Special education—it’s a broad and incredibly complex topic. And any educator who has worked in the field will tell you, every special education program and each student enrolled in them is entirely unique. While this certainly leads to some challenges, working in special education can also be incredibly fulfilling. Whether you’re just diving into the world of special education, or simply looking for a refresher on the latest trends, issues, and happenings in the field, we’ve put together some of our best resources to create this guide to all things special education. Read on to learn about important terms, the role of technology, co-teaching strategies, program funding, and the IEP process!
Understanding IDEA and Defining Special Education Classifications
The first step on the road to expert status in any field is getting familiar with the basic terminology. The federal definition of special education is based upon legislation from the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). This is the arena where the legal language of special education was born. Special education programs and services adapt content and teaching methodology in order to deliver instruction that meets the needs of students managing a disability through the use of an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). Under IDEA, disabilities are classified to fall into the following areas:
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD): This refers to a developmental disability that significantly affects both verbal and nonverbal communication, as well as social interactions. These symptoms are typically evident early in a child’s development and significantly affect a child’s educational performance.
Speech/Language Impairment: IDEA legislation defines this category of disability as referring to communication difficulties like stuttering, impaired articulation, or language/voice impairments that have a detrimental impact on a child’s educational performance. The areas of impact include:
- Articulation:a problem with the production of sounds
- Fluency:the flow of speech is disrupted, which can be based on inappropriate inhalation, exhalation, or phonemic expression
- Voice:a child’s voice has abnormal qualities
- Language:a child has issues with expression and or understanding what others say
Visual Impairment (Including Blindness): This includes partial sight, as well as full blindness, even after correction, which negatively affects a child’s performance.
Deaf or Hearing Impairment: This category is identified as a hearing impairment (fluctuating or permanent) that is severe enough to impact the process of verbal information (with or without amplification from hearing aids, cochlear implants, etc.) and adversely affects—you guessed it—a child’s performance.
Deaf-Blindness: This combination creates severe communication and developmental needs that, in turn, construct unique educational requirements that cannot be serviced through traditional special education programs.
Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI): This, as you can imagine, refers to an acquired injury to the brain caused by external physical force, which results in lasting impairment. This can be a partial or complete functional disability and/or psychosocial impairment that have an adverse effect on the child’s educational performance.
Developmental Delay: This description refers to children from birth to age nine who face a delay in one or more of the following areas:
- Cognitive development
- Physical development
- Socio-emotional development
- Behavioral development
Emotional Disturbance: This description refers to children who experience a condition that manifests in one or more of the following ways:
- An inability to learn that cannot be explained by intellectual, sensory, or health factors
- An inability to build and/or maintain satisfactory interpersonal relationships with peers and teachers
- Inappropriate types of behavior or feelings under normal circumstances
- A general pervasive mood of unhappiness/depression
- A tendency to develop physical symptoms or fears associated with personal or school problems
To qualify under this category, a student must display these characteristics over an extended period of time and to an exceptional degree. It does not apply to children who simply struggle socially, unless they do so to a degree that they fall under IDEA’s regulations and, as expected, their schoolwork is affected.
Specific Learning Disability (SLD): This classification covers a bit more of a range of impairments. It includes disorders in which one or more basic psychological processes involved in the comprehension and/or use of language (spoken or written) cause an impairment in a student’s ability to listen, think, read, write, spell, and or complete mathematical calculations. This category serves as somewhat of a sweeping classification for conditions which do not result from visual, auditory, motor, intellectual, or emotional impairment or a severe environmental or economic disadvantage. Here are a few examples of conditions that fall within the SLD umbrella:
- Perceptual disabilities
- Dyslexia (dyscalculia, dysgraphia)
- Minimal brain dysfunction
- Developmental aphasia
Orthopedic Impairment: This refers to severe orthopedic impairments. These may be caused by congenital anomalies and disease as well as other factors (i.e., cerebral palsy) which have a significant impact on a student’s academic performance.
Multiple Disabilities: According to IDEA, the category of multiple disabilities refers to “concomitant impairments . . . the combination of which causes such severe educational needs that they cannot be accommodated in a special education program solely for one of the impairments.” The term does not include deaf-blindness which has its own category. Ultimately, this classification covers students whose needs fit under more than one disability and are simultaneous. Different combinations of disabilities can have a variety of impacts on a students’ educations; as such, these students have unique disabilities, which offer unique challenges.
Other Health Impairment(s): This is the last of our identified buckets where a student may become eligible for special education services. This category refers to other health impairments which may include limitations in strength, vitality, or alertness. They often are due to chronic or acute health problems, like ADD/ADHD, epilepsy, and Tourette’s syndrome, and have an adverse effect on a child’s educational performance
How are students classified as having one of these disabilities?
To qualify for special education services, a student must have a condition which falls into one of these categories, AND this condition must adversely affect his or her academic achievement and overall educational performance. But, how is that determination made?
To be sure that we are providing a means to find a solution and not simply labeling a child with a disability, there are in-depth evaluations that must be carried out by professionals prior to designating a child as eligible for special education services. These evaluations may be conducted by a child’s pediatrician, school psychologist, social worker, teacher, or other specialist. This ensures that there is a net of accountability, both in identifying and servicing students with special needs.
Beyond the tools and frameworks in place to identify students requiring special education services, there are significant expectations for monitoring progress. With potential changes coming with the pending reauthorization of the IDEA, there has been a shift toward a results-driven accountability system which requires states to compose comprehensive plans for improving student achievement for students with an IEP. This, in turn, places a stronger focus on professional development around creating IEPs with measurable objectives. It also calls for a way to address the need for evidence-based practices and interventions for students with IEPs and monitors and documents measured student progress with effective resources.
Understanding IEPs and Helping Students Take Ownership in the Process
Special education teachers need to have an intimate knowledge of the Individualized Education Program (IEP) document and process. As already mention, an IEP is the legal document mandated by IDEA that clearly lays out the individual goals and objectives set for a child identified as having a disability and charts how those goals will be achieved. The main purpose of a student’s IEP is to ensure that:
- Reasonable learning goals have been set for the student
- Required services have been determined and will be provided for the student
Who is involved in the IEP process?
There are many people involved in creating a student’s IEP, including the teacher(s), parents, support staff, and other specialists a student may work with. At a minimum, this team is required to meet annually to monitor the student’s academic growth and measure progress toward goals. It is during this meeting that the team can make adjustments or address concerns. Beyond this required annual meeting, any team member can call for an additional IEP meeting whenever an evaluation is felt necessary.
When students who are working under an IEP reach high school, it’s becoming increasingly common that they are called upon to offer input throughout their own IEP process. The goal is to prepare these students for a greater degree of independence in life after high school. It also gives teachers more insight into the learning methods these students favor and the challenges they encounter.
This trend toward inclusion seems to be a turning point in education. Instead of school officials and other adults dictating what and how students with special needs should learn, more emphasis is being placed on giving students the chance to lead their own meetings and help chart their own course toward mastering academic and life skills.
How can students take more ownership over their own IEP?
Creating opportunities for students to drive the IEP process could include asking the student to:
- Set the IEP meeting date and location.
- Send an email invitation for the meeting to all members of the IEP team.
- Help plan the meeting agenda and communicate it to the invitees.
- Review the current IEP with instructors and parents. Have the student decide what parts of the IEP are most important, where he or she has made progress (and why), and what specific accommodations are helpful (or not).
- Identify areas of success, offer data to support his or her assertion, and present his or her opinion on what contributed to that success.
- Set postsecondary goals for the transition to post-school life. Once a student has reached high school, his or her long-term goals (such as college and career) should be incorporated in a section of the IEP called the Individualized Transition Program (ITP). In a student-led IEP meeting, the team can encourage the student to ask questions about transitioning out of high school and express what he or she would like to see in the ITP.
When students lead their own IEP meetings, it makes sense to display this new ownership. One way to encourage students is letting them select the technology that they are most comfortable with to use in the IEP meeting planning process and presentation. Students may also want to map out the meeting presentation or even deliver the presentation themselves.
The National Center for Learning Disabilities has some great resources offering possible activities and recommendations for students working in the IEP process. Check out this article on “Self-Advocacy: 5 Tips from a Student” as a starting point. Another suggestion is to focus on incorporating technology in student-led IEP meetings, which may motivate tech-savvy teens to assume greater responsibility throughout the process. The use of mainstream technology and assistive technology can add substance, structure, and creativity to IEP planning and to the IEP meeting itself.
IEPs create the broad structure from which educators can develop a more detailed and practical day-to-day instructional plan for students with all kinds of disabilities. Technology can enhance the teacher’s ability to capture these students’ successes and, in addition, provide opportunities for inclusion, which, in turn, foster social interactions and social skills mastery. Giving students some control and input throughout the process of creating their IEP drives ownership and engagement with learning. It offers an opportunity to shift the purpose and power of an IEP from stating what a child needs to do to demonstrating what that child can do.
The Role of Technology in Special Education
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed over 25 years ago, in 1990. This groundbreaking legislation marked the beginning of a new age of accessibility, and expanded on the possibilities for inclusive education that IDEA laid the groundwork for. While IDEA is education-specific legislation, ADA is civil rights legislation. The act prohibits discrimination against disability, giving individuals with all manner of unique disabilities increased access to a wide variety of opportunities and services. As time has passed since its passage, the challenges and barriers to that access have evolved in the most phenomenal ways. Technology has helped to knock down the brick-and-mortar walls that were once a barrier to many opportunities. For that reason, technology has had significant effects on the quality of life for people with disabilities and has dramatically altered the application of ADA legislation.
There has long been a call for special education services to be on the cutting edge. Advancements in technology have changed the playing field for education in general, but special education classrooms have been targeted especially. As such, it is critical that we continuously work to improve efficiency, implement evidence-based practices, and provide greater accountability on key performance indicators that support successful academic and post-school outcomes for students with disabilities. Here are four of edtech’s most significant impacts in the world of special education.
Personalizing Learning Experiences
Technology makes it possible for classroom instruction to be enhanced with individual learning events, allowing instructors to provide greater flexibility and differentiation in instruction. Teachers can use technology to offer a variety of learning opportunities and approaches that engage, instruct, and support special education students with a myriad of tactics designed to appeal to individual learners. No longer are students stuck in a classroom they don’t understand, trying to learn at a pace they can’t keep up with or participate in.
Personalized learning embodies the true value of technology for special education—it allows for a unique learning path to be created for every child, based upon their specific situation and needs. Students have the opportunity to approach curricula through a variety of learning modalities, while using a device they are familiar with and enjoy. A computer or tablet will look the same in an AP® class, a general education class, or a smaller self-contained classroom, but the digital content it delivers and how that content is acted upon is completely customizable and within the students’ control.
Building Skills for Life Outside of the Classroom
Technology is not just producing changes in the classroom; it is already ubiquitous in today’s world at large. Preparing students for that world outside of school is critical, and for students in special education programs this generally requires some extra attention. Twenty-first century skills cross all domains and offer a new vison to guide instruction and the application of education in the working world. It has become the expectation that students graduate from the classroom with skills for the technological world. Technology-assisted instruction allows students to learn in an interactive, hands-on manner (often a great fit to begin with for students with unique learning challenges), while also providing opportunities to build those necessary tech skills. Technology in special education settings has blossomed well beyond assistive applications into being an avenue to help students build a foundation for success outside of the classroom.
There are also some specific considerations for high school students in special education preparing for a postsecondary experience. Colleges and universities are not required by ADA legislation to provide free appropriate public education (FAPE) as public primary and secondary schools are, but they are required to provide appropriate academic adjustments as needed, so as to ensure that students are not discriminated against based on disability. This means that there are likely to be expectations regarding technology use that students will need to meet. Similarly, special education students entering a work field after high school must be ready to manage the technology that has become an integral part of most work spaces.
Opening Doors for Autistic Students
Autistic students are one subgroup of the special education population who have, overall, especially embraced and benefited from the introduction of technology in the classroom. As a broad generalization, autistic students tend to struggle with language and spoken communication. Tablets, as well as other mobile devices, are helping overcome these language barriers by simplifying and providing alternative avenues of communication, sometimes even allowing students to select an icon on the screen and then letting the device speak for them.
As more and more autistic individuals use technology to make gains in the ability to communicate, they are leading the charge in a growing call for a shift in the common thinking about autism. As Steve Silberman argues in this Wired interview, instead of a disability, autism is simply one dimension of neurodiversity, a concept that can be understood by drawing parallels to computer operating systems.
A majority of computers may run on Windows, but there are plenty of other equally capable operating systems out there, like Mac and Linux. These systems simply go about tasks in different ways. Correlate this back to autism: autistic individuals tend to struggle with reading social signals or coping with unexpected situations, but they excel at spatial visualization and can complete tasks with uncommon focus. Ultimately, the concept of neurodiversity asks us to move away from thinking in terms of diseases, cures, and causations and instead consider autism, among other conditions, as simply a different mode of being that deserves respect, understanding, and accommodation.
Changing Landscapes for Students and Instructors
Just as students experience the many changes that technology is bringing about in the classroom, special education instructors will also need to have the skills to keep up with these changes. There is a growing need for high-quality professional development before, during, and after the introduction of new technologies and resources to ensure that teachers are properly trained and supported. All teachers must be confident facilitators of the digital world in order to provide effective personalized learning, and this is especially true for teachers of students with special needs. Technology in the classroom is understood as being just as necessary as a chair or a desk, but its appropriate use is less clearly understood, and that is the critical piece. It is not enough to simply have the furniture in the classroom; it must be liked, thoughtfully arranged, and well used. Thus, professional development on HOW to use digital resources, tools, and content is what is making the difference in the effectiveness of technology. This know-how allows technology to be a tool rather than a paperweight.
Teachers are finding that technology is altering the way they do their jobs. This shift can be subtle or dramatic. It can be from the point of view of how they use data or how they interact with their students on a daily basis. Sometimes, these changes can be intimidating and challenging. However, with the right training and correct use, technology truly can offer the ultimate leveling of the education playing field, and that is a milestone everyone with a stake in special education wants to meet.
Inclusion, Co-Teaching, and Common Classroom Scenarios in Special Education
When students are identified to receive special education services, they have the same rights and deserve the same quality of education as general education students—not just in theory but in daily action. Education has reached a point where the line between special education teacher and general education teacher should be completely blurred. Collaboration both kinds of instructors is integral in achieving this.
Inclusive vs. Self-Contained Classrooms
To set the baseline, let’s introduce some common classroom scenarios. IDEA requires that all students receiving special education services be placed in the least restrictive environment (LRE). Inclusive (or inclusional) classrooms refer to settings where students who receive special education services are taught alongside their general education peers. Co-teaching strategies are employed, and these classrooms typically have both a general ed and special ed teacher. Inclusive classrooms typically integrate students who are classified as having mild to moderate disabilities. The co-teaching approach is often referred to as collaborative team teaching (CTT) or integrated co-teaching (ICT). Self-contained classrooms refer to settings where all students in the classroom receive special education services. These classrooms typically include students who have been identified as having more severe disabilities. There are many applications of LRE, as dictated by a student’s IEP, but for the sake of the conversation around co-teaching, let’s focus on these definitions.
The benefits of Co-Teaching and Common Co-Teaching Models
Whether in an inclusive or a self-contained classroom, students with disabilities still fall under the canopy of receiving special services in their education. The needs of individual students may vary widely, so it is important that you design your program in a manner that allows you to focus on the unique needs of your population and incorporate the most effective approaches for them. In an inclusive classroom setting, co-teaching or team teaching is a key element.
In CTT or ICT, chemistry within the team is no longer enough. Obviously, it helps, but it is not sufficient on its own. Specific, proven approaches for collaborative teaching must be understood and used. To be successful, communication and partnership are critical. Between co-teachers, mutual appreciation and respect for each other’s teaching style and time starts the partnership off in the right direction. After that, co-teachers must think about the most effective processes for teaching and differentiating instruction for each child.
There are various approaches to co-teaching designed to achieve these goals and serve different student needs. Think about your classroom situation, and consider which approach or combination of approaches might be most effective for you and your teaching partner. Keep in mind the content of your curriculum, the student dynamics in your classroom, and the general personal approach you and your team have. Of course, there are benefits and things to be mindful of with each process, and this is by no means a exhaustive list.
One Teach, One Observe: Exactly as it sounds, one teacher observes specific student characteristics while the other teaches. This strategy is less about providing students with new instruction and more about monitoring student interaction and maintaining data. This works well when a specific student(s) needs to be identified or observed.
Supportive Co-Teaching: In this model, one teacher takes the primary role. The other supports an individual or groups of students, helps students maintain focus, gathers observational data, and provides classroom management. This method tends to be especially successful when teaching new concepts or when one teacher is a content area expert. Communication and planning are key to make sure that each teacher is aware of his or her role in the lesson.
One consideration when using this strategy—be cautious of perception, as students may start to see one teacher as more of an authority figure than the other. Make sure that balance in the leading of instruction is maintained. Don’t let one teacher become the classroom disciplinarian or minion. Rejoice in the opportunity to share instruction, and take advantage of each teachers’ strengths.
Parallel Co-Teaching: In this model, the class is split into two groups. Each co-teacher instructs one group of students, presenting the same material simultaneously. This gives both teachers the opportunity to work with a small group of students.
Communication is once again critical to this strategy, and co-teachers must plan as a team to be sure that there is parallelism in the structure and quality of instruction that they each provide. Coordinated tasks must be divided in a way that supports the overall learning objective for the class. Using this model is not intended to provide differentiated or individualized learning; rather, it gives students the opportunity to see instructional concepts presented from different lenses and experience multiple related instructional activities. Smaller groups also allow for more student-to-teacher interaction and opportunities for student participation.
The caution with this model is to ensure that all students are given time in each teacher’s group. This helps to maintain equal status between the teachers in students’ eyes and best supports students’ varying learning styles.
Station Teaching: Here, the content is divided, and each teacher works with small groups of students. The students rotate to each instructor through stations featuring different content. The stations involve differing tasks and activities relating to the same instructional content or objective. The work at the stations is not hierarchical. The tasks should be able to be completed in any order. All students participate in all stations.
Complementary Co-Teaching: In this model, one teacher provides primary instruction, while the other offers supplemental or complementary instruction. This might include modeling note-taking strategies, paraphrasing or simplifying the primary instruction, or recording content. To be effective, both teachers must talk to each other and be sure that they are supporting the general instruction.
With an eye to special education, pre-teaching is one example of applying this strategy. One co-teacher may pre-teach specific study or social skills to special education students in the classroom and then monitor students’ use of them. Meanwhile, the other co-teacher teaches the academic content to the class as a whole.
Team Teaching: Using this strategy, co-teachers collaborate and teach alongside one another as a team. They share responsibility for planning, teaching, and assessing the progress of all students in their class. In this model, both teachers "play off" each other and share the instructional role.
Alternative Teaching: This is the last model we will take a look at (in this conversation at least). In this model, one teacher instructs a large group while the other teacher works with a smaller group on a completely different subject. Co-teachers must work together to determine the large and small groups, as well as their desired outcomes, lessons, appropriate activities, and any assessments to be administered to either group.
This model works well for enrichment or remediation and can be a great strategy to provide successful differentiated instruction. By dividing their class into targeted groups, co teachers have the ability to expand and collapse instruction based on students’ needs.
The instruction for students with disabilities in an inclusive environment embraces collaborative teaching, no matter which model is employed, and it begins with eliminating the stigma of special education. Co-teaching also provides opportunities for general education student to receive appropriate interventions early in the instructional process and benefit from a variety of educational approaches. Co-teaching can offer flexibility and modifications to instruction that work to the advantage of all students. Time spent in common preparation, professional development, and debriefing on successes and challenges can also be hugely rewarding to co-teachers themselves. Achieving the gains that can come from co-teaching begins with school and district support of the initiative. With proper time, planning, and teamwork, co-teaching can be a key element of a successful special education program, as well as a rich and inclusive general education program.
Special education is a very personal experience for everyone involved—including students, parents, and teachers. Identification at an early age puts into action legal accountability under IDEA and provides a path for student achievement. However, it can be an intimidating process for parents and students. The idea of labeling students can be a difficult hurdle to overcome, but it’s a necessary step to ensure the right supports are in place. Hopefully, sharing an understanding of the foundational components of special education will arm you with tools you need to carry out these critical conversations.
Interested in learning more about how Edmentum’s online programs can support your special education initiatives? Check out our Individualized Learning Solutions!