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Part of Western Governors University

January 9, 2020

Teaching & Education

Special education: history, resources, advice.

A desk with a stack of four school textbooks on top. An apple sits on the stack of books. Colored pencils and alphabet blocks are also on the desk.

Special education resources and strategies for teaching students with disabilities.

Teachers and parents of students with disabilities understand the importance of providing an adequate and individualized education for every student to ensure academic success. This understanding is the product of continued efforts in education, as well as through teacher training. 

Nevertheless, when it comes to best serving students with disabilities, teacher training historically has sometimes proven to be inadequate, and many school districts suffer from a lack of resources to improve matters. As a result, teachers may struggle when it comes to learning and incorporating best practices for teaching students with special needs. 

However, there are a number of special education resources and strategies that can prove to be invaluable for doing so. This guide will provide an overview of special education and provide information about resources to provide each learner with an environment that is conducive to success.

What is special education?

The term “special education” refers to individualized programs, curricula, and instruction designed to address the needs of students with disabilities. The intent of special education is to enable individuals with special needs to reach their fullest potential. Teachers must participate in a relevant special ed curriculum in order to teach these students. While all teaching programs should cover the importance of accommodation and inclusion, it is possible to earn a bachelor’s degree in Special Education, or even attain dual licensure in Elementary Education and Special Education. Educators who want to focus on serving special education students can become highly qualified by seeking higher education through a Master’s of Science in Special Education (which covers grades K-12).

The exact nature of special education has evolved over time, with origins that can be traced back to 1954. In the court ruling of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, it was ruled that segregation violated equal educational opportunity. While this decision was based on the injustice of racial segregation, it established a broad understanding that all people deserve equal access to an adequate public education.

Throughout the subsequent years, rights and funding for special education improved dramatically:

  • 1966: An amendment to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act provided federal funds for public education for students with disabilities. 

  • 1973: The Rehabilitation Act made it clear that people with disabilities could not be denied benefits from any program receiving federal funds. 

  • 1975: The Education for All Handicapped Children Act was signed into law. Today, this is known as the IDEA act — read more on this below.

  • 1982: The court ruling for Board of Education of Hendrick Hudson Central School District v. Rowley stated that students who qualify for special education programs must be provided with individualized instruction to meet their specific needs.

  • 1997: Amendments were made to IDEA to ensure the availability of meaningful, measurable programs for students with special needs. It also improved parents’ involvement in the development of their child’s individualized education program (IEP).

  • 2004: The No Child Left Behind Act improved the quality of special education programs at the state level by requiring statewide assessments and highly qualified, specially trained professionals to teach students with disabilities. While this act had some controversial provisions, it was replaced by the Every Student Succeeds Act in 2015, rectifying many of them.

Today, in accordance with our growing understanding of the needs of students with disabilities, the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) enforces the rights of IDEA-eligible students. Among other duties, the OCR is responsible for ensuring that public education institutions follow laws prohibiting discrimination against students with special needs. 

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) mandates that students with disabilities are provided with a free, adequate, and individualized education. The act states:

“Disability is a natural part of the human experience and in no way diminishes the right of individuals to participate in or contribute to society. Improving educational results for children with disabilities is an essential element of our national policy of ensuring equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency for individuals with disabilities.”

In order to remain consistent with these ideals, IDEA is based on six pillars:

  1. The development of individualized education programs: In collaboration with parents, teachers must develop IEPs for each learner with special needs to determine the best accommodations and approaches to instruction in order to maximize each student’s ability to meet their full potential. This can be a time-consuming process, but there are many ways to streamline the creation of IEP goals.

  2. A free and appropriate public education: Using federal and state funding, schools must provide a curriculum with appropriate grade-level standards and which follows each student’s IEP. 

  3. Providing a least-restrictive environment: Students with disabilities must be integrated, to the fullest extent which is appropriate, into classrooms with peers who are nondisabled. They must also be provided with adequate accommodations, such as service personnel or assistive technology. 

  4. Appropriate evaluation: Students must only be provided with special education services after an appropriate evaluation is performed. This should minimize the number of misidentifications.

  5. Parent and teacher involvement: Parents and teachers should both play an active role in the education of learners with disabilities. For any decision made in regards to the child’s education, parents and teachers should be able to guide — and, when necessary, challenge — decisions that may impact the student. Parent-teacher conflict management skills are an essential component of this process.

  6. Procedural safeguards: IDEA has safeguards in place to protect the rights of students with disabilities, as well as their families. This includes parent participation, access to educational records, due process, civil action, and mediation.

In an effort to meet the standards set by these pillars, school districts around the nation have experienced a surge in demand for highly qualified special education teachers. Only with adequately trained personnel can a school adequately provide for students with special needs.

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Special education guidelines.

As noted above, there must be an appropriate evaluation to determine if students qualify for special education services. There are 13 disability categories under IDEA, and these include:

  • Autism

  • Deaf-blindness

  • Deafness

  • Emotional disturbance

  • Hearing impairment

  • Intellectual disability

  • Multiple disabilities

  • Orthopedic impairment

  • Other health impairment

  • Specific learning disability

  • Speech or language impairment

  • Traumatic brain injury

  • Visual impairment including blindness

If a student’s disabilities are found to fall into one or more of these categories, they are eligible to receive special education services. 

Special education terms.

Thus far in this guide, you may have encountered some unfamiliar terms. Special needs teachers and administrators commonly use certain terms that may be new to those who do not have a background in the field. Below, you’ll find a list of definitions for the most common special education-specific terms:

  • Accommodations: Changes that enable a student with special needs to fully participate and meaningfully engage in academic activities. The nature of an accommodation will depend on the specific needs of the student. For example, a student who has difficulty focusing during lectures might be seated closer to the teacher.

  • Modifications: Changes to what a student with disabilities is expected to learn. Examples of modifications are a study guide and a corresponding test that encompasses different materials than what other students are given.

  • Mainstreaming: This term describes the practice of integrating students with special needs into general education classrooms. Students with disabilities will often participate in these classes for part of the school day, then spend the remainder in a special education classroom.

  • General education classroom: Also known as a “mainstream classroom” or an “inclusive classroom,” a general education classroom may include both nondisabled and disabled students. Research has shown that, when students with disabilities are included in general education classrooms, they can make tremendous strides in personal and social development.

  • Self-contained classroom: Also known as a “special education classroom,” this is designed specifically to help students with disabilities with specialized support. Because only students with disabilities attend these classes, they are generally smaller than mainstream classrooms.

  • Individual education program (IEP): As outlined by IDEA, this is a written document that outlines a student’s required accommodations/modifications and goals. This is created in collaboration with educational professionals and the parents of the child.

  • Behavior intervention plan (BIP): An individualized plan with strategies and support designed to address specific problem behavior. This includes positive behavioral interventions, accommodations, or modifications. Teachers of such students must be familiar with best practices and behavioral management involving extreme behaviors in order to give every student an opportunity to succeed.

  • Cumulative file: A student’s cumulative file is a set of records including evaluations and information regarding their special needs and placement. Parents have the right to access their child’s cumulative file at any time. This is consistent with the IDEA pillars of parent involvement and including procedural safeguards.

  • Differential standards for graduation: High school graduation requirements already differ from state to state, but this term refers specifically to the modified standards for graduating that may be used for students with special needs.

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Resources by student condition.

There are many resources available for teachers, parents, and students. These include special education lesson plans, disciplinary plans, tutors, support groups, applications, training materials, and more that can make teaching and learning easier to serve students with a wide variety of disabilities. 

ADD/ADHD Resources

Asperger/Autism Resources

Developmental and Learning Disability Resources

Special Education Resources for Parents

Other Special Education Resources

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Technology in special education.

Technology has become more accessible within education over the past couple of decades, and it has grown to play an essential role in education for many teachers, parents, and students. This also holds true in special education. Special education technology can improve learning by helping students engage with the material in new and interesting ways. Further, teachers can more easily adapt to the needs of individual students with educational technology. 

There are many types of technology in special education that have proven to be invaluable:

  • Assistive listening devices: Students with difficulties hearing or concentrating can benefit from the use of an assistive listening device. These are designed to make it easier for students to listen during class by amplifying sound.

    • Examples: FM systems and sound field systems use wireless transmitters to broadcast and amplify the teacher’s voice. Whether an instructor must assist an individual student with special needs in an inclusive classroom or to amplify their voice in a classroom with poor acoustics, this technology can help dramatically. 

  • Text-to-speech tools: Students with disabilities that impact their ability to read, such as visual impairments or dyslexia, can struggle in general education classrooms without the help of text-to-speech tools. By using assistive technology for reading, educators can improve classroom performance for these individuals.

    • Examples: There are many text-to-speech tools for educators available for both desktops and mobile devices. Using free applications and browser plug-ins, students with vision or reading impairments can save and hear educational content in an audio format.

  • Switch devices: Mobility impairments can make it hard for students with disabilities to engage with lessons in the same way as their peers. Switch devices allow these learners to engage with content with alternative input devices. There are switch devices designed to allow users to touch, blink, kick, or push and pull to interact with educational content and software. 

    • Examples: Sip-and-puff (SNP) systems allow students with mobility impairments to interact with computers and mobile devices by sipping or puffing on a controller, effectively replacing a mouse or keyboard.

  • Proofreading technology: Students with disabilities that may impact their mobility, language comprehension, or ability to type can benefit from assistive proofreading technology. This is designed to either automatically fix common errors or to make grammatical suggestions.

    • Examples: Basic proofreading software can help learners write more efficiently, while more sophisticated solutions can identify student problem areas, then make advanced recommendations. This data can also help teachers determine where a student may require further instruction.

  • Assistive technology for math: There are a wide range of devices and software options to help students with conditions that impact their ability to complete calculations. From basic arithmetic to calculus and beyond, there are assistive technologies for most subjects in math.

    • Examples: Calculators can help students solve simple and complex math problems. Some are designed with large buttons, which can help students with mobility or visual impairments. More advanced tools, like equation-solving software, can make suggestions to help students without directly giving them answers. Some even offer games that make teaching math easy and fun.

  • Augmented and virtual reality: Learners with disabilities who experience struggles focusing on projects or “tuning out” distractions can be aided through augmented or virtual reality software. The former can highlight key elements of a project and provide additional information or guidance, while the latter can provide a virtual environment in which external distractions can be reduced.

    • Examples: Examples of augmented and virtual reality applications for assistive learning include AR flashcards, AR-enabled worksheets, VR educational simulations, and VR collaboration software. Each of these can improve student engagement by drawing student interest and eliminating distractions.

"I don't want my child in special education."

When a student’s academic performance begins to suffer, it’s natural for parents, teachers, and the student in question to begin exploring options. However, when a child is identified as being eligible for special education services, parents or teachers may resist accepting them due to certain stigmas. The key to overcome this — and offer the best possible educational experience for a child with disabilities — is to bring any concerns to the table. As established above, parents and teachers are both responsible for developing a plan that best serves the learner.

It’s important to have a discussion about the child’s options. Special education services can play an integral role in helping a child achieve their full potential, but not all students with disabilities require them. In some instances, they may not be eligible to receive special education services if they do not meet IDEA’s definition of a child with a disability (see IDEA’s 13 categories of disabilities above). 

If a child falls into either of these groups, there are a number of alternatives to special education that parents and teachers should consider. These include additional tutoring, homeschooling, or an alternative school. Each of these can incur some costs, but they can help you give a child with disabilities the individualized instruction they may need to achieve their full potential.

If you’re interested in a career in special education, WGU could be the perfect fit for you. Our Special Education degree programs help prepare you for the things you need to know and do inside the classroom. Our goal at WGU is to help prepare you for an exciting and impactful future career, and when it comes to education, we understand how important it is. We want you to be a great teacher so the students you work with can learn in the best situation possible. Get started with WGU today, and get on the path to a rewarding future.

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