Special education is a complex enterprise that can be defined and evaluated from many perspectives. One may, for example, view special education as a legislatively governed enterprise whose practitioners are concerned about issues such as due process procedures for informing parents about their right to participate in decisions about their children’s education programs and the extent to which all of the school district’s IEPs include each component as required by IDEA. From a purely administrative point of view, special education can be seen as the part of a school system’s operation that requires certain teacher-pupil ratios in the classroom and uses special formulas to determine levels of funding for related-services personnel. And from a sociopolitical perspective, special education can be seen as an outgrowth of the civil rights movement, a demonstration of society’s changing attitudes about people with disabilities. Each of these perspectives has some validity, and each has and continues to play an important role in defining what special education is and how it is practiced. None of these views, however, reveals the fundamental purpose or essence of special education as instructionally based intervention.

Special Education As Intervention

Special education is, first of all, purposeful intervention designed to prevent, eliminate, and/or overcome the obstacles that might keep an individual with disabilities from learning and from full and active participation in school and society. There are three basic types of intervention: preventive, remedial, and compensatory.

Preventive Intervention.  Preventive intervention is designed to keep potential or minor problems from becoming a disability. Preventive intervention includes actions that stop an event from happening and those that reduce a problem or condition that has already been identified. Prevention can occur at three levels (Simeonsson, 1994):

  • Primary prevention is designed to reduce the number of new cases (incidence) of a problem; it consists of efforts to eliminate or counteract risk factors so that a disability is never acquired. Primary prevention efforts are aimed at all relevant persons. For example, in a schoolwide program to prevent behavior disorders, school- and classroom-wide systems of positive behavior support would be provided for all students, staff, and settings (Sugai & Horner, 2005).
  • Secondary prevention is aimed at reducing the number existing cases (prevalence) of an already identified problem or condition or eliminating the effects of existing risk factors; it is aimed at individuals exposed to or displaying specific risk factors. To continue the example of a schoolwide program to prevent behavior disorders, specialized interventions would be aimed only at those students exhibiting early signs of troubled behavior.
  • Tertiary prevention is intended to minimize the impact of a specific condition, to prevent the effects of a disability from worsening; it is aimed at individuals with a disability. For example, intensive interventions would be aimed at students identified with emotional and behavioral disorders.

Preventive efforts are most promising when they begin as early as possible—even before birth, in many cases. In later chapters, we explore some of the promising new methods for preventing and minimizing the effects of disabilities. Unfortunately, primary and secondary prevention programs have only just begun to affect the incidence, prevalence, and severity of disabilities in this country. And it is likely that we will be well into the 21st century before we achieve a significant reduction in the incidence of disabilities. In the meantime, we must rely on remedial and compensatory efforts to help individuals with disabilities achieve fuller and more independent lives.

Remedial Intervention.  Remediation attempts to eliminate specific effects of a disability. In fact, the word remediation is primarily an educational term; the word rehabilitation is used more often by social service agencies. Both have a common purpose: to teach the person with disabilities skills for independent and successful functioning. In school, those skills may be academic (reading, writing, computing), social (getting along with others; following instructions, schedules, and other daily routines), personal (eating, dressing, using the toilet without assistance), and/or vocational (career and job skills to prepare secondary students for the world of work). The underlying assumption of remedial intervention is that a person with disabilities needs special instruction to succeed in typical settings. 

Compensatory Intervention.  Compensatory interventions involve teaching special skills or the use of devices that enable successful functioning. This third type of intervention involves teaching a substitute (i.e., compensatory) skill that enables a person to perform a task in spite of the disability. For example, although remedial instruction might help a child with cerebral palsy learn to use her hands in the same way that others do for some tasks, a headstick and a template placed over a computer keyboard may compensate for her limited fine-motor control and enable her to type instead of write lessons by hand. Compensatory interventions are designed to give the person with a disability an asset that nondisabled individuals do not need—whether it be a device such as a headstick or special training such as mobility instruction for a child without vision.

Special Education As Instruction

Ultimately, teaching is what special education is most about. But the same can be said of all of education. What, then, is special about special education? One way to answer that question is to examine special education in terms of the who, what, how, and where of its teaching.

Who.  We have already identified the most important who in special education: the exceptional children whose educational needs necessitate an individually planned program of instruction. Teachers, both general education classroom teachers and special educators (those who have completed specialized training programs to prepare them to work with students with special needs), provide the instruction that is the heart of each child’s individualized program of education. Working with special educators and regular classroom teachers are many other professionals (e.g., school psychologists, speech-language pathologists, physical therapists, counselors) and paraprofessionals (e.g., classroom aides) who help provide the educational and related services that exceptional children need. This interdisciplinary team of professionals, working together with parents and families, bears the primary responsibility for helping exceptional children learn despite their special needs.

What.  Special education can sometimes be differentiated from general education by its curriculum—that is, by what is taught. Although every student with disabilities needs access to and support in learning as much of the general education curriculum as possible, the IEP goals and objectives for some special education students will not be found in state standards or the school district’s curriculum guide. Some children with disabilities need intensive, systematic instruction to learn skills that typically developing children acquire without instruction. The term functional curriculum is often used to describe the knowledge and skills needed by students with disabilities to achieve as much success and independence as they can in daily living, personal-social, school, community, and work settings. For example, self-help skills such as dressing, eating, and toileting are a critically important component of the school curriculum for many students with severe disabilities. Also, as discussed previously, some children are taught certain skills to compensate for or reduce the handicapping effects of a disability. A child who is blind may be taught how to read and write in braille, whereas a sighted child does not need these skills.

How.  Special education can also be differentiated from general education by its use of specialized, or adapted, materials and methods. This difference is obvious when you observe a special educator use sign language with students who are deaf or witness another teach a child how to communicate his wishes by pointing to pictures in a special booklet he carries with him. When watching a special educator gradually and systematically withdraw verbal and physical prompts while helping a student learn to perform the steps of a task, you may find the differentiated nature of special education instruction less obvious; but it is no less specialized.

Where.  Special education can sometimes be identified by where it takes place. Although the majority of children with disabilities receive most of their education in regular classrooms, the others are someplace else—mostly in separate classrooms and separate residential and day schools. And many of those in regular classrooms spend a portion of each day in a resource room, where they receive individualized instruction. Table 1.6 lists the definitions of six educational placements used by the U.S. Department of Education. (To learn how students in one resource room obtain teacher assistance, see Teaching & Learning, “Signaling for Help,” later in this chapter.)

Special educators also teach in many environments not usually thought of as school. An early childhood special educator may spend much of his time teaching parents how to work with their infant or toddler at home. Special education teachers, particularly those who work with students with severe disabilities, often conduct community-based instruction, helping their students learn and practice functional daily living and job skills in the actual settings where they must be used (Owens-Johnson & Hamill, 2002).

Three out of four school-age children with disabilities received at least part of their education in regular classrooms during the 2003–2004 school year. This includes 49.9% who were served in the regular classroom and 27.7% who were served for part of each school day in a resource room, a special setting in which a special educator provides individualized instruction. About one-fifth of all children with disabilities are educated in separate classrooms within a regular school. About 3% of school-age students with disabilities—usually those with severe disabilities—are educated in special schools. Residential schools serve less than 1% of all children with disabilities, as do nonschool environments such as homebound or hospital programs.

The vast majority of children in the two largest groups of students with disabilities spend at least part of the school day in regular classrooms: 86% of children with learning disabilities and 95% of children with speech or language impairments. In contrast, only 42% of children with mental retardation, 44% of children with autism, 29% of children with multiple disabilities, and 36% of children with deaf-blindness were educated in regular classrooms for part of each day during the 2003–2004 school year, although these figures represent increases over those of previous years.

Defining Features of Special Education

What, then, is special education? At one level, it is an important part of society’s response to the needs of exceptional children and the rights of individuals with disabilities—a response brought about by parental advocacy, litigation, legislation, and, increasingly, self-advocacy by disabled persons themselves. At another level, special education is a profession with its own history, cultural practices, tools, and research base focused on the learning needs of exceptional children and adults. But at the level where exceptional children most meaningfully and frequently contact it, special education is individually planned, specialized, intensive, goal-directed instruction. When practiced most effectively and ethically, special education is also characterized by the use of research-based teaching methods, the application of which is guided by direct and frequent measures of student performance (Bushell & Baer, 1994; Greenwood & Maheady, 1997).

Federal Government's Definitions of Educational Placements for Students With Disabilities

Educational Setting Definition
Regular Classroom Students receive a majority of their education program in a regular classroom and receive special education and related services outside the regular classroom for less than 21% of the school day.
Resource Classroom Students receive special education and related services outside the regular classroom for at least 21% but no more than 60% of the school day.
Separate Classroom Students receive special education and related services outside the regular classroom for 61% to 100% of the school day.
Separate School Students receive special education and related services in a public or private separate day school for students with disabilities, at public expense, for more than 50% of the school day.
Residential Facility Students receive special education and related services in a public or privately operated residential facility in which children receive care or services 24 hours a day.
Homebound/hospital Students receive special education and related services in a hospital or homebound program.

Source: Adapted from U.S. Department of Education. (2000). Twenty-second annual report to Congress on the implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (p. II-14). Washington, DC: Author.