Navigating the Special Education Maze
By Dr. Kenneth Shore
The overriding goal of a school district should be to meet the educational needs of all its students. Given the widely varying ability levels and differing social and emotional needs of students today, this is a daunting challenge for any school district. In a perfect world, regular teachers would be able to adapt their instruction to the needs of their students without outside assistance. But individualized instruction is not possible for all students in today’s classrooms, especially with class sizes of 25 or 30 students, demands on teachers to adhere to the curriculum, and pressure on schools to raise test scores.
Recognizing that regular teachers cannot be all things to all students, public schools offer programs to students with special needs. If your child is having academic or behavioral difficulties and you have exhausted other school options to resolve the problem, special education may be warranted. Special education is individualized instruction for students with educational disabilities.
Special education is defined more by its method than its location. It can take place in various school settings, including the regular classroom, but the instruction should be carefully matched to the student’s educational needs and adapted to his learning style. Because of these individualized approaches, special education programs often have fewer students than regular education programs and special education teachers typically have specialized certification. Special education differs from remedial education, which is instruction in basic academic skills for children with mild weaknesses but who are not educationally disabled.
Parents of children with school problems often ride an emotional roller coaster. They are usually perplexed, often exasperated, and sometimes hopeful. For many, the mere mention of special education elicits anxiety, even panic. If your child is being considered for special education, it may help to relieve your anxiety to know that you do not lose influence over your child’s educational program if he enters a special education program. In fact, you gain rights and protections that are not available to parents of regular education students. Parents of special education students must be involved every step of the way. This is not just sound educational practice. It is the law!
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) sets out rights for children eligible for special education as well as their parents. All public schools across the country must comply with these regulations. Your child cannot be evaluated for special education without your written agreement. Nor can he be placed in a special education program for the first time without your consent. Moreover, you are expected to participate in the development of your child’s special education program. If you disagree with any aspect of the school district’s decision regarding special education, you have the right to appeal to a third party for an impartial hearing.
Who Qualifies for Special Education?
The common denominator to students with educational disabilities is that a specific problem is interfering with their ability to learn in a regular class setting using regular education approaches and materials. They have educational needs significantly different from their classmates and require specialized instruction to learn effectively. Special education is not for children with physical disabilities unless those disabilities interfere with their ability to learn. Nor is it for children who are performing poorly because they are unmotivated or alienated from school. The key question is: can the student learn effectively in a regular class setting using regular education approaches and materials. If the answer is no, special education is probably warranted.
Special Education Program Alternatives
Each school district must provide a range of special education programs to meet the varying needs of disabled students. The basic in-district special education programs are described below, listed from least to most restrictive. State law may limit the number of students allowed in a special education program and the length of time a student may spend in the program each day.
- Regular Class: A student with an educational disability may be able to succeed in a regular class if the teacher makes adjustments in her expectations, her teaching approach, her standards of evaluation, or the teaching materials.
- Regular Class with In-Class Support: A student may attend a regular class but receive help in that setting from a special education teacher or aide. This allows the student to remain in a class which would otherwise be confusing or difficult.
- Regular Class with Out-of-Class Support or Replacement: A student may leave the regular classroom for part of the day to attend a part-time special education program, what is often called a resource room. The special education teacher will provide intensive instruction to the student on an individual or small-group basis.
- Special Education Class: A student with a significant disability may attend a special education class for most of the school day. This class might be in a regular public school in the district, or a public school in a nearby district, or a county school exclusively for special education students, or a private school for special education students.
Federal law requires that students with educational disabilities attend regular education programs if their needs can be met in that setting. This is called mainstreaming. The goal of mainstreaming is to help disabled students learn to adjust academically and socially to regular education classes. Mainstreaming thus promotes the self-image, confidence, and social skills of disabled students while fostering acceptance and understanding by non-disabled students.
If your child is recommended for special education, then he must be mainstreamed as much as possible consistent with his educational abilities and needs. In special education jargon, a disabled student must be placed in the least restrictive environment. What is restrictive for one student may not be for another. Some disabled students attend a special education program for the entire day. Others are in a regular class for the entire day. Most fall somewhere in between, attending some special education and some regular education classes.
In recent years, more and more parents of special education students have been pushing for their children, even those with severe disabilities, to be taught in regular classes. This inclusive education trend has aroused considerable debate. Supporters argue that disabled children benefit from being in a setting with non-disabled children, even if they cannot perform all of the classroom tasks or completely grasp the lesson. Critics contend that severely disabled children lose out academically by being in a regular class and that teachers are not prepared to cope with the demands of severely impaired children. Inclusive education is most successful when regular teachers are adequately prepared and a special education teacher or aide is present in the regular classroom to work with the disabled student.
If you and the school conclude that your child is not yet ready for mainstreaming in academic classes, you should be able to find some non-academic classes (for example, art, music, or gym) which your child can attend successfully. Also, make an effort to involve your child in after-school activities. Your child cannot be denied opportunities to participate in extracurricular activities such as a club, musical group, or student committee because of his disability. Placing a disabled student in a regular class or program requires careful planning, from choosing a flexible, understanding teacher to providing the teacher with information and strategies specifically geared to the student’s needs.