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Special Education Introduction

child and teacher studying

Special needs children are children who, due to significant medical, physical, cognitive, emotional, or learning issues, require different, usually more intensive accommodations from schools and learning environments than do typical children. For example, children with Dyslexia become easily lost and disoriented during regular class instruction because they don't understand the letters and words as easily as their classmates. Children with Cerebral Palsy may need to use a wheelchair, as well as other assistive devices, to help them navigate school grounds. Children with ADHD can require extra organizational support with regard to note-taking, homework and testing. Without the presence of classroom accommodations designed to address each of these children's special needs, they would likely fail to meet their academic potential.

Within the United States public education system, children's special needs are protected by law. Special needs children are entitled to be educated ac...More

Fast Facts: Learn! Fast!

What is Special Education?

  • Special needs children are children who, due to significant medical, physical, cognitive, emotional, or learning issues, require different, usually more intensive accommodations from schools and learning environments than do typical children.
  • Within the United States public education system, children\'s special needs are protected by law.
  • Special needs children are entitled to be educated according to an individualized education plan (IEP) designed to meet their unique educational needs. The IEP details the adjustments to traditional education that they require so as to best meet their learning needs.
  • The basic goal of special education is to provide exceptional children with disabilities which will prevent them from fully benefiting from traditional educational approaches with specialized instruction and intervention sufficient to enable them to benefit from their education.
  • Special education differs from regular education in two ways. First, different instructional methods are used. Second, additional specialists (specialized teachers, speech therapists, occupational therapists, physical therapists, aides, social workers, etc.) are involved. These professionals\' specialized skills are matched to the specialized needs of identified children.
  • Special education uses intensive, individualized instructional methods.
  • In addition to traditional academic content, many exceptional students also benefit from a functional curriculum, which is designed to help students learn basic daily living skills they have not developed on their own such as toileting, eating, grooming, using money, filling out forms, communicating basic needs, and following directions that a teacher or boss gives them.

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What is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)?

  • The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a United States Federal law that regulates how students with disabilities are identified and how they will receive special education services through their local public school system.
  • There are six mandates contained within the IDEA legislation that guide what children with disabilities are entitled to, and how students and their families should be provided special education services.
  • The primary mandate of IDEA is that all children are entitled to an education, no matter their level of disability.
  • Another central mandate of IDEA ensures that public school districts provide a Free, Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) to all students with disabilities.
  • Another major mandate of IDEA states that the process used to identify and evaluate children with disabilities must be done in a non-discriminatory way.
  • IDEA also mandates that students with disabilities should be educated in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE), which means children with disabilities should be educated with other typically-developing children as much as possible, and they should be educated in a setting as close to the regular classroom as possible.
  • Yet another core mandate of IDEA is the idea that parents and students should be involved in the special education process and be included in each step along the way: identification, evaluation, planning, and implementation processes.
  • The final central mandate of IDEA is due process protection, which ensures that families have a legal way to challenge special education decisions in evaluation, planning, and instruction and directs school districts to respond to these challenges in a timely and appropriate manner.
  • The Federal IDEA outlines a list of specific list of 13 disability categories that qualify children for needing special education services. These include Mental Retardation, Traumatic Brain Injury, Specific Learning Disabilities, Emotional Disturbance, Autism, Speech or Language Impairments, Deafness, Hearing Impairment, Visual Impairment (including blindness), Deaf-Blindness, Orthopedic Impairments, Other Health Impairments, and Multiple Disabilities.

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How does the identification and evaluation process take place?

  • The process begins with a formal evaluation of a child's need, which can be initiated by parents, teachers or other school staff who suspect that a child's educational success is being affected by a disability.
  • Parents need to call their child's school and ask to speak with the special education coordinator. They can then identify themselves and their child, share their concerns about their child, and ask about the school's evaluation process. This phone call should be followed up with a written letter to be kept as a record.
  • Many schools may try to suggest some preliminary interventions be undertaken with the child before completing the full special education evaluation, but parents still have the right to insist that the evaluation be scheduled.
  • Once the school receives the request for evaluation, it must send back an evaluation plan in writing to the parents for approval and consent.
  • This evaluation plan should outline what methods, tests, or other tools, will be used to evaluate for the disability, and the plan will identify the individual providing the evaluation and that individual's credentials.
  • IDEA requires that schools use a variety of tests; they cannot just use one test.
  • These tests generally have both oral and written components, and are administered individually to the child by a Psychologist or other professional who has expertise in that particular area.
  • Evaluations also take into account a child's behaviors, including the child's social skill with peers, classroom behavior, and signs of emotional problems.
  • Once the caregiver receives the school's evaluation plan, they can do one of three things: 1) They can accept it "as is" and sign consent on the plan. 2) They can accept it with conditions, such as requesting additional assessments be performed or other documentation from the children's other therapists, doctors, and specialists be included. 3) If parents totally disagree with the evaluation plan, they should return a letter explaining their concerns. If parents do not agree with the evaluation plan and do not sign consent, the process will not move forward until the parents sign off on an evaluation plan.

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What is the Disability Eligibility Determination and how does it work?

  • Once the school has completed the evaluation, they will arrange an Individual Education Plan (IEP) eligibility meeting with the student's family.
  • At the disability eligibility meeting, everyone present will introduce themselves and describe how they interact with the student.
  • The evaluator will review the results of all the evaluations and based on the results, the school will determine whether the child is eligible for special education.
  • Parents can also discuss any outcomes or information they have about their child's condition or behavior relates to their educational functioning.
  • If the school has determined that the child does have one or more qualifying disabilities, the IEP team may launch directly into the task of developing the child's Individual Education Plan (IEP) at the eligibility meeting.
  • It may occur that the evaluator concludes that the child does not qualify for a disability.
  • Parents should express their disagreement calmly but firmly, and only after having listened carefully to what each staff member has to say. They should use their disagreement to move the discussion towards the generation of alternative plans likely to help their child, rather than as an opportunity for righteousness.
  • In the event that parents and the school cannot resolve their disagreement over whether the child has a disability or not, there are a few options. Parents can agree to go along with the school's determination, but then talk with the school about other, non-special-education-related options for helping their child to do better in school. Parents can talk to the school about developing a 504 plan for their children. Or they can press forward and continue to try to get full special education services for their child, either through mediation or through a formal appeal known as due process.

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What is included in an Individual Education Plan (IEP)?

  • The Individual Education Plan is a very detailed plan for a specific child's special educational needs and identifies the services that will be provided to meet those needs.
  • The plan generally contains six main components:
    • it documents the skills and abilities of the student at the start of the plan,
    • it describes specific goals and accomplishments that are expected by the end of one year,
    • it identifies how that progress will be measured and reported,
    • it defines what special services, equipment, or curriculum modifications are necessary to achieve the plan's goals,
    • it defines how often a student will receive those services, and,
    • it specifies where those services will be delivered.

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What is a Transition Statement and Plan (TSP)?

  • When student reaches age 16, a Transition Statement and Plan (TSP) will be included in with their IEP.
  • The purpose of the TSP is to document the student's goals for postsecondary education, vocational training, job placement, and independent living needs after high school is over.
  • A good transition plan will also discuss a student's social and recreational needs, as well. IDEA requires that the TSP document the student's own plans, goals, and desires.
  • The TSP is also mandated to include plans for "instruction related services, community experiences, the development of employment and other post-school adult living objectives, and when appropriate, acquisition of daily living skills and functional vocational evaluation."
  • This plan helps youth with disabilities take control of their future by helping them create a meaningful and workable plan for achieve their goals for work, social interests, and community participation after school has ended.
  • According to IDEA, youth can continue to receive free, appropriate education until age 22. After age 22, the public school system is no longer responsible for providing an education to students. However, depending on the individual's disability, he or she may be eligible for receiving other services through the local, county, or state social service agencies.

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What are Gifted and Talented Student Services?

  • The flip side of the need to accommodate disabled students is the need to accommodate gifted and talented students who show exceptional intellectual or artistic abilities.
  • The traditional classroom can be just as poor a fit for gifted students as it can be for students with disabilities, necessitating a strategy on the part of the school to provide appropriate learning environments for gifted children.
  • These students are not covered by IDEA, but are covered in federal statutes that define gifted and talented (G/T) students as children who, "give evidence of high achievement capability in areas such as intellectual, creative, artistic, or leadership capacity, or in specific academic fields, and who need services and activities not ordinarily provided by the school in order to fully develop those capabilities."
  • Generally, states' eligibility requirements for G/T services include some combination of demonstrated exceptional ability or talent, and demonstrated and creative use of those abilities or talents in the form of advanced achievements or significant accomplishments well beyond what is considered above-average for that age group.
  • Gifted students who are not challenged by the material in a traditional classroom often develop poor self-esteem, or overly-inflated self-esteem.
  • Once a youth has been identified as "gifted and talented", the school works closely with the student and parents to determine how to best change that youth's curriculum in terms of acceleration and enrichment.

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How can parents cope?

  • Navigating the many stages of the special education system can be stressful, if not downright overwhelming for parents.
  • The first stress relieving suggestion is that hesitant parents make a practice of speaking up to offer information and suggestions about their child's needs.
  • Parents can also reduce their stress by keeping a careful and well organized paper record documenting their child's entire special education process. A single notebook designated for this purpose, as well as a filing system in which to store documents should be set up for this purpose early on in the process.
  • Parents can help reinforce and strengthen children's learning of new skills by working with children to practice those skills at home.
  • Finally, parents can reduce their own stress by taking time out to care for their own needs. Parents should find a way to rest, to relax, and to treat themselves well at least a little bit on a regular basis.

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