Special Education

What is Special Education

Special education is instruction that is specially designed to meet the unique needs of a child with a disability. This means education that is individually developed to address a specific child’s needs that result from his or her disability. Since each child is unique, it is difficult to give an overall example of special education. It is individualized for each child.

Some students may be working at the pre-kindergarten grade level, others at the first, second, or third grade level. There may be students whose special education focuses primarily on speech and language development, cognitive development, or needs related to a physical or learning disability. Special education for any student can consist of:

  • an individualized curriculum that is different from that of same-age, nondisabled peers (for example, teaching a blind student to read and write using Braille);
  • the same (general) curriculum as that for nondisabled peers, with adaptations or modifications made for the student (for example, teaching 3rd grade math but including the use of counting tools and assistive technology for the student); and
  • a combination of these elements.

It is also important to remember that the education, services, and supports outlined in a child’s IEP do not necessarily cover that child’s entire education. The IEP only addresses those educational needs resulting from the child’s disability. If a child needs special education support throughout the school day, for all activities, the IEP will cover all these needs. If the child doesn’t need special education support in one or more areas (for example, physical education, music, or science), then the IEP will not include these subjects. The child accesses them through the general curriculum/ class, with no additional special education services.

The IEP must also contain a statement of the special education and related services and supplementary aids and services to be provided to the child, or on behalf of the child. That’s three separate, distinct, and critical elements–special education, related services, and supplementary aids and services–and each is worthy of a book on its own. Don’t worry! We won’t write a book-length article about any of these, but we will split up the discussion of each into separate articles. Here, the focus will be on special education.


IDEA’s Exact Words

 Special education is individualized to address a student's needs.

It’s helpful to see IDEA’s full requirement for specifying a child’s special education in his or her IEP. This appears at §300.320(a)(4) and stipulates that each child’s IEP must contain:

(4) A statement of the special education and related services and supplementary aids and services, based on peer-reviewed research to the extent practicable, to be provided to the child, or on behalf of the child, and a statement of the program modifications or supports for school personnel that will be provided to enable the child—

(i) To advance appropriately toward attaining the annual goals;

(ii) To be involved in and make progress in the general education curriculum in accordance with paragraph (a)(1) of this section, and to participate in extracurricular and other nonacademic activities; and

(iii) To be educated and participate with other children with disabilities and nondisabled children in the activities described in this section… [§300.320(a)(4)]
In its entirety, this provision is the heart and soul, meat and potatoes, bricks and mortar (choose your analogy!) of the IEP. When taken off paper and operationalized in school, it becomes the education that a child with a disability receives. The part we’ve put in bold is the focus of this article, but you’ll want to read the next two articles as well, so you can integrate the information here about special education with what’s presented separately about related services and supplementary aids and services.