Special Education: Meeting Student Needs in School and Beyond by Caryn Darwin
Can you recall your school experience? You probably do not consider it much until it is time for your class reunion. Most people probably recollect a variety of academic, social, and cultural events, which were a blend of positive and negative experiences with a variety of peers that shaped one’s outlook on achievement, friendships, conflict resolution, and societal functioning that is often carried into adulthood. Attending school should prepare students to become productive citizens by teaching content knowledge, social/emotional, and prerequisite career attainment skills by learning to formulate goals, perseverance, and experiencing feelings of accomplishment.
What about the students who have deficits in learning, social skills, emotional functioning, or physical capabilities? Some students with disabilities may possess deficits in gathering and comprehending information, whereas others may misunderstand or misinterpret social cues, become overwhelmed by their environments, become anxious or depressed, lack friendships, and possess attention difficulties, which can often result in severe learning deficits, decreased self-esteem, and negative self-concepts. Not to mention those students who have difficult home lives and fail to get their basic needs met, such as adequate food, shelter, safety, and consistency. Currently, IDEA identifies 13 eligibility categories in special education to identify students with disabilities.
- Emotional Disturbance
- Hearing Impairment
- Intellectual Disability
- Multiple Disabilities
- Orthopedic Impairment
- Other Health Impairment
- Specific Learning Disability
- Speech or Language Impairment
- Traumatic Brain Injury
- Visual Impairment including Blindness
Whether the deficits are mild, moderate, or severe, any difference in learning can be debilitating and lead to self-fulfilling prophecies of failure. In reality, it is the perceived limitation of a disability and the stigma associated with possessing an educational diagnosis which may be more debilitating than the disability itself. For instance, too often a student might comment “I’m having a bad day because I did not take my medicine this morning.” Once students become mature enough to understand that they are treated differently than their peers or they go to “special classes,” often times they feel ostracized and disempowered. It is unrealistic to believe that all the needs of students in special education can be met within general education classrooms. However, depending upon the severity of the disability and the adverse educational impact, how a disability is manifested in the school setting can vary substantially. So how can students identified as disabled in one of the aforementioned areas learn how to function as productive citizens in society without developing self-fulfilling prophecies of failure? What does it truly mean to be “disabled”? And finally, does every student who has a disability demonstrate the same characteristics? Merriam-Webster dictionary defines disabled as incapacitated by illness or injury or physically or mentally impaired in a way that substantially limits activity especially in relation to employment or education. What disability eligibility does not entail is individual student motivation, ambition, and supportive environments with enriched curriculum. Furthermore, special education services are akin to any other remedy, it has to be tailored to meet the student’s needs. How long would a physician be in practice if his remedy for every illness from a headache to a hepatoma was to take two aspirin every four hours?
IDEA 2004 defines least restrictive environment as to the maximum extent appropriate, children with disabilities are educated with non-disabled peers. When collaboration and encouragement from professionals such as general and special education teachers, school principals, school counselors, school psychologists, and parents occur and multiple discussions take place about student needs, strengths, and deficits, this increases the maximum benefit appropriate for students within educational and social experiences from their general education peers as well as receive specialized curriculum to remedy learning and emotional gaps that may be present. Further it is equally if not more important to recognize students for their educational capabilities and their contribution as it is to recognize their disabilities. Through communication and advocacy efforts, interventions in the general education setting can work toward addressing the needs of all students. Further, when professionals and parents advocate for the least restrictive environment for students receiving special education services, students can learn from the most authentic source: themselves. As a result, this fosters heterogeneous environments that prepare our youth for diverse educational, employment, and extracurricular activities that mirror our culturally and sociodemographic diverse society, which will give students more tools and better potential to become productive, happy, and thriving citizens with fulfilling lives upon graduation to make meaningful contributions to society. Isn’t that what education is all about?
Caryn Darwin, Ed.S. LSSP (Licensed Specialist in School Psychology) Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District, Houston, TX
National Psychologist Trainee Register Scholarship Recipient, Fall 2015
Pre-doctoral Psychology Intern, Rockdale Regional Juvenile Justice Center in Rockdale, TX
School Psychology Doctoral Candidate, Tennessee State University, Nashville, TN
School Psychologist, Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, Nashville, TN
Explanation of the Eligibility Categories in Special Education
- Autism: a developmental disability significantly affecting verbal and nonverbal communication and social interaction, generally evident before age three that adversely affects a child’s educational performance. Other characteristics often associated with autism are engaging in repetitive activities and stereotyped movements, resistance to environmental change or change in daily routines, and unusual responses to sensory experiences.
- Deaf-Blindness: concomitant [simultaneous] hearing and visual impairments, the combination of which causes such severe communication and other developmental and educational needs that they cannot be accommodated in special education programs solely for children with deafness or children with blindness.
- Deafness: means a hearing impairment so severe that a child is impaired in processing linguistic information through hearing, with or without amplification that adversely affects a child's educational performance.
- Emotional Disturbance: a condition exhibiting one or more of the following characteristics over a long period of time and to a marked degree that adversely affects a child’s educational performance: (a) An inability to learn that cannot be explained by intellectual, sensory, or health factors. (b) An inability to build or maintain satisfactory interpersonal relationships with peers and teachers. (c) Inappropriate types of behavior or feelings under normal circumstances. (d) A general pervasive mood of unhappiness or depression. (e) A tendency to develop physical symptoms or fears associated with personal or school problems. The term includes schizophrenia. The term does not apply to children who are socially maladjusted, unless it is determined that they have an emotional disturbance.
- Hearing Impairment: means an impairment in hearing, whether permanent or fluctuating, that adversely affects a child’s educational performance but is not included under the definition of “deafness.”
- Intellectual Disability: significantly sub average general intellectual functioning, existing concurrently with deficits in adaptive behavior and manifested during the developmental period that adversely affects a child’s educational performance.
- Multiple Disabilities: concomitant impairments (such as intellectual disability-blindness, intellectual disability-orthopedic impairment), the combination of which causes such severe educational needs that they cannot be accommodated in special education programs solely for one of the impairments. The term does not include deaf-blindness.
- Orthopedic Impairment: a severe orthopedic impairment that adversely affects a child’s educational performance. The term includes impairments caused by a congenital anomaly, impairments caused by disease (e.g., poliomyelitis, bone tuberculosis), and impairments from other causes (e.g., cerebral palsy, amputations, and fractures or burns that cause contractures).
- Other Health Impairment: having limited strength, vitality, or alertness, including a heightened alertness to environmental stimuli, that results in limited alertness with respect to the educational environment, that— (a) is due to chronic or acute health problems such as asthma, attention deficit disorder or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, diabetes, epilepsy, a heart condition, hemophilia, lead poisoning, leukemia, nephritis, rheumatic fever, sickle cell anemia, and Tourette syndrome; and (b) adversely affects a child’s educational performance.
- Specific Learning Disability: a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, that may manifest itself in the imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or to do mathematical calculations. The term includes such conditions as perceptual disabilities, brain injury minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia. The term does not include learning problems that are primarily the result of visual, hearing, or motor disabilities; of intellectual disability; of emotional disturbance; or of environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage.
- Speech or Language Impairment: a communication disorder such as stuttering, impaired articulation, a language impairment, or a voice impairment that adversely affects a child’s educational performance.
- Traumatic Brain Injury: an acquired injury to the brain caused by an external physical force, resulting in total or partial functional disability or psychosocial impairment, or both, that adversely affects a child's educational performance. The term applies to open or closed head injuries resulting in impairments in one or more areas, such as cognition; language; memory; attention; reasoning; abstract thinking; judgment; problem solving; sensory, perceptual, and motor abilities; psychosocial behavior; physical functions; information processing; and speech. The term does not apply to brain injuries that are congenital or degenerative, or to brain injuries induced by birth trauma.
- Visual Impairment including Blindness: an impairment in vision that, even with correction, adversely affects a child’s educational performance. The term includes both partial sight and blindness.
Merriam-Webster, (2015). Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary (11th Eds.). Springfield, MA. Retrieved from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/disabled
National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities, (2012). Categories of disability under IDEA. Retrieved from http://www.parentcenterhub.org/wp-content/uploads/repo_items/gr3.pdf
US Department of Education, (2015). Building the legacy IDEA 2004. Retrieved from http://idea.ed.gov/explore/view/p/%2Croot%2Cstatute%2CI%2CB%2C612%2Ca%2C5%2C