A Process or A Place: What does it mean to be in Special Education?

This article is being published in our newsletter with permission from Barbara Day, Special Education Guide on about.com. You can visit Barbara Day on her website at http://www.specialed.about.com/

At one time, the label “Special Education” was a brand of dishonor. “Those kids” were warehoused in “that room” and kept away from the rest of the students, hidden away like some kind of secret failure that the school didn’t want to admit was happening. The stigma and embarrassment of “Special Ed” kept many students from getting the help they could have used.

Like most stereotypes, the public image of Special Education is neither fair nor accurate.

A Wide Category of Diverse Students Special Education covers a wide variety of students, ranging from those who are developmentally delayed to the profoundly gifted. Some special education students have normal or above average intelligence, but have a learning disability. Students with physical, emotional or behavioral disabilities are also included, making the population even more diverse. Altogether, there are twelve categories of disabilities. However, more than half (51 percent, over 2.5 million students) of all Special Education students served under IDEA in 1996-97 were classified as having some type of learning disability.

The idea of a blind genius, a sighted student with dyslexia and a retarded student sharing the same classroom seems ludicrous. But that is exactly what was happening in Special Education classrooms across the United States until fairly recently. In fact, it is still the policy in some schools. These classrooms often include students with emotional or behavioral problems, along with autistic children and those with physical disabilities. But, they all share the “Special Education” label; consequently, they are all lumped together in the Special Education classroom.

Not a Place, But a Process The goal of Special Education is to see that each student has access to Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). While lumping students with various disabilities together in a public school may be free, it is rarely appropriate.

According to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), determining what is appropriate is the job of a team of people, including the parents, classroom teachers, special education teachers and other education professionals. Working together, this team writes an Individualized Education Program (IEP)for the student.

IDEA requires that all special education students must be educated in The Least Restrictive Environment (LRE). If the needs of the child can be met in the regular classroom, then that is where the child should attend class. Any required accommodations should be included in the student’s IEP and must be adhered to by the classroom teacher.

The National Learning Disabilities Association recommends that you find out how the special education services are being delivered to your child. They suggest asking these specific questions:

How much time on a daily basis does the special education teacher spend in the general education classroom? How much time does the special education teacher spend with your child giving direct instruction? Does the teacher work one on one with your child or with small groups of students? How many children are in the group? Is the special education teacher certified in the area of learning disabilities? Is the instruction and curriculum designed with your child’s educational needs in mind? Are learning strategies and organizational skills part of the daily instruction? How does this compare with the special education your child received last year?

The goal is to treat the student as an individual and not as part of a particular subset of the student body.

A Person, not a Pathology It’s easy for teachers – and parents – to forget that the child with special needs is also a child with the same needs as any other child, including the need for acceptance, respect and love.

LD Online offers several tips to help build self-esteem in students with learning disabilities. They suggest that parents avoid comments that are judgmental and, instead, frame them in more positive terms. Providing choices for children and giving the child an opportunity to help around the house encourages responsibility and makes him or her feel as if they are an important part of the family.

Labels are convenient. In some cases, they may even be necessary, if the child is going to receive the appropriate services. But a label should never replace the person.