How does a teacher’s perception of a student with a disability play a role in the student’s success, or lack thereof, in the classroom?

cc licensed ( BY ) flickr photo by Dheepak Ra:

Imagine if you were labelled (and treated accordingly), by the things you couldn’t do? You shouldn’t swim because you can’t breath under water. You can’t get that item up there because you are not tall enough. You can’t fly because you aren’t trying, but what really frustrates me is that you have a bad attitude because you are too scared to even attempt it. From this perspective, life is filled with obstacles rather than opportunities. Obviously there are many areas in life where each and everyone of us is disabled, but we choose to focus instead on the things we can do and that enables us to take action – to live. We work around our “disabilities” by making use of various strategies and accommodations, “assistive technology” and the support of others. We swim by coming up for air, or using a snorkel; we grab things that are out of our reach by climbing a ladder or asking someone that is taller to help us; we fly using an airplane, a helicopter or our imaginations. More importantly, we are not defined by these negative attributes. “Most people can expect to be considered ‘disabled’ at one time or another in their lives. This in no way detracts from their fundamental worth as human beings” (Mastropieri & Scruggs, 2010, p. 7).

When we are working with our students, those with disabilities and those without, we should take a strengths based approach. Our perception of our students guides the type of education we offer, the behavior we display, the relationship we build and the expectations that we hold; in turn, students are positively or negatively impacted. An interesting example of a self-fulfilling prophecy, comes from the broadcast of, “ A Class Divided” (Peters et al., 1985). In an exercise to give students a first hand experience dealing with discrimination, Jane Elliot tells her “blue-eyed” students that they are in fact smarter than the other students because of their eye color. Those “blue-eyed” students go on to achieve better test results than the other students, in fact, they achieved better results than they ever had before. Adversely, the other students, who were told repeatedly that they probably couldn’t do it (because of their eye color), yielded lower results than in the past (Peters et al., 1985). This did not occur because the “blue-eyed” students were smarter or more talented than the students without blue eyes. It happened because the teacher’s perception changed (in this case to prove a point), this directly affected her attitude, demeanor, expectations and behaviors towards her students; then, as if by magic, her students’ self-perception adjusted in response to the feedback, and produced the “expected” results. The power of perception is undeniable.

When working with students who have disabilities we can help or hinder the student’s success simply by changing our perceptions. A student should not be described or labelled based on his or her disability, instead he/she should be viewed as a person first, with a unique set of strengths, weaknesses and needs. Even our private and professional dialogue must change to reflect this concept; for example, he is a person with a disability, not a disabled person (Concordia University, n.d.). In practice, this means we teach the whole child. For example, I have a student who needs extra time to process information and has a difficult time retaining it; she often gets frustrated because she feels like it takes her longer to accomplish tasks. On the other hand, this child is an excellent artist. Instead of focusing on her disability or weakness, “We went over this last week, you need to learn to focus more. You aren’t going to have time to finish this now, so I will have to help you finish it at recess”, I try to utilize her strengths, “Remember that poster that you created last week on this topic? Close your eyes and think about the things you included; use your drawing to help you answer these questions”. This way, she is thinking about something that she can do really well, instead of something that she struggles with; and she is using her strength as a strategy to help her complete the task rather than focusing on what is holding her back. Using a strength based approach, this student is more likely to attempt the task, and be successful. We can empower our students by letting them know that we think they can succeed, and helping them find the tools they need to do it.

We must first change our own perceptions, then we can work on improving how each student perceives himself/herself and the world.


Concordia University (n.d.). Week 1 – Introduction to Inclusive Education. In EDCI 528 Foundation Concepts for Inclusive Teaching.  Retrieved from

Mastropieri, M. & Scruggs, T. (2010). The Inclusive Classroom: Strategies for Effective Differentiated Instruction (4th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education Inc..

Peters, W., Cobb, C., Elliott, J., Freidus, L., Hanser, D., Yale University., WGBH (Television station : Boston, Mass.), …  PBS Video.  (1985, March 26).  A class divided.  [Television broadcast].  S.l.: PBS.  Retrieved from 

*I originally wrote this post on February 27, 2013 as a part of EDCI 528 – Concordia University, Portland, Oregon. 


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