What is Special Education?

Special education is a form of education intended for those with non-traditional learning needs. It is a system that has been formed to plan and monitor teaching procedures, adapt equipment and materials and find ways to make learning more accessible to those with special needs. Because those with special learning needs require more attention and specialized learning tools, special education often takes place in a class room that is separate, at least some of the time, from the regular classroom setting. Special education can help a wide range of students, including those with learning disabilities, physical disabilities and mental health problems.

Filling the needs of special education students is often a challenge for the community. The availability of services will depend greatly on funding from states and the federal government. The methods used at any school can vary greatly depending upon the resources available and the outlook of the Board of Education overseeing the district. There are three basis models available for special education, with trends moving towards inclusion as the preferred method of teaching.


This term describes one-on-one education with a tutor outside the classroom altogether. This can occur when a student is homebound or hospitalized. It can also occur for students who have been suspended or expelled from school due to behavioral problems or criminal offenses.



Some teaching models develop special classrooms just for those with special education needs. These students spend no time in a standard classroom. They may attend the same school as their peers or there may also be a separate school for these children.


This method of special education focuses on helping special needs children gain exposure to the standard classroom, giving them a greater sense of belonging and an understanding of the standards expected in this setting. The idea is to pull them away from the classroom only long enough to provide special instruction focusing on their particular needs. Some inclusion models keep special needs children in the classroom full time and send a special educator into the classroom to work with one or more children.

This practice has its critics. Some argue that immersion takes valuable resources away from traditional students in the classroom. Others complain that immersion can make it harder for children with disabilities to learn because the instruction methods are vastly different from the needs of special children. However, most teachers believe disabled children are best taught within the classroom whenever it can be arranged. The helps to raise the self-esteem of disabled children and help them become accustomed to interacting with others on a peer level.

Before federal laws were enacted to aid special education in schools, only 1 out of 5 disabled children received a classroom education. In 1975, the Ford administration passed the Education of All Handicapped Children Act. This forever changed the American elementary and secondary school systems. No longer could states mandate that children who were blind, deaf, “mentally retarded” or “emotionally disturbed” be excluded from schools.

Individualized Education Programs

Since the passage of this law, many other laws have followed, granting federal funding only to those schools that follow federal guidelines about how special needs children should be educated. In modern schools, there is a specific procedure that must be followed for implementing the education of special needs children, called an Individualized Education Program (IEP).

If a parent believes their child is not progressing adequately in school and may need special education, the parents will place a written request called a “referral for evaluation”. Such requests are addressed to the principle of the local school or the special education coordinator for the school district, indicating the area of special needs.

One the request is received, the school contacts the parents and arranges a meeting to explain the evaluation process. Parents must sign a consent form to allow the child to be evaluated. The school must evaluate all areas of suspected disability, so it is important for parents to describe their child’s learning difficulties in detail.


Testing is done with the child one-on-one with a teacher trained in administering the particular type of testing. For example, a child suspected of having emotional difficulties will be tested by a psychologist. After testing, the child will be observed in the classroom or other school setting by someone other than the classroom teacher to assess the level of interaction and communication in an objective manner. Children over the age of 12 must go through vocational testing to encourage the development of skills that will lead to gainful employment after high school.

Eligibility for special education services is determined on the basis of testing and observation. The IEP team must classify the disability into one of 13 categories before proceeding. Schools can also add the classifications of ADHD and PDD (Pervasive Developmental Disorder) if needed.

A parent and group of teachers will work together to formulate an education plan for the child. Parents may include anyone else they feel may be of benefit to the group, such as a special tutor or a child’s therapist. Written notification of an IEP meeting is then sent to parents, listing all those who will attend, including the names and positions of these people.

Contents of the IEP

An IEP will have several factors to ensure that the child’s education remains focused and productive. The plan will state the child’s current educational performance level and describe how the child’s disability affects school performance. Annual objectives will be stated, including short-term goals intended to work towards the annual objective. The IEP will also state the specific services that child will receive and the extent of classroom immersion that will take place. It will also indicate the date when services are scheduled to begin.

While there are procedures in place for parents to challenge an IEP they disagree with, it is typical for the process to suit most families. It works to secure the special education a child needs in a clear and definitive way, ensuring peace of mind for parents with disabled children.