What is Special Education? (Types of Placements for Your Child)

27 May

Learn about how special education services are delivered in the public school system now, as compared to just twenty years ago. 

Special education is individualized, specialized academic instruction for students that have a qualifying disability.  Basically, it is giving a student what they need to achieve to their greatest potential.  So why do so many people have a negative reaction when they hear the words special education?

 It may conjure up images from their own childhood; perhaps they recall children in hidden classrooms, never mixing with the rest of the student body.  They may remember these students being bullied and alienated at school or in the neighborhood.  It is true that in the not so distant past, special education was not what most of us would want for our children.  However, much has changed!

Special education as we know it today has only been around since the 1970’s, but it has gone through several major overhauls in the past 30 years.  Once, special education was one size fits all.  That meant all the children with physical or learning differences were kept together in one room, while the rest were taught the curriculum.  That is not the case now. In the 1990’s special education made a shift toward mainstreaming, or including children in the regular general classroom as much as possible.  This means that many children that would’ve been put into separate classrooms, away from their peers, are now being educated in the general classroom.  It turns out that this model of special education benefits not only the child with special needs, but also the typical students.  Children are seen as individuals, with different needs.

Some children do not benefit from mainstreaming or inclusion, they need more intensive, therapeutic instruction that needs to be delivered in a separate classroom.  However, these students are not hidden away in the bowels of school buildings anymore.  All efforts should be made to have separate classrooms mixed in with general classrooms.  Some students need to be educated in specialized schools because they need a wrap-around approach to their education.  There are many ways that districts deliver special education services to students.  Here are the 4 methods used in public school districts:

Full Inclusion:  In this model, the general education (gen. ed.) teacher and a sped teacher collaborate in the gen. ed. classroom.  This model can look different in different schools.  Sometimes a sped teacher is leading a small group within the classroom, other times the sped teacher is assisting the gen. ed. teacher.  The student will receive accommodations, changes in the classroom environment, that will help them access the gen. ed. curriculum (Eg. Have the student sit closer to the teacher).  Sometimes the curriculum will be modified for the student so they can complete the same or similar activity as the rest of the class (Eg. Give the student less problems to solve).

Partial-Inclusion (Pull-out):   Schools will have designated areas (usually called resource rooms) where service is given to sped students only.  The students will leave their gen. ed. classroom during the subject area that they need assistance in and go to the resource room to receive their instruction.  Sometimes the instruction is very similar to what the gen. ed. students are learning, other times it is not.  Students are taken to the resource room for various reasons.  Some common reasons for using this model instead of full-inclusion is that the student’s instructional level is well-below the grade level, the student requires a different type of program (especially true for students with reading disabilities) than the other students are using, or the student requires a small group setting with a slower pace and frequent review.  Many resource rooms have more than one staff member working with students, so the students get more teacher time.

Substantially Separate Classrooms: Classrooms for children that benefit from a small group setting for most of the day.   Usually there is more than one adult in the room so students get a lot of one-on-one instruction.  Students in these classrooms are usually mainstreamed for a small part of the day (gym, music, art, etc.).  The room is usually operating much differently than a gen. ed. classroom, using more therapeutic programs and highly specialized instruction methods.  Usually substantially separate classrooms include students that all have the same or similar disability.  The students in these classrooms usually have significant difficulty accessing the gen. ed. curriculum, but they may not necessarily be cognitively impaired.

Outside Placement:  Sometimes a district does not have the facilities, staff, or resources to service a student.  In that case, schools will place the student in an outside placement.  An outside placement will be in a different school, either publicly funded or private. A publicly funded outside placement will typically be an educational collaborative.  A collaborative is several school districts pooling  funds, staff, and resources to offer services to their most disable students.  Sometimes the services are provided in a public school building, but usually the collaborative will have its own space.  Sometimes, districts will pay to send students to a privately funded school because they do not have the ability to educate the student in their district or in a collaborative.  Districts use this option as a last resort because it can be very costly.  The school must pay for the tuition and the transportation fees.  In certain rare instances a district will split the cost of a private outside placement with the parents.

Because special educators work to meet the individual needs of their students, there is not one model of service delivery that will benefit all children.  It really depends on the needs of the child, the degree of disability, and preferences of the child’s family.  When you are considering what type of placement is best for your child try to put your own bias aside.  Forget what you felt like when you were a child.  Instead, investigate the placements available at your child’s school.  Talk to the teachers, observe the settings, and consider your child’s strengths and weaknesses.  If they work better in a small group with more teacher supervision, then a partial-inclusion program may be best for them.  If your child requires unique instruction methods most of the time, a separate setting may make sense.  Try to keep an open mind and arm yourself with information.

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