What kind of support is helpful for students with special needs?
Special education is instruction specifically designed for students who have special learning needs and require additional support, accommodations, or modifications that they would not receive as part of the general education curriculum. Around 13% of all public school students in the U.S. receive special educational services.[i] Every student who has been identified as eligible to receive special education services receives an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), which is a legally binding document containing the special accommodations and services the school will provide that child to best enhance their individual education.[ii] The IEP also contains a statement of measurable annual education and functional goals.
There is a wide range of reasons why students may have special educational needs. For example, students with learning disabilities/differences, physical disabilities, language disorders, or emotional/behavioral disorders can often benefit from special education. Depending on the individual needs of each student, they may benefit from accommodations, where the student learns the same material as their peers, or modifications, where the material is changed and simplified. They also may qualify for services such as speech and language therapy, occupational therapy, or counseling services.
The section below highlights key findings from the research on Special Education Practices.
Federal legislation in the United States guarantees students with disabilities a free and appropriate education in the least restrictive environment possible.[iii] This means students with special educational needs will be educated in the general education curriculum to the fullest extent possible, and will only be placed in a more restrictive environment, such as a special day class, when their needs cannot be met in the general education setting. Several studies have found that children educated in inclusion settings make as much progress or more progress in the areas of academic achievement [iv, v, vi] and adaptive behavior (i.e., social, practical, conceptual) skills.[vii] Research has also shown that the inclusion of students with special needs in general education classrooms has either a neutral or a positive impact on peers without special education needs.[viii]
Response to intervention (RTI) models are service delivery systems designed to prevent, identify, and remediate academic difficulties by focusing on students’ response to an intervention. RTI models can be implemented in a variety of ways, but they are always multi-tiered, with the level of intervention intensity increasing with each level.[ix] A three tier model is frequently used. Tier 1 consists of universal screening to identify any students at risk for developing academic problems so their progress can be monitored. Children who do not progress as expected move to Tier 2, where they receive additional instruction in small groups of students. Those students who need additional help proceed to Tier 3, where they often are provided with additional individualized intervention. Many RTI models have been successfully implemented in school districts, often resulting in an increase in academic achievement as well as a decrease in the number of referrals to special education.[x]
Each student with special educational needs should be assessed to determine what types of test accommodations will benefit them. Often, a combination of several accommodations are used.[xi] Some common test accommodations include allowing extra time to take tests, oral administration of tests, and computerized administration of tests.[xii] Several studies have found that students’ academic achievement scores positively benefit from test accommodations, especially extra time [xiii] and oral presentation [xiv] accommodations.
Special education teachers possess a wide array of complex skills. They are trained on content knowledge (e.g., knowledge of reading or math instruction), but they also must understand how to identify and best teach students with individual learning differences. To do this, special education teachers constantly monitor student learning, provide extensive feedback to their students, and adapt material to best serve individual students’ needs.[xv] The most effective special education teachers also possess excellent classroom management skills, and are able to continuously engage their students.[xvi]
The Asthma Management subtopic includes research on school-based interventions designed to help manage children’s asthma. Studies also explore how asthma affects children’s academic outcomes.
The Physical Activity & Schools subtopic includes research on school-based programs and policies intended to improve students’ health through physical activity.
The Intellectually Disabled Adults & Health subtopic describes health outcomes for adults with intellectual disabilities, and programs and interventions designed to improve their health.
The Co-Teaching subtopic includes research and evaluations on different models of co-teaching (also called team teaching and collaborative teaching), particularly in special education.
The Cerebral Palsy subtopic explores the development and experiences of children with cerebral palsy, including physical ability, social connections, and communication skills.
The Intellectual Disability & Quality of Life subtopic explores measures and definitions of quality of life for this population, and policies put in place to support this population.
The Reinforcement & Behavior subtopic includes research on using reinforcers (repeated rewards or positive actions for desired behaviors over time) as a strategy to guide the behavioral development of children with autism and/or intellectual or developmental disabilities.
The Autism & Behavior Interventions subtopic explores various approaches to preventing and treating behavior concerns in autistic children.
The Test Accommodations & Disabilities subtopic includes studies on the practice of providing accommodations or alternative tests for students with disabilities.
The Self-Determination subtopic explores various approaches to supporting the self-determination skills of students with intellectual or developmental disabilities. Self-determination skills such as goal-setting, problem solving, self-advocacy, and decision-making help students take responsibility for their own learning and life paths.
The Intellectual Disabilities & Staff subtopic explores the experiences of staff who work with intellectually disabled individuals, and the effects of this work on their own wellbeing and perspectives. Studies in this subtopic also explore the relationship between staff characteristics and client outcomes.
The Intellectual Disabilities & Sexuality subtopic explores intellectually disabled people’s attitudes and understandings of sexuality and sexual relationships, as well as the attitudes and perspectives of their staff/family. Studies of sexual education and personal safety programs for this population are also covered.
The Psychological Treatment subtopic includes research on different models and approaches to providing and implementing psychological health services, and determining their effectiveness.
The Verbal Behavior Training subtopic explores research on this approach, which supports students with autism and developmental disabilities to build their communication skills.
The Research in Disability Education subtopic includes research reviews, and studies on effective methods for conducting research on education for students with disabilities.
The Assistive Technologies subtopic includes research on the use and effectiveness of technologies designed to help people with disabilities learn and/or participate in daily life activities.
[i] NCES 2015 http://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator_cgg.asp
[iii] Cortiella, C., & Horowitz, S. H. (2014). The state of learning disabilities: Facts, trends and emerging issues. New York: National Center for Learning Disabilities.
[iv] Laws G., Byrne A. & Buckley S. (2000) Language and memory development in children with Down syndrome at mainstream and special schools: a comparison. Educational Psychology 20, 447–57.
[v] Turner, S., Alborz, A., & Gayle, V. (2008). Predictors of academic attainments of young people with Down’s syndrome. Journal of Intellectual Disability Research, 52(5), 380-392.
[vi] Rafferty, Y., Piscitelli, V., & Boettcher, C. (2003). The impact of inclusion on language development and social competence among preschoolers with disabilities. Exceptional Children, 69, 467–479.
[vii] Dessemontet, R. S., Bless, G., & Morin, D. (2012). Effects of inclusion on the academic achievement and adaptive behaviour of children with intellectual disabilities. Journal of Intellectual Disability Research, 56(6), 579-587.
[viii] Kalambouka, A., Farrell, P., Dyson, A., & Kaplan, I. (2007). The impact of placing pupils with special educational needs in mainstream schools on the achievement of their peers. Educational Research, 49(4), 365-382.
[ix] Vaughn SR, Wanzek J, Woodruff AL, LinanThompson S. A three-tier model for preventing reading difficulties and early identification of students with reading disabilities. In: Haager DH, Vaughn S, Klingner JK, editors. Validated reading practices for three tiers of intervention. Baltimore, MD: Brookes; 2006. pp. 11–28.
[x] VanDerHeyden AM, Witt JC, Gilbertson D. A multiyear evaluation of the effects of a response to intervention (RTI) model on identification of children for special education. Journal of School Psychology. 2007;45:225–256.
[xi] Johnstone, C. J., Altman, J., Thurlow, M. L., & Thompson, S. J. (2006). A Summary of Research on the Effects of Test Accommodations: 2002 through 2004. Technical Report 45. National Center on Educational Outcomes, University of Minnesota.
[xii] Zenisky, A. L., & Sireci, S. G. (2007). A Summary of the Research on the Effects of Test Accommodations: 20052006. Technical Report 47. National Center on Educational Outcomes, University of Minnesota]
[xiii] Mandinach, E. B., Bridgeman, B., CahalanLaitusis, C., & Trapani, C. (2005). The impact of extended time on SAT test performance. Research Report No 2005-8. New York, NY: The College Board.
[xiv] Fletcher, J. M., Francis, D. J., Boudousquie, A., Copeland, K., Young, V., Kalinowski, S., & Vaughn, S. (2006). Effects of accommodations on highstakes testing for students with reading disabilities. Exceptional Children, 72 (2), 136-150.
[xv] Stough, L. M., & Palmer, D. J. (2003). Special Thinking in Special Settings A Qualitative Study of Expert Special Educators. The Journal of Special Education, 36(4), 206-222.
[xvi] Brownell, M. T., Bishop, A. G., Gersten, R., Klingner, J. K., Penfield, R. D., Dimino, J., Haager, D, Menon, S., & Sindelar, P. T. (2009). The role of domain expertise in beginning special education teacher quality. Exceptional Children, 75(4), 391-411.