Academic journal article Social Behavior and Personality: an international journal

Problem Students: A Contextual Phenomenon?

Academic journal article Social Behavior and Personality: an international journal

Problem Students: A Contextual Phenomenon?

Article excerpt

The number of referrals to different types of special education has been increasing for years in the Netherlands. In particular the number of children with Learning and/or Behavioral Difficulties (LBD) has increased sharply. The teacher usually describes them as students with problems or with special educational needs. This study investigates which factors influence teachers' judgement in this respect, with a particular focus on contextual factors at class level. The study looked at 2,340 students from 114 primary school classes in the Netherlands. Multilevel analyses show that 13% of the total variation in teachers' judgement is group (context) level variance and 87% individual (student) level variance. Contextual factors which influence teachers' judgement are: the average level of achievement in the class, the amount of disruptive behavior in the whole teaching group and the percentage of boys in the class. Various characteristics of individual teachers turn out to be irrelevant.

In the Netherlands, the number of students referred to institutions for special education is still increasing. In this country, about 5% of the total population in primary education attends schools for special education. The largest groups comprise educable mentally retarded (40%) and children with learning and/or behavior difficulties (40%). Provisions for the latter group alone account for nearly all the growth in the special education system of the Netherlands. (Meijer, Pijl & Hegarty, 1994).

In the Netherlands, the percentage of children who fail to meet the standards for clear physical reasons has remained more or less constant over time. In contrast, the percentage of children who are judged to be 'deviant' due to learning and/or behavioral difficulties has shown a continuous rise. This phenomenon was observed also in the U.S. (Thurlow, Christenson & Ysseldyke, 1989). Peterson (1996) presents various studies which indicate an increasing prevalence of students with Educational and Behavioral Difficulties (EBD) in that country. Since, in making a diagnosis, it is difficult to differentiate between EBD and Learning Difficulties (LD), and between the latter and lighter forms of Mental Retardation (MR) (Fletcher, et al., 1994; Macmillan, 1996), Peterson notices also a rise when the different groups are merged under the term `Learning and/or Behavioral Difficulties (LBD). These problems in defining exactly what LBD-students are lead to a variation of criteria in time and space. Research in the Netherlands has shown that there are regional differences between special schools for children with learning and behavioral problems as regards the 'identity' of their students (Van der Wissel, 1984; Meijer, Pijl & Rispens, 1986). Peterson (1996) indicates that in the U.S. there is an ongoing discussion among scientists, and between specialists from the field, policymakers and scientists, concerning the definitions of - and the criteria for - the groups which fall under the LBD category.

Consequently, teachers have a great deal of freedom to give their own interpretation to LBD. Most of the time they do not use this term, describing these students as `problem students', `students with special educational needs' or `students at risk'. Specialist diagnosis then establishes with exactly which kind of learning and behavioral problems the teacher is confronted.

The fact that, due to a lack of univocal criteria, the teacher has the freedom to let his/her own insights prevail in perceiving problem students, makes it probable that there will be some degree of teacher variance regarding the above-mentioned judgment. In other words, comparable student behavior will not be categorized in the same way by the teachers. This variance has three sources, namely individual teacher characteristics, context characteristics and the interaction between these sources. Individual teacher characteristics are: age, experience, gender, ethnicity, etc. …

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