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The schools’ handling of students with social impairments

Background and aims

The strong increase in enhanced individual measures in the area of social impairment is being carefully observed in the Canton of Aargau. In the face of the strong rise in costs, measures were authorized that make possible a course correction in this regard. Schools have to use basically lump-sum special education/therapy resources to meet the educational challenges that students with behavioural problems and learning difficulties present in day-to-day school life. In their use of the available resources, the schools differ in part considerably both quantitatively and qualitatively.


The Canton Aargau Department of Education, Culture and Sport (BKS) seeks to support the schools in utilizing the available resources as effectively and supportively as possible, and it is therefore interested in discovering the reasons for the differ-ences among schools. For this reason, the department commis-sioned the University of Applied Sciences in Special Needs Education and the Zurich University of Teacher Education to conduct a research project on the following questions:

  • What intervention strategies and incentive systems are there in the schools for dealing with students with social impairment?
  • What is the impact of the chosen school models, the struc-tures of inclusive support in the schools, and the practice of implementing inclusive support on the school’s capacity for supporting students with social impairment?
  • What role is played by the school culture and the individu-al groups of actors involved?


Based on education statistics data, 13 school authorities were chosen that showed clear differences in the size of the student population and the volume of enhanced individual measures. In the chosen schools, an online questionnaire was sent to all members of a school team (N = 213). In 8 of the 13 schools, group interviews were conducted with an interdisciplinary group that consisted of the school principal, school-level special education teacher, school social worker, and a class teacher.


All in all, enhanced individual measures were found to be an important means for schools to support the education policy goal of inclusive education and realize inclusive solutions for students with behavioural problems. However, enhanced individual measures alone do not ensure that inclusive solutions are established and remain sustainable over time.

Central moderating variables were found to be cooperation, climate, and innovation potential in the school team. In all three factors, schools with a higher quota of enhanced individual measures differed significantly from schools with a lower quota of enhanced individual measures. The success of cooperation in the team depended on how strongly a team felt burdened, how satisfied it was with the work, and what the climate was. If cooperation and climate were poor, burdens, work dissatisfaction, and conflicts were externalized. Instead of adapting to a changed, more heterogeneous student body, teachers blamed parents for failing at child raising. This kind of externalizing coping with strain was seen in the fact that learning and school difficulties were defined as characteristics of the child, which over time stigmatizes, isolates, and excludes students with behavioural problems. In contrast, a well-cooperating and innovative team worked as a filter that caught up the tensions and strains that always arise when dealing with children with behavioural problems, worked them out through reflection, and resolved them in educational ways.

The inclusive organization of special education support in the context of mainstream classes did not guarantee that a school would become more sustainable regarding students with behavioural problems. It was decisive, for one, whether the division of labour in the multi-professional team was situational and not according to the specific functions of school-level special education teacher, school social worker, class teacher, and school principal. A polyvalent understanding of roles allowed the ac-tors to respond flexibly to the demands of challenging situations. For another, an inclusive style of thinking in the team was important in reinforcing the capacity of the school to deal with students with behavioural problems.

The local existence of special education classes worked as an incentive to downgrade students with behavioural problems to those classes. Downgrading them relieved the whole school of classroom disruptions, which then became concentrated in the special education classes, where they had to be handled with the aid of the school social worker and the school-level special education teacher. Assignment procedures by school psychology services frequently manifested as legitimation problems, because parents put up a fight against downgrading and exclusion.

Conclusions: For the inclusion of students with behavioural problems, enhanced individual measures are an important but not sufficient prerequisite. Special education and social pedagogy resources are implemented effectively if climate and cooperation in the team are good and if there is a general culture of openness toward collective learning processes. Under those social conditions, optimization of self-reflective capacities (team coaching and case conferences as professional forms) succeeds. For that, it is necessary to set aside time for the team to dis-cuss what they experience in dealing with students with behavioural problems, what feelings arise, and what impulses make themselves felt. If a team succeeds at working out these often-difficult feelings and fantasies by talking about them, there is a greater likelihood that the team will more often respond appropriately to students with behavioural problems; and this works to prevent stigmatization, delegation, and exclusion.



Project Management

Dr. phil.  Barth


Project team


Forschung und Entwicklung
Tel: +41 44 317 11 81

zfe[at] zfe