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November 7, 2014
by Autumn Robinson, MA, PhD Candidate

What is Special Education?

November 7, 2014 02:55 by Autumn Robinson, MA, PhD Candidate

There is a lot of confusion about what Special Education is. People often assume that it’s only for children who suffer from severe disabilities and that it means going to a separate classroom in which all of the students are disabled. But special education is a much broader and deeper educational experience than this. 

Special education comes in many forms, and can include everything from that completely separate setting, to a seamless integration into a regular education classroom, to short pull outs that only occur occasionally. Students who are served in special education programs vary widely in functionality and ability. Special education gives services to students with high IQs who suffer from disabilities, blind or deaf students, students with cognitive disabilities, students who only have physical limitations such as the necessity of a wheelchair, and even students with behavioral disorders who are disruptive in the classroom (Rotatori, Obiakor, & Bakken, 2011). In addition, special education often includes students with speech impairments who are solely served by a speech language pathologist and are never pulled from the classroom for academic reasons.


Special Education has its own unique set of terminology. In order to gain a basic understanding of the subject, it’s essential that you are familiar with the vocabulary. Here are a few special education terms that are commonly used:

  • Accommodations - Changing the environment surrounding the educational material. Things like seating changes or large print.

  • Behavior Modification - a method of changing human behavior using a system of both positive and negative reinforcement

  • Co-Teaching Model - A model in which a special education teacher and a regular education teacher both lead instruction.

  • Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) - every child from age 3 to age 21 must be provided with a supervised and individualized education at no cost

  • IEP (Individualized Education Plan) - A detailed document which includes all pertinent information regarding a student’s needs, goals, test results, plans, etc.

  • IFSP (Individualized Family Support Plan) - In IEP for children from ages 0-3, it places an emphasis on the whole environment in which the child lives, not just a school environment.

  • Inclusion - Students with special needs are served in the regular education classroom, usually in a co-teaching model, where there is a mix of children who have IEPs and those who do not.  Services are accomplished using modifications, accommodations and other supports.

  • Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) - Federal law requires that teachers place students with disabilities in classroom environments with as many regular education students as possible. In other words, the law requires that students be pushed into the regular population as much as possible.

  • Modifications - Changes in the fundamental level of the academic material in order to make it attainable for a student. Things like shortened or simplified assignments, or more lenient grading.

  • Resource setting - Students are given special instruction in a special education classroom entirely made up of students with IEPs.

Another important point regarding special education is that it has gone by many names over the years. Currently most programs are either referred to as Special Education or Exceptional Children’s programs. Both of these terms mean the same thing and are used interchangeably. (Vergason & Anderegg, 1997).

The Legalities of Special Education 

Exceptional Children’s programs exist in every state and every county in the United States. They vary greatly in complexity and in scope, and school systems vary widely in the way that they assign children to various classes. However, it’s important to note that all special education in the United States is governed by a set of regulations set forth in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 2004 (IDEA 2004), a piece of federal legislation that outlines what services must be delivered to students and how. This isn’t of course the first incarnation of legislation governing the education of students with special needs, as the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 first established a federal guideline for the education of children with special needs. (Schulte, Osborne & Erchul, 1998).

The rules and regulations of IDEA 2004, which is the current law governing special education, are very specific guidelines that bind every single school and every single child in the United States. Let’s be clear here - public schools must abide by the provisions of IDEA 2004. States regularly audit school systems in order to ensure proper compliance with this law, and state school systems risk the loss of federal funds or even legal action should they fail to follow the letter of the law. There are very detailed rules regarding how long a school system has to test a child once the parents request testing, how often goals must be updated, and what kinds of modifications can be used during standardized testing, along with how to implement those modifications. There’s more about the minutiae of the required pieces of this legislation in the next sections.

What is a Disability?

According to the federal government’s guidelines, there are very specific definitions for what constitutes a disability. Disability is very precisely defined under IDEA 2004 and separated into 13 categories. All of these necessarily must have an adverse effect on educational performance in order to qualify the student for special services.

  1. Autism - Defined as a developmental disability which generally manifests before the age of 3 and negatively affects educational performance.

  2. Deaf/Blindness - Hearing and visual impairments that occur together in a child.

  3. Deafness - A hearing corruption so severe that it limits a child’s ability to process language.

  4. Emotional Disturbance - A broad range of factors that include an inability to interact in an appropriate fashion with peers and authority figures, depression and even schizophrenia.

  5. Hearing Impairment - A deficiency in hearing that negatively affects academic performance but isn’t included in the definition of deafness.

  6. Intellectual Disability - A substantive deficiency in intellectual function that happens in tandem with adaptive deficits.

  7. Multiple Disabilities - Two or more disabilities that occur at the same time. Independently they might not qualify a child, but together they constitute qualification

  8. Orthopedic Impairment - A bodily impairment significant enough to be detrimental to the educational ability of a child.

  9. Other Health Impairment - An ailment that affects student educational ability. Included here are various illnesses from epilepsy to lead poisoning. Most notably, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is included here.

  10. Specific Learning Disability - A discrepancy in ability and achievement in a student, meaning that it is shown through psychological and educational testing that the child is unable to meet their academic potential without intervention.

  11. Speech or Language Impairment - A whole range of communication disorders.

  12. Traumatic Brain Injury - After a physical trauma to the brain, loss of functionality is covered as a disability under this section. This category ONLY includes injuries that occurred after birth and does not include brain injuries caused by disease.

  13. Visual Impairment - Both partial sight and complete blindness, and the impairment must impede the student’s academic performance. 

(Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, 2004)

It’s important to realize that a student only has to qualify in one area in order to be eligible for special services. Every child who qualifies in at least one area MUST be granted special services according to the law, without exception.

Individualized Education Plan (IEP)

According to IDEA 2004, every child in America must be offered a free and appropriate education.  The public schools are bound to give each child the opportunity to come to school and learn, no matter how their cognitive and physical limitations may affect their ability to participate in classroom activities. Mastering content is not a requisite for going to school.

An IEP is a large an incredibly complex set of documents, and each child in a special education program is required to have one. This document is the center of the educational experience of a child, and includes everything that pertains to the child’s services. The actual IEP includes background information, family information, goals, accommodations, modifications and a description of services. This must be updated annually during an IEP meeting, in which a minimum of three people are required to attend and sign the document - the special education teacher, the general education teacher and a representative from the school who is not a teacher of the child, like a principal. Parents must be notified of the meeting and should they request an alternate time must be accommodated, but their attendance is not absolutely required. It is not unusual for parents to allow the meeting to go on without their attendance. Together the people who meet to create the IEP are known as the IEP team. Of course this group changes as the child moves through school, with a new set of teachers every year.

Every three years an IEP must include a re-evaluation. Children change as they grow, and often testing that is administered at one time is no longer relevant. IQs can change in a child, particularly if there are exacerbating factors in their development. As such, the IEP team must meet to decide if testing must be pursued in order to determine the child’s continued eligibility for special education.

There are various other possibilities that can be included in an IEP, such as a Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP). This document outlines very specific behavioral modifications that must be implemented in order to facilitate classroom success. These kinds of plans are used for all kinds of students, from those who have a violent history to children who need more detailed scaffolding in educational engagement.

An IEP is considered to be a living document. Teachers update and revise IEPs for students, and refer to them when looking for guidance on how to work with the child in the classroom. Whatever is written in the IEP is the binding legal obligation of the school to provide for the child. If a school does not provide the services outlined in the IEP, then they are in direct violation of federal law. Under IDEA 2004, parents can request a due process review if they believe that those services are not being provided or if they believe that the IEP does not include enough support for their child.

IEPs are confidential. The IEP files are required to be kept under lock and key at all times, and unauthorized individuals are not permitted to access the documents. Law requires that parents be provided with hard copies of every single document that is developed pertaining to their child, and they are permitted to access their child’s records. Special education is a sensitive subject, and schools are required to treat it as such. Though kids can usually tell who’s getting services and who’s not, teachers are bound to keep confidential their supports as much as possible. Here we see the importance of the social aspect of education, requiring teachers to downplay the otherness of children with disabilities (Fine, 2001).

Schools generally keep all of this information in a hard copy form in a file. This IEP file follows a child from school to school, grade level to grade level. Each child has an assigned case manager, which may or may not be their special education teacher who provides their services. There are an incredible number of documents in this file, and by the time a child reaches high school these files can be quite large. Documentation must be maintained on how accommodations are provided during standardized testing, on how a student is progressing through their IEP goals, and on every meeting that is held regarding a child (Jain, 2006). Special education teachers often talk about the two things that they do in equal parts - teaching and paperwork.

Changing Landscape

The landscape of special education is constantly changing and improving. We’re seeing more and more how important the inclusion model is becoming as more and more students are being served in that environment (Jain, 2006). Advances in methodology are providing a more seamless joining of special education and general education settings so that students can find integration in school that will then facilitate more positive integration in the general society once they graduate. 

Special education is losing its stigma. 


Fine, L. (2001). Special education: Inclusion and reform. Education Week, 20(41), 16.

Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, 20 U.S.C. § 1400 (2004).

Jain, P. (2006). Special Education. Delhi, IND: Pragun Publications.

Rotatori, A. F., Obiakor, F., & Bakken, J. (Eds.). (2011). Advances in Special Education, Volume 21 : History of Special Education. Bradford, GBR: Emerald Group Publishing Ltd.

Schulte, A. C., Osborne, S. S., & Erchul, W. P. (1998). Effective special education: A united states dilemma. School Psychology Review, 27(1), 66-76.

Vergason, G. A., & Anderegg, M. L. (1997). The ins and outs of special education terminology. Teaching Exceptional Children,29(5), 35.

About the Author

Autumn Robinson, MA, PhD Candidate Autumn Robinson, MA, PhD Candidate

Autumn Robinson is a writer with an MA in Special Education, and PhD student who lives in the beautiful Blue Ridge mountains of North Carolina with her three young boys, special needs daughter and loving husband. She is also a former special education teacher.

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