What is Special Education?

specialedSpecial education, in its simplest terms, centers on the education of children or adults who have special learning needs. Teaching occurs in a manner that touches upon these physiological, cognitive and/or behavioral differences and how they vary person-to-person. Traditionally, these special considerations in education are regimented through established policies and procedures. Teachers and other special education professionals have undergone training programs which prepare them in presenting a uniquely-designed curriculum; a curriculum they are charged with helping their students master. Special Education teachers and professionals make good use of tools such as preordained individual and group lesson plans, modified equipment and materials, user-friendly accessories and equipment, and other helpful inventions that are meant to prepare special education students for a productive and active life at work and in society.

Special education students, as alluded to previously, have special needs. What does that mean? It means they cannot, for one reason or another, interpret or understand the scholastic material presented in standardized classrooms. Some of these special needs include, but are not limited to:

• Learning challenges
• Deficiencies in communication
• Behavioral or emotional issues and
• Disabilities of a physical nature or developmental challenges

Often, with students falling into one or more of these categories, supplemental educational tools and resources are needed to round out their educational experience, such as:

• Outside-of-the-box teaching methods
• Technology and media
• Tailored learning environments
• Task-specific rooms or areas

There are those students who excel academically, and often the world of academia chooses to label such prodigies as gifted, “exceptional,” or “special.” In this context we are speaking of a student who shows ability to not only grasp theoretical concepts, but they do it so well that they are typically earmarked for honors classes and other advanced educational opportunities. Special needs students of a different order are the topic of this narrative, and these students are those suffering from a slightly to greatly reduced capacity in their ability to learn on their own or in a classroom setting. These two forms of “special” could not be more different, and the distinctions are usually clear and concise.

In practically all of the civilized countries of the world there is an increasing trend of eliminating the barriers associated with special needs students. In traditional classrooms, educating goes on as it always has. In addition, the curriculum and class sizes tend to be inflated in order to accommodate the burgeoning number of children entering the school system. While the school “systems” of the world are busy addressing the needs of their student body, special education “systems” are often treated as a separate entity; completely cordoned off from the typical teacher/student experience. This segregation perpetuates any existing negative associations with special needs students, and places them squarely on the periphery of academia. What many education professionals and researchers have suggested, especially those in special education itself, is that they would like to see an integration of some kind begin to take place – a trend which has increased over the past decade. The goal of such integrated and inclusive classrooms is to lessen the barriers between special needs children and their peers thereby rendering special education as a normal extension of the educational experience, rather than an highly separate learning experience.

It is usually not a difficult prospect to identify those children, adolescents or adults who may stand to benefit from a Special Education program and curriculum. A person would, generally speaking, be labeled as having special needs were they to suffer from such maladies or conditions like:

• Mental retardation
• Brain damage
• Developmental disorders
• Physical, visual speech or hearing disabilities and impairments

But there are indeed students who fall between the cracks. These students are operating at a level which might be described as “getting by.” There are many reasons this breed of special needs child is not easily identified, and it begins with the teacher and the school system. In the final analysis, quizzes and tests show a child’s progress to a large degree. If a teacher is inattentive or unable to make the necessary connections, borderline students can find themselves mired and frustrated in educational concepts that they are cognitively, developmentally or emotionally unable to comprehend; at the very least, unable to grasp said concepts at the same level as other students.

This is where alternative approaches to pinpointing special needs children come into play. What many special needs programs do, working in tandem with traditional school districts and schools, is locate special needs children in the first or second year. A great amount of emphasis is placed on teachers reporting egregious lapses in educational progress to their superiors. As an aside, it has been pointed out by many educators that not only does a child’s cognitive ability in deciphering newly-acquired information need to be accounted for when determining if they have a learning disability, but extracurricular considerations such as sports, recess, band, and other school-approved activities need to weighed in on as well. The total package, not just the most noticeable attributes, needs to be considered in the assessment process.