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Margaret Bancroft

    Margaret Bancroft (1854-1912)

    “Special children must have special schools, with well-trained teachers who used materials adapted to those children’s capabilities. They should not be abandoned to state institutions where conditions were appallingly inhumane.”

    Margaret Bancroft was the first and fiercest advocate for special schools, well-trained teachers, and teaching methods for children with disabilities. She was against the belief that students with disabilities should be taught the same way as the ones without disabilities.

    Margaret Bancroft is a renowned American teacher and educator who dedicated her life to helping students with disabilities. She believed that these students need special attention and educational principles. Bancroft stressed the complexity of studying and teaching mentally deficient children. She recognized the necessity of additional training and knowledge for teachers working with special needs students. Hence she became a representative for both children with disabilities and teachers.

    Bancroft’s fundamental idea was to perceive students with disabilities as children first and to respect them as every other child. She wanted every professional working with disabled children to start with acceptance and respect. Her idea was that professionals should be able to understand that the physical defects of children with mental deficiencies should not suppress their underlying intelligence. For Bancroft, the student’s mindset was crucial. Therefore, she couldn’t understand adults that did not set expectations for students merely because they did not think the student could do it. That is why according to her belief the teacher’s role was to “liberate student’s personality from its prison (the brain-related to the physical defects of the student)”. Her dedicated work influenced the educational and medical professions. As a pioneer of special education, it was only natural that she was the teacher who established “The Haddonfield School for the Mentally Deficient and Peculiarly Backward”.


    Margaret Bancroft was born on June 28, 1854, in Philadelphia, and died on January 3, 1912, in New Jersey.

    Bancroft’s early education started at Philadelphia Normal Schools. Her first step as a special education pioneer started with her teaching career in Philadelphia. Besides the biography written by a former teacher of The Bancroft School in New Jersey, there is little written information about Bancroft. Once she became a Philadelphia public school teacher she devoted her full attention to her students’ needs. She was skillful in establishing an innate connection with her students. Showing exceptional qualities in teaching she was promoted by the Philadelphia School Board, and soon after became the school’s principal. Even so, her devotion and attention never diverted from the students. Bancroft requested the superintendent of schools to accept her proposition for opening her class of backward students. When that happened it became obvious that more and more students needed Bancroft’s help and attention so a single classroom in one school wasn’t sufficient for helping these students. She took a leave of absence to learn more about teaching students with special needs.

    Determined to help students with disabilities she established “The Haddonfield School for the Mentally Deficient and Peculiarly Backward” in 1883. Her idea was to develop advanced teaching methods and a specialized program for students’ physical, mental, and spiritual progress. Eleven years later, her school was renamed the Bancroft Training School. Under her school’s study program, students with disabilities finally got proper nourishment, hygiene, and a chance to exercise, pray, and creatively express themselves. Besides the foundation of this school, her other great achievement was helping organize the Haddon Fortnightly women’s club. Both the club and the Bancroft Training School (now a nonprofit organization and an evaluation and treatment center) are still active today as an epilog of her lifelong successful educational story.


    Margaret Bancroft spent her entire life helping students with disabilities and fighting for their right to education and proper care. She is known worldwide as a pioneer of special education forever changing the way we teach students with disabilities today.

    Her special education theory was based on the fact that students with developmental disabilities should have proper education and care as all the other students. The establishment of Margaret Bancroft school for students with disabilities was revolutionary in every way. Finally, she was able to put into practice everything she learned about educating students with disabilities and implementing the following principles:

    • Acknowledge and give precedence to students’ basic social and emotional needs;
    • Create a space for students where they can receive proper care and attention;
    • Recognize and design an education program that meets students’ specific academic and socio-emotional needs;
    • Encourage social-emotional learning;
    • Give personalized attention, patience, and devotion to students;
    • Avoid bad words and instead of punishing students for their behavior, address their needs;
    • Understand the cause of students’ destructive inclination;
    • Healing, not punishment should be the motto;
    • Find the cause of bad behavior for an appropriate intervention on behalf of the student;
    • Viewing the child as just that, a child;
    • Allow students to inform us of their needs so we can act accordingly.

    The individual well-being of every student was at the center of everything Bancroft tried to achieve. Therefore, she was a passionate advocate on behalf of those who could not advocate for themselves.


    “When the public awakens to this necessity for [special education] as it has for the deaf and blind, then and only then will we see the results which can be attained.”

    Margaret Bancroft’s belief that all students regardless of their developmental deficiencies deserved education had a huge impact on the entire educational system. What started with one student in a rented house in Haddonfield, New Jersey, turned into a movement of teaching and serving generations of special-needs children.

    Bancroft’s revolutionary point of view regarding the education of students with special needs change the course of educational history. Instead of institutionalizing and isolating students with disabilities, she believed they need individualized attention. Her idea was to use individualized attention to help special-needs children learn new skills and develop a sense of independence. Bancroft did not support only one method which all teachers of students with disabilities should use. On the contrary, she thought that teachers should observe students on a daily basis and make changes accordingly. Bancroft’s school program emphasized:

    • Appropriate nutrition, personal hygiene, practice, daily prayers, and sensory and artistic growth;
    • Organized leisure activities such as field trips (circus, theater, museum, etc.);
    • The need for special students to learn in special schools;
    • The need for well-trained teachers who use materials modified to meet students’ abilities;
    • The importance of the well-being and growth of students;
    • The necessity of dedicated teachers who will realize students’ true potential;
    • That student should be at the center of the educational process;
    • The importance of practical use of the knowledge on brain construction, psychology, pedagogy, a function of student behavior, and specified instructions;
    • That students should not merely repeat the acquired skill, but independently use that skill;
    • That higher level of understanding comes from a real-world application of skills;
    • That the goal of the lesson is not fulfilled until thorough knowledge is acquired and the student knows how to use the lesson in practice;
    • The need for individualized teaching according to student’s needs;
    • The importance of small classes (5 to 10 students) so teachers can do their job and do it well;
    • The inclusion of sense training as one of the primary means for engaging students with disabilities;
    • Visual training and the importance of the science behind colors;
    • Every part of the classroom should be a suitable environment for special needs students;
    • That learning takes permanent hold of the brain through training beyond the physical classroom;
    • The importance of learning association to real life and the practice of easy experiments in the early years of a student’s development;
    • That students learn their subjects best by viewing examples and seeing things in their natural habitats;
    • That teachers should encourage observation and interaction because that helps students to retain information as their subjects of study are no longer abstract;
    • The need for clear or direct instruction by teachers when introducing a new concept;
    • The importance of imaginative play that brings together human abilities and supports students in the development of physical and mental brain structures. Play is of great value not just as a stimulus to the brain and imagination, but in the creation of many useful habits;
    • The need of setting proper structure and habits in the classroom to enable the students to process academic and externally given instructions;
    • The need for students with disabilities to have a nourishing learning environment that goes beyond the improvement of academic task performance.

    Many years after the foundation of Bancroft’s school for students with disabilities, the Bancroft legacy lives on through the Bancroft organization that helps children and adults with autism and intellectual and developmental disabilities. Her organization has gotten even stronger over the years, meeting the needs of many students with disabilities as well as their families. She inspired teachers, educators, nurses, and doctors to accept children with disabilities and taught them how to grow and overcome everyday obstacles. Margaret Bancroft forever released the children born with poor mental functionalities from the uneducated prison.   

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