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Trending Issues in Special Education, Part 1: IDEA and Defining Classifications

Trending Issues in Special Education, Part 1: IDEA and Defining Classifications

Welcome to the world of special education. Ta-dah! With this greeting, you have entered a realm of federal regulations and distinctive complexities. For the next week, we are going to take a close look at special education by delving into some of its exceptional challenges as well as its supreme benefits. While some federal legislation is unique to special education students and classrooms, core concepts of personalized learning and teaching to the individual are strategies that all good teachers incorporate—and it’s obvious that you are a good teacher if you are joining in this discussion! 

We will begin this series by taking time to truly understand the definition of special education. Then, over the week, we will dive deep into topics like the edtech world, co-teaching, student-led Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) and a classroom favorite, crowdfunding (come on, how cool is that?!), all through the lens of servicing special populations. Stay tuned to get yourself well on the way to expert status in all things special education!

How We Define Special Education

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 every child. An understanding of student classification within the school setting and IEPs begin here.   

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. 

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.

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. 

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; 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.


This combination creates severe communication and developmental needs that, in turn, construct unique educational requirements that cannot be serviced through traditional special education programs. 

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 some 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.

Other Health Impairment(s)

This is the last of our identified buckets where a student may become eligible for special education services and an IEP. 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

So, we’ve learned that 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.

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. 

Whew! As promised, there it is—special education and IDEA classifications in a nutshell. It’s a unique, complex, and challenging field but a very important and rewarding one too. And that is why so much focus and brain power has been poured into special education over time, providing us with an ever-growing pool of knowledge to pull from. Innovations in special education spill over into general education classrooms and pedagogy as well, helping all educators to find more and more applications for differentiated learning and instruction. Ready to dive further in to the specifics? Check back tomorrow to learn about how edtech is changing the rules in special education!

Interested in learning more about Edmentum’s online solutions to support special education educators and students? Check out our Adaptive Intervention Solution!