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What Makes Special Education "Special"? (A Parent's Guide to Understanding Special Education)

Updated on August 30, 2012

What Exactly Is Special Education?

I'm sure many of you reading this hub remember being in school and remember what special education was like back in our day. I remember when students with special needs were served in an environment that segregated them essentially from the rest of the student population. These students were once hidden away at the classroom at the end of the hall or in portable classrooms out behind the school. These students were only seen occasionally at lunch, maybe on the bus occasionally, but they were typically not involved in the general educational activities that everyone else participated in. It was like they attended school in the same building, but it was like they were different, not included in the student population. Often these kids were ostracized or ignored. Sometimes they were picked on and the brunt of jokes. Kids of my time were not taught to accept students with disabilities, as they were not a highly accessible population for most students in the general education setting.

Today is the dawning of a new day for students with disabilities though. It has been a long time coming, but I think schools are finally headed in a better direction, including students with special needs more in the general education setting, while still trying to meet their individual academic needs. Students today can still be cruel to people with disabilities, but then again, students can be cruel to anyone who differs from them in some way. It has been my observation as an educator that students have begun to learn not only tolerance, but acceptance of those who differ from them as a result of mainstreaming. Mainstreaming involves serving students with disabilities in the general education setting as much as possible for them to still achieve. Basically, all students with disabilities have the right to be served in a least restrictive environment. Least restrictive environment means that a student is exposed to and benefits from the general education setting and curriculum as much as possible for them to still be able to progress and benefit academically and socially. This can mean including students in lunch, physical education, elective courses, extracurricular activities, and academic courses. It allows them access to anything that can help them be successful in school and that will lead to them becoming productive community members in the future.

What is the Purpose of Special Education?

Special Education programs were designed to provide educational opportunities to students with special needs. Essentially, these programs require developing individualized educational plans (IEPs) to address differences in learning style and academic ability, as well as behavioral issues. The purpose of developing an IEP is to plan and implement systematically monitored teaching procedures, adaptive equipment/materials, alternate settings, and any other interventions that can possible assist a student with special needs learn more effectively and efficiently. The ultimate goal of Special Education is to produce students who have higher levels of self-sufficiency and success in the educational and community settings. These services provide more intensive help than could be provided in the general education classroom setting. Special education programs are often seen as a permanent situation for students. The truth is, special education strives to provide students with the tools to be successful in the general education setting without needing special services, so theoretically, special education is a temporary state of assistance for most students and they are able to learn modifications and accommodations, as well as to remediate areas of weakness, so that that special education services are no longer required. Some students, depending upon the level of disability they have, may require long-term placement and services through special education programming.

Although Gifted Education is included under the special education umbrella (special in that the students need individualized attention, planning, and specialized instruction) generally special education programs are geared at students who are experiencing difficulties in the classroom setting for a variety of reasons. These challenges or difficulties include problems with: communication, behavior, academics, cognitive ability, physical ability, developmental disability, and medical concerns that impact ability to learn.

Students with disabilities often need additional or alternative educational practices in order to thrive. Some of these practices include differentiated instruction, use of various types of technology, alternative teaching areas/spaces within the general classroom, and pull out services that separate the students from the general setting.

There are various models for special education service delivery. The first one is consultation. Consultative services allows the special education teacher to consult with the general education teachers of a given student to provide necessary accommodations and modifications in the general education setting to help the student be successful. In the consultation model, the special education teacher also typically meets with the student periodically or on an as necessary basis to assist the student with difficulties they may be experiencing. Often times, the consultation model is a segeway back into the general education setting full time. It affords the student minimal support from special education staff and programs while allowing them the opportunity to be successful in the general education environment without daily intervention or presence of the special education teacher or staff.

The inclusion model is one in which the students with special needs are instructed in the general education classroom setting with their non-disabled peers. This can involve co-teaching in which the instructional opportunities are provided by both the general education and the special education teachers. It can also involve one of the teachers providing extra support not only for the students with special needs, but also for any student who may be struggling with a concept. It allows one teacher to instruct in a whole group setting while the other pulls a group aside to help strengthen skills. This model is what most schools are striving for. It helps to teach tolerance and has improved the achievement of many students with special needs. It has also been helpful in teaching appropriate social skills.

A resource setting is one in which the students spends part of the day pulled out of the general education setting to receive instruction in the weak area(s). This allows the student to benefit from one-on-one instruction from a special education teacher. This model is beneficial for students with more moderate disabilities that require a little more support to benefit academically.

A self-contained setting is a pull out environment that provides the most intensive special education intervention offered within the traditional school setting. It involves spending most of the day with a special education teacher. This setting is typically reserved for students with severe cognitive or behavioral disabilities. In this model students are sometimes allowed to participate in non-academic classes and activities like their non-disabled peers. Some programs also include a community-based component for self-contained students that is geared more at practical life skills than academic skills to help prepare them for life after high school.

The last special education environment I will discuss is the special school model. Some students have disabilities too severe to adequately address in the traditional public school setting. These schools provide specialized instruction and behavioral programs to address the needs of these students. Some of these schools provide day programs, while others may be residential in nature. This is a last resort for students who cannot be adequately served in the traditional school environment. It is considered the most restrictive environment when all others have been exhausted.

I hope this gives you some background on special education and a basic understanding of what it is and the purpose behind it. Check back with me, as I plan to publish a series of hubs further explaining special education and providing resources for parents and teachers. I am a school psychologist by training. I worked for 13 years in Georgia Public Schools as a special education teacher and school psychologist (conducts evaluations for special education). I love the children and enjoy advocating for them and their parents. So if you ever have a question, feel free to message me and I will answer it to the best of my ability or try to point you in the right direction anyway. Thanks for reading my hub and I hope you will check in for further information.


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