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.
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.
“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.
What disabilities are covered by special education?
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. This is the largest disability category of students receiving special education.
What strategies help special education students in the general education classroom?
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.
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.
What do “related services” include?
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:
Mental health counseling for children and parents
Social work to provide support to children and families and assist in developing positive behavioral interventions
Speech-language therapy to improve communication skills that affect learning
Transportation to and from school and, in some cases, to and from extracurricular activities
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 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 attention issue is suspected, you or the school can ask for an evaluation.
2. Evaluation: A 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. The evaluation will also provide information about his educational needs.
Medical conditions are diagnosed by a physician or another medical professional.
3. 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.