Missouri State University

Dr. Reesha Adamson

  • Assistant professor
  • Springfield, Missouri

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 who have behavioral disorders.

"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.

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.

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."

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."