Learning disabilities

Increasing evidence suggests that there may be also academic advantages for children in mainstream schools. For example Cunningham et al (1998), in a review of the extent and impact of mainstream placements, suggest that the overall evidence is for greater educational development among children with DS in mainstream education. In order to weigh up the advantages of integrated provision for children with DS a comparison needs to be made with alternative options – special schools. A longitudinal study by Casey et al (1988) examined the cognitive development and academic attainments of 36 children with DS over a period of two years. 18 of these attended mainstream schools and 18 were in schools for children with mild learning disabilities.

Over the two year period of the study, children in mainstream schools performed better on all the measured variables and showed significant gains in mental age compared with their counterparts. These findings are also substantiated by more recent studies. For example Law et al (2000) again found notable achievements in grammar and numeracy among children in mainstream schools compared to children in special schools matched for age and receptive vocabulary supported by Bryne et al (2002) which also illustrates that children with DS attending mainstream schools tended to have the highest academic scores.

These findings indicate a strong relationship between the type of school attended and academic ability. In fact the effect of school placement on vocabulary development is considerable with Law et al (2000) reporting ‘…a difference equivalent to about one-and-a-half years development between the samples overall. When the younger children were considered separately, the children at mainstream school were ahead by an average of two-and-a-half years’ (p.453) again demonstrating that the learning and development of all children is particularly crucial in the early years.

The results are particularly interesting given that language acquisition and use is a specific deficit for people with DS. It is generally agreed that wider exposure to verbal interaction with a linguistically more able peer group may help develop communication skills in children with DS and lead to acquisition of more advanced skills (Casey, 1988; Laws et al, 2000). There are suggestions that mainstreaming may influence continued progress in early adults years (Turner and Alborz, 2003), however there is a lack of empirical evidence to support this view.

A possible explanation for the difference in academic achievements between mainstream and special education schools is that the former is associated with higher expectation of behaviour and academic ability. In fact research has found that staff in a mainstream setting place more emphasis on academic ability (Sloper et al, 1990) whereas those in special schools place more emphasis on practical activities such as cooking (Cook et al 2001), therefore inhibiting children from reaching their full potential.

Cook et al (2001) also found that children socially benefited from attending mainstream schools as those who lived at home and attended special schools tended to be isolated from their peers. In addition being artificially separated from everyday situations may not in the long run adequately prepared children with DS for life after school. In fact Pitts and Curtin (2004) in their interview with older children with disability found that many felt that attending mainstream school is an essential preparation for the ‘real world’.

The effects of integration on the social development of children with learning disabilities including those with DS are now widely publicised. Research carried out by Dew-Huges (1999) which compared the social development of children with severe learning disabilities (SLD) being educated mainstream to those in special schools indicated a positive effect of integration on maturity, self-confidence and socialisation of children with SLD. In addition children, who attend mainstream schools, learn to interact socially with their peers and create friendships in natural conditions. The development of positive relationships and friendship between peers is seen by advocates of mainstreaming as one of the most important benefits resulting from integration. Not only does it increase their social competence but promotes better community relations and greater opportunity for inclusion and acceptance in wider society.

Generally children with DS are more likely to be integrated in early years as the ability gap is not so apparent and the fact that younger children accept differences more easily. Hall and McGregory (2000) found that children with DS who were integrated in mainstream education at an early age had established stronger peer friendships at a later school age than those denied this opportunity. Likewise mainstream pupils are also more likely to learn about acceptance, tolerance, and compassion whilst sharing the same environment as children with learning disabilities. As a result of such findings, a recommended practice of EI is to place children in mainstream provision.

However caution must be drawn about the extent to which mainstream schooling can meet the needs of children with special educational needs including those with DS. The slower intellectual development makes it harder for children with DS to deal with content, and tasks planned for peers of their age in regular classroom lessons. Many therefore require differentiated work in order to participate and/or Learning support teachers to be allocated. Much of the responsibility regarding integration therefore lies with the teacher to differentiate tasks and resources so that work set is accessible to all. However Scruggs and Mastropieri (1996) found that even though teachers support integration, many felt a lack of necessary time, skills, training, and resources to implement inclusive factors.

In fact Petty and Sadler (1996) found that the great majority of teachers had little experience with children with DS and perhaps most importantly had received little or no specialist training either during their initial training or in their teaching career. Arguably therefore the degree of planning required to teach pupils with ‘special educational needs’ are more likely to be effectively met in special schools where teachers are trained and more experienced and allocated the time to do so specifically (Farrell, 1997). In addition mainstream schools may not provide the individualised teaching more readily available to children within specialist schools, nor have regular access to specialist professionals such as speech and language therapists (Pitt and Curtin, 2004). In fact lack of resources has consistently been identified as a barrier to successful integration.

Therefore children with DS who are more likely to have speech and language deficits may lose out on the benefits of such input. The issue of receptivity towards children with DS must also be taken into consideration when placing them in mainstream education. Although this is not a particular issue during the early years of education, research shows that older children with learning disabilities including those with DS despite having friends at school typically suffer isolation and segregation from their mainstream peer (Pitt and Curtin, 2004). Where as in special schools, even though they were geographically isolated Cooks at al reports, (2001) there are positive and personal effects of being with other children with disabilities.

John is a two old child with DS, therefore under sec. 17(10) of the Children Act 1989 he is defined as a ‘child in need’. Under this provision the local authority has a duty to assess the needs of John and to provide services outlined to minimise the effect of his disability (Schedule 2, paragraph 6), underpinned by the Education Act, 1996. Based on the information gathered John is at a critical age where learning and development is at it most receptive as identified by child development research. Clearly the fact that he is two years of age is significant in this case as it allows the option of entering an EI programme.

The EI programme has met with some success but the research is divided and clearly there is no guarantee that John will develop because of EI. But the opportunity for him to make progress would lead me to conclude that John is therefore most likely to benefit from having EI in order to optimise his chances of acquiring and developing cognitive, linguistic, reading and other skills. In particular schemes to develop reading skills should be made readily available as research indicates the children with DS are most likely to acquire basic reading skills which in turn can assist in the development of language. The EI option is also one that the parents clearly would support as they wish to assist in John developing his intellectual capabilities. The question of the parents is problematical as they have been described as ‘pushy’.

They would have to understand very clearly that the EI programme has no guarantee of success. They would have to be very supportive and co-operative towards their son’s development. The aim is to help John to develop to his own greatest potential not for him to be driven beyond his capability. Research indicates that placing stress on children with DS usually leads to poorer performance rather than better. Therefore it is very important not to create unrealistic expectations in the parents but rather to harness their skills. Research indicates that much of the progress may be provided by the support from parents and the family in providing stimulation to the DS child therefore the parents need to be supported in providing an appropriate balance to their efforts. The availability of support outside the family will also be an important factor in contributing to the development of greater resilience.

Taking part in an EI programme is not guaranteed to be successful but does not represent an undue risk as there is no evidence it does harm and it reflects the parent’s right to choose the education for their child. In addition John would benefit from attending a local mainstream play school as the importance of integration has been identified within research in facilitating intellectual and social development. The prime aim is for John to be socially included at an early age as well as adequately preparing him to join mainstream education at the age of five.

The importance of early integration has been established whereby children with DS who are integrated in mainstream education at an early age are more likely to established stronger peer friendships at a later school age than those denied this opportunity. In the event of EI not developing his skills or integration into mainstream schooling being unsuccessful then it may be appropriate to consider special school placement in the future, but at this point in time the EI programme and mainstream education should be the preferred choice.

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