Special Education (and Related Services)

As I sit down to write this page, I find myself a little remiss at where to begin.  My vision for this page is to offer some general guidance about special education.  I also hope I'm able to complete that task without either (1) boring you, or (2) overwhelming you. 

That task is difficult primarily due to one thing: not everyone reading this page has experience within special education.  My hope is that I can familiarize even the complete novice to the general principles of special education.

When you finish reading this page, I hope that I have answered these general questions:
  1. What is special education?  What are the related services?
  2. Who could benefit from special education services and how we we determine who will actually receive special education?
  3. What are some examples of specific special education programs?
  4. Isn't special education degrading to students' self-esteem?  Are there possible harmful effects of special education?

What is special education?

At its basic level, special education is defined as, "specially designed instruction" by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 2004.  Specially designed instruction is even further paraphrased to mean that an individual students curriculum and instruction is modified to enough degree so that it is no longer the same curriculum or instruction that is given to the remainder of the students in the classroom.  I hope this seems "fair" to you.

While many students may have small accommodations, such as additional time to complete an assignment, a student who requires special education needs a completely different assignment, or needs a different method of instruction in order to learn the material.  For example, a student who is deaf would likely not do any better on an oral quiz if the teacher simply gave the deaf child more time to complete the quiz.  In this case, the deaf student would also need the material taught (and assessed) in a manner which is completely different from the majority of the class.

In addition to special education, schools may also offer related services to children who do not need the curriculum or instruction modified, but who need other supports in order to benefit from that curriculum or instruction.  The easiest (and likely best well-known) example of this would be the related service of transportation.  For example, while some students are capable of keeping up in the classroom, their disability prevents them from making it to school without special physical modifications to the school bus.  Another common example of a related service is speech-language services for students who receive special education services for communication, and also receive a related service of speech therapy from a certified speech-language pathologist.

Who can benefit from special education? Who is eligible for special education?

The short answer to this question is: likely everyone.  All children, disabled or nondisabled would likely benefit from special education, due to the high degree of personalized supports that students receive thru their individualized education plan (IEP).

Just to be clear, this doesn't mean that every child is eligible to receive special education services.  For information about the process to determine who is eligible for special education (and related services), see here

I've been told by parents and teachers that a particular student should have special education (or related services) and would benefit from having an IEP.  Again, I don't doubt that this is true; all students would benefit from the intensive and individualized attention of such services.  Again, the important question to answer is, "Does the child have an educational exceptionality that requires these services?"

What is an example of a special education program?

Let's go back to the example I used in the first section of the student who is deaf.  We must assume that her IEP team has already found her eligible to receive special education (and related services), her IEP team has written an IEP, and that her parents have given written consent to the following plan.  She will then have an IEP document that specifies the following special education and related services.  [The actual IEP document would be much longer, and have much more detail.]

  • Anna will receive 400 minutes per day of access to an individual sign language interpreter in her general education classrooms.
  • Anna will receive 150 minutes per day of resource room time for specially designed instruction in American Sign Language.
  • Anna will receive 100 minutes per day of speech and language therapy in a resource room from a speech-language pathologist.

Isn't special education degrading?  Are there possible harmful effects of special education?

Special education has advanced a long way since it was first established in 1975.  It's been my perception that many of the parents of the students with whom I work have had poor exposure to special education in their own educational careers.  For individuals who attended public schools prior to 1975, those experiences are undoubtedly much different than what special education programs look like today.  On the other hand, many of the parents of students with whom I work also received special education services themselves, and have had positive experiences with special education programs while they were in school.

As in years past, today's special education programs aren't the perfect match for every student.  Just like most medications have possible side-effects, special education (and related services) have potentially harmful effects.  The law requires IEP teams to discuss possible harmful effects of special education services.  I'll address some of them here.

In my professional opinion, special education is no longer seen as degrading from a student's perspective.  Most students who receive special education services are generally not ostracized by their peers for being different.  In the buildings where I work, all students (not just students who receive special education services) travel from classroom to classroom daily.  No student is in the same room all day long; it's very easy for students who need special education services to receive these services at times during the day when their peers won't even notice they are out of the room. 

To better illustrate my point, let's use a simile.  Let's image that today's public schools are like you driving along a freeway.  Vehicles merge in and exit off so quickly, we don't notice when any particular car is absent.  Having special education (and related) services in schools today does not mean that kids will be known as "the student who goes to the slow class."  In today's schools, nearly all students are educated in more than one classroom.

The two largest potential setbacks to special education (and related) services is the lack of time a student spends away from his or her nondisabled peers, and the increased possibility that students may become too dependent on the individualized supports they receive. 

Although I have made the argument that many students do not know if another student has special education services, the fact remains that the student who has those services will likely still receive some portion of his or her school day away from nondisabled peers.  They will spend time with other disabled peers - there will likely be times during the day when classrooms are full of students with IEPs.  For some parents who fear that their child will become isolated from the general population of students, this does pose a small challenge.

The other major concern for teachers and parents alike is the increased likelihood that students may become too dependent on special education services.  I've witnessed this happen frequently in middle schools.  Elementary special education programs are designed to provide additional support, and our students may become dependent on these services as then enter into the 6-8th grades.  We often see middle school students begin to feel entitled to the intensive remediation and support they had in elementary school, and, as a result, put less effort into their own learning as they mature.  The good news is that this often reverses when students reach high school; they often again take charge of their educational goals (by taking more electives and vocational classes) and wish to reduce the amount of special education services they receive.

What's next for special education?

I'm so glad you asked.  Let's find out from the experts.