve about 320,000 students. Only approximately 10% of students served have an identified disability, meaning that the majority of students receiving services do not have an official categorization of disability recorded. Todd Fletcher of the University of Arizona points out that, in fact, a very small number of students with disabilities is being served when considered in comparison with WHO estimates of what percentage of school-aged populations has some type of disability (10%). The figure of 320,000 students served is far less than 10% of the entire Mexican school-aged population (email communication, Fletcher, 2007).

Over 100,000 students are served in more than 1300 CAMs across Mexico. CAM enrollments are about 70% students with disabilities and 30% students without a disability categorization. CAMs provide services to students at the secondary level and sometimes house students up to the age of 22. Virtually no special education services exist in public schools for secondary-school students in Mexico and the normal academic track is the only option for secondary-school children. Thus, CAMs are available to serve students who cannot function even minimally on the regular academic secondary-school track, many of whom do not have a special education categorization (email communication, Fletcher, 2007).

Fewer Services in Rural Areas

According to the Mexican education department (Secretariat de la Educacion Publica or SEP), the majority of the 4,097 locations offering special education services in 2002 were in urban areas or densely populated counties. Across the country, about 42% of counties provide special education services. About 16,000 schools throughout Mexico or about 8% of all schools, provide services preschool through middle school. During the ten years from the inception of the government’s inclusive education policy to the early 2000s, the number and type of services grew consistently, but did not keep pace with student populations needing services. The rural/urban divide characterizes the larger educational system in Mexico; the slower speed in getting special education services to rural areas is a continuing emblem of this disconnection.

How are teachers prepared in Mexico to meet needs of special education students?

The Mexican education department (Secretariat de la Educacion Publica or SEP) stated in its 1997-98 report that teacher trainees would be required to take a course in special education, but thus far the scope of this course is apparently limited. Teacher training institutions that prepare special education teachers focus on vision, hearing, language, and mental retardation. These four core areas are highlighted to the exclusion of learning disabilities (LD), which is almost overlooked. Currently, most schools focus on mental retardation and severe disabilities. In fact, as mentioned previously, LD does not exist as a category on the special education list of classifications.

Teachers received minimal to no training before the inclusion model came into use in the 1990s. Teachers were not aware of roles and responsibilities in this new paradigm. They also did not have any knowledge of the special needs of their new students in most cases. A cascade model was instituted for training administrators, who then trained a cadre of teachers at the district level, who would then train more teachers at the local level. The cascade model reportedly resulted in very little knowledge reaching teachers at the classroom level. Lack of collaboration between regular classroom and special needs teachers resulted. Often the students maintained a physical presence at the school, but far from being integrated, were relegated to storerooms or tiny classrooms for their school day (in Mexico, usually four hours). The situation has improved since the initiation of the program. The USAERs were more integrated and used by regular classroom teachers ten years later in 2003 (Fletcher et al, 2003). Also, the powerful teachers’ unions, which were initially anti-inclusion, have tempered their stance as Mexican teachers have gained in receptivity.


  • Fletcher, T. (May 25, 2007). Email communication with author.
  • Fletcher, T., C. Dejud, C. Klingler, & I.L. Mariscal. “The Changing Paradigm of Special Education in Mexico: Voices from the Field.” Bilingual Research Journal. 27.3 (2003).
  • Fletcher, T. & A. Artiles. “Inclusive Education and Equity in Latin America.” Evaluating Old and New International Perspectives. Ed. D. Mitchell. London: Routledge, 2005.
  • Handbook for Educators Who Work with Children of Mexican Origin, Third Edition. Chapel Hill, N.C.: UNC School of Education, 2005.