Special Education: Meeting Student Needs in School and Beyond

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.   

  1. Autism
  2. Deaf-Blindness
  3. Deafness  
  4. Emotional Disturbance 
  5. Hearing Impairment
  6. Intellectual Disability 
  7. Multiple Disabilities
  8. Orthopedic Impairment
  9. Other Health Impairment
  10. Specific Learning Disability
  11. Speech or Language Impairment
  12. Traumatic Brain Injury
  13. 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, EdS 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