Rethinking education: How to engage students who have special needs

From the beginning, Reesha Adamson could sense her calling. She wanted to improve the lives of young people – those of elementary school age, especially – who have behavioral disorders such as oppositional behaviors, depression, anxiety and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) that manifest themselves in learning environments.

“Research shows that 20 percent of students have these disorders throughout their childhood. A lot of those things that go untreated and unhelped get worse as students get older,” said Adamson, an assistant professor of counseling, leadership and special education at Missouri State University. “It tends to be a high need.”

So she wondered about the possibilities. What if teachers knew how to better identify and help such students? What if those students knew how to seek help for themselves? And how might that bring about a better future for tomorrow’s leaders?

Identifying the problem

Adamson is working with local public schools to help a small section of students who struggle with following through on classroom engagement and aren’t learning at the same rate as their peers. Specifically, she wants to know what systems, supports, and interventions can be placed in schools to support teacher training and student outcomes.

Such students may have educational behavioral disorders, which differs from medical behavioral disorders. The question is whether the disorder affects performance in the classroom.

“It isn’t because they aren’t capable,” Adamson said. “It’s because they aren’t able to sit in class and sustain until the class ends.”

What happens then, Adamson explained, is a cyclical issue in which entire classes fall behind as teachers reteach the same content to try to catch those students up.

Using a single case design, her research focuses on like groups of students to find direct relationships between interventions and how teachers’ and students’ behaviors change on days when data are collected.

Getting teachers to think like movie stars

However, the answer doesn’t lie in addressing behavioral concerns with the students alone, Adamson noted. Focus on adjusting the behavior of the teachers from an entertainment angle, and better engagement will follow.

“We know the key to students being successful is having dynamic teachers,” she said. “The biggest impact on students staying in school and having good outcomes is school engagement, which comes from making a connection with the school.

“As teachers, we’d better be the best actors there are. Every day that we’re teaching a class, we’re putting on a performance. We’re trying to draw students in as the crowd so they walk away, remember the lesson, and want to tell everybody about it.”

Behavior management is also the top reason teachers leave the profession, Adamson said, noting that training the teachers and getting students to become engaged could change a child’s trajectory.

“Kids who have emotional and behavioral disorders have worse post-secondary outcomes such as not going to college, not getting jobs and going to prison,” she said. “They’re starting out on this horrible track. It’s our job to find out what we can do to help improve this process for them.”

“I think as a nation, we need to support students who have mental illnesses and people who have mental health issues in general. Those kids who have behavioral disorders really struggle understanding the context of school because it’s so different from their lives and environments they’ve been in.” — Reesha Adamson

The long-term benefits

Starting students on a better track also includes helping them manage their mental health care as adults. This is key as children reach 16 years of age and may think they don’t need help anymore.

“People stop receiving services because they look around the waiting room and say, ‘I don’t look like that person over there. I don’t need this help,’” she said. “So we have this falling out when they stop losing this care. Our goal is to get them to continue that care to give them strategies for success after high school.”


7 Responses
  • Deb Gallion

    Excellent observations, Dr. Adamson. It’s eye opening to me to think – as we hopefully have a national discussion about mental health in light of recent tragedies – that we might consider looking as far back as the elementary classroom for issues that impact the future.

    I have always maintained that teachers are “on” every moment they are in the classroom. It’s exhausting, but true. I just never associated it so intrinsically with student engagement.

  • Jon S. Turner

    Wonderful insight that will reap a great reward in our schools! Keep up the great work! Engagement is the key!

  • J Stover

    Interesting perspective. I am an alum of Truman State, graduating in the 1980s with an education degree. I taught in public school for a number of years (then became a paralegal), but didn’t really understand or encounter significant behavior management issues until I had a child with an autism diagnosis. I then learned as much as I could about this neurobiological issue and ways to address behaviors more effectively. I wish our public school educators were better trained in behavior management and mental health issues for children, but that is only one part of the challenge in improving student outcomes…the other is having caring, compassionate individuals as teachers. Over the years of dealing with our public isd about my son’s individual behavioral and academic needs, it was clear that both knowledge and proper attitudes were lacking in school personnel. I found I had to study special ed law and became a special education advocate for my son (and later for others) in order to even come close to getting the services he needed for progress into independence. But despite a seemingly good/rigorous IEP, if the personnel weren’t “on board” and knowledgeable in the general education classroom, and if the school leadership didn’t maintain high expectations and accountability for those teachers to implement the iep with fidelity, progress rarely was made.. I hope states mandate more coursework and practice for individuals in teacher education programs related to meeting the mental and behavioral health needs of students and for working with students with special learning needs within regular classrooms. Thank you for your insight.

  • Dr. Tami Arthaud, SPE Professor

    Thanks for sharing your knowledge and perspective with all! Great work, Dr. Adamson!!

  • Johnny B Good

    Dr. Adamson assigned 3 major assignments on the last day of class (quiz, final exam, and a paper). Students who have divided attention issues panic when they see this kind of thing. MSU doesn’t accommodate people with learning disabilities like they claim to. Most issues are merely common sense and a lack of accountability when it comes to course design. I can’t get faculty/staff to even return phone calls most of the time. Nice facade…

    • Dr. Adamson

      I am sorry for your perceived negative experience. My courses are designed where students are presented with all assignments, quizzes, and projects on the first day of class so that they can work at their own pace and even ahead on assignments as they have availabe time—so no assignments would be expected to be started and finished on the last week of a course. If you have any questions or concerns that you would like to address with me my email is radamson@missouristate.edu or my office is in 103 PCOB. I would be happy to discuss these matters more at a time convenient to you.

      • Steven Capps

        I am also sorry for your perceived negative experience. The Learning Diagnostic Clinic (LDC) at MSU provides academic accommodation services for individuals with learning, cognitive, and/or psychological diagnoses. The LDC is open Monday through Friday from 8:00 to 5:00. The LDC director and/or staff strive to return emails and/or phone calls within 24 hours of receipt. If you would like to contact the director or staff of the LDC, please email the LDC at LearningDiagnosticClinic@missouristate.edu or call 417-836-4787.

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