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


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About this series

Special education: Telling facts from fiction

As a teacher, hearing that students in your classroom have a diagnosed learning disability or other special need can be overwhelming and even intimidating. Preparing lesson plans for twenty students already seemed difficult enough. Now you are expected to provide specialized instruction with no real training or guidance from special education staff!

It’s perfectly natural to feel concern or frustration. And you’re not alone — many teachers have been in your shoes at some point in their careers. This blog is here to help.

Each article in this series considers a commonly held belief about special education, providing special instruction to students with special needs, and the behavior problems you might encounter in an inclusive classroom. Many students with learning disabilities also have underlying behavioral or processing disorders, and researchers have struggled to design ways to reliably identify those problems and to treat them. Here, though, we’ll concentrate on classroom practices. The authors look at each issue, ask what the research says, and offer teacher-tested strategies for teaching students with learning and behavior problems.

This series is based on LEARN NC’s blog of the same title, which ran during 2009–10.

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Related pages

  • Understanding twice-exceptional students: This article discusses the twice-exceptional student, defined as a student with both gifts and a learning disability. The author lists three categories of twice-exceptional students, addresses the challenges involved in identifying these students' exceptionalities, shares strategies for teaching twice-exceptional students, and emphasizes the importance of supporting the students' social skills.
  • Minority representation in special education classrooms: Are minority students over-represented in special education classrooms? The evidence suggests that they are. This article examines questions about minority representation in special education and suggests some strategies to address the issue.
  • Gender in special education: Do boys have more incidences of disability than girls? The numbers suggest that they do, but the matter is complicated. This article addresses some of the issues behind the statistics.

Related topics


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The myth

Students living in poverty are more likely to suffer from disabilities than other children.

The facts

In our last article, we discussed the supposed correlation between minority children and special education services. We’d like to expand on that discussion by investigating a major factor for many children in the U.S.: poverty. The majority of current research shows that poverty influences academic difficulty and is also tied to disability rates.

The National Center for Children in Poverty estimates that nearly 40 percent of children living in the United States live a paycheck away from the poverty line. Nineteen percent of American children live in poverty,1 more than in any other industrialized nation. The poverty rate among African Americans and Hispanics is three times as high as that among whites. And research shows that disability rates are rising among children living in poverty, while rates for other children have remained steady.2 But does this mean that impoverished children have more disabilities than those other children?

Not at all! The National Research Council (NRC) has discovered a number of reasons why the numbers of impoverished children in special education is on the rise.3

  1. Teachers and families are becoming more rigorous in their referrals for all children.
    Middle-class families have historically been more proactive in demanding services for their children than low-income families. Now that teachers are working harder to correct over- and under-representation in special education services (discussed in our last article) and are reaching out to families, children in poverty who have disabilities are recognized more. Thus, the numbers of children receiving services is growing, but that does not mean that more children have disabilities.
  2. Poverty causes developmental delays.
    Being raised in poverty exposes children to many risk factors for developing disabilities. Biological factors include toxin exposure (e.g., lead paint in older buildings), malnourishment, premature birth from prenatal drug and alcohol use, and vitamin deficiencies in the mother (e.g., folic acid). In addition, children living in low-income homes have limited access to books, poor quality childcare, and less interaction between themselves and their primary caregivers. The NRC identified time between parents and their children to be the most important factor in early child development, and parents in low-income households often do not have the time to devote to their children. Less time with parents means less verbal discussion, less vocabulary development, and less social skill development — all contributing to a tougher time in school.
  3. Children living in poverty do not learn the “hidden curriculum.”
    As discussed in the previous article, success in school depends largely on mastering the hidden curriculum — requirements that are never taught but are expected of students. Impoverished children do not typically have the exposure to the social skills required for the hidden curriculum, such as sitting quietly during a lesson or sharing politely with other students. In addition, teachers tend to be what researchers call normative in their evaluation of their classes. That is, their standard of a “good student” is based on their own values and expectations. A child’s lack of normative skills may hide his strengths and cause him to be referred for special services.


While poverty is absolutely a factor as to whether a child is referred for special education services, impoverished children are not innately born with more disabilities than other children. The correlation between poverty and special education is strong, however, and education systems need to pay more attention to these students’ needs. These children need to be served just as well as those in the upper and middle classes, as they have the same capacity to learn as their peers.