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Special Education

Teacher helping a student in class
What is special education?

Special education is remediation or intervention in the public school system. Special education is how the public school system helps exceptional students to reach their potential. In some school boards, children with ADHD may only qualify for special education if they also have either a diagnosed learning disability or a significant, diagnosed behavioural problem such as oppositional defiant disorder or conduct disorder. Documenting a learning disability, if it exists, may be paramount to receiving special education services in your area.

Currently, there is an emphasis on integrating exceptional children into the regular classroom. This means that children are withdrawn from their regular class only if they have fallen very far behind.

Some school boards start with a less intrusive intervention, and if necessary move to more comprehensive programs. Schools can use early intervention techniques to help struggling students before they are formally identified with an exceptionality.

Special education programs can last from just a few weeks or months to years. Often these programs involve withdrawing the child for one hour a few days each week. The sessions will usually occur in a small classroom with the special education teacher. The “blending” of special education with the regular classroom makes it easier for exceptional children to get help without drawing too much unwelcome attention to themselves.

Here are some examples of different levels of assistance offered to students.

Integrated learning in the regular classroom

Integrated learning means that exceptional children are in regular classrooms, learning alongside children without exceptionalities. This may make it harder to give children with exceptionalities the level of attention and the special teaching strategies they need. However, being in a regular classroom may reduce the stigma of receiving special education. For integration to work, teachers need:

  • additional classroom help
  • new teaching strategies
  • ways to closely monitor the progress of children with exceptionalities 

Small group, high intensity withdrawal classes

Early intervention techniques can be taught in small groups of children with similar learning problems. These are high intensity learning sessions that take place an hour a day or something similar.

Self contained special education classes

A self contained special education class usually has a smaller class size than a regular classroom. Some children will join the special education class only for certain subjects affected by their learning disability. Others may be in the special education class most of the time, and join a general education class for art, physical education, or another subject.

Many special education classrooms accommodate children with several exceptionalities, placing those with sensory or physical handicaps, attention disorders, behaviour disorders, and learning disabilities together. Other special education programs may specialize somewhat.

If your child is in special education, make sure he receives an evidence-based intervention. Evidence-based means the intervention has been studied scientifically and is shown to improve academic skills in reading, writing, or math.

Tara McAuley, PhD, CPsych

Peter Chaban, MA, MEd

Rosemary Tannock, PhD