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Special Education: An Introduction for New Teachers

Special Education: An Introduction for New Teachers

Kit Richert, Ph.D.

Special Education is specialized instruction that is available to children who qualify according to a set of criteria outlined in state and federal law. Special Education services are offered by all public school districts to eligible students from birth to age 22.


There are presently 13 broad areas of disability by which children may qualify for Special Education services. Each has a distinct set of criteria for which a child must meet in order to qualify for services.

1. Hard of Hearing

2. Deaf

3. Deaf-Blind

4. Visually Impaired

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5. Speech and Language Impaired

6. Specific Learning Disability

7. Multi-Handicapped

8. Orthopedically Impaired

9. Other Health Impaired

10. Mental Retardation

11. Autism

12. Emotional Disturbance

13. Traumatic Brain Injury

The Assessment Process

Before a child is placed in Special Education an assessment must be completed to determine their academic level, cognitive ability, adaptive behavior, motor skills, or language processing. The design of the assessment varies according to the suspected area of disability. Assessments are only appropriate when all other classroom interventions have been tried other classroom interventions have been tried and have not been successful.

Assessments are conducted by trained school specialists and Special Education teachers. They typically involve standardized testing instruments such as IQ and achievement tests that compare the student’s abilities to those of a sample of children in their age group. They may also involve classroom observations, interviews with the student, parent, and teacher, taking a medical and developmental history, and reviewing report cards, attendance, and discipline records. The goal is to understand the student’s strengths and weaknesses, to understand the root causes of their learning difficulties, and to determine their eligibility for Special Education services.

Learn more about referring your student for a Special Education assessment

The IEP Meeting

The assessment timeline varies by state, but generally begins from the date the parent authorizes the assessment in writing. Once the assessment is completed, an Individual Education Plan (IEP) meeting is scheduled that includes the parties that have assessed, the parents, and an administrator (called the IEP team). The IEP team will review the assessment results to determine if:

1. The child meets eligibility criteria for 1 of the 13 disabling conditions.

2. The child needs Special Education services (their needs cannot be met in a regular education setting.

Students may not be eligible if their learning difficulties can be attributed to:

• Low English language proficiency

• Temporary physical handicap

• Social maladjustment

• Cultural, socioeconomic, or environmental factors.

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If a student is found to be eligible by the team, an IEP is developed, which documents the services, accommodations, and modifications necessary for the student to learn successfully in their school placement. Each IEP is developed with a set of written goals with the objective that Special Education services will help the child meet the goals within 1 years time. Goals may be written in multiple areas, including academic achievement, behavior, social skills, organization, motor coordination, etc. The IEP is equivalent to a legal contract, stating that a student must receive the services and address the goals outlined. A student may take their IEP to any school district in the country and by law must receive the same services and classroom accommodations listed in the IEP.

Learn more about IEP’s and How to Be A Part of Your Student’s IEP Team

Delivering Special Education Services

Special Education services have come along way from the one size fits all approach of the past. The IEP is tailored to the individual child to remediate their areas of need given their disability. The majority of Special Education students qualify with a Specific Learning Disability, and may only receive Special Education services to address goals in one subject area (Reading for example). Those students may be pulled out for small group instruction, or a Special Education teacher may push in to the classroom to deliver services. Students with moderate to severe disabilities may require greater levels of service and a Special Day Class, but many of them may be partially or fully included in a General Education classroom with support from one-on-one aids. As a rule, students are required to be in the “least restrictive environment”, which is should be the General Education classroom whenever possible.

Special Education teachers have been trained to approach academic skill development in alternative ways. For example, students with reading disabilities may have be limited by their inability to “hear” the phonemes in words, and therefore, sounding out new words is so difficult that no matter how hard they practice they make only meager progress. A Special Education teacher may approach reading and decoding words by teaching the child visual strategies. The approach is focused to overcome the academic skill deficit or area of need by drawing upon the child’s strengths.

In addition to academic support services, Special Education students may be eligible for other services in the school, district, or county. Students may receive speech and language therapy, counseling for emotional issues or social skills, or occupational therapy for gross and fine motor delays. Students with more severe disabilities may be also eligible for special transportation services, adaptive PE, and an extended school year.

General Education teachers will usually receive copies of the Special Education goals the student is working on and the classroom accommodations required by the IEP. The IEP accommodations selected by the IEP team (such as extended time on tests, preferential seating, or shortened assignments) must be implemented properly in all the classes attended by the child, or the school can be found liable. It is encouraged that regular communication occur between the General and Special Education teacher, as well as with the parents and all other parties working with the student to ensure that the child’s needs are being met across settings.

Once a child has been placed in Special Education, they must be re-assessed every 3 years in order to measure their skill development, ability levels, and to review the appropriateness of their Special Education program. Students must be reassessed also if a Special Education program change is being considered (adding more services or exiting from Special Education).

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