What Types of Children Do Special Education Teachers Work With?

If you’re interested in earning your graduate degree in special education, it’s a good idea to consider factors such as what types of students you may teach; what constitutes a learning disability under federal law; and what types of criteria may be used to establish that a learning disability exists. To gain an better understanding of special education laws and the type of student who is considered in need of special education, you first need to understand what the Individuals with Learning Disabilities Act (IDEA) is, why it was established, and who is covered under it.

The Individuals with Learning Disabilities Act (IDEA)

Types of Special Education Students

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a federal law that requires all schools in the U.S. to serve the educational needs of eligible students with disabilities. The purpose of IDEA is to protect that rights of children with disabilities by ensuring they have access to free and appropriate education in the least restrictive environment possible. IDEA was also created to give parents a voice in their child’s education by setting up procedural safeguards. The law covers children from infancy through high school graduation or age 21.[i]

Disabilities that Qualify Students in Need of Special Education Under IDEA

Not every child with learning or attention issues qualifies for special education services through the law.  According to IDEA:  “a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written that may manifest itself in the imperfect ability to listen, speak, read, write, spell or do mathematic equations1.” As such, there are currently 13 different categories of disabilities that are clearly defined in IDEA including:

  • Autism
  • Emotional disturbance
  • Deaf-blindness
  • Hearing impairment
  • Multiple disabilities
  • Mental retardation
  • Orthopedic impairment
  • Other health impairment (including ADHD)
  • Specific learning disability (such as Dyslexia)
  • Speech or language impairment
  • Traumatic brain injury
  • Visual impairment[i]

As a special education teacher, it’s possible that your classroom may contain students that show a variety of the above disabilities—so it’s important that you know how to address the learning challenges that each category can present.

Criteria Used to Identify a Child as Learning Disabled

According to IDEA, if a child doesn’t achieve adequately for his or her age or meet state-approved grade level standards in one or more of the areas below—when provided the proper instruction—the child’s parents and a group of qualified professionals should take steps to determine whether the child has a specific learning disability.

The areas to consider include:

  • Oral expression
  • Written expression
  • Listening comprehension
  • Basic reading skills
  • Reading fluency skills
  • Reading comprehension
  • Mathematics problem solving
  • Mathematics calculation

Additionally, the underachievement must not be primarily as a result of: mental retardation; emotional disturbance; cultural factors; a visual, hearing or motor disability; environmental or economic disadvantage; or limited proficiency in English. To help ensure that it’s not a lack of appropriate instruction in reading or math that is creating issues, the group must consider data that shows that prior to the referral process, the child was provided proper instruction in a regular education setting from qualified teachers; and data-based documentation that show repeated achievement assessments during regular intervals, which were provided to the child’s parents.[i]

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Sources: [i] www2.ed.gov/policy/speced/leg/idea/idea.pdf

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