Unintended consequences of having students in Special Education doing “jobs” at school.
It’s a common practice and a common belief that we are teaching “life skills” and “job skills” to students with significant disabilities in school by having them do janitorial work.
At a training I was conducting a few weeks ago this topic came up. A large part of the training was about changing our mindset around disability. We talked about how we always need to “presume competence” and we also discussed the value and importance of true inclusion. True inclusion involves “systemic reform” in classrooms, which changes instruction so that instead of teaching to the average student and making exceptions for the higher level kiddos and more exceptions to the lower level kiddos, we are designing instruction to meet the needs of all students.
Often, the students with significant disabilities are often segregated into separate classrooms to learn “functional curriculum.”
Here’s where I challenge that “functional curriculum.” Who decides what is functional? That’s a bit of a rhetorical question, and if you really think about the teacher and parents deciding what’s functional for a child, that’s a lot of pressure. Think about the things you were interested in as a middle school or high school student. It’s probably vastly different than now. Everyone’s lives take detours and different paths that make us who we are today. If we decide only one job skill is functional for a child, we are putting roadblocks in their future. What if they need exposure to other things in order to reach new goals and new dreams?
I believe reading and math is functional and that literacy and math skills are what all kids are learning. Those are the skills that will let students take the natural detours throughout their lives.
How is wiping down lunch tables and filling paper towel holders “functional”? (The exception to this is if that student is in training for an actual job, that they want to obtain, at that point it does become functional.)
If all kids are wiping down tables, it’s teaching responsibility for everyone. If only kids with disabilities are wiping down tables, we are, as teachers, facilitating a social hierarchy. Without also thoughtful consideration to integrating social interactions with non disabled peers, students with disabilities will always be viewed as the “clean-up crew.”
Why is this so bad?
Well, the kids who do not clean up after themselves learn that someone else will eventually clean up after them, which is pretty self-explanatory as to why that’s not a good idea.
But also, if kids with disabilities are always (think at lunch, sports uniforms, etc.) cleaning up after the kids who do not have disabilities then the kids without disabilities view them as just the “clean-up crew.” Unfortunately, they are not viewed as social equals. Someday the non-disabled kids could be owners or managers of businesses and when the student with a disability applies for a job, the first and likely only type of job they are going to think of will be a janitorial type job. That’s fine if the applicant enjoys that type of work.
(Update: This social heiarchy occurs when students don’t pick up after themselves. Unfortunately some students treat janitorial staff poorly. An example that really bugs me is when they throw paper towels towards the trash can but it falls out and the students walk away, leaving it for a janitor. That should never happen. Custodians make the school run smoothly and should be treated with the utmost respect. Maybe that should be a separate post but I do think it’s important to change that mindset as well. Many of you readers have addressed that issue in the comments, and for that I am grateful.)
That’s not ok when the applicant wanted a different type of job. That’s not ok when the applicant is gifted in other areas. Can you imagine having that type of limited ideas on your capabilities, talents and interests as an adult?
So what do we do instead? One of the great ideas that was shared was to integrate students by social interest. On each lunch table, there is a card stand, similar to a wedding table label or something. On that card stand is a list of topics to discuss at lunch. For example, one table could have “current events” and there are questions regarding local sports teams, school topics and upcoming events such as field trips, etc. Another table would have “Celebrity News” and there would be topics on the index cards to talk about on that table. Students then choose where to sit based on what they would like to discuss. I’m sure this took some adult facilitating and moderation when it first started but I thought that was a brilliant idea to take an unstructured time in school and work in character education and friendship building. After lunch then, they wipe off the tables together as part of their lunch routine. This system builds in friendship and responsibility as well as social equality for all students in such a brilliant way!
What does your school do? I’d love to hear it! Write it in the comments!
- Update: This post has received quite a bit of attention so I though I should clarify some questions I’ve had. I apologize if this came across that I was in any way devaluing custodial work. I believe whole heartedly that custodians are generally under valued and underpaid. I work with amazing custodial staff and I appreciate all they do to help me in my classroom.
- What I was trying to convey is that one population of a school should not be the only ones that are required to have school “jobs.” I also want to express that if it is part of a student’s IEP and part of their career goals, then I think school jobs are great. The problem is when the students in special education are all lumped together as needing janitorial job skills without considering other careers as well. Students with disabilities, just like students without disabilities have many gifts and talents and we are doing them a disservice if we do not consider more than one type of employment opportunity.
- Update: I deeply apologize if I came across that janitorial work is below anyone’s level. That is not at all what I meant. When I said “at least it’s not just janitorial work,” what I was trying to say was that it is great to offer more career options than just one. I wouldn’t survive very long in my school without the amazing custodians that help me out so I would never want to say anything that would be hurtful to them. I am thinking in terms of how I would feel if someone else made the decision for me that any career was what I was going to do and that is the only job skill I ever learned. Janitorial work is often chosen for several reasons – janitors work at schools because they love kids and this is an opportunity for them to work with kids, it’s also convenient because it’s a job that does not require transportation to and from a job site. I often think about my son with Down Syndrome when I’m writing and at this point in his life, I don’t think janitorial work would be his gift. (If it wasn’t such a disaster, I’d post a picture of his bedroom! oy!) He loves babies so I would like to see him learning some job skills working at a daycare. He also loves the elderly. I think another great job skill could be doing games or activities at a nursing home. We really focus on providing as many opportunities for employment options for him as possible. We recently joined 4H and he learned food preservation. He canned ketchup, which is his favorite food. He also had a lamb to show. He learned to feed him, walk him, bathe him, sheer him, etc. He is also showing his dog, and he needs to bathe her, brush her undercoat out, brush her teeth and together we will attempt to clip her toenails. That part could be really interesting. The point I want to make is that when we only train students to do one job it is very limiting for them. The other point is that we should not have just one population have these jobs in a school setting.