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What is Special Education? 

Special education provides students with identified disabilities specialized instruction designed to meet their unique learning needs, giving them the opportunity to develop to their fullest potential. In the United States, special education is delivered, free of charge, through the public education system, thanks to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

Between 2012 and 2016, the number of school-age students covered under IDEA has dramatically increased, rising from 5.67 million in 2011 to 5.83 million in 2014. Recent statistics reveal the rapid growth in autism and similar disabilities account for much of the growth being seen in special education. For example, the number of 6- to 21-year-olds classified with autism increased a staggering 165 percent nationwide between the 2005-06 and 2014-15 school years.

How the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) Shapes Special Education in the U.S

Although the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was first passed in 1975 (originally called the Education for All Handicapped Children Act) and reauthorized under George W. Bush in 2004, its primary goals have remained similar all these years: to protect the rights of children with disabilities and to give parents a voice in their children’s education. IDEA provides parents with specific rights and protections, called procedural safeguards, which means that parents are always afforded the right to make decisions regarding the education of their children.

IDEA ensures that children with disabilities have access to a free and appropriate public education and that schools provide special education to these children in the least restrictive environment possible, which means keeping them in general education classrooms whenever possible.

IDEA covers children from the age of 3 through high school (or the age of 21, whichever comes first). Children younger than the age of 3 can receive services through IDEA’s early intervention services.

To qualify, children must fall under one of the 13 disabilities identified by IDEA:

  • Autism
  • Deafness
  • Emotional disturbance
  • Visual impairment, including blindness
  • Speech or language impairment
  • Orthopedic impairments
  • Hearing impairment
  • Intellectual disability
  • Multiple disabilities
  • Traumatic brain injury
  • Other health impairment, including ADHD
  • Specific learning disability, including (among others) dyslexia, dyscalculia, and dysgraphia

Children eligible for IDEA must have a diagnosis for one or more of the above named disabilities and, because of that disability, require special accommodations to make academic progress. The criteria used for determining whether a child has a specific learning disability includes:

  • The child does not meet state-approved grade-level standards in one or more of the following areas:
    • Oral expression
    • Listening comprehension
    • Written expression
    • Basic reading skills
    • Reading fluency skills
    • Reading comprehension
    • Mathematics calculation
    • Mathematics problem solving
  • The child does not meet state-approved grade-level standards or exhibits a pattern of strengths and weaknesses in achievement and/or performance due to:
    • Cultural factors
    • Emotional disturbance
    • Environmental or economic disadvantage
    • Limited English proficiency
    • Mental retardation
    • Visual, hearing, or motor disability

The Principles of IDEA

States are responsible for providing special education to their citizens. To do so, they are expected to follow a set of principles:

  • Schools must educate all children with disabilities, regardless of the nature or severity of the disability.
  • Schools must use a set of nonbiased methods of evaluation for determining if a child has a disability. Testing and evaluation must not discriminate based on race, culture, or native language.
  • All children with disabilities must receive a free, appropriate public education. An IEP must be developed and implemented to meet the needs of children with disabilities.
  • Children with disabilities must be educated with children without disabilities as much as possible. Students can only be moved to separate classrooms or schools if they cannot receive an appropriate education in a general education classroom.
  • Schools must have safeguards in place to protect the rights of children with disabilities and their parents.
  • Schools must collaborate with parents and students when designing and implementing special education services.

Special Education Interventions

Special education may be best described as a purposeful intervention designed to overcome or eliminate the obstacles that keep children with disabilities from learning. In other words, it is about providing children with disabilities with individualized plans of instruction to help them succeed.

There are three, specific types of special education interventions:

  • Preventive Interventions: Preventive interventions are designed to prevent potential or existing problems from becoming a disability. Special education in this form seeks to either stop something from happening or reduce a condition that has been identified.
  • Remedial Interventions: Remedial interventions are designed to eliminate the effects of a disability. They are generally used to teach children with disabilities skills that allow them to function successfully and independently. They may be aimed at academic, social, personal, and/or vocational goals.
  • Compensatory Interventions: Compensatory interventions involve teaching special skills or using special devices to improve functioning. Compensatory intervention may be best identified as teaching a child to perform a task or conquer a skill in spite of a disability. It involves providing children with disabilities an asset that non-disabled children do not need.

The Individualized Education Program

A child’s specific needs dictate what is taught in special education. Some children with disabilities require intensive, systematic instruction to achieve success in daily living, school, community, and work settings, while other children must be taught skills to compensate for the existence of a disability. Others just need special accommodations and learn right alongside their general education peers in regular classrooms.

The Individualized Education Program (IEP) is the cornerstone of special education. Each student with a diagnosis that qualifies them for special accommodations has an individually tailored IEP. This legal document details a student’s specific needs regarding special education services and accommodations based on yearly goals. The purpose of an IEP is to ensure that the supports and services provided by special education teachers and related professionals and paraprofessionals meet the goals.

IEPs require (1) an evaluation by the child’s school; (2) the determination of eligibility; and (3) the development of the IEP by the school’s IEP team.

Where is Special Education Taught?

Most special education takes place in the general education classroom – consistent with IDEA’s goal of providing children with disabilities special education services in the least restrictive environment. However, not all special education can be taught in general education classrooms; therefore, special education teachers and paraprofessionals must sometimes provide special education in separate classrooms and, outside of the public school system, in separate residential settings and day schools.

Most special education students spend at least a portion of their day in a resource room, where they can receive individualized instruction.

It is also common for some special educators to provide special education services at home or in community-based settings. Special education teachers in these settings work with students with severe disabilities, helping them practice functional daily living skills.

The federal government defines educational placements for students with disabilities as:

  • Regular classroom: Student receive most of their education in a regular classroom and less than 21 percent of their day receiving special education and related services outside of the regular classroom.
  • Resource classroom: Students receive special education and related services outside of the regular classroom more than 21 percent but less than 60 percent of their day.
  • Separate classroom: Students receive special education and related services outside of the regular classroom more than 61 percent but less than 100 percent of their day.
  • Separate school: Students receive special education and related services in a public or private day school for students with disabilities for more than 50 percent of their day.
  • Residential facility: Students receive special education and related services in a public or privately operated residential facility, where they receive 24-hour care.
  • Homebound/hospital: Students receive special education and related services in a hospital or home-based program.