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Special education is the education of students with special needs in a way that addresses the students' individual differences and needs. Ideally, this process involves the individually planned and systematically monitored arrangement of teaching procedures, adapted equipment and materials, accessible settings, and other interventions designed to help learners with special needs achieve a higher level of personal self-sufficiency and success in school and community than would be available if the student were only given access to a typical classroom education.

Common special needs include learning disability, communication challenges, emotional and behavioral disorders, physical disabilities, and developmental disabilities. Students with these kinds of disabilities are likely to benefit from additional educational services, different approaches to teaching, access to a resource room and use of technology.

Intellectual giftedness is a difference in learning and can also benefit from specialized teaching techniques or different educational programs, but the term "special education" is generally used to specifically indicate instruction of students whose special needs reduce their ability to learn independently or in a classroom, and gifted education is handled separately.

The opposite of special education is general education. General education is the standard curriculum presented with standard teaching methods and without additional supports.

Provision of individualized services

Special education is not a location, but the act of educating students in a way that is "special", or different from the usual methods. A special education program should be customized to address each individual student's unique needs. Special educators provide a continuum of services, in which students with special needs receive services in varying degrees based on their individual needs.

The provision of education to people with disabilities or learning differences differs across countries and (in the US, Canada, Germany, and other federally organized countries) across states. The ability of a student to access a particular resource depends on the availability of services, location, family choice, and government policy. For example, in some poor countries, students with disabilities simply cannot attend school.

In most countries, educators are being challenged to modify teaching methods and environments so that the maximum number of students are served in typical educational environments. In the US, the President's National Council on Disability has called for special education to be regarded less as a "place" and more as "a service, available in every school." Inclusion reduces social stigmas and improves academic achievement for many students.

Additionally, improved teaching methods and early intervention programs such as response to intervention are being implemented by general education teachers to reduce the need for special education through prevention.

Special education programs need to be individualized so that they address the unique combination of needs in a given student.

Students with special needs are assessed to determine their specific strengths and weaknesses. Placement, resources, and goals are determined on the basis of the student's needs. Modifications to the regular program may include changes in curriculum, supplementary aides or equipment, and the provision of specialized physical adaptations that allow students to participate in the educational environment to the fullest extent possible. Students may need this help to access subject matter, to physically gain access to the school, or to meet their emotional needs. For example, if the assessment determines that the student cannot write by hand because of a physical disability, then the school might provide a computer for typing assignments, or allow the student to answer questions orally instead. If the school determines that the student is severely distracted by the normal activities in a large, busy classroom, then the student might be placed in a smaller classroom.

The education of students with developmental disabilities, who require more time to learn the same material, frequently requires changes to the curriculum. Successful special education programs for developmentally disabled students focus on "only what is necessary for them to know and what they are capable of learning," so that all of the child's time is spent learning high-priority skills, and so that the child is not inappropriately frustrated by advanced subjects that are beyond their capabilities. By contrast, most students with a specific learning disability primarily need changes to the method of instruction, rather than to the skills and information being taught.

Support can be provided for short periods or long-term, and the kinds of support may change over time. For example, a child that required a one-on-one instructional aide for safety reasons while very young might outgrow this need when older.


Special education has been provided in one, or a combination, of the following settings:

  • Inclusion: In this approach, students with special needs spend most or all of their time with non-disabled students. Implementation of this approach varies; most schools use it only for selected students with mild to moderate special needs, for which is accepted as a best practice. For example, in Denmark, 99% of students with learning disabilities are placed in regular classrooms full-time. In the United States, three out of five students with learning disabilities spend the overwhelming majority of their time in the regular classroom. Inclusion has two sub-types: the first is sometimes called regular inclusion or partial inclusion, and the other is full inclusion.
    • In a "regular inclusion" setting, students with special needs are educated in regular classes for nearly all of the day, or at least half of the day. Most specialized services are provided outside a regular classroom, particularly if these services require special equipment or might be disruptive to the rest of the class (such as speech therapy). In this case, the student occasionally leaves the regular classroom to attend smaller, more intensive instructional sessions in a resource room, or to receive other related service such as speech and language therapy, occupational and/or physical therapy, and social work.
    • Under full inclusion, by contrast, students classified as disabled remain in general classrooms virtually all the time. Related services are provided via "push in," meaning that professionals enter the classroom and deliver assistance there. However, full inclusion is a controversial practice, and it is not widely applied.
  • Mainstreaming: Regular education classes combined with special education classes is a model often referred to as mainstreaming. In this model, students with special needs are educated in regular classes during specific time periods based on their skills.
  • Segregation in a self-contained classroom or special school: Full-time placement in a special education classroom may be referred to as segregation. In this model, students with special needs spend no time in regular classes. Segregated students may attend the same school where regular classes are provided, but spend their time exclusively in a special-needs classroom. Alternatively, these students may attend a special school.
  • Exclusion: A student who does not receive instruction in any school is said to be excluded. Such exclusion may occur where there is no legal mandate for special education services. It may also occur when a student is in hospital, homebound, or detained by the criminal justice system. These students may receive one-on-one instruction or group instruction. Students who have been suspended or expelled are not considered excluded in this sense.

Differences by location


In England, the Special Educational Needs Parent Partnership Services help parents with the planning and delivery of their child's educational provision.

In England and Wales the initialism SEN for Special Educational Needs denotes the condition of having special educational needs, the services which provide the support and the programmes and staff which implement the education. In England SEN PPS refers to the Special Educational Needs Parent Partnership Service. SENAS is the special educational needs assessment service, which is part of the Local Authority. SENCO refers to a special educational needs coordinator, who ususally works with schools and the children within schools who have special educational needs. The UK's Department for Education and Skills oversees special education.

In Scotlandmarker the Additional Support Needs Act places an obligation on education authorities to meet the needs of all students in consultation with other agencies and parents. In Scotlandmarker the term Special Educational Needs (SEN), and its variants are not official terminology although the very recent implementation of the Additional Support for Learning Act means that both SEN and ASN (Additional Support Needs) are used interchangeably in current common practice.


Beginning in 1952, Civitans were the first to provide widespread training for teachers of developmentally disabled children.

In the United States of Americamarker, students with disabilities were frequently not allowed to enroll in regular public schools until the passage of the federal Education for All Handicapped Children Act in 1975 which was reauthorized in 1990 and 1997, the law was renamed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and spawned the delivery of services to millions of students previously denied access to an appropriate education. According to the Department of Education, approximately 6 million children (roughly 10 percent of all school-aged children) receive special education services.


  • Changes in thinking about special education have contained both 'constructive' and 'deconstructive' elements. In the constructive tradition, arguments have rested in the positive value of a plural, equitable system for all rooted in human rights—an inclusive system. Here, it is argued that special education separates and discriminates against those who are disabled or different. In the deconstructive tradition arguments have centred on the harmful consequences that may emerge from separate systems and pedagogies. It has also been pointed out that the record of special education and special pedagogy in terms of student outcomes has not been positive, especially given the very beneficial resources allocated to it (up to 15 times as much spent on a special school student as a mainstream school student). Both traditions, 'constructive' and 'deconstructive', have argued for an end to separate education systems.
  • Beneficial classrooms designed for special education students, sometimes called resource rooms, are criticized by those who seek to include all students, regardless of individual needs, in the same classroom.
  • Special education as implemented in public schools has been criticized because the qualification criteria for services are extremely variable from one education agency to another. In the United States, all Local and State Education Agencies must use classification and labeling models that are aligned with the federal definitions, outlined the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
  • At-risk students(those with educational needs that are not associated with a disability) are often placed in classes with students with disabilities. Critics assert that placing at-risk students in the same classes as disabled students may impede the educational progress of people with disabilities.
  • Special education classes under the mainstreaming model have been criticized for its watered-down curriculum.
  • The practice of inclusion has been criticized by advocates and some parents of children with disabilities because some of these students require instructional methods that differ dramatically from typical classroom methods. Critics assert that it is not possible to deliver effectively two or more very different instructional methods in the same classroom. As a result, the educational progress of students who depend on different instructional methods to learn often fall even further behind their peers without disabilities.
  • Parents of typically developing children sometimes fear that the special needs of a single "fully included" student will take critical levels of attention and energy away from the rest of the class and thereby impair the academic achievements of all students.
  • Some parents, advocates, and students have concerns about the eligibility criteria and its application. In some cases, parents and students protest the students' placement into special education programs. For example, a student may be placed into the special education programs due to a mental health condition such as OCD, depression, anxiety, panic attacks or ADHD, while the student and his parents believe that the condition is adequately managed through medication and outside therapy. In other cases, students whose parents believe they require the additional support of special education services are denied participation in the program based on the eligibility criteria.
  • An alternative to homogenization and lockstep standardization is proposed, using the Sudbury model schools, an alternative approach in which children learn at their own pace rather than following a chronologically-based curriculum. Proponents of unschooling have also claimed that children raised in this method do not suffer from learning disabilities.

Drop out rates

Special education students are more likely to drop out of school than their non-disabled peers. This trend holds true for students with all types of disabilities. Arguably, students with specific learning disabilities have lesser degrees of disability than some of the other exceptionalities. Despite this, students with LDs still have a high rate of drop outs. Further, the problem appears to be seen among students in many countries. Parts of Canada report that as many as 60% of students with learning or behavior disorders do not complete school. In the United States, the National Center on Secondary Education and Transition reports that special education students are twice as likely to drop out as regular education students.

The cost of the high drop out rate is incalculably high with profound social and economic implications for the students, their families, and society. Drop outs have high rates of unemployment, make less money, are more likely to need public assistance, and are more likely to become involved with the criminal justice system.

Researchers theorize that high special education dropout rates are correlated with multiple factors such as:

  • Low economic status and race;
  • Student relationships with family, peers, and school staff;
  • Declining academic performance, particularly beginning in sixth grade;
  • Continued low grades in high school and poor attendance;
  • Lack of motivation; and
  • Substance abuse.

Beyond characteristics that place a child at-risk for dropping out, researchers are finding that the school itself may be a strong determining factor as well. Schools that have overall low achievement, a less experienced teaching staff, higher numbers of students per teacher, and less spending per student tend to have higher dropout rates. Schools with dropout rates higher than 60% are sometimes referred to as dropout factories. Successful transition from high school to college, vocational program, or employment is also a factor that correlates to dropout rates, suggesting that preparing students in advance for success after high school may influence student motivation to complete high school.

See also


  1. What is special education? from New Zealand's Ministry of Education
  2. National Council on Disability. (1994). Inclusionary education for students with disabilities: Keeping the promise. Washington, DC: Author.
  3. Swan, W.W., & Morgan, J.L. (1993). Collaborating for comprehensive services for young children and their families. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.
  4. Rainforth, B., York, J., & Macdonald,C. (1992. Collaborative teams for students with severe disabilities. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.
  5. Stainback, W. & Stainback, S.(Eds.) (1990). Support networks for inclusive schooling: Interdependent integrated education. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.
  6. Gaylord-Ross, R. (Ed.) (1989). Integration strategies for students with handicaps. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.
  7. Special Education Inclusion
  8. Jaynes, Rachel. "The Fallacy of Full Inclusion Amoung [sic] Developmentally Disabled Students." BYU-Idaho Undergraduate Journal of Education. March 26, 2007.
  9. [1], accessed August 19, 2009
  10. Cortiella, C. (2009). The State of Learning Disabilities. New York, NY: National Center for Learning Disabilities.
  11. Bowe, Frank. (2005). Making Inclusion Work. Merrill Education/Prentice Hall.
  12. Student teachers' attitudes toward the inclusion of children with special needs. Educational Psychology, Hastings. R.P., & Oakford, S. (2003), page 23, 87-95
  13. Mainstreaming to full inclusion: From orthogenesis to pathogenesis of an idea. International Journal of Disability, Development, and Education, Kavale, K.A. (2002), page 49, 201-214.
  14. Attitudes of elementary school principals toward the inclusion of students with disabilities. Exceptional Children, Praisner, C. L. (2003), page 69, 135-145.
  15. [2]
  16. [3] History of special education, accessed May 15, 2009
  17. Thomas, G. and Loxley, A. (2007) Deconstructing Special Education and Constructing Inclusion (2nd Edition). Open University Press
  18. [4] watered-down curriculum, accessed June 8, 2009
  19. Greenberg, D. (1992), Education in America, A View from Sudbury Valley, "Special Education".
  20. Greenberg, D. (1987), Free at Last, The Sudbury Valley School.
  21. Special Education Drop Outs are an International Problem
  • Wilmshurst, L, & Brue, A. W. (2005). A parent's guide to special education. New York: AMACOM.

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