Special Education – A Simple Overview


There’s something I need to clarify before we get started, and that’s what the phrase, “special education” truly means. You see, when someone hears that his or her child might need special education, it’s easy to automatically assume the worst.

“Does this mean my child isn’t smart?”

“Will my child still get to be in his classroom with his friends?”

“Will this stop my child from attending a good college or succeeding in life?”

“Will this label separate my child from her peers? Will they make fun of her if she’s in special ed?”

“Does this mean I’m not a good parent? Is this my fault?”

Despite its bad reputation, pushed especially by the media, special education, in its true form, is simply a way of getting your child all that he or she needs to succeed in his or her educational setting. It’s the school’s way of saying, “We need to meet this child’s needs better. How can we accomplish that?”


Special Education revolves around the guidelines of a government mandate called IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act). IDEA is the core for all protection and care of children who don’t learn in the conventional way. The US Department of Justice says this about IDEA:

“[IDEA] requires public schools to make available to all eligible children with disabilities a free appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment appropriate to their individual needs.”

Here’s what IDEA.ed.gov says about IDEA:

“The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a law ensuring services to children with disabilities throughout the nation. IDEA governs how states and public agencies provide early intervention, special education and related services to more than 6.5 million eligible infants, toddlers, children and youth with disabilities.”

When it mentions the word, intervention, it means the steps that are taken before a child is put into special education. I’m going to discuss RTI (Response to Intervention) at a later date, but for now, it simply stands for the assessments, observations, and data samples collected by schools and teachers that identify students who need extra help, but aren’t quite ready for special education yet. Basically, schools attempt to help children in RTI with basic accomodations in the classroom before any official special education paperwork is done. RTI was created to keep children from getting shoved into special education so quickly.

Special education covers a vast array of possibilities when it comes to helping students. Often, special education has no reflection on the actual intelligence of the child. Special education includes help for children who are hearing impaired, visually impaired, handicapped, or otherwise physically disabled. A child could be a rocket scientist and still need help with moving his wheelchair around or need her teacher wear a special microphone so she can hear her teacher speak.

MathSpecial education also means help for children with learning disabilities in one or more areas. A child might be reading and understanding books that are quite advanced, and yet have a learning disability in math. Learning disabilities can be mild or severe. Special education also covers children with mental disabilities or genetic disorders. Anything that poses as a threat to a child’s education is subject to consideration for special education. Possibilities can include (but aren’t limited to)

  • General Learning Disabilities (often in areas like math or reading). These disabilities don’t affect all aspects of a child’s education or life, just one specific part.
  • Nuerological Disorders (such as ADHD, Tourette’s Syndrome, OCD, Bipolar Disorder, Pervasive Development Disorder, or Anxiety Disorders)
  • Physical Disabilities (like hearing impairments, visual impairments, Parapalegia, or Muscular Diystrophy)
  • Genetic Disorders (for example, Down Syndrome, Mosaic Down Syndrome, Cystic Fibrosis, or the Asperger’s/Autistic Spectrum)
  • Psychotic Disorders (such as Schizophrenia, Multiple Personality Disorder, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or Emotional Disturbances)
  • Cases in which a child has been neglected to the point of losing the natural development he or she should have made. Children who aren’t touched, talked to, or exposed to stimulating surroundings enough can suffer severe setbacks because their brains didn’t receive the stimulation they needed in order to grow correctly. These cases often result in symptoms that are like those of other disorders but are there soley because of the neglect, not physical or mental challenges.

Once a child has been identified as needing help in one or more areas, it’s the job of that child’s support team to come up with the best possible way for that child to learn. But who is the child’s support team? Often, the team lineup looks like this:

1.) Teacher(s)

2.) Parents/Legal Guardians

3.) School Resource Specialist

4.) Speech Pathologist/Physical Therapist/Occupational Therapist/Any specialist that can help improve a child’s education plan

5.) School Counselor (sometimes)

6.) School Principal (sometimes)

7.) RTI Coordinator (if the school has one)

Note: The government’s legal requirements for an IEP (Individualized Education Plan) meeting can be found here.

The members of the team can differ, depending on the situation, but these are the key players. Parents or school staff members can also request that other individuals be brought in if they think their presences will enhance the team’s ability to meet the needs of the child. The team’s job is to come up with ways that they think they can help the child in need.

IEPs versus 504 Plans

IEPsvs504PlansI’m going to write more on these later, but there are two specific education plans that are used to provide children with the help they need to blossom in whatever educational settings they’re in.

504 Plan – The 504 Plan is a less intense version of a special education plan. Basically, it’s caring adults coming together and saying, “We can take care of this child better.” While observations and data are required for a child to qualify for a 504 Plan, it’s not nearly as techincally legal as an IEP (Individualized Education Plan), according to the Education Center. Unlike an IEP, a 504 plan doesn’t have timelines, specific legal language, and while parental involvement is encouraged, it’s not required. The South Dakota State Government website states that students entitled to 504 Accomodation Plans are identified with a “mental or physical impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.” These students don’t necessarily have to meet the requirements of the IDEA disabilities.

EXPO MarkersA 504 Plan can include accomodations for a child like placing her at the front of the classroom because she can’t see well, or giving her a whiteboard and EXPO markers to practice her math with instead of a regular pencil and paper because an EXPO marker is easier for the child to hold.

IEP – An individualized lesson plan is a lot more specific than a 504 plan. It’s a legal document, and held in high confidentiality. It absolutely must include a child’s guardians, and to get an IEP passed without the involvement of guardians is next to impossible legally. IEPs take much more time to pass. They’re also time restricted. My mother is the RTI coordinator at her middle school, which menas she’s involved every time a student needs intervention, help with his education. My mom says one of the biggest mistakes parents make is letting their children’s IEPs lapse, meaning they don’t continue to meet with their children’s schools and make sure their education plans are up to date. If a child’s IEP lapses, it means he or she has to start the evaluation process all over again.

IEPsIEPs are legal documents, which means if the educational accomodations and modifications (the changes made to the child’s education plans) specified in the documents aren’t being met, the parents have the right to find legal assistance to make sure the specifications are carried out. IEPs often require more involved specifications. Some examples of specifications in IEPs of children I’ve worked with are:

  • Resource Room Access – The right to more individualized attention with the resource teacher, an instructor trained specifically to help children with extra or unusual needs.
  • Occupational Therapy – Helping children learn to overcome physical challenges, often working with fine motor skills such as tying shoes, using zippers, or fastening buttons.
  • Physical Therapy – This is often used for children with low muscle tone, often seen in children with Autism/Asperger’s, Down Syndrome, or other physical conditions.
  • Speech Therapy – This can be used for children with general speech delays (meaning they don’t have the ability to communicate on the same level as their peers), stuttering, or speech problems that are consistent with certain disabilities, such as Down Syndrome or Autism.
  • A Paralegal – The right to a personal assistant. This can be just for certain parts of the day or throughout the whole day. I’ve done work as a para, and in that time, I did everything from simply redirecting the child’s focus to his work whenever he needed it to taking him to the bathroom or helping him eat.
  • Specialized Learning Tools – There are a plethora of learning tools available for children with special needs now. These run from objects with specific textures to weighted vests to help children feel more comfortable to specialized computer mice or eating utensils.

There are countless other ways children with special needs can be catered to in their IEPs. It’s the job of the support team to make sure each child gets what he’s entitled to under IDEA, an equal opportunity for education. The thing to remember about children with special needs is that getting a fair education doesn’t always mean getting the same education as everyone else. IEPs aren’t easy to get, and usually take a lot of testing and observation before they can be formally written up and documented. Once they’re in place, however, they can be parents’ ways of making sure their children receive the care that they need at school; and the best way parents can ensure their children will succeed in school is by making sure they support their educations at home as well.

Does My Child Need Special Education?

Special Education has always been a controversial subject. In the past, children were often pushed into special education who really didn’t need to be there. They just needed a little extra support. Today, some schools (and parents) still push children into IEPs prematurely. Perhaps nothing’s really wrong, and the child just needs some time to mature before he learns to focus on school. Sometimes, however, it can take way too long to get a child the support her or she needs. Educational trends in the US have gone backwards, and according to the American Bar Association, legal steps have been taken to increase the disabilities covered under federal law o make it available to all children who need it. Oddly enough, while federal law to cover children with disabilities has been expanding, school districts across the nation have been making it more difficult to get children into special education.

Aside from contacting the correct individuals, testing, observing, and evaluating is usually what takes the longest time. Unfortunately, these steps are often stopped when children move while they’re being evaluated, or the child has extenuating circumstances that make a diagnosis harder to pin down. Sometimes, it’s because a parent won’t contact the school when the school attempts to begin the special education evaluation process. My mom had a student a few years ago who actually went to the teachers herself and asked to be tested for special education. Somehow, she’d slipped through the cracks during elementary school, and had gotten all the way to junior high without being able to read. Unfortunately, she moved while the school was trying desperately to complete her evaluations, which meant she had to start all over again at her new school. It’s things like that that often keep children from getting the help they need.

Whether or nor your child needs special education is a matter that demands much prayer, observation, collaboration between parents and teachers, and hard work at home. If your child does need special education, however, the important thing to remember is that an IEP doesn’t mean your child isn’t smart or able to excel in life. Some of the brightest children I’ve worked with have had IEPs. It simply means you and your child’s educators are doing your best to give your child the best chance at a successful education possible. You’re working to give your child a worthy education.

What are your thoughts on special education? Have you had any experiences that you’d like to share?


Posted under: Education

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  • Jessica Ruboyianes on September 20, 2013 at 12:17 am said:

    I feel like before reading this I knew nothing about Special Education. Thanks for working so hard with your writing to educate others! (:

    • brittanyfichterwrites@gmail.com on September 23, 2013 at 5:27 pm said:

      I’m so glad it helped! Special education is a tricky subject to write on because the laws are so extensive. Researchers are constantly gathering new information about kids with special needs and how best to help them, so it’s a subject that will always be changing in some way, shape, or form.

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