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Study: Poor, Rural Families Need Support for Special Needs Students

Researchers from Kansas State University are offering advice for working with special needs or low-income students in rural areas: Provide special programs for female students with disabilities, consider the hardships of low-income families when creating family involvement programs, and advocate for anti-poverty programs.

Their study, "Rural, Poverty-level Mothers: A Comparative Study of Those With and Without Children Who Have Special Needs," was published in the spring issue of the Rural Special Education Quarterly, a product of the American Council on Rural Special Education. It doesn't appear to be available online without a subscription.

[UPDATE (Aug. 17): The study appears to have had an original publication date of 2003 and was reprinted this spring for a special issue.]

This study was part of a larger one that involved 263 women in poor families from four states—Kansas, Tennessee, Texas, and Florida. Of that group, 136 lived in rural areas, and those women were included in this study. All were referred by agencies that serve low-income families.

Of the 136 rural mothers in the study, 40 percent had at least one child with special needs. That number is "alarmingly high when compared to general national figures and supports the accepted premise that poverty is related to developmental and educational outcomes," wrote the two Kansas State University professors who conducted the study.

The study also points out another "alarming" relationship between mothers' special needs status and that of their children. Twice as many mothers of special needs children, compared to those without special needs students, reported having language, learning, or behavior problems in school, and nearly three times as many reported receiving special services themselves.

"These statistics raise serious questions about the role of education in perpetuating poverty and the so-called 'cycle of dependence,'" according to the study.

Researchers made three suggestions for educators relative to poverty or children with special needs.

First, schools must be family-friendly, especially to those living in poverty. Teachers need to recognize the problems facing low-income mothers, such as their willingness to get involved, low self-confidence, material hardships and lack of formal education. Many of these mothers likely were in special education programs as children, so parent communication and involvement should be planned accordingly, according to the study.

Second, teachers must re-evaluate and improve their efforts to prepare low-income students, particularly females, to be self-sufficient adults; 73 percent of the rural mothers in the study did not complete high school.

Finally, teachers must commit to being advocates for these families. The study points out the close ties between rural communities and their schools, and says teachers often are community leaders who can be powerful voices. Researchers recommend those teachers be supportive of these families and anti-poverty programs.

"The future of rural America depends on the children in rural schools today; rural schools must provide poverty-level students and their families with quality educational opportunities and support systems that will help those students be economically independent as adults," according to the study.

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