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[Educator Network] Current Trends in Special Education 2021

[Educator Network] Current Trends in Special Education 2021

Most students with disabilities are now served in general education classrooms as we embrace inclusive practices in our schools. Continuing scarcity of special education teachers and movement toward team teaching or co-teaching impact the process that districts approach special education as well. The lines are blurring in diagnosis, pedagogy, and instruction between a general education classroom and special education approaches to instruction.

In addition, most educators are supporting students who face trauma, catastrophic events, multiple disabilities, and special talents, all without the benefit of a clear diagnosis. There are many more students managing the stress and chaos of uncertainty which has clear bearing on their classroom performances. All of this requires general education classroom teachers to be responsible for  an understanding of unique students and learning that clearly falls outside the realm of a worksheet and basal reader.

For students with special needs—roughly 7 million in the U.S. ages 3 to 21—classrooms moving to a virtual or hybrid model presented unique challenges. There have been many conversations and blog posts that highlight this discussion. In addition to the interruption of their schedule, their ability to be social and receive additional services were often out of reach if not eliminated. However, parents and teachers have been working extraordinarily hard to see ways forward. For some students, classes through computer screen have been a blessing for some typically developing students it has been extremely challenging. Students who have a difficult time looking directly at people’s faces, find it much easier to do so through the computer screen for others screen fatigue and isolation has been an obstacle to learning. The adjustments in education have illuminated some significant trends for students with special needs. Let’s take a deeper look into some of the top five issues that are currently trending in the world of special education.


Education must continuously change, and clearly there have been steps taken recently that catapulted technology into a new level of expectation. The last few months of expanded virtual and blended learning options across school and districts have shone a spotlight on the opportunities technology can create for special education.

Observing and participating in online games can offer mental health professionals, educators, and others opportunities to remotely monitor a child’s progress and adjust. These adjustment can be adapting goals, encouraging social skills as well as offering opportunities for students to interact with their peers in ways that are less physically demanding than some other extracurricular activities. Multiplayer games encourage social behavior, competition, and motivation with players regardless of a special education classification. Familiarity with technology can also mean less resistance to digital therapies. When these games are easily accessible, repetition is enabled which can help solidify new skills and knowledge.

A new level of attention to making sure all kids have access to educational technology is finally getting taken seriously. The internet has grown into a utility, like power and water, deemed essential for modern living.

As technology continues to substantially alter the classroom, students with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) are especially targeted for extra support. By leveraging technology, classroom instruction can be enhanced with individual learning occasions. This allows teachers greater flexibility for differentiation in instruction through blended learning opportunities and the variety of web-based, evidence-based practices. No longer are students stuck in a classroom they don’t understand, learning at a pace they can’t keep up with. The application of digital learning resources to target unique instructional needs can benefits all learners.

Virtual Reality (VR) has also found applications in the world of digital learning. It will continue to grow by providing real world environments for students who struggle with crowds and sensory issues. The effect has been profound.  Virtual reality can let users with motor function problems interact with objects in ways that would not be possible physically. For some students lining up in the cafeteria or navigating through a busy hallway can be a nightmare and overwhelming. VR can create these spaces for students providing an opportunity to desensitize. It also has the ability to provide a glimpse into the environment for those individuals who do not face this challenge with the hope of building empathy. These scenarios encourage mindfulness.

Schools across the country have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into new devices for students. However, just as essential, districts must put funding aside to focus on professional learning, support for these devices and develop the infrastructure to handle these tools.

Granted, students, teachers and parents are experiencing a little screen fatigued. However, the dynamic change and benefits are unquestionable. Digital resources may shift again, social interactive learning will play a role in the screen weary student, but the landscape has been forever changed.

Trauma-Informed Teaching

Students and teachers are often faced with dire situations far outside their control. Managing these situations and addressing the emotional impact can make day-to-day instruction feel trivial in comparison. How do you face a traumatic event and continue to learn fractions? The uncertainty and chaos of the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years have not offered students the comfort and reliability that most student have learned to expect from school. Students faced issues with family death, illness, food insecurities, housing concerns, isolation - for months and months and months. Students that rely on the consistent schedule and expectations of the school day had to negotiate sometimes weekly changes in the process.

Children already coping with mental health conditions have been especially vulnerable to the changes of the past year. The pandemic disconnected students from more than just classrooms, friends, and extracurricular activities, it also cut off students from the consistent interaction from educators who were a resource and a protection. Staff members whose open doors and compassionate advice helped them build self-esteem, navigate the pressures of adolescence and cope with trauma were no longer passed in the hallway. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN) counts natural disasters as traumatic events. The NCTSN defines a traumatic event as a “frightening, dangerous, or violent event that poses a threat to a child’s life or bodily integrity.” Each student reacts to trauma in his or her own way. While there is no clear-cut set of cues to spot, there are many resources describing possible signs of trauma to be on the lookout for. With students and educators separated, looking for these cues or having them recognized was greatly hampered.

The ability to learn plays second fiddle to the stressors of survival. These pressures have impact learning. How students deal is unique to them, in addition, they do not qualify for special education services immediately.

Students who face trauma certainly require special accommodations. Their world and work are significantly impacted by forces outside of their control. There are behaviors we can look for and resources we can put in place, but as educators, and most likely participants of the same catastrophic events, we need to be aware of the resources and act as part of the solution, not the only solution.

To explore some of the ways that educators can support students who have gone through trauma, as well as some additional resources, read our full blog post, which expands on this topic.


Educators are aware of the impact of poverty on students and learning.  This is a challenge being faced by more students than you might expect, and under new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) requirements, increased focus is being placed on monitoring the academic growth of this specific population. The American Rescue Plan Act (ARP), appropriated $8 million for the purposes of identifying children and youth experiencing homelessness and providing them with wrap-around services considering the challenges of COVID-19, and assistance needed to attend school and participate fully in school activities. It appropriates emergency relief funding for elementary and secondary schools, and institutions of higher education, through the Education Stabilization Fund portion of the Act (sections 311-321; pgs. 743-757). Keep in mind, these students fit outside the realm of traditionally acknowledged students with special needs.

While federal law requires schools to identify and serve homeless students, in most schools, one teacher or staff member absorbs the added duties, adding to an already overloaded plate. In addition to students identified as homeless there has been a significant rise in students who are living on their own. Unaccompanied children now make up more than 1 in 10 students who are homeless  in 29 states, and 8.6-percent nationwide.

Recently we have seen a drop in these numbers, and usually, that would be welcome news. However, this is a time where the numbers do not tell the full story. According to a new survey by SchoolHouse Connection and Poverty Solutions, there has been a 28-percent decrease in the number of identified homeless students in the fall of 2020 compared to the fall of 2019. According to the most recent federal data, 1.5 million preK-12 students are homeless, which indicates that roughly 423,000 students without homes have slipped through the cracks and are not receiving the support and services they need. With the lack of access to resources, shelters not having the turnover they typically have and reporting differences because of this, and schools not having face to face contact, it is not surprising that there are lower numbers reported. These numbers reflect only those found. The issues is clearly the inability of districts and supporting organizations to identify families/youth due to distance learning/school building closure. They are becoming more invisible than they already are.

For students without homes, the classroom could be the one safe, stable place in their day-to-day lives, an important tether to the safety and security of routine and, perhaps most critically, an essential support in the journey out of poverty and into a better situation. These students are being forced to deal with significant, difficult, and interrelated challenges outside of the classroom that inevitably impact academic performance and the ability to participate in instruction.

At this point, it should come as no surprise that for children already identified as needing special education services, the stresses of homelessness can exacerbate learning problems. After all, transitions are often hard for children with exceptionalities—can you imagine anything more transitional than being without a consistent place to sleep every night? When school doors closed for the pandemic, many families became disengaged and the opportunity for in-person monitoring and communication on a myriad of topics disappeared. Having access to services and support evaporated. Additionally, not all homeless students have gone through the evaluation process (or need to), so providing educational support and resources is not an option There are additional resources and strategies for educators in this blog post on the topic.

Twice-Exceptional Students

One of the challenges teachers face, in addition to everything else on their plates, is providing material that is appropriate in content and grade level for every child. When discussing students with special needs, this can often refer to age-appropriate and skill-appropriate content. There is another population of students that must be reviewed with an eye toward their special needs. These exceptional children often get lost, and because of their talents, they often find themselves hiding in the “average” populations.

In education, students who qualify for gifted programs as well as special education services are described as “twice-exceptional” learners. Twice-exceptional (2E) students demonstrate significantly above-average abilities in certain academic areas but also show special educational needs, such as ADHD, learning disabilities, or autism spectrum disorder. Because their giftedness often masks their special needs, or vice versa, they are sometimes labeled as "lazy" or "underperforming," even though that is not the case.

Educators recognize that 2E students exist—often in the shadows—of the classroom. However, the real challenge is how to accurately identify these students, understand the challenges that they face, and implement whole-child-based strategies to best support them. Savvy teachers are now learning how to allow these students to experience the same opportunities available for gifted students, learn in ways that highlight their strengths, and address their challenges at the same time.

To learn more about how to best support 2E students in your classroom, read our full blog post on this topic.

Parental Support

We have talked at great length about some of the issues that students and teachers are facing within special education. Many of these topics are outside of the identification of diagnosis and recognition of special ed disabilities which come with guaranteed accommodations and services. However, one common theme we have not discussed is the approach that must be considered when meeting with parents. You, as their child’s teacher, may be the very first person to indicate that there is an issue with their precious baby. Starting the conversation is hard—you can be met with tears or terror. The main thing to consider is that this is their child and that you only know one small piece of the puzzle.

Collaboration with parents have always been the solution, however, these past months have taught us that schools need to support collaborative problem-solving, including family members, who will have increased roles and expectations in hybrid and fully online learning. Digital tools and related educational materials must be accessible and meaningful, and parents need to share in the understanding of how to use them.

It is important from the beginning that you are part of the one unified team that supports students in the best ways possible. At the end of the day, you and your students’ parents want the best for the children, and it is essential to remember that. You play an important role in students’ lives, so make sure that you are making your voice heard but be sure that you are listening to what parents have to say. Keep children’s best interests in mind. Remember, you are an advocate, but they are the parents. Create a plan that you can all agree on—one that will find students where they are. Progress in education and special services should include an investment in training and support initiatives to maximize use of current programs as well as ongoing resources or technical support for these essentials.

Next Steps for Educators

Classroom teachers are amazing. It’s as simple as that. More and more students, either diagnosed or facing matters that are outside the standards of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) categories of special ed, are showing up in the general education classroom. This puts significant pressures on general education teachers. Continuing education, individualized instruction, and flexibility are paramount for teachers.

Legislation calls for some of these previously underrepresented populations to be accountable in high-stakes testing, without IEPs or provisions. This means that classroom teachers must be aware of how best to teach everyone in the classroom and not turn over the keys to a special education teacher. Teachers with special education certification may not be there or may be spread across many classrooms. Communication is key. Work with other teachers, parents, and students to create an environment of shared practice and success. IEPs may need to be revised to focus on making progress towards goals in new environments. Schools should also explore and provide the resources to parents to ensure continuity of services across various formats. Be sensitive to the journey your students and parents are on; it may have hidden barriers

Teachers, faculty members, and families might be more prepared than ever, when everything straightens out, and have renewed sense of possibility. Districts and schools need to plan and design effective hybrid and online learning practices and consider both synchronous and asynchronous structures.

What we have learned:

  1. Instead of the traditional focus on sensory and physical accessibility (see Section 508 guidelines), efforts need to expand to the cognitive needs of learners. Attention should be placed on learning, attention, executive functioning.
  2. Professional development has an increased focus. Schools and districts must provide time and resources in training educators certainly but also family members, and students on the use of digital tools. We have seen that there is variability in understanding, comfort, and expertise.

This has been a year where we have seen students with a diagnosis both succeed in a world of digital resources and disappear. Students who struggled with social interactions and physical barriers might have found a level playing field in technology, yet we have also found students that had no pathology disappear from the classroom and struggle with the trauma of isolation and insecurity. The distinction between identification and general education are more comprising. Whether there has been a process begun for a student is immaterial, there are so many students in need of an individualized compassionate approach that every teacher must employ. It becomes almost moot whether a student has an IEP or not, the need is there whether the pathology has been identified or not.