Ronnie Sidney, a proud recipient of a master’s degree in social work from Virginia Commonwealth University and a published children’s book author, was not always on track for success – at least not according to his teachers. Sidney is a black male diagnosed with ADHD, which he says created a double stigma for him to overcome. In a recent NPR article, Sidney spoke about his school experience, including how he felt misunderstood or judged by some of his teachers and how this encouraged him to prove them wrong.

Unfortunately, not every student of color with special needs succeeds like Sidney. According to the article, the National Center for Learning Disabilities analyzed data from the U.S. Department of Education and found students with learning disabilities drop out at nearly three times the rate of students overall. For black students, this is even more likely. About 37 percent of black students with special needs left high school without a regular diploma during the 2014-15 school year, as compared to 23 percent of white students with special needs.

Why do students feel so misunderstood?

The population of students of color continues to climb, yet more than 80 percent of our nation’s teachers are white. This, coupled with unfortunate minority and special education stereotypes, definitely affects students of color. Robert Balfanz, a professor at Johns Hopkins’ School of Education and director of the Everyone Graduates Center, says that if teachers aren’t aware of the stereotypes students of color and students with special needs face, this cycle will continue.

How can we stop the cycle?

Teachers first need to become aware of their bias, and then better understand students’ background and how it can affect behavior in the classroom. This will help teachers build better relationships with students and help them overcome the double stigma of being a student of color and having special needs. Donna Y. Ford, a professor of education and human development at Vanderbilt University, also suggests teachers develop competency in five areas, including gifted education. Although Sidney attributes his success to his participation in gifted education classes, he had to fight to get into those classes. Students of color are continuously underrepresented in gifted and honors classes and overrepresented in special education, so it is imperative that teachers put biases aside and assess students’ for their strengths.

Dr. Frances Stetson, a leading special education and inclusion specialist, discusses how to reduce the inappropriate identification of minority students for special education services, create culturally responsive classrooms, and provide strategies for working with vulnerable student populations in her webinar, white paper, and resource kit.

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