Raising Awareness

I was a teacher for the first time and I watched helplessly as students fell through the cracks.

In a room half full sat some very concerned teachers. I hadn’t expected even that many teachers so I was pleasantly surprised. As a seasoned presenter at the ISNA Education Forum, I was aware of the general workings of the education workshops. I would present my paper and then take some questions.

What I was not prepared for was the genuine concern and helplessness that I felt emanating from the teachers gathered there. Teachers were frustrated because they were ill-equipped to handle the situations in their classrooms, and they had minimal assistance financially, administratively, or from parents. I recognized those feelings.

Almost eight years before, I was a teacher for the first time and I watched helplessly as students fell through the cracks. I went and completed my B.Ed in the hopes that it would give me the skills I needed to reach these students. It wasn’t until I was doing my masters in special education that I was able to develop a repertoire of skills – a special education tool box, if you will – that helped me in reaching the students who needed a hand moving up and out of the hole they had fallen in.

In the March/April 2012 issue of Islamic Horizons, an article is devoted to special education in Muslim schools. A presentation by notable individuals in the field was scheduled at a Muslim school in Tennessee. And just last week, Br Ibrahim Baig opened the doors of this difficult but necessary discussion. There is an awareness being generated that Muslim schools must address the needs of students with special needs. They cannot be turned away or tuned out.

The purpose of my contributions to this blog is to continue to raise awareness and provide teaching methods that harness the talent of our students while taking into account their individual needs. It is not impossible, and it is not hopeless. It will be frustrating and require a lot of patience, but it is possible.


Omaira Alam

About Omaira Alam

Omaira Alam is the Program Director of the Islamic Teacher Education Program (islamicteachereducation.com). She holds a Masters in Transition Special Education from the George Washington University specializing in at-risk students with emotional and learning disabilities. With over 18 years of experience in teaching and teacher training, she continues her research focusing on Islamic education, special education in Muslim schools, urban Islamic education, discipline with dignity, instructional strategies based on gender and homeschooling. Her blog, Black Board, White Chalk (blackboardwhitechalk.wordpress.com), explores traditional and contemporary issues in education.
Click here to read more posts by Omaira.

  1. This is really important for all of us to embrace. For many years we have had students enrolled in Islamic Schools where students with special needs may or may not get public school services and where special education programs are almost non-existant. Thanks, for making the point that teachers feel ill equipped. This means to me that we have policy issues that we could be stressing and maybe the topic should be switched at the Ed Forum to the Administrative strand. That’s just one thought of many. Another is to work hard to implement RTI or Response to Intervention.

    • Assalaamu alaykum wa rahmatullah Dr Seema,

      JazakAllah khayr for your comments. I agree wholeheartedly that there needs to be some drastic change especially because parents with children with special needs should not be forced to send their children to public school if they do not want to.

      A survey of services available by the state for private school students needs to be done.

      Implementation of RTI is a great idea.

      Thank you for your comment and ideas.

  2. As Salamu Alaikum,

    I truly appreciate the effort of our sister Omaira Alam in trying to raise the awareness and great challenge, that many Islamic schools face, at trying to accommodate and educate such a wide array of Muslim students with various academic, behavioral and emotional needs in the absence of necessary specialized teachers, classrooms and resources. For many practical reasons schools accept students with very little background screening or analysis under the notion that Allah will help and give the necessary ability and strength!

    This attitude and salient feature in our decision-making process when it comes to accepting the vast majority of Muslim students, with parents who are willing and capable of paying the cost of private school education, will be admitted. Of course, this matter varies from one location to the next but I will venture to say that most of us are all to familiar with the many reasons why we accept the challenges that we have.

    My follow-up on Omaira’s post is not to examine strategies and solutions for student enrollment but rather suggest a more pragmatic approach towards providing a better learning environment with the existing circumstances and resources available. I whole-heartedly agree that students with outstanding needs should never be accepted into any institution of learning without being accommodated with specialized instruction, staffing and resources to meet the needs of that student.

    On the other hand, it is high time for Islamic Schools to realize that there are a number of “researched based – proven effective” school wide behavior management models available to get better outcomes with common students. Before I relate a few frameworks available to meet the academic, behavioral and emotional needs of our students I would first like to express that due to the many years of empirical research in instructional strategies, classroom management and learning and education has evolved into a science with very predictable outcomes if strategies and certain types of instructional approaches are implemented with fidelity.

    An effective Islamic pedagogy suggests that there must be a philosophy and theoretical framework towards disseminating knowledge before a teacher enters the classroom and engages students. This leads me to the first point. In most Islamic schools you seldom find a comprehensive behavioral management system being implemented on a school wide level. Positive behavior intervention and supports are a major component in classroom management. Classroom management ensures that we maintain a productive learning environment.

    Research has shown that the vast majority of students in any school (i.e. roughly 80%) will conform to rules, procedures and expectations which in return makes it easier for teachers to teach and students to learn. Research has also shown that there will always be a percentage of students that are at risk and in need of mediation and intervention. This category of students can be divided into two groups, those that are “challenging to teach, but can be reached” and “those that are challenging to teach and difficult to reach”. It is the latter that takes up a great deal of our time and energy! Though these group of students represent a small portion of any given school they require intense intervention due to their emotional and behavioral needs. If this group of students are managed improperly those who rank closes to them “challenging to teach, but can be reached” will intensify the matter.

    To avoid making this post too long I would invite the dear reader to visit the website PBIS.org and familiarize yourself with some of the school wide strategies available for schools and districts. The concept of tier intervention is an excellence way to start constructing a behavioral and instructional intervention framework for your school. The framework of PBIS (positive behavioral intervention and supports) suggests that behavior can be taught if RTI (response to Intervention) strategies are used with a systematic approach that has been proven effective if implemented with fidelity.

    The idea that students are responsible for correcting their own deficient behavior is an idea that must be examined. If the notion that behavior is learned similar to academics then we must conclude strategies must be adopted and used that have been proven to bring about better outcomes. We understand the importance of instructional strategies but too often hold the view that the conduct of a student with emotional and behavioral needs must comprehend, understand and correct his or her own behavior. One might argue the point that the behavior is primarily the duty of the parents – they are responsible to ensure that their child is behaving properly.

    Unproductive behavior is not formed in a vacuum. Many times it is the very home environment that lacks the necessary rules, principles and procedures needed to meet the needs of the student. PBIS is a framework that highlights the major factors that must be considered before formulating a behavior management strategy for the students. The following is a general outline of the framework and behavioral model that is suggested:

    1. Universal, proactive screening
    – Refers to a systematic process of detecting a subset of students from the entire student population who are struggling behaviorally and are at-risk for experiencing a range of negative short- and long-term outcomes.
    2. Progress monitoring
    – Refers to the practice that is used to assess students’ academic or behavioral performance and evaluate the effectiveness of instruction.
    3. Data-based decision-making
    – Refers to a critical element of the problem-solving process that entails consulting student response data in order to make decisions whether to intensify, keep in place, or remove particular interventions or supports.
    4. Evidence-based/scientifically-validated interventions
    – Refers to ideas that the interventions or supports implemented under an RTI model of behavior are supported by scientific research to improve student social and behavior functioning.
    5. Treatment integrity
    – Refers to the notion that interventions or supports being implemented in an RTI model for behavior should be implemented as intended to enable appropriate and legally defensible decision- making.
    6. Multiple tiers of behavior support
    Refers to the service delivery logic of providing a graduated sequence of intensifying interventions in order to match services to student needs.
    7. Problem-solving
    – Refers to the dynamic and systematic process that guides the Behavior Support Team’s behavior in (a) identifying the problem (b) analyzing the problem (c) developing a plan of action (d) implementing the plan and (e) evaluating the outcomes of the plan.

    Of course, one must keep in mind that the model framework like the above are context sensitive and requires leaders to modify some of the particulars to their own situation and circumstances. While we cannot be responsible for eradicating all the factors that lead students to choose negative behavior, we can seek to understand them and attempt to manage those over which we have control, which will contribute to a more positive and productive school environment. A systematic approach with a theoretical framework to behavior management is far more effective than having no model framework or system at all!

    Musa Ramsey

  3. Assaalamu alaykum wa rahmatullah Br Musa,

    JazakAllah khayr for your very detailed post and for the website link. I will definitely have to look it up. I also appreciate you highlighting some strategies. More than just a workshop at the Ed Forum, we’re going to need some serious teacher training to better equip teachers and schools to address what is a growing population.

    Thank you for your comments.

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