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 needs are addressed through special education. The range of special education supports varies based on need and educational jurisdictions. 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.

In addition, these services are provided to qualifying students 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 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

Some of the needs in the above categories cannot always be met through regular instructional and assessment practices. The goal of special education is to ensure that these students can take part in education and 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 what is referred to as 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: Gifted and talented students are viewed as exceptional under IDEA, however, other jurisdictions may include "Gifted" as part of their legislation.

How Do Students Obtain Special Education Services?

A child suspected of needing special education 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, typically the teacher will begin to notice anomalies 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.