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Catherine Collier, Ph.D.
Catherine Collier

An increasing number of education professionals & education program administrators have been asking me how to address the diverse assessment & instruction needs of culturally & linguistically diverse students with learning & behavior problems. This situation presents even the most experienced education professional with unique challenges in identifying & addressing those needs due to difference from those due to disability.

Asking the Right Questions

These issues frequently appear in school settings as questions asked by concerned school personnel: “He has been here over two years, so isn’t his lack of academic achievement a sign of a possible disability?” “Is this communication problem a language difference or is it a language disability?” “She was born here, so can’t we rule out culture shock & language development issues?” Although illustrative of the good intentions & heartfelt concern about these students by education professionals, it is more productive to ask what information we need & how will we use it to make decisions about these students.

What information do we need?

The information to be gathered answers specific questions critical to separating difference & disability considerations:

  • a) Achievement: What is the student’s level & rate of academic achievement? Is this normal for the diverse student population in your district? For the specific culture or language population of the student?
  • b) Adaptation: What is the student’s level of acculturation? Is the student at risk for culture shock? Is the student adapting to our school at a normal rate?
  • c) Behavior: Is the student’s emotional stability developmentally & culturally appropriate? Are there individual or family circumstances that may explain the observed behavior?
  • d) Education: Has the student been in school before? Are there gaps in the student’s education experiences? Has there been sufficient intensity of instruction?
  • e) English: Does the student need assistance with learning English? Is the student developing English at a normal rate? Is the student acquiring school language at a normal rate? Has there been sufficient transition in cognitive academic English?
  • f) Home Language: Are languages other than English spoken in the student’s home?

What languages other than English does the student speak? What is the student’s language proficiency & literacy in the languages spoken in the home? Is the student developing the home language at a normal rate? Is the student maintaining an ability to communicate with his/her family members, particularly the primary caregiver?

How should we use the information?

Information about students is not valuable if it is not instructionally meaningful & does
not lead to a course of action for the student’s benefit.

  • a) Achievement: All children can learn but they learn at different rates & in different manners. A challenge of today’s standards based education models is that students that do not fit the scope & sequence of a particular school system are frequently placed in alternative instructional settings that may or may not be appropriate to their needs. If a student is not meeting the benchmarks established by a school system even when given learning support, they may be referred to special education as having a learning disability of some sort. Sometimes special education is the only instructional alternative available in the building. It is not appropriate to place students who do not have a disability in special education even when it is the best alternative instructional setting available. We recommend restructuring all programs to include differentiated instructional environments where any student can enter a lesson at his/her entry point & learn to the maximum of his/her abilities. A structured intensive intervention (ala RTI) in fundamental learning strategies would establish whether low achievement scores are learning based rather than something else.
  • b) Adaptation: The level & rate of acculturation, & accompanying degree of culture shock, must be addressed within the instructional environment. All students must adapt to the school environment whether they speak English or not; students who come into your school from homes or communities very different from the school will experience some degree of culture shock. The manifestations of culture shock look a lot like learning & behavior disabilities. Unaddressed acculturation & adaptation needs can concatenate into serious learning & behavior problems later in the education experience. An intensive instructional intervention which mitigates culture shock & facilitates adaptation & language transition should always be implemented, particularly for newcomers. Most students will respond within weeks to this intervention. This positive response does not mean that culture shock may not reappear; culture shock is cyclical & a normal part of our adaptation to anything strange to us. However, a positive response to acculturative assistance lets school personnel know that the presenting problems are due to a normal adaptive process, acculturation, which responds over time to instructional intervention. Students should have their level of acculturation measured at entry into your school system & their rate of acculturation monitored annually to assure the student is making normal progress in your school. If the student’s rate of acculturation is not within normal range, it is an indication either that the program is not adequately addressing his transition needs, or that there may be an undiagnosed disability of some sort that is depressing the rate of acculturation.
  • c) Behavior: Family & community events can be a contributing factor & it is critical to effective instruction to explore both school & non-school environments & their relationship to the student’s presenting problem. Whether the behavior problem is due to an innate disorder, biochemical dysfunction, or a temporary response to trauma or disruption in the student’s home or school environment, the student needs effective & immediate intervention & assistance. Although the student needs assistance with managing or controlling his or her behavior, special education is not the appropriate placement if the etiology of the problem is culture shock, an event or chronic stressors in the student’s home or school environment. An intensive instructional intervention which facilitates self-monitoring & control within a supportive & safe environment should always be implemented first. If the problem does not appear to decrease in frequency or intensity, or if the student
    makes little or no progress, further examination may be necessary.
  • d) Education: Prior experience in school, whether in the US or other country, facilitates transitional instructional models. Thus knowing that the student has received schooling elsewhere tells school personnel they can focus on transition from a previously learned academic language foundation to English academic language. If the student has never had a formal education experience, school personnel must start by building an understanding of school culture, rules, expectations, & basic school interaction language in the student’s most proficient language before transitioning into English. If the student shows little progress with adapting to school expectations & continues to struggle with acquiring school interaction language in their home language, further exploration may be needed.
  • e) English: The student’s language proficiency in English is directly related to eligibility & entry level for English as a second language instruction. For initial services in English language learning for limited English proficient speakers (EL), school personnel should select instruments that are quick, non-biased, & focus on speaking & listening skills. Including literacy screening would be instructionally meaningful only for students who have received prior instruction in English. Some students speak enough English to not qualify for EL services but have such a limited classroom language foundation that they look like students with learning disabilities. A structured intensive intervention in English, including basic phonics & literacy readiness would serve two purposes, profile the student’s proficiency & establish whether the low score is learning based rather than something else. If the child has a disability & is an EL student, the IEP should list the EL accommodations as part of related services. This could be bilingual assistance or other EL support within the special education setting or some other appropriate monitored intervention with specific objectives related to acquiring English. In many cases, the disabling condition is such that it seriously impacts the acquisition of English & thus special education personnel & EL personnel must work together on realistic outcomes. These modified language outcomes need to be included in the IEP.
  • f) Home Language: Students, who are raised in homes where English is infrequently or only one of other languages used, come to us with unique strengths that can become the foundation of instruction. Research shows that they have cognitive & linguistic capacities that can facilitate learning. The student’s proficiency & background in a language other than English assists in deciding the most effective instructional communicative models. It is critical to assess to the extent possible the student’s proficiency in their home language/communication mode. As there are not standardized tests available for every language or communication mode, alternative measures are frequently needed. These can be structured sampling & observation, interview, interactive inventories, & other analytic tools. Additionally, psychological wellbeing is built upon quality family communication & interactions. If the student has not acquired a developmentally appropriate proficiency in a language other than English, it may be due to family circumstances (see discussion under behavior & adaptation) or the presence of an undiagnosed disability. In either case this can delay their English acquisition. A student may score low on a standardized test in their home language because they have never received instruction in the language & have only an oral proficiency. Thus low primary language & low English may look like there is some language disability. A structured intensive intervention in the primary language, including basic phonics & literacy readiness would show whether the student has the ability to develop language & communication, profile the student’s proficiency & establish whether the low score is learning based rather than something else.

Appropriate Actions to Take

We have come a long way towards understanding the elements that best facilitate separating difference & disability. Whether a particular learning problem is due to an undiagnosed disorder or is due to an unaddressed learning need, an appropriate assessment & instruction response is required. The Seven Steps for accomplishing this are:

  1. Build & Sustain a Foundation for Learning
  2. Establish & Support Resiliency
  3. Differentiate Instruction & Intervention
  4. Monitor Instruction & Intervention
  5. Resolve or Refer
  6. Integrate Services & Cross-cultural IEPs
  7. Maintain Staff & Programs Serving CLDE

In conclusion, Building & sustaining the most effective elements of problem solving with progress monitoring programs across all levels of instruction is vital to improving the education of culturally & linguistically diverse learners, including those with exceptionalities. By incorporating differentiated instruction & tiered interventions for culturally & linguistically diverse learners, the Seven Steps assure that diverse students receive appropriate & effective education. It also reduces the number of students who are disproportionately identified (either under or over) for special services. Developing & consistently implementing a model that includes continuous problem solving with progress monitoring & dynamic culturally & linguistically responsive instruction & instructional intervention across all levels of instruction holds much promise of rectifying the educational & service inequities currently present in American schools for culturally & linguistically diverse learners.

Dr. Collier, Ferndale, Washington, is the director of the national professional development project Curriculum Integration for Responsive, Cross-Cultural, Language-based Education (CIRCLE)at Western Washington University.

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