What Are Special Services?
By federal law, all children are entitled to a free and appropriate public education (Public Law 94-142, Public Law 101-476, and Public Law 105-17, all acts pertaining to individuals with disabilities). Special services exist to meet the requirements of those laws. Professionally trained staff members teach children who have greater needs than the average child. When a child shows unusual difficulty learning and/or behaving in school, teachers or parents may refer the child for special testing. Parents must agree to the testing. Trained professionals collect information about the family's and the child's developmental histories. They give your child formal tests that may include some or all of the following:
- academic achievement (reading, math and written language),
- intelligence (yielding patterns of strengths and weaknesses including processing speedProcessing speed is how quickly an individual's mind makes meaning of something presented to him and organizing how he will complete the task before he begins. Some students can process quickly so that they seem to be able to anticipate a question or task. Others may take a few seconds to understand what has been said before they can begin to act upon the direction or task. Rarely, an individual will require great lengths of time that seem to require long pauses between presentation and their response. A response time of 5-15 seconds between direction and response is a comfortable amount of time for most individuals. and working memoryWorking memory is the individual's ability to keep something in mind while they think about another "item" or aspect of a task. An example of a working memory task is when a child writes an essay. He must remember written and/or oral directions as well as everything involved in writing his thoughts correctly. If the child is doing this task in class, he must also be able to ignore visual distractions (decorations, weather outside, people moving about the room), sounds and conversations but not what the teacher says to the class as they work.),
- oral language facility,
- motor skills proficiency,
- behavior questionnaires (parent, teacher, and student),
- hearing and/or visual acuity, and
- physician's statements regarding diagnosis.
Test results, under state and federal guidelines, determine whether or not the child is eligible for special services. All the information is confidential. Parents have the right to accept or reject services for their child. The school district is required by law to give you written copies of parental rights. It is good to be aware of your rights even if your child has not been referred for testing or special services. Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) are documents developed after a child qualifies for special services. The IEP specifies the frequency and what services (instruction) a special teacher will provide a child. These services may be offered within (inclusion model) the general education classroom or in a separate (pull-out model) classroom.
Each area of special education services has specific requirements for eligibility. Since each state is different, it is best to ask your local school district what the requirements are. Sometimes children will qualify for services under several categories, because they are affected by more than one condition . The major categories for special services are:
- These students will qualify for speech and/or language therapy because they speak and hear speech sounds inaccurately. Since language is the foundation for all learning, they usually have trouble communicating with others, listening and interpreting what they are taught, spelling and writing and sometimes reading. (*See link below this list for information on language difficulties.)Communication handicaps
- Children with learning disabilities are normal students who have a typical profile on test results. There are big differences called discrepancies between what they are capable of learning and what they have learned. Usually, professionals talk about these areas in terms of strengths and weaknesses. Each of us has strengths that we use to learn new skills and/or to make up for what we are not good at or our weaknesses. Strengths and weaknesses are relative within an individual; they should not be used to compare individuals. (*See link below this list for information on language difficulties.)Learning disabilities
- Intellectual development determines this category. Retardation means having a slower developmental process than average individuals. Sometimes medical personnel identify these children early in their lives. Mentally retarded children take longer to achieve developmental milestones of learning to sit up, stand, walk and/or speak. There are three levels of mental retardation because what the child can do is significantly different in each. Mildly retarded children are able to do school work, but usually their performance is far below the rest of their class. Most mildly retarded individuals do not have an unusual appearance; they look like anyone else. They can fit in with others in society very easily. Children with moderate or profound retardation may have part or most of their education in separate classes because what they learn at any age is very different from mainstream or general education students. In some school districts they may be fully included in general education classes. These individuals may or may not appear physically different from others. Because they are significantly slower in developing skills such as language and social behavior, they often have behavior and/or emotional difficulties as well. (*See link below this list for information on language difficulties.)Mental retardation
- An educational model for diagnosis of autism has supplanted the more restrictive medical diagnosis. Individuals on the autism spectrum have a form of pervasive developmental disorder (affects all aspects of their lives for their entire lifetime). Autistic individuals tend to be impaired either socially or academically. The socially affected individual has difficulty with relationships but may do well academically in class; the academically affected individual is socially appropriate in superficial situations but may perform poorly academically. Both types of affected individuals have difficulty using language (and mastering any academic content) in abstract, manipulative or imaginative ways. They may also have a label of mental retardation because they may be slower to acquire developmentally appropriate skills. (*See link below this list for information on language difficulties.)Autism
- This category is for children who are/have been severely affected by events or physical/mental/emotional (organic) conditions. Their primary problems are in social relationships. They may be withdrawn or acting out. These children may learn at the same rate or faster than their peers or have difficulty learning. (*See link below this list for information on language difficulties.)Emotional handicaps
- Children with difficulties with motor skills are considered physically handicapped. A common condition in this category is cerebral palsy (created by a lack of oxygen at or near birth). These children are easily identified early because their large motor muscles are awkward, clumsy or unable to move in fluid ways. Physically handicapped children often have difficulty with balance, walking, running, catching/throwing balls and other normal activities. Less commonly identified are children with small or fine motor muscle difficulties. These are children who may have hand tremors and/or illegible writing.Physical handicaps
- These children require assistance to learn to communicate with others. The spectrum of assistance varies, according to the child's, need from speech reading (oral/aural support), hearing aids (mild amplification) with or without FM system (microphone supported amplification) to full sign language instruction. Hearing impaired individuals are often very visually attentive to everything in their environment. Since they have communications handicaps, they may have difficulties with academic and social situations. They may have inappropriate behaviors because they misperceive social cues or do not accurately hear what has been said to them. (*See link below this list for information on language difficulties.)Hearing impairments
- This category is for a child whose eyesight is so severely affected that he requires more than corrective (prescription) glasses to get around safely and/or perform in school. These children are not necessarily totally blind as they may have partial sight or be extremely nearsighted. They require special assistance (devices and/or instruction, large print books, darker and/or bolder print) to learn to read. They may be normal in every other way or affected by any other handicapping condition.Visual impairments
- Some children have severe physical problems (such as epilepsy, allergies, and attention deficit disorder) that impact the academic and/or social performance and/or require medical interventions such as medications. (*See link below this list for information on language difficulties.) When the conditions are severe, they may also be considered mentally retarded.Other health impairments
- There are relatively few children who are unusually willful and non-compliant with adult directions, social rules and/or ethical behavior. These children tend to be risk-takers and highly volatile, either verbally and/or physically. They may be perceived as overly assertive and/or aggressive, intimidating to both adults and children, bullies (physically or verbally); when held accountable for their behavior, they are either hostile or claim to be the victim in spite of evidence to the contrary. These students have little, if any, interest in educational opportunities; their interests lie outside of education.Conduct disorder/oppositional defiant disabilities
Services to individuals with disabilities depend upon the child's disabling condition(s). When a child receives special services, it does not guarantee that he will:
- earn good grades, because those are earned by task completion and mastering concepts and skills,
- can actually learn what is being taught, even with extra supports,
- can complete all the standard requirements for high school graduation and go to college.
How well a child receiving special services performs academically depends on many factors:
- the type and severity of the child’s disabling condition(s),
- the child’s developmental readiness and intellectual capacity for instruction,
- the quality and skills of general and special education personnel,
- the child’s level of skills, focused efforts and desire to achieve, and
- how involved the parents are with their child’s academic and social progress.
Unfortunately, one of more of these factors may hinder or prevent a child from achieving at grade level. The IEP team may include instructional and/or work modifications, but those are more to reduce stress on the child rather than guaranteeing successful achievement. In high school, the IEP team determine whether the child's diploma will be standard (all classes passed according to state requirements) or modified (certain requirements may be waived or adjusted, according what the state allows).
Click here to listen to recordings of Dr. Jennifer Little discussing related education topics.