What is Special Education?

Female teacher and schoolboy (6-7) in classroom
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There are many students who have special learning needs and these are addressed through special education (SPED). The range of SPED supports varies based on need and local laws. Each country, state, or educational jurisdiction has different policies, rules, regulations, and legislation that govern what special education means and looks like.

What Is Special Education?

In the US, the governing federal law is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Under this act, special education is defined as: 

"Specially designed instruction, at no cost to parents, to meet the unique needs of a child with a disability."

Students qualifying for special education services have needs that often require support that goes beyond what is usually offered or received in the regular school/classroom setting. Special education is in place to ensure that all students' educational needs are met. This means that additional services, support, programs, specialized placements, or environments are supplied when necessary and at no cost to the parents.

The 13 Categories Under IDEA

Typically, the types of exceptionalities/disabilities that fall under special education are clearly identified in the jurisdiction's law. Special education is for students with disabilities, which are defined under IDEA as follows:

  • Autism
  • Deaf-Blindness
  • Deafness
  • Emotional Disturbance
  • Hearing Impairment
  • Intellectual Disability
  • Multiple Disabilities
  • Orthopedic Impairment
  • Other Health Impairment
  • Specific Learning Disability
  • Speech or Language Impairment
  • Traumatic Brain Injury
  • Visual Impairment

The goal of special education is to ensure that students who have any of these disabilities can take part in education along with students without disabilities and can access the curriculum whenever and as much as possible. Ideally, all students would have equitable access to education in order to reach their potential.

Developmental Delays

Even if a child does not have any of the disabilities outlined above, they can still qualify for special education. It is up to the individual states to include children at risk for disabilities in the eligible group for special education. This falls under Part C eligibility in IDEA and relates to developmental delays.

Children identified as having developmental delays are generally those who are slow to meet or who are not reaching certain educational milestones. Part C eligibility is determined by each state's definition of developmental delay and includes children with established physical or mental conditions with a high probability of resulting in developmental delay.

Sidenote: For gifted and talented students there are no minimum federal standards, and it is up to individual states and local administrations to make any decisions about programs and services for gifted learners. As a result, there are large differences even between districts in the same state.

How Do Students Obtain Special Education Services?

A child suspected of needing SPED support will usually be referred to the special education committee at the school. Parents, teachers, or both can make referrals for special education.

Parents should have any necessary information/documentation from community professionals, doctors, external agencies etc. and inform the school of the child's disabilities if they are known prior to attending school. Otherwise, the teacher will typically begin to notice the student's special needs and will relay any concerns to the parent which can lead to a special needs committee meeting at the school level.

The child who is being considered for special education services will often receive assessment(s), evaluations, or psycho testing (again this depends on the educational jurisdiction) to determine if they qualify to receive special education programming/support. However, prior to conducting any type of assessment/testing, the parent will need to sign consent forms.

Once the child qualifies for additional support, an Individual Education Plan/Program (IEP) is then developed for the child. IEPs will include goals, objectives, activities, and any additional supports needed to ensure the child reaches their maximum educational potential. The IEP is then reviewed and revised regularly with input from the stakeholders.

To find out more about Special Education, check with your school's special education teacher or search online for your jurisdiction's policies surrounding special education.


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Watson, Sue. "What is Special Education?" ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/what-is-special-education-3110961. Watson, Sue. (2023, April 5). What is Special Education? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-special-education-3110961 Watson, Sue. "What is Special Education?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-special-education-3110961 (accessed May 28, 2023).