Making Inclusion a Reality in ELA Classrooms: Four Practical Ideas

Nina F. Weisling, Assistant Professor of Education, Carthage College, nweisling @

Amy L-M Toson, Assistant Professor of Special Education, Carroll University, atoson @

Roughly 63% of students with /dis/abilies spend a majority of their school day in the general education classroom (National Center for Education Statistics, 2018) engaging in a practice known as inclusion. These students may be included for any and all subjects, including English Language Arts (ELA). Therefore, it is likely that the majority of ELA teachers have taught, or will be teaching, students with and without /dis/abilities inclusively in one classroom. Inclusion as a philosophy and practice formally entered the educational landscape in the 1970s and 1980s (Osgood, 2005; Teacher Education Division, Council for Exceptional Children, 1987). With nearly 50 years of discussion, legislation, and implementation, it may be tempting to think that the challenges associated with inclusion have been remedied. However, the how-to of inclusion is still very much a work-in-progress.

Research suggests that both general education and special education teachers charged with educating students with /dis/abilities feel unprepared (Kloo & Zigmond, 2008; Rea & Connell, 2005) and lacking in the skills they need (Grant & Gillette, 2006; Little & Theiker, 2009) to effectively implement inclusive practices. In addition, there is no universally agreed upon and understood definition for what inclusion is or how to do it, though most inclusive classrooms are built on time, energy, and effort from both a general and a special educator. Inclusive schools also utilize the expertise of additional adults, such as reading interventionists and paraprofessionals, working collaboratively to serve all students.

Understanding what inclusion is and how to put it into action effectively is especially important for ELA educators, as it is often in literacy-heavy classrooms where the true scope and diversity of student learning needs come to light. According to the 2017 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), as many as 32% of 4th graders, 24% of 8th graders, and 28% of 12th graders performed at below basic in reading, with another significant percentage reading at basic (31% , 40%, and 35% respectively).  This national data on reading performance suggests that both students with and without /dis/abilities would benefit from having two (or more) certified educators working together to use a range of inclusive and evidenced-based practices. This would likely maximize and diversify the types and amounts of learning opportunities and strategies available for all students.

The purpose of this article is to outline key ideas and specific strategies thatELA educators can implement across PK-12 to improve their inclusive practices and effectively serve all learners.

Key Idea 1: Inclusion Does NOT Equal Co-Teaching.
Often, educators and school administrators use the term inclusion interchangeably with co-teaching. Therefore, when special education or ELA educators hear that they will be working in an inclusive model, they often assume they will be co-teaching. While both practices typically involve both special education and ELA educators, inclusion and co-teaching are actually distinctive concepts that require different systems and supports in order to be implemented successfully.

Inclusion as a philosophy holds that all learners–those with and without /dis/abilities, English learners, students experiencing poverty or trauma–are fully valued and included meaningfully in all school environments. To do this, all adults work collaboratively, inside and out of classroom spaces (Lipsky & Gartner, 2008).

Inclusionas a practice refers to two qualified educators, most often in special education and general education, with their own training, specializations, strengths, areas of expertise, and experiences, collaborating to develop and implement specially designed instruction that meets the needs of all students, including those with special education needs. The goal is for both educators to share intentionally the responsibility of teaching and learning for all students across environments. While inclusion as a practicecan, and arguably should, include models of co-teaching, co-teaching is just one of many tools from which effective inclusive models candraw. Inclusive education is bigger than co-teaching. It includes a wide range of practices, including Universal Design for Learning, augmentative and alternative communication, and assistive technology, each of which is explored in-depth below.

Unfortunately, when schools and classrooms are structured with a philosophy of inclusion without sufficient attention to the technical and logistical needs of the practices of inclusion, there is a mismatch in expectations and reality. This is especially true when co-teaching is the expectation, but has not been planned for sufficiently. The schedules, systems, teaching practices, and supports required for each are markedly different. Imagine heading into a couple’s ice skating competition only to find that the competition is designed for single skaters. While there is significant overlap between the two skating populations, they are distinctive, and the couple will not be successful when judged based on singles expectations. In the case of co-teaching in an inclusive school, this can lead to frustration and disillusionment for both the ELA and special education educators alike (Toson & Weisling, 2020).

What can I do? The most important thing any inclusive educator can do is to talk candidly with both the building administration and the peer(s) with whom they will be enacting inclusion. Be clear about the expectations for supporting students with /dis/abilities in the classroom. Build relationships with and challenge common misconceptions about “my” and “your” students and classroom.

Key Idea 2: Space Matters
Walk into the majority of schools and you will see that special education and general education (including ELA) are siloed. If not, special education tends to “roam” in and out of other (mostly general education) teachers’ classrooms. The status quo is that it is the general educator’s room, desk, name on the door, name on the letters home to families, name in the record books, and presence at conference time.  

Too often teachers’ roles in shared classrooms are similarly divided. In the case of inclusive ELA classrooms, it is the ELA educators who lead instruction, confer with “their” students during independent reading, and facilitate and evaluate whole group discussion. Special educators are relegated to the role of assistant when in the room or, conversely, opt to pull “their” students out for small group or 1:1 teaching (Toson & Weisling, 2020). This separation of space and roles communicates a clear message to both educators, their students, and to families: the general educator is the teacher, the special educator is the support. These silos also represent missed opportunities for students.

The reality is, both educators come to their roles with unique, specialized, and valuable skills. In the case of ELA educators, especially those who exclusively teach ELA courses, their pre-service training likely focused on content and pedagogy specific to ELA, giving them expertise in designing and implementing lessons specific to reading and writing. This is markedly different from the training most special educators receive, which tends toward understanding learner diversity and how to differentiate and adjust pedagogical decisions to meet individual student needs. Giving educators the opportunity to combine their expertise through inclusive teaching can enhance the learning experience of students with and without /dis/abilities.

What can I do? Schools, administrators, and teachers must collectively, intentionally, and actively shift away from siloing both the physical designation of “ELA educators” and “special education” classroom or office, and the delegation of roles and responsibilities from ELA educators as lead, and special educator as support. Instead, classroom spaces and responsibilities should be shared equitably and responsively based on teachers’ expertise and students’ needs.

For example, instead of viewing special educators as teachers who go in to the ELA educator’s classroom or work in their own space, both ELA educators and special educators must be seen as equally qualified, specialist educators, as demonstrated by sharing the physical space and the roles and responsibilities of the classroom.

ELA educators can help by:

  • Insisting that both names go on both the door and on all communications home;
  • Always saying “us”/ “we”/ “our” (if even the special educator isn’t in the room);
  • Creating a shared professional space (e.g., desks together, spaces for personal belongings) for both educators;
  • Soliciting advice and ideas from the special educator, particularly around Universal Design for Learning, differentiation, and academic and behavioral scaffolds;
  • Sharing in the planning (or at least the plans);
  • Taking the initiative to organize the time and structures for planning and implementation of procedures, behavioral expectations, and lessons to include the special educator(s) as active participants and equals;
  • Co-selecting time for the special educators to lead instruction based on their expertise and student needs, including read alouds, shared reading, discussions, and centers.

Special educators can help by:

  • “Owning” their role as equal educator, even though their daily role may look very different, and they may feel uncomfortable or even unqualified to do so (Toson & Weisling, 2020);
  • Offering ideas and suggestions, and being willing to take the lead on planning, instructing, and/or assessing (again, even if they feel uncomfortable/unqualified to do so);
  • Assessing and evaluating student assessments and work samples to shed light on possible reading-related challenges;
  • Supporting and/or leading efforts for differentiation and designing lessons using UDL (see Key Idea 4);
  • Challenging their own internal beliefs and use of “my students” language.

Key Idea 3: Try Out Models of Co-Teaching

Teaching students to be readers, researchers, writers, presenters and thinkers is complex and requires that both ELA educators and special educators have an extensive knowledge base and robust range of pedagogical tools. Learning to read and write are similarly complex processes, and the ways in which students can struggle to learn or demonstrate their learning are as variable as the students themselves. When ELA educators and special educators come together to share and build upon one another’s expertise by designing, implementing, and assessing ELA instruction, the potential benefits to students are immense and varied across academic, behavioral/social, and professional domains (Ballard & Dymond, 2017; Cole et al., 2019; Conderman et al., 2013; DeSimone et al., 2013). Co-teaching, as mentioned above, is one potential model of inclusive teaching.

Co-teaching happens when two (or more) professionals jointly plan and deliver substantive and specially designed instruction to a diverse, blended group of students in a single physical space with parity, or equal status (Friend & Pope, 2005; Murawski & Dieker, 2004; Spencer, 2005). It is highly recommended that this includes co-planning; co-facilitating instruction in flexible models; and sharing responsibility for materials preparation, assessment, and subsequent planning. While co-teaching most often refers to special and general educators, it can refer to any partnerships of adults (e.g., reading interventionists, two general education, paraprofessionals) who work collaboratively to serve all students.

At the core, co-teaching requires shared time, space, sense of accountability, and ownership in order to fully leverage the presence of two qualified adults to effectively guide students learning. Carving out that time, space, and sense of collaboration with parity can be challenging for a range of reasons.

For example, special educators’ daily responsibilities are dictated by the goals and supplementary aides and services outlined in students’ Individualized Education Plans (IEPs). With diverse roles and expectations, inclusion may be one of several responsibilities they have in a given day, or it may be the only one.  It is possible that students’ IEPs will require special educators to divide time between multiple learning spaces. Even if all services are to be delivered in the general education classroom, with caseloads ranging from 5 to more than 25 students, it is not uncommon for special educators to work across multiple general education classrooms, content areas, and/or grades. These challenges are further compounded when school-wide systems and structures such as master scheduling, strategic co-teacher partnering, and expectations for co-teaching are unclear or unsupported, making shared planning time nearly impossible.

In addition to logistical challenges, co-teaching is commonly compared to a marriage, and for good reason: it requires trust, relationship, and time! Bringing two individuals together, with distinctive ideas about what a well-run and engaging classroom looks like, is hard work! Personality clashes and different preferences, beliefs, and practices, coupled with a lack of time to genuinely collaborate and build relationships, create barriers to effective co-teaching and inclusion. Compounding this, most special educators are not “monogamous” with a singular ELA partner. Instead, they typically have multiple classrooms in which they are responsible for offering specialized support.

Despite these challenges, and in addition to benefits described above, co-teaching allows teachers to share the workload, utilizes educators’ different expertises, reduces the student-to-adult ratio, and differentiates the instructional models and pedagogical tools.

What Can I Do? The most important thing educators can do is try! Given the challenges described above, particularly school-level scheduling and special educators’ other responsibilities, this may require intentional commitment and effort from both parties and an agreed-upon flexibility and grace between both individuals.

Five commonly used and recommended models (Friend & Cook, 2016) and how they might look in an ELA classroom are described in detail below. Wherever classroom-based examples are provided, the roles of special educators and ELA educators can and should be used interchangeably.

One lead/one support. In this model, one person takes lead on instruction while the other supports with managing materials, maintaining a positive learning climate, trouble-shooting (e.g., if technology is being used), collecting targeted data, and generally being available to step in as needed. Either educator can and should step into either role! The pair may even choose to alternate throughout the lesson.

In an ELA classroom:
a. the special educator leads a lesson on locating evidence in the text to support a claim while the ELA educator circulates to monitor students’ practice attempts, taking note of who is on track to master the objective and who might benefit from remediation in a small group during independent reading;

b. the ELA educator periodically interjects a quick clarifying question or example during a special education-led lesson;

c. the ELA educator leads a small group discussion of a complex text, while the special educator supports students’ behavior as they try newly taught social skills.

Team teaching is a co-teaching model during which both teachers are equally responsible for planning and instructing all students. Both teachers are at the front of or circulating around the room taking turns leading instruction, discussing key concepts, modeling, using question-and-answer with one another to illustrate main ideas, managing materials, and supporting students’ academic and behavioral needs.

In an ELA classroom:
a. each instructor takes turns reading different characters in a story, poem, or script;

b. one educator reads a story while the other pauses to get metacognitive and model their thinking;

c. both educators model appropriate language stems for debating a topic; and

d. much, much more

While all models have seemingly endless applications, team teaching is perhaps the most fun, versatile, impactful, and relationship-intensive model of co-teaching.

Parallel teaching takes place when both teachers divide the class equally and teach the same lesson content simultaneously, though the instructional methods and/or materials used by each may differ. This division of labor can reduce the workload for each teacher and increase the amount and type of support and attention available for students by lowering the student-to-adult ratio.

Nearly any content in an ELA classroom is conducive to parallel teaching, which requires some shared planning of the lessons’ broad strokes, but it also has built-in flexibility for both educators to work independently on their own version of the lesson.

In an ELA classroom, each instructor:
a. covers the same learning objective, such as grounding conclusions in evidence from the text, but through different text levels or formats (e.g., text vs. audio);

b. reduces the teacher-to-student ratio on a particularly nuanced learning goal such as analyzing a Civil War primary source, in which language usage and vocabulary may be unfamiliar;

divides the class into different application activity groups. For example, the special educator may lead a Reader’s Theatre group of students who need additional fluency support while the general education teacher leads a group working on comprehension through an arts-integrated diorama project.

Alternative teaching. At this time, two or more educators divide the class into different-sized groups. One group is taught the lesson of the day and the other is provided an alternate lesson, often remediation or enrichment. Like all models of co-teaching, adults should divide responsibility for the groups based on their expertise as well as their students’ specific needs. The benefits of alternative teaching are similar to parallel teaching.

In an ELA classroom, alternative teaching may be necessary for various reasons:
a. At the end of a lesson, 80% of students scored lower than 50% on the exit slip, while 20% did not miss any questions. Together, both instructors together may determine that, in the next lesson, the special educator should re-teach the lesson to the 80% who struggled while the ELA educator pulls the other 20% for enrichment;

b. While team teaching a lesson on how particular lines of dialogue in a play propel the action by using close reading, the general educator and special educator analyze student work samples and find that 10 of 24 students are struggling. They decide to divide the class during independent work, with the ELA educator re-teaching content to the 10 students who struggled while the special educator works with the remaining 14 for enrichment;

c. After analyzing first drafts of essays, the instructors find that one sub-group of students needs targeted support to organize main ideas around a thesis, while the rest of the class is ready to continue with the follow-up lesson on expanding and extending their arguments. They decide that one educator will teach the planned lesson, while the other delivers an alternate lesson on how to develop and organize a thesis paper to a small group.

Centers/stations teaching takes place whenboth teachers lead the planning and implementation of different learning stations connected to the same content.Students rotate through each station, working with both educators.

In an ELA classroom:
a. one teacher leads guided reading groups, another facilitates word study, and a third (or more) facilitates an independent center for students to rotate through;

b. one teacher leads core reading groups, a reading interventionist delivers tier 2 or tier 3 interventions, one educator or paraprofessional delivers specially designed instruction, and at least one other facilitates independent centers.

There are seemingly endless ways each model of co-teaching can be used. To help both educators get started with co-teaching, it can be helpful to:

a. Pick one model to try out. Plan to use it regularly (2-3 times per week) for a month;
b. Invest time to clarify roles and responsibilities, given the choice of model;
c. Shake up the roles played by each educator: perhaps some days the special educator leads and the ELA educator supports, and perhaps some days the special educator takes the group working on the daily lesson while the ELA educator works with the remediation group;
d. Use students’ needs and adults’ expertise to guide decision-making;
e. Add another model–and use multiple models within a singular lesson–when ready!

Additional information and examples of models of co-teaching can be found through the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education.

Key Idea 4: Use Universal Design
Among the many strategies that either ELA or special educators can use to effectively support all learners are Universal Design for Learning, Assistive Technology, and Augmentative and Alternative Communication. When ELA and special educators use these practices, they:

select and use augmentative and alternative communication devices and assistive and instructional technology products to promote student learning and independence … [and] use the universal design for learning framework to select, design, implement, and evaluate important student outcomes.” (McLeskey et al., 2017, p. 22)

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a framework for guiding teachers’ decision-making related to instructional practice, materials, and curricula to meet the needs of all learners (Gorden, Meyer, & Rose, 2016). This flexibility is key given the variability of learners in our classrooms (Meyer et al., 2014). In fact, advances in neuroscience have shown that learners approach, engage with, and express learning in different ways, even those who appear to have similar characteristics and abilities (Hartmann, 2015).

The UDL framework (Gorden, Meyer, & Rose, 2016) lays out the following three principles (further explored at CAST) providing students with multiple means of:

  1. representation: the “what” of learning, how new information is presented;
  2. action and expression: the “how” of learning, the ways in which students practice with and show their understanding of their learning;
  3. engagement: the “why” of learning, how teachers help students prioritize and make space for learning new content.

While planning, ELA and special educators can combine their knowledge of students, content, and pedagogy to present information, let students practice and show mastery, and capture students’ attention to the content in a variety of ways, responding to students’ diverse needs. In ELA classrooms, some of the most common practices include audio text, peer reading, and dictating or providing oral responses (such as through role playing or acting). A wonderful, self-guided resource that teachers can access to learn more about UDL comes from the IRIS Center at Vanderbilt University.

Assistive Technology (AT). According to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (2004), assistive technology is any “piece of equipment, or product system, whether acquired commercially off the shelf, modified, or customized, that is used to increase, maintain, or improve the functional capabilities of a child with a disability.” While originally conceptualized as a special education support, Assistive Technology is a scientifically sound and effective education tool that can enable ELA and special educators to serve all students.

Assistive Technology strategies can be low or high tech. In an ELA classroom, low tech can be as simple as putting Post-it Notes of key vocabulary words on a student’s desk, or highlighting specific passages for a reader to focus on. Higher tech ELA practices include using an advanced e-reader, a digital note taking pen, or tablets with customizable screens for pictures, words, or passages. In today’s digital world, the available options are limitless and can be quite cost effective. Additional information and examples can be found at the IRIS Center.

Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC). According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing-Association (n.d.), AAC is “all of the ways that we share our ideas and feelings without talking.” AAC includes three formats, each of which has specific applications to ELA classrooms: unaided, basic, and high tech. Unaided AAC involves only one’s own body, such as for sign language, gestures and other non-verbal forms of communication; basic can include pointing to words on paper, in a text, or on a screen; and high-tech includes systems that require the use of a tool or device, such as speaking computers.

As an evidence-based practice, AAC has shown to have a positive effect on the social, language and communication capabilities for students with autism, intellectual disabilities and complex communication needs (Barbosa et al., 2018; Morin et al. 2018) and to reduce challenging behavior for students with disabilities within inclusive settings (Walker et al., 2018).

What Can I Do? Collaborate with your colleagues to implement a UDL framework with both AT and AAC at the onset of lesson planning and throughout the teaching and learning cycle. See Flanagan, Liebling, and Meltzer (2013) for a detailed example of applying UDL, AT and ACC.


Inclusion as a philosophy and as a practice is daunting, nuanced, and specialized work! Research demonstrates that inclusion can have many positive benefits for students with and without /dis/abilities, as well as for the educators who serve them. Students with /dis/abilities see more satisfying and diverse friendships and improved communication (Ballard & Dymond; 2017; DeSimone, Maldonado, & Rodriguez, 2013), better post-high school outcomes (Wagner et al., 2006) and, for students with /dis/abilities who spend their entire day in general education classrooms, “significantly better [outcomes] in both reading and math assessments than their peers … in separate special education classrooms” (Cole et al. 2019, p.2). For inclusive educators, engaging in the practice of inclusion is linked to higher rates of professional growth (Conderman et al., 2013). And for students without /dis/abilities, inclusion results in greater gains in mathematics and reading, reduced fear of differences, and increased empathy, self-concept, social cognition, and ethical principles (A.B. 1914, 2020).

While effective, many educators feel unprepared and ineffective, and it can be tempting to give up on inclusion (Toson & Weisling, 2020). However, inclusion, co-teaching, Universal Design for Learning, Assistive Technology, and Augmentative and Alternative Communication are all worthwhile endeavors that can ultimately lighten the load for educators, allowing them to learn from one another; reduce teacher-to-student ratios; provide students with diverse teaching styles and strategies; and result in a wide range of measurable, positive outcomes. While challenging, inclusion is not only very much worth doing, but also achievable in every ELA classroom.

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Karl Is Ready! Why Aren’t You? Promoting Social and Cultural Skills in Early Childhood Education

Brian L. WrightDonna Y. Ford, and Nicole McZeal Walters

Karl—bright, inquisitive, vibrant, and full of possibilities—was born in 2011 and will enter kindergarten in 2016 ready to learn and explore the four Rs: reading, writing, arithmetic, and race. At the age of 4, he is academically and cognitively advanced. He has an extensive vocabulary (most people think he is 6 or 7 years old) and is advanced in math, including adding and subtracting in his head (without counting on fingers). Karl can count past 100 and knows all letters of the alphabet (upper and lower case), spells his name, knows all colors (primary, secondary, and tertiary). He loves books and demands that his family read to him. Karl is more than ready for school. Also important to note is that Karl speaks openly about skin color. Thus, he is academically and culturally advanced. When playing a video game with family, he was asked to choose his character. Karl chose the darkest shade, yet his skin tone is light (a caramel shade). His family was pleased to see this Black boy recognizing skin color and doing so in a positive and prideful way. What would teachers (the majority of whom are White) have said or done, if anything? Are they comfortable talking about race with young children? Are they competent doing so? What resources will they use? Will Karl encounter expectations at odds with his social-cultural development? In the sections that follow, the authors aim to respond to these questions important for determining what African American boys need to thrive and what those who teach them need to know and do in order to support their development of a positive self-identity.

We begin with a focus on the changing demographics of early childhood education, followed by a critique of the practice of “school readiness,” specifically how the criteria of readiness (for whom and what?) historically and currently tend to marginalize much of what African American children learn in their homes and communities as irrelevant to school readiness. To elaborate, we argue that schools frequently expect children and their families to be “ready” for schools, ignoring (perhaps unintentionally) how they, too, need to be “ready” to engage children and their families from culturally, linguistically, and economically different backgrounds. We conclude with a focus on the importance of preparing early childhood teachers to recognize, understand, and promote the social and cultural skills of African American children in general, boys in particular. The three Rs are essential but not enough to support culturally different students

The “face” of kindergarten classrooms changed with the entering class of 2016 representing mostly students of color. Some 52% of kindergarteners in this year were non-White. This demographic shift calls for associated changes in teacher preparation, specifically the requisite knowledge, skills, and appropriate dispositions necessary to be culturally competent in the early childhood education classroom. For instance, 99% of teachers in early childhood education are female (Saluja, Early, & Glifford, 2002), and the majority are White. These percentages are not predicted to change in the near future (Kena et al., 2015). This high number of female and White early childhood teachers alone raises an important question: What happens when boys are educated almost exclusively by women who may favor (unbeknownst to them) a feminized curriculum and may not be trained to understand boys’ needs in general, Black boys in particular? Evidence of this lack of training and understanding has been documented in the seminal works of Hale (1982) and Kunjufu (1985), and more recently by Barbarin and Crawford (2006), who argue that some teachers have difficulty establishing emotionally close relationships with children who are culturally and socioeconomically different from them. This cultural, gender, and socioeconomic mismatch does not bode well for the Karls in our schools. Likewise, nor does it bode well for educators who will likely have deficit-oriented views and hyper-focus on problems (real and/or imagined) rather than promises and possibilities. Even well-intentioned teachers and school personnel, meaning those who want to be effective with all students, may encounter difficulties in being responsive to children from racially, linguistically, and culturally diverse backgrounds (Wright, Counsell, & Tate, 2015).

In general, teachers are faced with learning to recognize and appreciate the social and cultural practices of children who say and do things in ways they either do not know how to value or find confusing. When the latter happens, boys as a whole, Black boys in particular, are perceived as failing to respond in the desired ways with respect to school readiness skills (e.g., “maturity”). Over time, these same teachers distance themselves emotionally, thus confusing their lack of familiarity with the social and cultural practices of African American boys as deficits vis-à-vis strengths to cultivate and encourage. Consequently, when teachers fail to recognize, understand, and engage the social and cultural strengths of Black boys, they begin to develop negative ideas about their motivation and abilities (i.e., school readiness). This is tantamount to blaming the victim and undermining African American boys’ adaptation to and success in school. Teachers must be skilled in the traditional and foundational three Rs (reading, writing, and arithmetic). This is critical to their school success. Just as important is the fourth R: Race. In this diverse nation and in these increasingly diverse schools, teachers must become culturally competent, which consists of knowledge, skills, and appropriate dispositions to work effectively with Black students and other children of color. As depicted in Table 1, culturally responsive education includes teachers’ philosophies about working with Karl and other students of color, how they promote a culturally responsive learning environment, creating relevant and multicultural curriculum, adapting teaching styles to learning styles, and selecting the most fair and least biased instruments.

Table 1: From Cultural Clashes with School Readiness to Culturally Responsive Strength-Based Practices Approach

Sits quietly Movement oriented and Vervistic (may be considered immature and lacking self-control) Encourage indoor and outdoor large motor and whole body experiences, such as putting mats in spacious areas to encourage boys (and girls) to tumble and roll
Follow rules Expressive individualism; creative, risk taker (May be considered defiant and disrespectful) Create opportunities for spontaneous and continuous exploration of “What if…” questions
Draws within the lines Expressive individualism – creative; imaginative; thinks outside the box (May be viewed as lacking manual dexterity, delayed fine motor skills, and immature) Observe closely with a strength-based lens and note three things that you noticed that you may not have seen previously
Knows first and last name Expressive individualism – likes to make up names, including nicknames (May be viewed as immature, learning disability or unintelligent) Supports children’s initiative and curiosity about their own interests and the world around them
Listen when others talk, especially teacher Oral tradition – call and response

(May be viewed as rude and disrespectful)

Uses cultural strengths, such as oral traditions in African American communities, to develop emergent reading and writing skills
Do not question or challenge authority figures Oral tradition – blunt and direct

(May be viewed as rude and a bad or troubled child)

Acknowledges the legitimacy of cultural heritages as legacies that affect children’s dispositions and attitudes and are worthy curriculum content
Quiet when working Oral tradition – enjoys talking and expressing self in all contexts

(May talk during all assignments, even assessments)

Think about the early learning environment and how it meets

needs and reflects strengths

Independent Communal – interdependent, social, and extraverted (May be perceived as lacking independence) What strengths appear and how can they be leveraged?
Shares Communal – strong affiliation to loved ones first (May not share with those they don’t trust) Explicit about respecting diverse cultures, experiences, and practices
Takes responsibility Communal – protective of friends and loved ones. (May get in trouble helping and taking up for others) Use the home culture and learning as a positive platform on which to build learning

D. Y. Ford and B. L. Wright (12/2015)

Responding to Demographic Changes in Early Childhood Education Classrooms
Early childhood education classroom demographics are rapidly changing and continue to have a significant impact on teacher preparation. For example, helping both pre- and in-service teachers develop a clear sense of their cultural identities in relation to the students they will teach is a key first step in awareness of how notions of race, class, gender, ability, and disability affect their teaching and students’ learning. Therefore, since the demographic reality is one of an increasingly diverse student population (with a homogeneous teaching population), teacher preparation that pays attention to teacher efficacy and the importance of understanding teaching, learning, and schooling in relation to notions of race, class, gender, ability, and disability is essential to be ready for the Karls of the world.

There are complex connections between racial-ethnic identity, gender, and academic achievement for even our youngest learners. This is especially true for African American boys , for whom race and gender tend to limit their educational experiences and opportunities (Wright et al., 2015). McKown and Weinstein (2008) demonstrated that teacher bias—evidenced by teachers treating children of equivalent academic abilities differently based on the children’s racial-ethnic status—accounted for nearly one third of a standard deviation of such differences in educational achievement over the course of one academic year. African American males, excessively and unjustly disciplined for minor infractions, are overlooked in the readiness notion of “second chances” or “time-outs” given generously to other groups—notably, middle-class White males and females.

Preparing teachers to recognize, understand, and support the early development of positive (i.e., culturally responsive) schooling and racial identities among African American boys is critical to their sense of belonging and, thus, overall school success. For example, Wright, Counsell, and Tate (2015) assert that “positive racial identities among African American boys contribute strongly to high academic achievement” (p. 25) and, therefore, cannot be ignored in teacher preparation, which is also urged by Whiting (2006, 2009). Moreover, a strong sense of in-group affiliation and identification with one’s racial-ethnic group is associated with academic achievement, which can be positive or negative depending on the context and preparedness of the teacher to work effectively with children from culturally, linguistically, and economically diverse backgrounds. It goes without saying, then, that school readiness can no longer simply be about how ready children and their families are for school. It must also include just how ready teachers are for the growing and complex diversity found in classrooms across the nation. Before we can begin to address teacher readiness, attention must be given to the genesis of school readiness as a stable practice in preK-K programs.

School Readiness for Whom and for What?
Accountability pressures (i.e., The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, or NCLB) have created a skill-driven, teach-to-the-test environment whereby young children are made to sit for long periods of time filling out worksheets rather than listening to stories, counting with real objects, or engaging in project-based learning about their community helpers (we will await the impact of the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act to see how Black boys fare in school). In some kindergarten classes, children receive red marks on their coloring assignments when they fail to stay within the lines, which, based on school readiness, is (mis)attributed to their short attention span to finish such a task. These practices and the punitive consequences are in direct contrast to the more developmentally appropriate practice (DAP) of having children draw their own pictures and explore how combining different paints (red and yellow) results in other colors (i.e., orange). Because NCLB demands were created to cover more material, teachers often resorted to teaching by rote memorization to meet the expected quota at the expense of high quality teaching and learning that is developmentally appropriate and rigorous. These practices were carried out, despite teachers’ knowledge of child development research, which says that 5-year-old children learn from play and concrete, hands-on experiences. As a result, many teachers have provided fewer opportunities for children to learn about measuring at the water table or about addition in the context of playing “store” (having a business) because these activities take “too much time” – or worse still, because public constituencies see “playing” as a waste of instructional time. Restricting children to seat work undermines their development, specifically their natural curiosity to explore and actualize big ideas about their cultural worlds of home and school. It also conflicts with the vervistic (high energy) and movement-oriented (tactile and kinesthetic) preferences and styles of some African Americans (Boykin, 1982).

The consequences of not fully understanding school readiness through cultural lenses contribute sharply to increased rates of kindergarten retention and special education disproportionately among boys of color, especially African American boys. Against this “scientific authority” often blindly attributed to school readiness skills are the social and cultural practices of African American boys, often judged to be inadequate and deficient. The decision to declare African American boys disproportionately unready (i.e., assignment to level 1 or developmental kindergarten) has more to do with teachers who do not understand the out-of-school ways of talking and knowing of this population and how their ways of talking and knowing actually carry academic value.

School officials often believe and parents are often convinced that kindergarten retention and other extra-year programs like pre-K and pre-first provide more appropriate curricula (unavailable in the regular grades) and “protect” unready children from the aversive experiences of a high-pressure first grade. Still, boys of color, African American boys in particular, seem to suffer the most by such practices that tend to marginalize much of what they learn in their homes and communities as irrelevant to school. Children from low-income and racially, linguistically, and culturally diverse backgrounds are particularly disadvantaged by this narrowness inasmuch as school readiness tests often fail to recognize and adopt, in any culturally responsive way, the potentially positive interactive and adaptive verbal and interpretive cultural practices learned by African American boys (as well as other non-mainstream groups) within families and communities.

Challenging Teachers’ Perceptions of School Readiness
Growing evidence supports the perceptions of teachers’ objectives and/or less than impartial views of school readiness tests (Gurian, 2011). Teachers tend to conclude from a single test that a child or groups of children are too immature for kindergarten. Criteria used to make this “objective” determination include, for instance: (1) attention span is too short to finish a task, such as cutting and pasting together a Valentine; (2) fine motor skills are insufficiently developed so they cannot cut on a wiggly line or tear paper; (3) language spoken in incomplete or immature sentences, such as “Me go to school,” shows lack of intelligence; and (4) social skills are deficient when students refuse to share toys and prized possessions with other children, including classmates. These and other readiness skills suggest that children who enter school without minimal academic and social competencies are at an increased risk of repeating kindergarten. Evidence for the interconnectedness of socio-emotional and academic school readiness is documented in a re-analysis of the NICHD Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development, where researchers report that children with higher behavioral regulation appear better able to attend to specific cues, remember instruction, stay on task, tune out irrelevant information, and process information necessary to complete tasks, all of which contribute to the ability to succeed in school settings and perform well academically (Sektnana, McClellanda, Acocka, & Morrison, 2010). Teachers perceive this to be an accurate and unquestioned predictor of school readiness (academic) and social and emotional maturation of readiness. The problem with such a perception is the limitations of traditional measures that often fall short of offering a complete and accurate picture of the intellectual, communicative, and cultural styles of culturally diverse children in general, and African American boys in particular (Wright & Ford, 2016). Some scholars warn that the traditional measures of achievement (e.g., giftedness) are problematic because they fail to account for all aspects of school, such as contributing factors to inequality, placing an over-reliance on testing outcomes, and defining intelligence based on limited constructs (Ford, 2011, 2013).

As with other scholars, we challenge the past and present perceptions of teachers regarding the objectivity of traditional school readiness tests. We subscribe to the idea that, in order to accurately capture the intellectual prowess that resides within all children, but especially African American boys, approaches to determining what students know requires teachers to be intentional in their desire and ability to respond to the cultural and linguistic differences, beliefs, and practices of the students and their families. Such approaches must go beyond the ability to “color within the lines” to include a focus on early leadership skills, creative and artistic ability, initiative in participating in classroom activities (e.g., dramatic play), risk taking (show and tell), persuasive speaking, consensus building, and resiliency.

Finally, and equally important, when teachers are taught and required to examine the ways in which testing has been used to establish and reinforce racial hierarchies, they cannot ignore, trivialize, or discount the intersections of race, intelligence, and testing as a practice not necessarily tied to individual aptitude, but instead to previous exposure to certain types of information that tends to reflect the ways of knowing and being of White middle-class children (Helms, 2010, 2012).

What Does This Mean for African American Boys and Their Readiness?
In light of our critique of school readiness and teacher perceptions of school readiness tests, there is no denying that many believe that such knowledge and skills are essential for achieving school success. Moreover, they believe that if these skills are not mastered, African American boys may not be prepared for kindergarten and/or may not be promoted to first grade. However, what happens to the African American boy who does not exhibit these characteristics, such as Karl? Does the teacher take a genuine interest and work with parents to build on the strengths of their home and community to integrate into the school environment? Or are these children, Black boys, simplistically and unjustly viewed as unready for kindergarten because they lack (or are perceived to lack) so-called basic social competencies?

According to proponents of school readiness tests, children who perform poorly on these tests of exposure to certain types of information are more likely than their peers to cause distractions, face difficulties in forming positive peer relationships, and experience challenges adjusting to academic settings. Students who do not have minimal desired school-based social competencies may become distracted and unable to focus on the curriculum presented. Since it does not appear that existing school readiness tests are going away or being interrogated via a cultural framework, how do we prevent African American boys from falling behind their peers, possibly losing interest in school and otherwise becoming unmotivated and disengaged? We know that such a loss of interest so early in their lives carries potent implications for the next 12 years of schooling. Thus, it is urgent to prevent disengagement for all young children. This sense of urgency is greater with African American boys given how often they perform lower than all other students in school settings (Alliance for Quality Education, 2013). We believe that many African American students, like Karl, are indeed ready for schools. We also recognize that some teachers, based on the fourth R (race), may not be ready for the “Karls” in their classes.

Promoting Social and Cultural Skills Is an Opportunity and Obligation
Our nation’s schools face new opportunities and challenges due to achievement and opportunity gaps, high stakes testing, educational reforms, standards-based education, and more. Schools are expected and obligated to meet the educational needs of all children, regardless of their backgrounds and experiences. Teachers cannot choose their students; like it or not, they will be in classrooms of children with increasingly different needs. We are cognizant that growing pressures to raise academic standards and assess all students’ progress toward meeting standards place a greater burden on educators pressed to teach content and ensure that students pass tests.

Reform efforts to increase cultural competence and teacher efficacy tend to become less of a priority amid the mandate to cover material at the expense of learning. When the latter is the case, the early academic trajectories of African American boys hang in the balance, placing them at risk of failure (U.S. Department of Education, 2000). How do we prepare African American boys and their families for school readiness without marginalizing what they learn in their homes and communities? We begin with preparing teachers to respond to cultural styles and linguistic differences.

The Teacher as Catalyst
Teacher preparation can and must provide examples of cultural modeling that recognizes, understands and integrates what children learn in their homes and communities as adaptive in the classroom environment (Gay, 2010; Ladson-Billings, 2009; Irvine, 2003, Lee, 2007). However, this can only be achieved when teacher educators themselves are culturally competent to scaffold for teacher candidates. To address the needs of Karl and other non-White students, teacher cultural competence is non-negotiable. Indeed, simply having a “heroes and holidays” lesson or activity is not sufficient to preparing teachers to meet the needs of today’s diverse children and their families (Banks, 2015; Ford, 2011). While many teacher preparation programs require their candidates to read about how to strategically integrate culturally responsive teaching and learning practices into their classrooms, such practices and strategies are meaningless if teachers have not examined their own attitudes, beliefs, and values, and how these manifest in teaching, learning, and schooling. Thus, the challenge is not simply ensuring that this is done in a manner pedagogically sound and relevant to the students’ needs. Rather, teachers must receive adequate training and preparation and embrace such practices in their daily instructional delivery and in their management of the multicultural/multi-ethnic classroom climate. It also requires accountability, someone overseeing the work that must be done to effect culturally responsive changes.

Social Skills of Home and School
Researchers have discussed the link between social interactions and interpersonal skills among peers as a determinant and critical attribute for success in kindergarten and how best to support integration of such skills. Extant literature has noted that a child’s interpersonal skills influence social and academic development during the critical stages of school entry and maturation (e.g., Boutte, 2015; Copple & Bredekamp, 2009; Wright & Ford, 2016). These studies build on the work of Blair and Razza (2007) and Raver (2002), who assert that emotions matter in relation to academics and that integrating cognition and emotion results in models that substantially advance our culturally-based understanding of school readiness and academic achievement for kindergarten students through early elementary school. As previously noted, a number of studies show a strong link between the home and school culture of students. This link is especially strong with regard to the positive relationship between African American boys’ out-of-school experiences and eventual academic achievement. As a result, researchers are fine-tuning the explanations for why teachers must be attuned to not only the home-school connection, but also to the social and emotional development of children in order to provide high-quality learning experiences for all children, especially African American boys, to thrive.

The motivation for learning and adjusting to the norms of the school routine can come from peers, teachers, and others with whom the child comes in contact. It is, therefore, critical that children be given opportunities to develop positive relationships and react within a variety of circumstances in order to become well adjusted in preparation for high quality kindergarten programs that respond to the cultural and linguistic differences of all children (Wright et al., 2015). The sense of urgency to ensure that African American children thrive in the early grades is most pressing for Black boys and girls given that they tend to not perform as well as their White classmates (U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights, 2014).

According to the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights’ 2015 Taskforce Report, 71% of White children entering kindergarten could recognize letters, compared with 57% of African American children. Relatedly, more than 140,000 kindergarten students nationwide were held back a year during school year 2013–14, representing about 4% of all kindergarten students in public schools. Native Hawaiian, other Pacific Islander, American Indian, and Native Alaskan students are held back each year at nearly twice the rate of White children. The significance of these retention data lies in the need for teachers to work culturally, both responsively and responsibly, in support of working effectively with (particularly African American) children and families given these statistics. The implications for understanding these data is significant as it must inform how to incorporate culturally, linguistically, and academically sound practices to eliminate this achievement gap, opportunity gap, and education debt.

Moreover, far too many reports fail to adequately address the root cause of why African American boys encounter teachers who perceive them to be unprepared for early childhood education programs. As stated throughout this article, integrating the language, culture, and family frames of reference and other social-emotional practices to support and enhance African American boys’ social skills development is absolutely critical if teachers are going to be ready for the inquisitive and vibrant Karls of the world. Since numbers do have a way of dehumanizing the situation, there is no shortage of reports on Black boys in preK-12 indicating a prevalence of deficit thinking, suggesting that this population lacks the social and academic skills to effectively compete in schools.

This misguided thinking is further supported by the perceived absence of simple skills, like remembering to raise a hand to be recognized to speak and following directions or completing tasks. Consequently, failure to complete tasks believed to demonstrate school readiness prevents an alarming number of African American boys from engaging in the learning process. This raises an important question regarding what is really preventing such an alarming number of African American boys from being fully engaged in the learning process. Is it simply failure to demonstrate the requisite social skills, or are other factors (e.g., race and gender) also at work? We believe it is the latter.

African American Boys and Social Skills
Home and cultural out-of-school practices (e.g., ways with words, interactional styles) that African American boys bring to their schooling must be recognized, understood, and integrated early in their academic experiences in authentic, positive, and culturally responsive ways within learning environments (recall Table 1). This valuing of the social-emotional-cultural skillsets, when recognized, valued, and integrated, prepare these students for positive learner outcomes. In addition, such affirming early childhood learning environments provide support for traditional academic readiness and expand the notion of what it means to be “ready for school.” This is achieved when value is placed on children’s home culture and when strategic attempts are made to determine how these assets can be transferred to the school environment, thus making learning relevant by connecting teachers to the expressive interactional styles of African American boys, as well as the quality of their peer interactions and the ability to reason, problem solve, and get along with others (Raver, 2002). Just as these social-emotional-cultural skills are fundamental for children in general to learn and retain social and academic concepts introduced, so too is the importance of valuing the diverse practices of African American boys.

Evidence for the interconnectedness of social, emotional, cultural, and academic school readiness is supported by another re-analysis of the NICHD Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development (Sektnana, McClellanda, Acocka, & Morrison, 2010). Studies like the NICHD study linking positive emotions to achievement show that joy, hope, and pride positively correlate with academic self-efficacy, academic interest and effort, and overall achievement (Pekrun et al., 2004). For African American boys, social interactions and engagement with self, teachers, and peer groups is tantamount to the cultural belief of the importance of community, which is why it is imperative that they not be indirectly encouraged not to bring the whole of who they are into the learning environment. Constructing meaningful experiences that value and nurture the whole child with respect to African American boys’ development must be an ongoing dialogue with both school personnel and families. Like all students, male African American students must feel secure enough to join in play, ask questions, and listen to and be heard by both peers and adults. Their preparedness for kindergarten and their later school success are related to multiple aspects of their development, including social development, cognitive skills, approaches to learning, and cultural skill navigation (Wright et al., 2015).

African American Boys and Cultural Skill Navigation
While socio-emotional development and social skills acquisition for readiness are important, the same can be true for the development of cultural competence and awareness with respect to the differences in others. Children are not born thinking about race, skin color, and differences. However, are young children curious about racial, physical, and cultural characteristics? According to the work of Derman-Sparks and Edwards (2010), children begin to see racial differences as early as age 2.5. For this reason, it is important that children understand the importance of cultural skill navigation. Understanding the school landscape is important for early learners. They must understand that differences exist and, while they bring their own values, beliefs, and home culture to the classroom, others do as well. Understanding that this is the case seems to come easier for some than for others. For instance, children from non-dominant or historically marginalized populations tend to learn such lessons sooner than those who have grown up with multiple forms of privilege and entitlement. It is well documented that those on the margins are most acutely aware of how they are positioned in relation to others. To illustrate further the notion of positionality, children who have been assigned to the low performing reading group are aware of those in the high performing reading group. This practice of “tracking” students based on ability tends to circumscribe the schooling experience of African American boys, positioning them early in situations wherein they must learn navigational skills in order to survive settings that may not always understand and embrace their cultural practices (Oakes, 2005). For this reason, the need for culturally competent teachers is critical to the success of African American boys’ ability to negotiate and navigate their cultural worlds of home and school.

The Need for Culturally Competent Early Childhood Educators
In Teaching 2030, Berry (2011) states that “educators must prepare themselves to meet every learner in an expanding educational free market, leveraging their teaching skills as wise and caring guides” (p. 3). What does this mean as it relates to African American boys within the realm of school readiness? Most educators would agree that the term “high needs” is generally used in reference to schools located in low-performing areas, often in the inner city, often serving children of color. Deficit thinking in studies promotes the thinking that students in these areas are incapable of mastering school readiness and success. However, we argue for asset-based thinking with regard to Black children in general, African American boys in particular. When teachers are prepared to see assets and strengths versus deficits, they in turn are better able to support the families of the children they work with and see the cultural wealth of communities (Yosso, 2005).

Recommendations: Getting Ready for African American Boys
We end this paper with a focus on school readiness—not for African Americans boys, but for teachers working with them. Are schools ready for Karl and other boys of color? Getting ready to be culturally competent, per Table 1, starts with philosophy (e.g., expectations, a desire to teach and be effective, a positive regard for culture and associated differences and similarities, etc.). Teachers must recognize the need to be culturally competent and then take action to do so in order to ensure that the learning environment (e.g., relationships), curriculum, instruction, and assessment are culturally relevant, fair, bias-reduced, engaging, and more. Teachers must be willing to examine their own socio-cultural histories and not display such shallow understandings of students of color, namely African American boys. When teachers are able to undergo this type of self- examination, they become cognizant of their own complex cultural identities to develop a “cultural eye” and be willing to challenge the assumption of others (Irvine, 2003). Collectively, these factors contribute to classrooms that are equitable, rigorous, and full of high expectations, making this an equitable foundation for culturally responsive teaching.

Becoming a high-quality teacher entails formal and informal education. College classes, degrees, professional development, and in-service workshops are essential. Reading widely about African American boys is necessary. Understanding language is significant, and binary terms such as “same” and “different” must be replaced with more identifiable and affirmative language when discussing identities. While teachers may think engaging in the practice of “colorblindness” is acceptable, they must understand that such a simplification negates the notion of race, a salient factor in the identities of African American boys. These suggestions provide knowledge and understanding but are not sufficient. Teachers must go further by immersing themselves in the cultures of their children, families, and communities (e.g., home visits, attending family celebrations and community events, perhaps living in the community). Being an integral part of the community shortens cultural bridges and provides context and experiences that cannot be captured in books and lectures. This resonates with the family and community as the teacher is actively and authentically making an effort to connect within the personal landscape of their students. Teachers are empowered and enlightened to see strengths and potential in Black boys; they learn to interpret behaviors, including problems, through the eyes of their students, too many of whom are misunderstood. Referrals for discipline, suspension, and special education (e.g., developmental delay) decrease. Conversely, referrals for gifted education classes and services, competitions, and awards increase. Getting ready for school is not just for students; teachers must also get ready for school. This is what the Karls in our classrooms want and deserve; this is what their families expect and hope for and, quite frankly, must demand.

Much evidence supports the belief that, prior to students’ entering early education and care programs, certain foundational skills need to be in place to ensure mastery of school-level concepts. These skills cannot be at the expense of what children learn in their homes and communities. There must a concerted effort on the part of schools to recognize, understand, value, and integrate the cultural and social skills that African American boys bring to their schooling experiences, the familiar and unfamiliar, if they are to be ready for Karl. Teachers cannot be culturally responsive if they do not acknowledge such cultural capital. Many future teachers may use human “sameness” to resist the need to be culturally responsive, but in doing so, they neglect attending to the authentic and individual needs of the whole child.

Attending to the whole African American male child must include attention to physical well-being, social development, cultural development, cognitive skills and knowledge, and the manner in which he approaches learning. These are all factors contributing to the chances for African American boys to thrive in school, thus changing the existing narrative too often riddled with negative experiences and outcomes, regardless of age, over-representation in special education and disciplinary issues (suspension and expulsion), and under-representation in gifted education. These types of miseducation many times mistaken for lack of school readiness are used against African American boys as soon as they enter the formal school settings and, worse, long before they have had an opportunity to demonstrate who they are, independent of stereotypes such as “bad boy” and “trouble maker.” In an attempt to restore for African American boys the innocence of childhood that they are frequently denied on the basis of race and gender under the guise of being “unready,” we take a preventative, growth mindset, and anti-deficit approach, arguing that teachers who are culturally competent, teachers who understand, affirm, and are responsive to Black males’ culture and ways of being, can disrupt these negative experiences and ensure school success and help restore their right to childhood—a right given to White children. Educators must view African American boys and their families more consistently as resource-rich and full partners in support of their educations. Unlike many, we urge school personnel and all those who care about Black boys to focus on potential, on what Black boys can do rather than what they purportedly cannot do. In so doing, educators are ready for young Black boys in pre-k through kindergarten and beyond.

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Gay, G. (2010). Culturally responsive teaching: Theory, research, and practice (2nd ed.). New York: Teachers College Press.

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Hale, J. E. (1982). Black children: Their roots, culture, and learning styles. Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press.

Helms, J. E. (2010). Cultural bias in psychological testing. In I. E. Weiner & W. E. Craighead (Eds.), Corsini encyclopedia of psychology (4th ed., Vol. 1, pp. 443-445). Hoboken: John Wiley.

Helms, J. E. (2012). A legacy of eugenics underlies racial-group comparisons in intelligence testing. Industrial and Organizational Psychology, 5, 176-179.

Irvine, J. (2003). Educating teachers for diversity: Seeing with a cultural eye. New York: Teachers College Press.

Kena, G., Musu-Gillette, L., Robinson, J., Wang, X., Rathbun, A., Zhang, J., Wilkinson-Flicker, S., Barmer, A., & Dunlop Velez, E. (2015). The condition of education, 2015 (NCES 2015-144). U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. Washington, DC. Retrieved from

Kunjufu, J. (1985). Countering the conspiracy to destroy Black boys. Chicago: African American Images.

Ladson-Billings, G. (2009). The dreamkeepers: Successful teachers of African American Children (2nd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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Marcou-O’Malley, M. (2013, July). Are we there yet? College and career readiness report card. Retrieved from the Alliance for Quality Education website:

McKown, C., & Weinstein, R. S. (2008). Teacher expectations, classroom context, and the achievement gap. Journal of School Psychology, 46(3), 235-261.

Oaks, J. (2005). Keeping track: How schools structure inequality (2nd ed.). New Haven: Yale University Press.

Pekrun, R., Goetz, T., Perry, R., Kramer, K., Hochstadt, M., & Molfenter, S. (2004). Beyond test anxiety: Development and validation of the Test Emotions Questionnaire (TEQ). Anxiety, Stress & Coping, 17(3), 287-316.

Rathbun, A. H., & Hausken, E. G. (2001, April). How are transition-to-kindergarten activities associated with parent involvement during kindergarten? Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Seattle. Retrieved from ERIC database. (ED452951)

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Whiting, G. W. (2006). Enhancing culturally diverse males’ scholar identity: Suggestions for educators of gifted students. Gifted Child Today, 29(3), 46-50.

Whiting, G. W. (2009). Gifted Black males: Understanding and decreasing barriers to achievement and identity. Roeper Review 31(4), 224-237.

Wright, B. L., Counsell, S. L., & Tate, S. L. (2015). We’re many members, but one body: Fostering a healthy self-identity and agency in African American boys. Young Children, 70(3), 24-31.

Wright, B. L., & Ford, D. Y. (2016). “This little light of mine”: Creating early childhood classroom experiences for African-American boys PreK-3. Journal of African American Males in Education, 7(1), 5-19.

Yosso, T.J. (2005). Whose culture has capital? A critical race theory discussion of community cultural wealth. Race, Ethnicity, and Education, 8(1), 69-91.

Brian L. Wright, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of early childhood education in the Department of Instruction and Curriculum Leadership at the University of Memphis. His research focuses on high-achieving African American males in urban schools pre-K-12, racial-ethnic identity development of boys and young men of color, African American males as early childhood teachers, and teacher identity development. Send all correspondence related to this article to Wright at blwrght1 @

Donna Y. Ford, Ph.D., is a professor in the Department of Special Education and the Department of Teaching and Learning at Vanderbilt University. She conducts research and writes extensively on: (1) the achievement gap; (2) recruiting and retaining culturally different students in gifted education; (3) multicultural curriculum and instruction; (4) culturally competent teacher training and development; (5) African-American identity; and (6) African-American family involvement. She also consults with school districts and educational and legal organizations on these areas. Ford has authored some 200 articles and chapters, and more than eight books. She can be contacted at @

Nicole McZeal Walters, Ed.D., is the Associate Dean of Graduate Programs and Assistant Professor of Educational Leadership at the University of St. Thomas. She has more than 20 years of professional educational experience including teaching, administration, consulting, and non-profit instructional design. Her research agenda includes developing leaders to embrace culturally relevant leadership within P-20 education as it relates to equity and accountability, special and minority populations, and teacher training and development. She can be contacted at waltern @

Guest Editor’s Introduction

Dr. Shawn Robinson, independent scholar focusing on the intersection of race, giftedness and dyslexia.

This special section of Wisconsin English Journal sheds light on supporting twice exceptional (2E) African American students: Implications for classroom teaching. I contend it is important to provide operational definitions which promote solutions and change. Reis, Baum, and Burke (2014) define 2E as:

Students who demonstrate the potential for high achievement or creative productivity in one or more domains such as math, science, technology, the social arts, the visual, spatial, or performing arts or other areas of human productivity AND who manifest one or more disabilities as defined by federal or state eligibility criteria. These disabilities include specific learning disabilities; speech and language disorders; emotional/behavioral disorders; physical disabilities; Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD); or other health impairments, such as Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). These disabilities and high abilities combine to produce a unique population of students who may fail to demonstrate either high academic performance or specific disabilities. Their gifts may mask their disabilities and their disabilities may mask their gifts.

Identification of twice-exceptional students requires comprehensive assessment in both the areas of giftedness and disabilities, as one does not preclude the other. Identification, when possible, should be conducted by professionals from both disciplines and when at all possible, by those with knowledge about twice exceptionality in order to address the impact of co-incidence/co-morbidity of both areas on diagnostic assessments and eligibility requirements for services.

Educational services must identify and serve both the high achievement potential and the academic and social-emotional deficits of this population of students. Twice-exceptional students require differentiated instruction, curricular and instructional accommodations and/or modifications, direct services, specialized instruction, acceleration options, and opportunities for talent development that incorporate the effects of their dual diagnosis. Twice-exceptional students require an individual education plan (IEP) or a 504 accommodation plan with goals and strategies that enable them to achieve at a level and rate commensurate with their abilities. This comprehensive education plan must include talent development goals, as well as compensation skills and strategies to address their disabilities and their social and emotional needs. (pp. 222-223).

The authors of this special section also raise awareness of what Reis, Baum, and Burke describe as “behaviors alone can be misleading without understanding the characteristics of each exceptionality, the context in which a behavior occurs, and the effect of comorbidity on the combinations of giftedness with the diverse disabilities” (p. 219). In each paper, authors examine the importance of teachers understanding and acknowledging the characteristics of each student’s uniqueness, and other factors hindering the identification and the educational services of this population (Baldwin, Omdal, & Pereles, 2015).

Another issue that affects students is the cultural mismatch they experience, as teachers do not always recognize the cultural capital they exhibit in the class (Ford, 2013; Robinson, 2016; Yosso, 2005). To effectively address cultural mismatch, and to raise awareness on how to best academically and socially support 2E African American students, the authors in this special section provide recommendations, strategies, and resources for:

  • Teaching practices that promote academic engagement and motivation;
  • Assessing and Identifying 2E students;
  • Providing a culturally responsive learning environment;
  • Supporting families of 2E students;
  • Discussing placement, programs and practices for 2E students.

In the first article, “Karl Is Ready! Why Aren’t You? Promoting Social and Cultural Skills in Early Childhood Education,” Wright, Ford, and Walters, take a preventive and anti-deficit approach. The authors emphasize that teachers who are culturally competent and understand, affirm, and are responsive to Black males’ culture and identities, can reverse their negative experiences and ensure academic success. Further, they provide an overview of educational outcomes for school readiness and provide a personal vignette of a student named Karl. The authors speak to what Black boys can do, rather than what they “allegedly” cannot do, and end with recommendations to support educational institutions in order to ensure that PK-12 teachers are ready for young Black boys.

In the second article, “#Black Intellect Matters: Inequitable Practices Yield Inequitable Results,” Ford, Lisbon, and Little-Harrison provide a story about a student named Terrence who could have been academically pigeon-holed as a “slow learner” because of testing bias, cultural bias and language differences in assessments. The authors discuss how using assessments to address student achievement is at the forefront of education and a topic marked by controversy when the population consists of students of color. The authors address best practices when it comes to standardized tests and end with recommendations for K-12 teachers, school psychologists, and families.

In the third article, “Too Bad to Be Gifted: Gifts Denied for Black Males with Emotional and Behavioral Needs,” Owens, Ford, Lisbon, Jones, and Owens provide a case study of Donovan, a highly intelligent Black boy identified with emotional disorder. Donovan’s story exemplifies the overwhelming findings at federal, state, and local levels about minorities disproportionately placed in special education, who indeed exhibit traits of 2E.

In the fourth article, “Schooling at the Liminal: Black Girls and Special Education,” Evans-Winters offers the tenets of Black feminism and critical race theory as the framework for understanding Black girls’ experiences in the special education referral process. The shared narratives reveal how Black girls from lower-income and working class families may be at higher risk of being identified as learning disabled and/or as having a behavioral or emotional disability compared to their middle class and White peers. The author ends with implications for special education, teacher education development, and for social workers.

In the fifth article, “Relationships and Resources in Education and the Impact on Transition Planning,” Blackwood provides a call to action for researchers and practitioners to begin exploring how social and cultural capital access impacts the experiences of students with disabilities as they transition into higher education. Blackwood concludes with implications for research, policy and practice.

In the sixth article, “How Coaching Special Olympics Changed the Trajectory of My Life,” Robinson offers a narrative that addresses a period in his life when he was disengaged and angry, which affected his schooling. As authors Owens et al. discuss in this special issue, students with learning disabilities and behavior disorders face enormous academic and social challenges, which are reflected in his narrative. Robinson discusses: (1) a brief overview of the characteristics of a gifted student with a learning disability and behavior disorder, (2) his high school experience, and (3) recommendations for identifying 2E students in special education who are often overlooked and academically neglected.

In the seventh article, “Speaking from the Margins: Recounting the Experiences of a Special Educator and His Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students,” Stewart and Kennedy offer an approach that shows the power of narrative inquiry. The authors’ article is tri-fold. First, they discuss the trauma of being degraded by bigotry as a Black male special educator. Second, authors shed light on the experiences of culturally and linguistically diverse 2E students. Finally, they provide strategies for creating an inclusive learning environment and working with parents. Furthermore, the authors provide recommendations and implications for practices based on lessons learned from the marginalized, inadequately assessed and underserved population, which is validated by the research of Ford (2014).

In the final article, “Family Engagement and Advocacy for Culturally Diverse 2E students,” Wood and Davis provide recommendations for how schools can enhance advocacy efforts and increase support for culturally diverse 2E learners by engaging with families and communities.

As the guest editor, I am pleased to share this set of readings with the hope that the articles are used to improve the academic outcomes of 2E African American students in and out of special education. This student group has been neglected for far too long, which results in numerous and extensive gaps in knowledge, theory, and academic support (Mayes & Moore, 2016). I am aware that this special section neither fills all voids nor meets all needs. Nonetheless, the articles offer much in the fields of gifted, multicultural, and special education, language and literacy, diversity and beyond.

Baldwin, L., Omdal, S. N., & Pereles, D. (2015). Beyond stereotypes: Understanding, recognizing, and working with twice-exceptional learners. Teaching Exceptional Children, 47(4), 216-225.

Ford, D. Y. (2013). Recruiting and retaining culturally different students in gifted education. Waco: Prufrock Press.

Ford, D.  Y. (2014). Segregation and the underrepresentation of Blacks and Hispanics in gifted education: Social Inequality and deficit paradigms. Roeper Review, 36(3), 143-154.

Mayes, R. D., & Moore, J. L., III. (2016). The intersection of race, disability, and giftedness: Understanding the education needs of twice-exceptional, African American students. Gifted Child Today, 39(2), 98-104.

Reis, S. M., Baum, S. M., & Burke, E. (2014). An operational definition of twice-exceptional learners: Implications and applications. Gifted Child Quarterly, 58(3), 217-230.

Robinson, S. A. (2016). Triple Identity Theory: A theoretical framework for understanding gifted Black males with dyslexia. Urban Education Research and Policy Annuals, 41(1), 147-158.

Yosso, T. (2005). Whose culture has capital? A critical race theory discussion of community cultural wealth. Race, Ethnicity and Education, 81, 69–91.