What should be done if a student is slower to learn than others in the class, or has behavioural difficulties? Should they stay in the same class and receive help there, or be moved to a smaller group where they can learn at their own pace?
According to international treaties and official objectives, the answer is that children with special needs should stay with the rest of the class. And yet, many still end up in special groups.
A century ago, the establishment of special education schools for pupils who were not expected to succeed in primary school was considered a step forward in Finland. Now, regular classes in regular schools are considered the best option for most pupils, if everyone receives sufficient support. But is there enough support available?
Inclusive education requires training and resources: time, money, and professionals. In all these areas, there is room for improvement.
An unpopular model
In Finland, inclusion is not a popular goal among teachers: only 22 percent support it.
Teachers are particularly unwilling to have students with behavioural disorders in their classrooms. In the most chilling accounts, the teacher has been bound to spend their time calming a disruptive student, leaving the rest of the class without instruction.
"Teachers should not be left alone. It is not in anyone’s interest that special needs pupils participate in regular classes without systematic support measures, forcing teachers to solve the problems on their own,” Professor of Special Education Markku Jahnukainen says.
Inclusion has been discussed extensively in public, but rarely in an approving way. The ideal of inclusive education has been viewed as an explanation for negative developments including teachers’ burnout and school violence. However, Finnish schools do not in fact fully implement inclusive education.
“The aim of the inclusion principle is that schools should be capable to meet the needs of all students. We are not there yet. At the moment, it is possible to teach students with special needs in regular classes, but this is rare,” Jahnukainen says.
Divisions and labels
Since 1998, schools have been able to place children with special needs in regular classes. However, only approximately four percent of all students are special needs children who attend regular classes more than 50 percent of the time. The share of students who receive special support and who spend less than half of their time in inclusive education is slightly larger.
In addition to special support, there is also another lighter form of assistance, known as intensified support. This may cause confusion. Some students can also be challenging even if they do not receive any support.
But why is inclusive education a better option than a special needs class?
“Belonging to a special group can stigmatise students. The quality of instruction can also be poorer in regular classes if a special needs teacher teaches all subjects,” Jahnukainen says.
At the moment, Jahnukainen’s research group is studying the differences in learning outcomes between inclusive and special needs groups. The researchers examine the impacts on the learning of special needs students as well as other students. Thousands of fourth-graders from different parts of Finland have participated in the study.
Jahnukainen’s colleague, Professor of Special Education Joseph Gagnon, studies inclusion in Finnish schools. Gagnon has previously worked as a special education teacher, and his former workplaces include a psychiatric hospital.
If there were enough special education teachers, counsellors and social workers, a significantly larger share of students with special needs could participate in regular classes in their neighbourhood schools. However, there is a shortage of school psychologists in Finnish schools: a single counsellor can have as many as 2,000 students as clients.
“Often, the decision to transfer a student to a special needs class or special education school is based on school resources, not the student’s needs. If a school has only one special education teacher, inclusion becomes impossible,” Gagnon points out.
Inclusive education requires extensive collaboration between teachers, counsellors, and school social workers. Teacher students should be able to practise this mode of working already at university.
“Teachers in Finland are not used to working together. Cooperation between special education teachers and subject teachers is particularly essential in implementing behavioural interventions,” says Gagnon.
In crisis situations, such as when a child is violent, schools should have a clear plan of action that ensures the safety of teachers and students. However, according to Gagnon, many schools have not prepared such a plan.
Teacher education in Finland is more research-based than in the United States, where the focus is on practical work. Gagnon believes that the ideal lies somewhere in between.
Most teacher students only take one general course on inclusion and special education. The content of teacher training will be reviewed in the coming years, but inclusion faces severe competition from other potential course additions, including digitalisation and sustainability. The degree can only accommodate a finite number of new topics.
Teachers can pursue further training also later in their careers, but this requires resources as well. If a teacher wishes to continue their education, are schools able to hire substitutes?
According to a study published in 2020, only 22 percent of Finnish teachers view inclusion favourably. Including students with behavioural disorders in regular education is considered particularly difficult. Teacher students also feel unprepared to address behavioural problems.
As there is a lack of instruction on behavioural interventions in teacher training, this does not come as a surprise.
“Teacher training needs more courses on behavioural interventions, collaboration, and preparation. Teacher students should work with children with special needs and cooperate with special education teachers already over their practical training,” Gagnon says.
Teachers try to address harmful behaviour through disciplinary educational discussions and detention, which rarely work. However, a range of anticipatory measures can be used to improve behaviour. Some children need support in anger management, some in interaction. Others need help in practising self-soothing.
“Behaviour can be supported much like learning. Whether the problem is bullying, problematic behaviour, or something else, teachers must guide students in the right direction,” says Gagnon.
A lack of information
Gagnon criticises that so little information on special education is collected in Finland.
“We know that 18.8 percent of Finnish schoolchildren receive either intensified or special support. But we do not know the reasons behind the support or the effects of it.”
It is also unclear how many students are in special needs groups because of behavioural problems and how many because of learning difficulties. This is because the related disability classification was eliminated in 2010.
The aim was to reduce stigma and transition to more personalised support for students. However, the result is that for the past 10 years, there is no time series of special support in Finland.
The lack of uniform criteria and standards is a significant problem. Gagnon compares it to playing tennis without rules.
“We have to collect data to see who benefits from special education and who does not. We must analyse the data and adjust methods accordingly.”
No national guidelines
The UN and the Council of Europe have encouraged operators to adopt inclusion, but the Finnish Basic Education Act does not make it obligatory. Municipalities are free to define the education of special needs students.
“Without specific guidance, especially in small municipalities there can be arrangements that are not in the student’s best interest,” Markku Jahnukainen laments.
Decisions on special support are made by the school welfare team. It usually includes the class teacher as well as a special education teacher, a psychologist, a school social worker, and the principal. It may also include other experts.
There are vast differences between municipalities in the composition of the school welfare teams. In Finland, the number of students in special education schools has been steadily decreasing for the past 20 years. However, within regular schools, the number of special education classes and small groups has remained unchanged. They are more commonly used in Finland than in most other European countries.
Inclusion is mentioned in the programme of the current Finnish government. Jahnukainen is a member of the Right to Learn development committee of the Ministry of Education and Culture, which is considering how to promote inclusive education.
However, political decisions do not always translate into practice. Jahnukainen points to Canada, where the government made radical political decisions on transitioning to inclusive education, but where special education remains similar to Finland.
An advocate for ‘bad kids’
Joseph Gagnon notes that the discussion on inclusive education is tied to society as a whole.
“There have always been people who do not want ‘bad kids’ near their children. But everyone has the right to education and to be included.”
Exclusion is detrimental both to children and society. At its worst, it can lead to marginalisation and a cycle of imprisonment.
Gagnon calls for discussion on what it truly means to accept everyone the way they are.
“It is easier to push children with behavioural disorders aside rather than support them. Troubled youth do not have many advocates.”
The article has been published in Finnish in the 9/2021 issue of the Yliopisto magazine.
When special education teacher Birgit Paju began her doctoral thesis, she attempted to avoid inclusion as a topic because of its negative associations. Ultimately, it was precisely inclusion that became her thesis topic.
Today, Paju is the principal of the Lintuvaara primary school in Espoo. She tries to apply her research in her work every day. One particularly important insight was that no one thrives if they are left alone. It is important to practise collaboration.
“The old way is to have one teacher per class. When people try to integrate inclusion into that picture, it just does not work. We have to adopt a new perspective on structures and the operating culture.”
Teachers that Paju interviewed were concerned about their professional competence, the management of group dynamics, and the different approaches they must incorporate in teaching.
In Paju’s view, inclusion should not be perceived as a black-and-white issue. There is still a demand for special education classes.
The Lintuvaara school currently has three special education groups whose students require support for regulating their behaviour and emotions. From the second grade onwards, they have joint classes with other students. Gradually, they study more and more with the rest.
At the moment, the fifth-grade special education group and students in regular education study together throughout the school day. Special education teachers cooperate with regular teachers.
“Everyone has the right to a peaceful work environment, which is why the integration is carried out carefully in stages.”
Having all the teachers of a specific grade work as a team where everyone supports each other helps incorporate inclusion into practice.
According to Paju, the resources available are still insufficient.
“We are skating on thin ice. Ideally, we would have more special education teachers.”