Understanding Special Education

By The Understood Team
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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.

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.

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 thinking differences.

A specific learning disability most often affects skills in reading, writing, listening, speaking, reasoning and doing math. Common learning differences 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.[1] 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.

What does “least restrictive environment” mean?

By law, schools are required to provide special education in the least restrictive environment (LRE). This means the starting point for discussion should be the supports your child needs to succeed in a general education classroom.

Schools have a special term for deciding to place a child in one type of classroom rather than another. Schools refer to this as “placement.” General education classrooms are the most common placement for kids with learning disabilities.

What strategies help special education students in the general education classroom?

Federal law says that students with learning disabilities should be educated alongside their non-disabled peers “to the maximum extent possible.” According to a 2014 report by the National Center for Learning Disabilities, 66 percent of students with learning disabilities spend 80 percent or more of their school day in general education classrooms. That’s a big increase from 47 percent a decade ago.

Schools use many strategies to help students receiving special education services succeed in general education settings. These strategies include:

  • Assistive technology such as providing a laptop to help a student with a writing disability take notes in class

  • Accommodations such as seating the student near the teacher (and far from distractions) or allowing him to give oral reports instead of writing essays

  • Modifications such as reducing the amount of homework a student is assigned

  • Paraprofessionals who serve as teachers’ aides helping students with various tasks such as taking notes and highlighting important information

Other types of classrooms or placements should be considered only if you and the school think your child will not be able to experience success in the general education classroom. There are some important things to consider before changing your child’s placement. For example, it’s important to know that schools can’t use budget issues as a reason to refuse to provide accommodations and services.

What are self-contained classrooms, inclusion and out-of-district placement?

Even with various supports and services, some students might not be able to keep up with the pace of a general education classroom. Here are some other possible placements:

Self-contained classroom: Some students may make more progress in a classroom that is only for students receiving special education services. A self-contained classroom is taught by a special education teacher and typically has far fewer students than a general education classroom. With a lower ratio of students to teachers, a self-contained classroom can offer more one-on-one teaching that is tailored to each student’s goals and objectives.

Self-contained classrooms are sometimes referred to as special classrooms. Some students may spend all day in self-contained classrooms. Other students may spend part of the day “mainstreamed” in general education classrooms such as for art and P.E.

Inclusion classroom: A third option that is popular at many schools is called an inclusion classroom. This type of classroom includes a mix of students who do and do not receive special education services. A special education teacher and a general education teacher share equal responsibility for teaching the class. They weave in lots of learning supports to help students with different learning styles and skill levels.

Out-of-district placement: Some students may need more specialized teaching or support than their local school district can provide. If a child isn’t making adequate progress, the district may agree to what’s called out-of-district placement. This is when the district covers the cost of educating a child somewhere else, such as:

Sometimes school districts will agree to an out-of-district placement. But sometimes families have to use dispute-resolution strategies to achieve this outcome.

What are accommodations?

Accommodations are a key component of special education. Much like a wheelchair ramp allows more people to access a building, classroom accommodations allow more students to access the general curriculum. For example, if a child has dyslexia, text-to-speech software that reads aloud the words on a computer screen can help him access material that is at a higher level than he could read on his own.

There are also accommodations for taking tests. Students are expected to learn the same material. But they can show what they know in a different way. For example, if a child has a reading disability, the teacher might ask the test questions aloud.

Some students receive accommodations on standardized tests as well classroom tests. Getting extra time to complete tests is a common accommodation.

What are modifications?

When people talk about accommodations, they often talk about modifications as well. It’s important to understand the difference between accommodations and modifications. Accommodations refer to how a student learns. Modifications refer to how much a student is expected to do or learn.

For example, some students may be given shorter writing assignments or fewer math problems. Other students may be provided books with a lower reading level than the ones that are assigned to their non-disabled peers.

It’s common for a student to receive both modifications and accommodations. Some students may receive one type of support but not the other. And some students might not need either. Here are examples of common accommodations and modifications.

What do “related services” include?

Federal law allows schools to provide certain kinds of services that aren’t strictly educational but are needed so that students can benefit from special education. These are called related services.

For example, a child who has dysgraphia or dyspraxia may need one-on-one sessions with an occupational therapist to improve handwriting skills. Other examples of related services include:

Another term you may hear is “supplementary aids and services.” These can include adapted equipment, such as a special cushion that can help kids with attention or sensory processing issues stay seated and focused for longer periods of time. Other examples of supplementary support include assistive technology and training for staff, students and parents.

What is an Individualized Education Program (IEP)?

The IEP is often described as the cornerstone of special education. That’s because this legally binding document details a student’s annual learning goals as well as the special services and supports the school will provide to help him meet those goals.

Before your child can receive special education services, you and the school must complete several steps. Here’s how the process generally works:

1. Referral for evaluation: When your child is struggling and a learning or thinking difference is suspected, you or the school can ask for an evaluation. Your request may be accepted or denied. Either way, the school must explain its decision to you. The school can’t evaluate your child unless you give written permission.

2. Evaluation: If the school agrees to evaluate your child, the school psychologist and other specialists will give your child various tests. They also may observe him in the classroom. The evaluation will identify whether your child has one of the 13 disabilities covered by the IDEA. The evaluation will also provide information about his educational needs.

Medical conditions such as ADHD are diagnosed by a physician or another medical professional. However, federal law doesn’t necessarily require a medical evaluation to identify a child as having ADHD.[2] Some school districts have policies that allow school psychologists to diagnose ADHD as part of the special education evaluation. School psychologists need to have appropriate training to do this.

3. Determination of eligibility: After the evaluation, a special team from the school meets with you to discuss whether your child has a disability and if it affects his ability to learn. (If your child doesn’t meet the requirements for an IEP, he may qualify for a 504 plan, which can provide many of the same accommodations and services.)

4. Developing the IEP: If your child is eligible for special education, his IEP team creates a plan to meet his needs. You are an equal member of this team and play a very important role. You know and understand your child better than anyone else on the team. Your insights can help ensure that your child receives the services and supports he needs to succeed in school.

There’s a common saying in public schools: “Special education is not a place. It’s a service.” Take advantage of the resources that are available to your child. And remember that many of these resources are available to your child in a general education classroom.

If you’re debating whether to have your child evaluated for special education, thinking through some key questions could help you make up your mind. If you decide to go for it, Understood can help you prepare for the evaluation and develop the IEP. And if you choose not to get an evaluation, or if your child is denied special education services, this site has other suggestions for how you can help your child.

Key Takeaways

  • If your child qualifies for special education, he’ll receive individualized teaching and other key resources at no cost to you.

  • Related services may include one-on-one sessions with speech therapists and other kinds of specialists.

  • Two-thirds of students with learning disabilities spend 80 percent or more of their school day in general education classrooms.

About the Author

About the Author

The Understood Team 

is made up of passionate writers, editors, and community moderators. Many of them learn and think differently, or have kids who do.

Reviewed by

Reviewed by

Virginia Gryta, MS 

teaches and mentors students working toward master’s degrees and certification in special education at Hunter College.

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