What’s So ‘Special’ About Special Education?

By Anne M. Beninghof

What does special education look like to you? Over the past several months I have had the opportunity to ask this question of educators around the country. It usually goes like this …

A group of special education teachers and administrators are seated in a conference room, facing a blank whiteboard. I am standing at the board, dry-erase marker in hand.

Me: What does special education look like? 

Group: (Silence)

Me: If you were to walk into a co-taught classroom, what would you see happening that would indicate special education was occurring? 

Group: (Silence)

Me: Think of it this way. What might the special education teacher be adding to the classroom experience that would be special?

Someone: Maybe a graphic organizer.

Someone else: Maybe working with a small group. 

Group: (Silence)

Imagine if this scenario were to play out in one of your school’s conference rooms? Would it be different? As a special education teacher and consultant, I believe that it is imperative that we are able to describe what special education looks like. If we, as a group of educators, can’t describe it, how can we be sure we are providing it?

Former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, when referring to pornography, declined to define it but instead famously said, “I know it when I see it.” I feel this way sometimes about special education. But it is not enough to say, “I know it when I see it.” This too easily becomes a cop-out for providing less than “special” services to students.

The federal definition of special education provides the following guidance:

“Specially designed instruction means adapting, as appropriate to the needs of an eligible child under Part B of the IDEA, the content, methodology, or delivery of instruction to address the unique needs of the child that result from the child’s disability and to ensure access of the child to the general curriculum, so that the child can meet the educational standards within the jurisdiction of the public agency that apply to all children.” (emphasis added)

Does a graphic organizer fit this definition? It might. Does small-group instruction fall under this description? It could. But aren’t these two things fairly common in general education classrooms in the 21st century? What else should we expect to see in a co-taught classroom that would be evidence that special education is taking place? My list would include things like:

  • Detailed task analyses
  • Extensive visual cues
  • Individualized behavior management plans
  • Specific retention and study strategies
  • Intentional, thoughtful use of language for understanding
  • Multiple opportunities for accurate rehearsal
  • Format changes to pre-printed worksheets and tests
  • Tools for focusing attention
  • Adaptive technology
  • Accessible furniture and classroom environments (lighting, sound, layout)

What does special education look like to you? Take some time this year to think about what’s on your list.

Anne M. Beninghof, M.S., an internationally recognized consultant and trainer, has more than 30 years of experience working with students and teachers in a variety of public and private settings. She has been a special education teacher and an adjunct faculty member at the University of Hartford, CT, and the University of Colorado. She has published several books and videos, and has provided staff development in 49 states. Beninghof recently returned to the classroom, where she works part time with teachers and students who are struggling with the learning process. Follow her blog at www.ideasforeducators.com, or visit her on Facebook or Twitter.

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Categories: Family, General Education, Positive School Climate, Special Education | 2 Comments

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2 thoughts on “What’s So ‘Special’ About Special Education?

  1. So many times, people are dumbfounded when Special Education is brought up. They either do not know how to react, they laugh, or simply do not know anything about the subject matter. When I was reading this conversation, I saw that the “Group” or “Someone Else” did not have much to say. In some situations that’s okay, but it’s not bad to have an opinion. If anything, I think everyone should have an opinion, or at least be aware of, the special needs children or classrooms in our society. To know what is going on in the classrooms might be stretching it, but at least be aware of the fact that each school does have a SPED room, and that those students are learning, as well. I feel as if this blog has many accommodations as well, and ways in which we can help our future students. This, to me, is very important. I enjoyed reading this blog.

    • Yes, we want to encourage all teachers to talk, positively, about ideas for providing special education to those students who need it. Because each individual is unique, teachers need to have a large toolbox of ideas for designing special instruction. You can find additional ideas on my website, http://www.ideasforeducators.com.

      Anne

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