Special education is the approach used by the public education system to help all kinds of atypical students to reach their potential and obtain meaningful instruction. Atypical features of need can be identified in a number of areas, including sensory, emotional and behavioural problems, autism spectrum disorders, global developmental delays or intellectual disability, specific learning disabilities, and giftedness.
Things to remember
- Special education is the approach taken by the public education system to help individual exceptional children reach their potential and obtain a meaningful education.
- There are three forms of special education: integration into a regular classroom; small groups, high intensity; and special education classes.
- Parents should ask questions to determine what kind of education is available to their child and how their child can benefit most from these classes.
Your child may be recommended to participate in special education courses to help him or her reach his or her full potential. There are three forms of special education. Parents will need to ask clear and thoughtful questions to make sure they are providing the best possible education for their child.
In most cases, to be eligible for a special program, your child must go through a formal identification process that usually includes an assessment by a psychologist, doctor, special educator or other professional. Many school boards will require a committee to review the results of the assessment, your child’s academic record and his or her educational progress to determine whether your child has special learning needs and the particular type of placement that is most appropriate for him or her.
General education and special education are former categories used to divide the programs offered to children in schools. The term “special education” refers to those parts of the school system designed to help children who are described as “atypical” to some extent. Currently, the focus on integration in schools means that children are removed from the regular classroom for subjects in which they are struggling or have fallen behind. In many school systems, there are several levels of education.
In the past, it was believed that school boards “parked” children who were different from others in special education classes. Although some children make no progress, even if they are placed in a special education class, this is not the case for many children. As part of the process of accessing special education services, each child is assigned an Individual Education Plan (IEP) that includes goals approved by parents and the special education team. The plan also outlines the services available to the child, the accommodations made, and the modifications to the child’s school program to help the child achieve these goals. If the child has not yet reached these goals, parents can ask for changes in the way their child is taught. Some school boards are working with atypical children by adopting specific, less intrusive remedial measures and, only when necessary, by using more intensive programs.
Types of Special Education
Educators have recently moved away from an all-or-nothing approach to remedial action. Previously, children were either integrated into the regular school system without much extra help, or were placed in a “stand-alone” special education class for most, if not all, of the day. Today, other options are available, including extra help in regular classrooms and shorter support programs with small groups of students. The “mix” of remedial and general education makes it easier for children with learning disabilities to get help without drawing undue attention to their special needs. In addition, it provides more than one level of assistance to students, and this multi-level approach makes it easier for children to get the help they need, which can vary widely. The following are some examples of the different levels of instruction at which students with learning disabilities could make progress:
Integration into a regular class
The term ‘integrated learning’ means that children with disabilities are placed in a regular classroom and learn at the same time as children without learning disabilities. This can make it difficult to provide children with learning disabilities with the level and special teaching strategies they need – remember that this is the same environment in which the child fell behind his or her peers in the first place. Being part of a regular classroom can reduce the stigma associated with learning disabilities. In order for integration to work effectively, the child’s teachers will need extra help in the classroom, new teaching strategies and ways to closely monitor the progress of children with learning disabilities. Parents must advocate for their child’s right to these types of supports if their child is placed in an integrated program.
Small groups, high intensity
In some schools, it is recommended that, each day and for one intensive hour, students in Grades 1 and 2 study words and practice guided reading. In these classes, groups of six or fewer students usually work with each teacher. The program lasts several weeks, after which the child may return to a regular classroom. Other school boards may offer similar programs to develop students’ basic literacy skills.
Special Education Classroom
A class for exceptional students is usually led by a teacher trained in teaching atypical students. Self-directed classes have smaller class sizes, allowing the teacher to pay more attention to the needs of these students and to develop a program that is tailored to their learning styles and needs. Even special education has multiple grade levels. Indeed, some children will be in a special education class for only the few subjects that are affected by their learning disabilities. Other students will be in a special education class most of the time, but will participate in a general education class, such as art, physical education, or any other subject.
Many special education classes accommodate children who have several atypical characteristics and place together those who have sensory or physical disabilities, as well as attention, behaviour, and learning disabilities. In addition, other special education programs may be specialized to some extent, but it must be remembered that attention, behaviour, and learning disabilities often overlap.
Questions you may want to ask
What kind of special education is offered by my school board?
Each school board has developed a parent handbook that describes the special education services offered by that board. Each school has a copy, and you should ask for one if your child has atypical learning needs or if you think your child should be assessed. Many school boards’ guides are available online.
What kind of special education will my child benefit most from?
Depending on the type of disability your child has, one type of special education may be more beneficial than another.
Which children are placed in a special education class?
Parents should ask questions about the special education class in which their child may be placed. For example, some classes are non-specialized, meaning that some of their students have learning disabilities, some have emotional problems, and some may have perceptual disabilities, behavioural problems, or attention problems. Some children with learning disabilities will adapt well to this mixed environment, while others may prefer to be among other children with learning disabilities only.
Who is responsible for special education?
School boards generally have a superintendent or special education teacher who is ultimately responsible for all categories of special education in the school district.
In elementary schools, the principal or vice-principal is responsible for coordinating and overseeing the work of the special education team, which may include a special educator, the child’s teacher and support staff, in developing, monitoring and reviewing the progress of each student.
Who can help me?
The education system can be difficult to understand and intimidating for parents who are new to its complexities. Here are some suggestions from teachers and parents that may be able to help you.
- Bring someone with you to school meetings. These are important and parents are very emotional. This person, such as a family member, neighbour, clergy member, or anyone else, can support you silently and take notes for you. If your child has been formally assessed by a professional from outside the school board, you may ask him or her to attend the meeting and advocate for your child’s needs.
- Before meeting with school board staff about special education, talk to a representative from your local Learning Disabilities Association chapter. Members of the association are often parents who have been involved in the process with their child. They can help you understand how to get the right kind of special education for your child.
- Don’t just accept the first offer you are made. Take some time to think about it and discuss the board’s recommendations with your family or others who are knowledgeable about education and different disabilities. If you are offered a placement in an independent special education class, ask to visit the class before making a decision to determine if this is the right environment for your child.
- Remain calm and patient when meeting with school board members and teachers.
Before and during school meetings, ask questions about the programs offered, your child’s progress, supervision, and any other concerns you may have. Don’t let school board staff rush the meeting, even if it is longer than expected. Write down your questions and take notes. Here are some questions you may want to ask.
- How much time will my child spend in the regular classroom and in the special education class?
- Find out about the differences between students who are placed in an independent special education class and those in other remedial programs offered by the school.
- What might disturb or embarrass your child in this environment? For example, could changing classes and teachers every day be disruptive or cause anxiety for your child because he or she is being treated differently?
- What progress does the teacher think the children in this class will be able to make?
- Ask to visit and observe the classroom.
- Talk to the parents of the children in the class.
- Discuss with the teachers – their responsibility is very great.
Some school boards offer a wide range of options. You may need to compare the options available to you to find the best intervention for your child.