What is Special Education? (page 2)

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Jul 20, 2010

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.

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