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What is Special Education?

Updated on September 24, 2012
A special education teacher assists one of her students.
A special education teacher assists one of her students. | Source

Special education isn’t about “riding the little bus” or “being retarded.” It’s about children with different needs getting what they need out of the educational system. Special needs generally refer to lifelong disabilities or learning disabilities. These include autism, blindness or other visual impairments, deafness, emotional disturbances, hearing impairments, cognitive disabilities, orthopedic impairment, major health impairments, speech or language impairments, or traumatic brain injuries. Having the disability itself, however, is not what qualifies a student for special education. Their disability must have an adverse effect on their education. In other words, a student who has a slight degree of deafness but does not need any additional assistance in order to be successful in their studies may not qualify for special education, or may only qualify for limited special education.

What are the laws, rules, regulations, and requirements?

The main law that most others fall under or refer to is IDEA. This is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act which was enacted in 2004 and helps to provide rights and requires for students with special needs. The main benefit of this act is that it guarantees that each student within special education is provided with a FAPE (free and appropriate public education) within the LRE (least restrictive environment).

A Day In the Life of a Special Education Teacher

Special Education Testing

The first thing that happens when a parent suspects that their child may qualify for special education is that the parent requests testing, assuming that the child did not start out in PPCD or another program through that state that transitioned them into special education automatically. This testing is called an IEE, an Independent Educational Evaluation. The school most often will do this testing themselves with staff members, but if you as a parent disagree, you can (in writing) request that outside testing be done, and the school has a limited amount of time to respond. (Check your state requirements as they may vary, but average is 30 days.)

Once testing has been completed, the parent will be invited to an ARD meeting. The ARD meeting is the “Admission, Review, and Dismissal” meeting. During an ARD meeting, different members of the school will meet with the parents. Depending on what was determined in testing and state requirements, it will generally include a general education teacher, a special education teacher, any services (such as speech therapists, occupational therapists, and physical therapists), a school administrator, and the parents. If the child is old enough, he or she is also able to attend and have a say in the decisions being made.

The ARD meeting is where the IEP (Individual Education Plan) is created. The IEP sets up the goals and objectives for one year. The IEP must be provided to all teachers who interact with the student, and the teachers should track their progress on meeting the IEP goals. The ARD meeting is held each year, or more often on parent request, and each time, determinations must be made as to placement of the child in LRE, services offered, and any accommodations or other needs that must be met, as well as the goals and objectives being worked towards by the child.

Basics of Special Education Law, Part 1

Basics of Special Education Law, Part 2

What falls under the umbrella of special education?

Education from the age of three to 21 is part of special education, depending on the needs of the students. Before the age of three, each state offers “early intervention” which allows parents with infants and toddlers to receive help, generally at a reduced cost. After the age of three, the school district takes over and may offer services from a wide range of possibilities. Some students need only speech therapy, occupational therapy, or physical therapy. Some students may qualify for PPCD (Preschool Programs for Children with Disabilities). Students in special education may stay in high school until they are 21, as long as they are completing their high school diploma (or other degree plan, as determined by their abilities).

It’s important to note that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all plan for special education. Some students may be mainstreamed (e.g. in all “normal” classes with other students with no or very little support). Other students may have a “resource room” or other area that they can use to regroup, calm down, and get additional help for their disability, whether it’s additional tutoring, social skills, or another need. Students with greater need may have aides that accompany them to classes or may be in an “inclusion” classroom where they are only with their disabled peers. The determination of where the child “fits” is done with the ARD meeting, and it may be revisited by written request of the parent or caregiver.

One important thing to remember about special education, when provided by a school district, is that all services are free to the parents. Parents cannot be billed or made to pay for services the child receives.

ESY (Extended School Year) is another part of special education. For students who will regress or lose progress, the school district must provide educational opportunities over the summer. These must be customized to the student; some districts attempt to off a single program, but parents who know their rights can call meetings and contact their state’s education office to determine what can be done so that their child gets the most appropriate services. During ESY, schools must offer all services that are offered during the year, including therapies.

Teacher Unloads on Special Needs Student

Problems with Special Education

One of the biggest problems with special education is that many of the students who are in special education are especially vulnerable to being hurt, whether it’s mentally, emotionally, or physically. Students with autism have been locked in closets or otherwise punished with no way to tell their parents what has happened or been afraid to tell for fear of retribution. Other students may also tease or abuse special education students, knowing that the students with special needs are unable to fight back. Because of these issues, many parents have begun a push to include cameras in special education classrooms and anti-bullying laws have been enacted. So far, however, they don’t seem to have been effective, as can be seen in the YouTube video. The best thing a parent can do is stay involved, meet with the teacher, know the administration in the school district, and report any problems to administration or the state education office.

What to do when you get to college?

Find and talk to an ADA counselor. The ADA (Americans with Disabilities) counselor is there to help students with documented disabilities. This means that if you have all your paperwork from high school, you can bring it in and find out about potential accommodations. While they may not be as extensive as those available to students in K-12, they often include extra time for tests, test taking with a proctor who can read the test for the student, copies of notes from the instructors in large print, and extra time to hand in assignments. If you do not go through the ADA counselor, your teachers are still able to give you these accommodations, but they are not required to do so, so finding and talking to the counselor is a must if you think that you might need any help succeeding.


Understanding Special Education. 13 Categories of Special Education. Retrieved from

Wrightslaw. Retrieved from


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    • profile image

      jack 5 years ago

      The children's education is very important, the quality of education affects his life. Very good idea, thanks for sharing this touched the screen! !

    • profile image

      Mike 5 years ago

      Special kids require special care and education. Really enjoyed reading your hub!

    • rebeccamealey profile image

      Rebecca Mealey 5 years ago from Northeastern Georgia, USA

      You did a great job covering the definition and services in special ed. Congratulations!

    • ComfortB profile image

      Comfort Babatola 5 years ago from Bonaire, GA, USA

      This is an interesting hub! I currently work with special Ed. students (middle/High Sch.) at an alternative school, and I know how much work goes into delivering the materials.

      You have covered it all in details. Good job! And congrats on the HOTD award.

    • MrsBkay profile image

      Britney 5 years ago from Southern California Desert

      Au Fait- Students can stay in the program until their 22nd birthday, which technically means they're only provided services through age 21. It's just the wording.

      What an awesome Hub! I am a Teacher's Assistant in a CA Non Public School, which is another option for parents through the school district. The school has both emotionally disturbed and handicapped students. On the ED side, my school has 1 elementary class with 14 boys (my class), 1 middle school class, 1 mild/moderate high school class, 1 moderate/severe class, and 1 transition class. On the SH side we have 1 mild/moderate and 1 moderate/severe.

      Working in a place like this can be very difficult. It is very different than a public school's Special-Ed classroom. Most of the students at my school are in foster care or on probation, or both.

      I will be writing a Hub on my experience and an explanation of a Non Public School very soon. When I do I will be linking this hub as well. Thanks for the inspiration!

    • starbright profile image

      Lucy Jones 5 years ago from Scandinavia

      This is an interesting topic. Really useful hub. Thanks for sharing.

    • Au fait profile image

      C E Clark 5 years ago from North Texas

      I work with special needs children and here in Texas they can stay in the program until age 22. Students with behavioral issues are included in special needs and our 'little buses' are used as needed for both special ed and regular ed students. Special ed students mostly ride full sized 40' buses in my school district. There aren't enough of the baby buses for all of them.

      Good hub that should help people understand a little better what is involved with special needs children. Voted up, useful, and interesting. Will share.

      Congratulations on HofD!