Decades of research has concluded that the overrepresentation of Black children in special education exists in cities, towns, and countries around the world.
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For instance, a University of Oxford study on the Ethnic Disproportionality in Special Education in England found that Black Caribbean students were overrepresented in mild learning disabilities and substantially overrepresented in social/emotional and mental health categories (subsequently resulting in the need for special education for these students). In Canada, a task force report from the Toronto District School Board on Enhancing Equity said that a greater percentage of Black students were “streamed to the lowest academic level classes” and in need of Individual Education Plans (IEPs) requiring special education support.
How can so many Black children around the world have similar experiences while living on completely different continents, with different laws, policies, educators, and education systems? Are there deficits that truly exist in these children, or are there other factors that contribute to the overrepresentation? It’s a question that many have struggled to answer.
Many Black children, of course, are diagnosed correctly and appropriately placed in special education, and I am not disputing this fact. But whether a child is misdiagnosed or appropriately diagnosed, the long-term effects of having labels, stigma, limited access to development opportunities, and physical segregation can be harmful. Why? Being labeled can promote negative stereotypes, cause discrimination, and lead to lower expectations from families, educators, and even in the children themselves. This all leads to a less satisfying school experience, fewer positive relationships, and higher suspension and expulsion rates.
As a Black mother who has worked as a social worker in two different countries—Canada and England—I’ve worked with children at different stages of their education journey, and an overarching theme was that many Black children in special education faced an uphill battle. We already know that Black children are treated differently than their white counterparts, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. Special education adds an entirely new layer to that.
Why does this happen?
This battle of disproportionality in special education is complex, and the argument remains: why does this happen around the world?
To begin to explore this, we need to acknowledge the pre-existing racial and ethnic systemic challenges unrelated to education that affect Black children even before they even step foot outside of their homes. Let’s look at these challenges from a macro-level perspective. Macro-level social work focuses on understanding people in their own settings and how larger social issues contribute to the challenges they face. Some challenges faced by Black children around the world include:
1. Institutional Racism and Discrimination: A recent policy statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics said that racism hurts children–mentally, physically, and emotionally. Additionally, children experience racism through education, and research shows racism as a factor affecting general health outcomes.
2. Implicit Bias: Implicit bias can lead to disparities from cultural misunderstandings that unknowingly affect our thoughts and behaviors; and according to the Toronto District School Board Equity report, this includes conscious or unconscious bias in staff, curriculum, cultural representation, and different learning styles.
3. Socio-Economic Disparities: Poverty, stress, poor nutrition, lack of access to healthcare, and exposure to environmental pollutants have a negative effect on the physical and mental health of children.
What can we do about it?
Where do we start and what can we do? Well, in addition to larger interventions, there are smaller things we can ALL do to help by focusing on changing our own behavior and relationships.
Here are some actionable things we can ALL do right now:
1. Be more inclusive, supportive, and empathetic to families and children who have been diagnosed with any kind of disability and are in special education programs. Talk openly to your children about children with special needs and talk to your children about race.
2. Donate to local charities and organizations who: give grants to children with disabilities, provide opportunities for children and families, give info about special education regulations, support with accessing advocacy, provide special education resources for teachers, and give more information about educating students with special needs in your community
3. Hold schools and educators accountable for their policies and practices. if your child is school-aged, get involved with the school’s parent committees and go to the board meetings. Be sure to advocate for schools to develop inclusive curriculum that breaks down barriers for Black children within classrooms.
4. Be mindful of your own implicit bias. What are some prejudices you have that you may not be aware of? Do you impose them on others?
5. Support initiatives that aim to improve the emotional, physical, mental, and economic wellbeing of historically marginalized communities.
6. Listen to, believe, and support Black people in the fight to create unbiased and fair opportunities for all —including children—everywhere in the world.
While the above suggestions won’t eradicate the problem, they enable us to be more empathic, understanding, and sensitive to the issue. I’m happy that systemic Black issues are at the forefront of the world right now. It’s a perfect time to talk about this alongside the Black Lives Matter campaign because Black children matter, and that means we need to change the education system in order to best support and nurture these children.