Special education is tailored to meet the needs of students with disabilities. The services and supports one child receives may be very different from what another child receives. It’s all about individualization. What’s important is giving kids the resources they need to make progress in school.
What is special education?
What do you imagine when you think about special education? You might picture children with disabilities spending the day tucked away in a different kind of classroom, separated from most of the kids their age. This may have been the norm in the past. But as the field of special education has moved forward, much has changed.
Special education today is still focused on helping children with disabilities learn. But this no longer has to mean placing kids in a special classroom all day long. In fact, federal law requires that students who receive special education services be taught alongside their non-disabled peers as much as possible.
For example, some students with dyslexia may spend most of the day in a general education classroom. They may spend just an hour or two in a resource room working with a specialist on reading and other skills. Other students with dyslexia might need more support than that. And others might need to attend a different school that specializes in teaching kids with learning disabilities.
“Special education refers to a range of services that can be provided in different ways and in different settings.”
There is no “one size fits all” approach to special education. It’s tailored to meet each student’s needs. Special education refers to a range of services that can be provided in different ways and in different settings.
If your child qualifies for special education, he’ll receive individualized teaching and other key resources at no cost to you. The specialists who work with your child will focus on his strengths as well as his challenges. And you’ll be an important member of the team that decides what he needs to make progress in school.
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Who qualifies for special education?
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is the federal law that defines and regulates special education. The law requires public schools to provide special education services to children ages 3 to 21 who meet certain criteria. (Children younger than 3 can get help through IDEA’s early intervention services.)
To qualify for special education services, a student must:
- Have a documented disability that is covered by IDEA, and
- Need special education in order to access the general education curriculum
“Access” is an important term in education. Making the curriculum accessible to students with disabilities is a lot like making buildings accessible to people in wheelchairs. If there’s a barrier to your child’s learning, such as difficulty reading, the school needs to come up with the equivalent of a wheelchair ramp to help your child access the reading material.
School districts have a process in place to determine which students are eligible for special education. This process involves a comprehensive evaluation that looks at the way your child thinks. It also looks at other aspects of his development. You or your child’s school can request an evaluation. If the district agrees to evaluate your child, the testing will be conducted at no cost to you.
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What disabilities are covered by special education?
IDEA covers 13 types of disabilities. These categories include autism, hearing impairment and intellectual disability (which used to be referred to as “mental retardation”). Another category, called Specific Learning Disability, applies to many kids who have learning and attention issues.
A specific learning disability most often affects skills in reading, writing, listening, speaking, reasoning and doing math. Common learning issues in this category include:
- Dyslexia: Difficulty with reading, writing, spelling, speaking
- Dyscalculia: Difficulty doing math problems, understanding time and money, remembering math facts
- Dysgraphia: Difficulty with handwriting, spelling, organizing ideas
- Dyspraxia: Difficulty with hand-eye coordination, balance, fine motor skills
- Auditory processing disorder: Difficulty interpreting what the ear hears (which is different from having a hearing impairment)
- Visual processing issues: Difficulty interpreting what the eye sees (which is different from having a visual impairment)
Specific learning disabilities are very common. Some 2.4 million students in U.S. schools have been identified as having a learning disability. This is the largest disability category of students receiving special education.
There’s a separate category called Other Health Impairment. It’s defined as having limited strength or alertness, which affects educational performance. Children with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are often covered by this category.
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