ACADEMIC BEHAVIOR AND ACHIEVEMENT OF STUDENTS WITH MILD DISABILITIES
Prof. Dr. Nasir Sulman
Department of Special Education
University of Karachi
In the era of school reform, there is much speculation as to whose responsibility it is to motivate children to perform. As a learner of this field, I have heard conversations where principals have blamed teachers, parents, and students for lack of achievement. Teachers have blamed principals, parents, and students. Parents have also blamed principals, teachers, and students. Through all of this controversy, students are the only ones who have remained silent. All of these stakeholders play a role in the academic behavior and achievement of students. However, students should be ultimately held responsible for being intrinsically motivated to learn and perform.
Abraham Maslow (1954) spent many years gathering research on human behavior. From this research, he developed a hierarchy of human needs. Those needs are as follows: (a) Physiological Needs address hunger, thirst, and bodily comforts, (b) Safety Needs address a state of being out of danger, (c) Belongingness and Love needs address a state of being affiliated with others and to be accepted, (d) Esteem Needs address the need to achieve, to be competent, and to gain approval and recognition, and (e) Self-Actualization Needs the need to find self-fulfillment and realize one’s potential.
The very presence of mild disabilities could affect children from becoming self-actualized or completing homework assignments as displayed at the top rung of Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs. The specific need in this case could fall under the category of Esteem needs, which precedes the Self-Actualization need. One of the most unique characteristics of Maslow’s hierarchy is that he believed that one cannot progress to the next level of the hierarchy unless the preceding level has been fulfilled, thus, hindering the progression of mildly disabled children to top of the hierarchy or Self-Actualization level.
Alderfer (1972) also developed a hierarchy of motivational needs. Alderfer believed that needs were comprised of three levels: (a) Existence, which includes all of the various forms of material and psychological desires, (b) Relatedness, which involves relationships with significant others, and (c) Growth, which produces the desire to for an individual to make creative and significant contributions to himself and others in society. In this case, the researcher has witnessed the negative impact of mild disabilities on the self-esteem of children. Similar to Maslow’s (1954) Esteem Needs, Alderfer’s Relatedness level affects the children’s relationships with their peers. The author has also witnessed adults who belittle mildly disabled children because of their difficulties with academics. This behavior presents itself in the form of jokes, isolation, and stereotyping. The negative behavior projected at the children prohibits them from reaching Alderfer’s Growth level and interferes with positive academic behavior. Needless to say, motivation in these situations is greatly diminished.
Motivation, in general, is comprised of two factors: intrinsic and extrinsic. The researcher hopes that mildly disabled children in this study will eventually develop into intrinsically motivated students who desire to complete homework assignments for the satisfaction of learning itself. Harlow, Harlow, and Meyer (1950) are generally recognized for making the first attempt to distinguish between intrinsic motivation and externally rewarded behavior. Their work analyzed the behaviors of rhesus monkeys after being given a puzzle to solve. Because the monkeys solved the puzzle without the researchers providing an extrinsic reward, they believed that the monkeys completed the task for the satisfaction of learning itself. If a reward had been provided as a result of having solved the puzzle, the experiment would have been classified as an example of extrinsic motivation.
Pavlov (1927) developed the theory of classical conditioning. His primary research focused on the digestive process of animals. While experimenting with dogs, he specifically studied the relationship between salivation and digestion. By applying a stimulus, he was able to make them salivate whether they were in the presence of food or not. He essentially conditioned the dogs to expect to receive meals when they heard a dinner bell.
Skinner (1953) developed the theory of operant conditioning. This theory essentially attempts to guide the behavior of an organism by offering reinforcers as an incentive to increase or decrease specific behaviors. Skinner stated that “the behavior is followed by a consequence, and the nature of the consequence modifies the organism’s tendency to repeat the behavior.”
The aforementioned classic literature addresses theories that are applicable to motivating children in this study. However, questions remain as to how motivation can be accomplished in the classroom. Honolulu Community College (n.d.) described five general principles of motivation that can be applied to any learning situation. They are the following:
- The environment can be used to focus on the student’s attention on what needs to be learned,
- Incentives motivate learning,
- Internal motivation is longer lasting and more self-directing than is external motivation, which must be repeatedly reinforced by praise or concrete rewards,
- Learning is most effective when and individual is ready to learn, that is, when one wants to know something, and
- Motivation is enhanced by the way in which the instructional material is organized.
Dembo and Eaton, (2000) provided the following regarding student motivation, which provided insight relating to student motivation:
“One of the major differences between successful students and less successful students is that successful students know how to motivate themselves even when they do not feel like performing a task. Less successful students have difficulty controlling their motivation. As a result, less successful students are less likely to complete a task and are more likely to quit or not complete a task proficiently.”
Mildly disabled students have difficulty becoming motivated to complete academic assignments because of their disabilities. Their disabilities result in frustration, which leads to withdrawal. This factor causes these students to be less successful academically than those who do not possess mild disabilities.
Skollingsberg (2003) utilized a five-factor self-report questionnaire that measured intrinsic and extrinsic orientation in the classroom between learning disabled and gifted students. In this study, he indicated that motivation is an integral feature of human personality and is expressed through a person’s behavior. He also believed that motivation is essential to the educational process, as no learning can take place without students being motivated to do so.
A common misconception among mildly disabled children is the belief that by simply attending class, reading aloud with an instructor and peers, and reviewing concepts in class will yield academic success. Bryan and Burnstein (2004) indicated that homework problems among students with learning disabilities can be attributed to causes of students’ characteristics such as poor motivation, problems in listening comprehension, and lack of organizational skills.
McMullen (2005) believed the following regarding students who possess disabilities and organizational skills: A primary problem faced by students with learning disabilities in middle school, inclusive settings is students’ lack of classroom organizational behaviors. Many of these individuals do not bring necessary materials to class, begin class on task, complete class work, copy homework assignments, or turn them in.
These specific behaviors negatively impact the chances of student success as it relates to academic task completion. Furthermore, their unwillingness to make a reasonable attempt to complete homework assignments contributes to academic underachievement.
Mildly disabled students who do not complete academic assignments do so, in many cases, by choice. This is considered as a primary negative academic habit. Dembo and Seli (2004) stated that, “students’ failure to change negative academic habits includes: (a) students believe they can’t change, (b) they don’t want to change, (c) they don’t know what to change, or (d) they don’t know how to change.”
Homework is a tool that provides mildly disabled children with the opportunity to reinforce concepts that have been presented to them in the classroom. It is the practice field that prepares children for performance. It also provides a situation where children have extended time to complete assignments and receive assistance if necessary. It is critical for mildly disabled children to understand that though society is tolerant of these behaviors while they are children, they will not be tolerant when they grow to become adults. Employers who expect results do not retain those who are unwilling to perform. Unfortunately many disabilities that employers recognize are those who are physically disabled or those who are visibly recognizable (i.e. physically handicapped, wheelchair- bound, or blind). Even in these extreme cases, these individuals, as adults, have demonstrated the will to work. Mildly disabled children must learn to develop and exhibit skills to survive and provide for themselves.
Parents hate the stuff almost as much as kids and kids hate it a lot. When you have a child with special learning needs, homework can transform from an unpleasant nagging chore to hours of frustration spent at the table together, trying to make connections that just won’t line up. Still, although you may be able to make a case against homework for your child and get teachers and IEP teams to take it off the table, think twice about doing that. There are some upsides to those infernal assignments. Homework provides …
1. A firsthand view of what your child is being taught: What does your child do in school all day? Without homework coming home, you really have no way of knowing what is being taught, how it’s being taught, or if it’s being taught. Homework is your promise that some academic work is being done with your child. That’s important regardless of the setting your child is learning in — inclusion, self-contained, resource room, or what-all.
2. A way to compare what’s in the IEP to what’s being taught: Without homework, you have no real idea whether those goals are being addressed or met. Next meeting, you’re going to have to take people’s word for whether your child is succeeding or not. You’ll want to have some independent verification, and homework is an easy way to get it.
3. A sample to provide when challenging what’s being taught and how it compares to the IEP. If you feel the assignments that are coming home are not appropriate to the IEP goals you’ve agreed on — if they seem like meaningless busy work, or way above your child’s tested ability level, or seemingly unrelated to what you expect your child to be doing — make copies. Ask the teacher and the IEP team to explain to you what’s up.
4. An opportunity to see where your child struggles: One of the most excruciating things about doing homework with your child with special needs is seeing how hard simple things can be, and how even with real effort and as much help as you can give, the skill is unattainable. But you want to have that experience — so if someone tells you your child has attained that skill or is doing great in class, you can ask “Really?” and “How?”
5. An opportunity to see where your child does just fine: Conversely, if you witness your child doing things well at home and then hear constantly that it’s unattainable in the classroom, you’ll want to hand your magic wand over — or question what in the classroom might be disturbing or distracting your child from doing the work in that environment. Plus, if an IEP team says a goal’s not been reached that you know has been, you can speak up.
6. A way to figure out what grade level your child is working on: On the one hand, you want your child to work on his or her own comfortable level, and it may seem nice not to tag exactly how behind that is. Still, it’s a good fact to know, particularly as you get those IEP evaluation scores that do quantify delays.
7. Insight into the way teachers teach today: If it’s been, let’s just say, a while since you’ve been in school, you may be surprised at how math is being taught, and how much more history there is, and the kind of reading that’s out there for young people. Getting that stuff home now and then can give you an idea of why your child might be having a hard time and research what to do about it.
8. An opportunity to practice, practice, practice: Many kids with special learning needs benefit from repeating things over and over and over again. If you can knock off some of those repetitions at home, theoretically the teacher can move on to new things more quickly. Additional reinforcement can only help.
9. A chance to collaborate and improve things for your child: Just because you want homework doesn’t mean that the homework you get is always going to work. It may be that less homework, a different type of homework, fewer repetitions, less writing and more verbal practice, math problems in boxes instead of muddled together on a worksheet, fewer choices on a multiple choice, or some other variation will reinforce learning without causing overload. Instead of complaining to the teacher about homework, approach it collaboratively and see if you can find something that works for everybody, including you the stressed-out parent.
10. One peer-typical thing, no sweat: For better or for worse, homework is a rite of childhood. It’s a part of pretty much any book or TV show or movie about childhood. There are many aspects of a typical childhood that your child may not be able to participate or relate to. Don’t let hatred of homework be one of those.