Special education

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Special education is the public educational system’s approach to helping all kinds of exceptional students reach their potential and get a useful education. Exceptionality, with respect to needs, can be identified in a number of domains, including problems with the senses, emotional problems or behavioural problems, autistic spectrum disorders, global developmental delay or intellectual disability, specific learning disabilities and giftedness.

Key points

  • Special education is the public educational system's approach to helping all kinds of exceptional students reach their potential and get a useful education.
  • There are different types of special education including: integrated whole class; small group, high intensity; and special education class.
  • Parents may want to ask questions to find out what kind of education is available to their child and how their child can get the most benefit from the classes.

Your child may be recommended for special education classes to help them reach their maximum potential. There are different types of special education. Parents will want to ask clear and thoughtful questions to make sure their child is getting the best education possible.

In order to be eligible for a special program, in most cases, your child must go through a formal identification process that usually involves assessment by a psychologist, physician, special educator, or other professional. Many boards will require that a committee review the results of the assessment, your child’s school record and history in order to decide whether the child has exceptional learning needs and what special education placement will be most appropriate for your child.

General education and special education are the old categories for dividing programs offered to children in school. Special education describes the parts of the school system working to help children identified as exceptional in some way. Currently, an emphasis on integration in the schools means that children are usually withdrawn from the regular classroom only for subjects in which they have fallen far behind. In many school systems there are several levels of special education.

In the past, there was a perception that school boards used special education as place to “park” children who were different. Although there are some children who don’t make progress in special education, many do. As part of the process of accessing special education services, each child is given an individual education plan that identifies goals approved by both the parents and the special education team, as well as the services, modifications and accommodations to the child’s academic program to help them achieve those goals. If those goals aren’t met, parents can ask for changes to how the child is taught. Some school boards work with exceptional children by starting out with specific, less intrusive remediation, and only when necessary, moving to increasingly intense programs.

Types of special education

Recently, educators have moved away from an “all-or-nothing” approach to remediation. In the past, a child would either be in the normal school system with little additional help, or else placed in a “self-contained” special education classroom for most or all of the school day. Now other possibilities are offered, including additional help within the normal classroom, and shorter supportive programs with small groups. The “blending” of remedial education with the mainstream makes it easier for children with learning disabilities (LD) to get help without drawing too much unwelcome attention to their special needs. Also, it provides more than one level of help, and this multi-tiered approach makes it easier to give children the level of help they need, which can vary widely. Here are some examples of different tiers where students with LD might make progress:

Integrated whole class

Integrated learning means that learning-disabled children are in regular classrooms, learning alongside children without learning disabilities. This may make it harder to give children with LD the level of attention and the special teaching strategies they need — remember that this is the environment where the child fell behind their peers in the first place. However, being in a regular classroom may lower the stigma of being identified as learning disabled. For integration to work effectively, the child’s teachers will need additional classroom help, new teaching strategies, and ways to closely monitor the progress of children with LD. Parents need to advocate for these supports if their child is placed in an integrated program.

Small group, high intensity

In some schools, students in Grade One and Grade Two can be recommended for one hour each day of intensive word study and guided reading. In these classes, groups usually of six or fewer students work with each teacher. The program lasts several weeks at which point the child may return to a regular class. Other school boards may have similar programs to help develop beginning literacy skills.

Special education class

A special education class is typically led by a teacher trained in the education of exceptional students. In self-contained classes, there are also fewer students so the teacher can devote more attention to the student’s needs, and develop a program tailored to that child’s learning style and needs. Even within special education, there can be multiple levels. 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 disorders together. Other special education programs may specialize somewhat, but it’s important to recognize that there is often a lot of overlap between attention, behaviour, and learning disorders.

Questions you may want to ask

What kind of special education is available from my local school board?

Each school board has a parent handbook that describes the special education services available in that school board. Each school has a copy of this and you should ask for a copy if your child has been identified as having exceptional learning needs or you think they should be. Many school boards make their guides available online.

What type of special education will benefit my child the most?

Depending on the type of disability your child may have, one type of special education may be more beneficial than another.

Who is in this special education class?

Parents should ask specific questions about the special education class their child may be placed in. For instance, some classes are non-categorical, meaning the class may have some children who are learning disabled, others who are emotionally disturbed, and still others who may have perceptual handicaps, behavioural problems, or attentional disorders. Some learning-disabled children will be fine in this mixed environment, while others would be happier and less distracted in an environment that has only learning-disabled children.

Who is in charge of special education?

School boards usually have a Superintendent of Special Education who has ultimate responsibility for all categories of special education in the district.

In elementary schools, the principal or vice-principal is expected to coordinate and oversee the work of the special education team, which may include a special education teacher, the classroom teacher, the area special education consultant, and support staff, in developing, monitoring, and reviewing each student’s progress.

Who can help me?

The educational system can be confusing and intimidating to parents who are new to its complexities. Here are some suggestions from teachers and parents that you may find helpful.

  • Bring a second set of eyes and ears to school meetings. These meetings are important, and parents are very emotionally involved. Try to bring along someone who can act as a back-up for you, such as another family member, neighbour, clergy, or anyone else who can quietly be on your side, perhaps taking notes for you. If your child has been assessed formally by a professional outside the school board, you might ask that professional to attend the meeting as well to advocate for your child's needs.
  • Before meeting about special education with school board staff, talk to a representative from your local LD association chapter. Often, association members are parents who have been through the process with their own children. They can help you understand the process of getting your child the right kind of special education.
  • Do not just immediately accept whatever is proposed for your child. Think about and discuss the board’s recommendations with your family and perhaps others who are informed about education and disabilities. If your child is offered placement in a self-contained special education class, ask to visit the class to determine whether it is the right environment for your child before making your decision.
  • Try to stay calm and be patient in your dealings with the school board and teachers.

Before and during school meetings, ask your questions about programs, progress, monitoring, and anything else that concerns or puzzles you. Do not let the school board staff hurry you through the meeting, even if the meeting is taking longer than they expected. Write out your questions and take notes. Here are some questions you may want to ask.

  • How much time will your child spend in the regular classroom and how much time in special education?
  • Ask about differences between students who are in a self-contained special education class vs. other remedial programmes offered by the school.
  • What might your child find disruptive or upsetting in this environment? For example, changing from one classroom and teacher to another each day could be disruptive to some children or cause some children anxiety because they are being singled out.
  • What kinds of progress does the teacher see in the children in this placement?
  • Ask whether you may visit and see the class in action.
  • Talk to parents who have children in the class.
  • Talk to teachers — a lot depends on them.

Some school boards have a real variety of options available. You may need to shop around to find the best intervention for your child.

Last updated: October 31st 2009