What is Special Education? A Comprehensive Guide to This Invaluable Role
By Robbie Gould on 09/21/2023
Special education opens doors to endless possibilities for students with unique needs. And special education teachers truly work magic. With their understanding of different needs and early development (and with lots of preparation), they can turn learning into a transformative experience for their students.
Special education teachers have a knack for uncovering students' potential. They turn challenges into opportunities and obstacles into stepping stones. They hold up a mirror to help their students see the possibilities and skills inside themselves.
What many people don’t realize is that special education can begin as early as infancy. Special education experts can work with toddlers and those critical early-learning years—making this role an important niche in early childhood education (ECE).
If you have a child with special needs, you probably already know how much it would mean to have a teacher who can engage and inspire them. And if you’ve ever worked with special needs children, you know that helping each child develop, learn and have a good experience takes more than good intentions.
This is where the important role of special education can fill in some gaps. Read on to discover how special education services could be a great career choice or a great choice for extra support for your family and beloved little one.
What is special education?
Special education refers to the educational programs and services that are specifically designed to meet the unique learning needs of students with disabilities.1
“These disabilities can be a specific learning disability or intellectual, behavioral or emotional disorders, physical impairments, sensory issues or developmental delays,” says, Debra Gould BCSE and a special education specialist with 25 years of experience.
The goal of special education is to provide support, accommodations and specialized instruction to help these students access the general education curriculum, make progress in their learning and achieve educational success. Special education services are specially designed instruction tailored to each student's specific needs and may involve a combination of different instructional strategies, technologies, therapies and support systems.
Special education can take place in classrooms within regular school districts or in separate special education schools, as well as residential facilities, health agencies, hospitals and home programs.2 It often involves a team of professionals offering related services, including special education teachers, speech therapists, occupational therapists, psychologists and other specialists, working together to develop and implement an individualized education program or plan (IEP) for each student.
Why are special education services important?
“Special education plays a crucial role in ensuring that students with disabilities receive the support they need to overcome barriers, reach their full potential and participate in society,” says occupational therapist, Leidy Montoya OTP.
“Embracing and empowering children with special education needs to participate fully in society isn't just an act of compassion – it's an investment in a future where diversity blossoms and becomes the foundation for a more inclusive, understanding and harmonious world."
Special education promotes inclusivity for a vulnerable and often-ostracized population, and it supports academic and social growth during a critical time of development.2
Here are several more reasons why special education services are so important:
1. Meeting unique needs
Special education recognizes that students with disabilities have unique learning needs that may require additional support and accommodations. These services ensure that students receive tailored instruction that addresses their specific challenges, helping them access the curriculum and make progress in their learning.
2. Equal educational opportunities
Thanks to special education, students with disabilities have equal access to education, encouraging inclusion and preventing discrimination based on disabilities.2 It aims to level the playing field and create an environment where all students can thrive academically and socially.
3. Individualized approach
Special education emphasizes an individualized approach to education. It takes into account each student's strengths, weaknesses and learning styles to develop personalized education plans.
This helps educators tailor instruction, adapt teaching methods and provide appropriate accommodations to maximize each student's learning potential.
4. Support for social and emotional development
Special education services not only focus on academic growth but also address the social and emotional development of students with disabilities.2
It provides a supportive environment where students can develop social skills, build relationships and enhance their self-esteem. “This holistic approach fosters overall well-being and prepares students for success beyond the classroom,” Gould says.
What happens in a special education environment?
In special education, several key elements and activities take place to cater to the unique learning needs of students with disabilities.
Here are some common features and practices:
Small group instruction
Children who receive special education services will benefit from the individualized attention and teaching that instructors provide.
Teachers may work with small groups of students or one-on-one to address specific academic or behavioral goals.
Teachers in special education use specific skills and various instructional strategies to meet the diverse learning needs of their students.
They may employ visual aids, manipulatives (physical tools of teaching, like blocks, puzzles and coins), assistive technology and lots of personal interaction to engage students and enhance their understanding.3
Special ed environments are usually structured and predictable to help students feel safe and secure.
Visual schedules, consistent routines and clear expectations contribute to a supportive learning environment for the special needs students.
Individualized support and accommodations
Students receiving special education services will also benefit from individualized support and accommodations. This may include additional time for assignments, modified assignments, preferential seating or access to specialized therapies, such as speech or occupational therapy.
In special education, teachers also help students with their behavior and emotions. They set rules, teach ways to control themselves and give rewards to encourage good behavior. It's all about creating a positive and supportive environment where students can grow socially and emotionally.
Collaboration and teamwork
Teachers, specialists and other staff team up to work together in special education. Students often need support in several different areas—education, but also potentially physical, mental or emotional support as well. Different specialists collaborate on behalf of each student.
They share ideas, and come up with helpful strategies and keep an eye on how students are doing. Parents or guardians are also included in this teamwork, so everyone can be part of the educational journey.
Individual and group activities
Special education students will often do activities by themselves and with others. This helps them make friends, learn from each other and work as a team. They will do projects together, have small group talks and participate in activities that teach them how to get along with others.
Just as in any other learning environment, the goal here is to build social skills and have fun while learning!
Progress monitoring and assessment
In special education, teachers monitor their student's progress to see if they're meeting their goals. If necessary, they adjust their approach. This helps them identify areas that require more attention and ensures that students are making positive strides in their learning.
What types of special needs can special ed address?
Special education helps students with a variety of special needs.2 Here are some of the common types:
1. Intellectual disabilities
Special education supports students with intellectual disabilities, who may have limitations in intellectual functioning and adaptive skills.
2. Learning disabilities
Students with learning disabilities, such as dyslexia or dyscalculia, receive special strategies and teaching methods to make learning subjects like reading, writing or math easier.
3. Emotional and behavioral challenges
Special education helps students with emotional or behavioral challenges, providing behavioral interventions, counseling and support to help them manage emotions and develop positive behaviors.
4. Autism spectrum disorders
Programs and therapies are offered that focus on developing social skills, communication abilities and addressing sensory sensitivities.
5. Speech and language impairments
Students with speech or language difficulties get speech therapy and special activities to improve their communication skills.
6. Sensory impairments (deaf/blindness)
Special education teachers make sure students with visual or hearing impairments have the right tools and techniques to access learning, they can provide adaptations, assistive technologies and specialized instruction to ensure access to class material.
7. Physical disabilities
Students with physical disabilities, including mobility impairments or chronic health conditions, receive accommodations, assistive devices and therapies to enhance their participation and help navigate the learning environment.
8. Developmental delays
Special education provides early intervention and personalized instruction for students with developmental delays, helping them catch up with their peers.
9. Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
Special education can also offer strategies to support students with ADHD, like helping them stay focused and organized.
10. Multiple disabilities
Special education provides comprehensive support to students who have a combination of two or more disabilities, addressing their unique needs across various domains.
When parents enroll their children in special education
Parents usually enroll their children in special education when they notice or suspect that their child may need extra help and support due to a disability or developmental delay. The timing on this can vary from infancy to much later in adolescence.
Sometimes, professionals like teachers, psychologists, or doctors can help identify the need for special education services. If you think your child might benefit from special education, speak with your doctor and reach out to the school or educational authorities in your area to start the enrollment process.
They'll work with you to create an individualized education plan that outlines the specific support and services your child needs. Remember, every region and school might have its own procedures, so it's a good idea to contact them directly to get all the information you need.
What does it take to work in special education?
As you can see, special education is a realm where compassion, dedication, creativity, resilience and a firm belief in the potential of every student come together.
These careers take special professionals who don’t shy away from confusing or difficult situations, and who are willing to take time to determine the best way to reach each of their students. For the right person, this role can be an incredible way to make an impact that ripples through generations, unlocking the brilliance within each student.
Since special education can begin as early as infancy, special education teachers are needed in early childhood environments as well as in K-12 learning and beyond. The age group you gravitate toward will greatly alter the path you need to take to pursue a special education career.
A career in special education is more than just a career choice—it's a calling to create a brighter and more equitable future for all learners. If you are curious about what else it might take to work in this role, check out " 8 Signs You Are Perfect for a Career in Special Education."
Rasmussen University ECE programs do not prepare students for licensed teaching positions in any public school setting, but students will have the opportunity to help shape the futures of young children from birth to age six in a childcare or non-public school setting or leadership role.
1U.S. Department of Education. IDEA: Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Sec. 300.39 Special Education. Date accessed 7/8/23. https://sites.ed.gov/idea/regs/b/a/300.39
2Teach.com Staff. Teaching Special Education. Date accessed 7/8/23. https://teach.com/careers/become-a-teacher/what-can-i-teach/special-education/#
3Alyssa Shanahan, 5 Tips for Early Childhood Special Education. Date accessed 9/20/23. https://www.simplyspecialed.com/5-tips-for-early-childhood-special-education/