Contemporary Educational Psychology/Chapter 5: Students with Special Educational Needs

Three People on the Margins

The First Person: In 1761 a six-year-old girl was captured from West Africa, given the name Phillis Wheatley, and sold into slavery in the City of Boston. By the time she was 17, Phillis had taught herself to read and write and had developed a special love and talent for poetry. Her owner was a wealthy businessman and sought to improve his reputation by publishing an anthology of her poems. Unfortunately he encountered stiff resistance from publishers because few people at that time believed Africans to be capable of the thought and imagination needed to write poetry. People who heard of her poetry were skeptical and inclined to think that it was faked. Eventually, to save his own reputation, the owner assembled a tribunal of 18 prominent judges—including the governor of Massachusetts and John Hancock, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence—to assess the young woman’s mental capacity. After cross-examining her, the judges finally decided that Ms. Wheatley was, after all, capable of writing poetry (Robinson, 1982).[1]
The Second Person: A century later, a child named Helen Keller lost her sight and hearing as a result of illness during infancy. In spite of this misfortune, though, Helen devised a language of gestural signs for communicating with a tutor, and was soon also using Braille to study both French and Latin. At ten she wrote and published a short story. Yet like Ms. Wheatley, Ms. Keller also faced substantial, chronic skepticism about her capacities. Prominent educators accused her of plagiarizing others’ writings and merely “parroting” others’ ideas without understanding them (Keller, 1954; Bogdan, 2006).[2][3] Eventually, as with Wheatley, a panel was assembled—though this time the members were professional experts about disabilities—to determine whether Ms. Keller was in fact capable of writing what she published. The panel decided that was indeed capable, though only by a slim margin (five judges vs. four).
The Third Person: In 1978, Sue Rubin was born with a disability that limited her speech to disordered bursts of sound and occasionally echoing phrases of other people. She was labeled autistic because of her symptoms, and assumed to be profoundly retarded. With support and encouragement from her mother and others, however, Sue eventually learned to type on a keyboard without assistance. She learned to communicate effectively when she was about 13 and was able to go to school. Since then she has made many presentations about autism at conferences and recently co-edited a book about autism, titled Autism: The Myth of the Person Alone (Bogdan, et al., 2005).[4]

One of these individuals experienced racial discrimination and the other two experienced physical disabilities, but notice something important: that all three were defined by society as disabled intellectually. Initially, their achievements were dismissed because of widespread assumptions—whether about race or disability—of their inherent incompetence. All three had to work harder than usual, not only to acquire literacy itself, but also to prove that their literacy was genuine and worthy of respect.

Since the time of Phillis Wheatley, North American society has eliminated slavery and made some progress at reducing certain forms of racism, though much remains to be done. In 1954, for example, the United States Supreme Court ruled that public schools could not be segregated by race, and in doing so recognized, at least legally, the intellectual competence of African-Americans as well as the moral obligation of society to provide all citizens with the best possible education. It has taken longer to recognize legally the rights and competence of persons with disabilities, but events and trends beginning in the 1970s have begun to make it happen. This chapter begins by explaining some of these events and trends, and how they have altered the work of teachers.

Growing Support for People with Disabilities: Legislation and Its Effects


Since the 1970s political and social attitudes have moved increasingly toward including people with disabilities into a wide variety of “regular” activities. In the United States, the shift is illustrated clearly in the Federal legislation that was enacted during this time. The legislation partly stimulated the change in attitudes, but at the same time they partly resulted from the change. Three major laws were passed that guaranteed the rights of persons with disabilities, and of children and students with disabilities in particular. Although the first two affected teachers’ work in the classroom, the third has had the biggest impact on education.

Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Section 504


This law—the first of its kind—required that individuals with disabilities be accommodated in any program or activity that receives Federal funding (PL 93-112, 1973).[5] Although this law was not intended specifically for education, in practice it has protected students’ rights in some extra-curricular activities (for older students) and in some child care or after-school care programs (for younger students). If those programs receive Federal funding of any kind, the programs are not allowed to exclude children or youth with disabilities, and they have to find reasonable ways to accommodate the individuals’ disabilities.

Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (or ADA).


This legislation also prohibited discrimination on the basis of disability, just as Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act had done (PL 101-336, 1990).[6] Although the ADA also applies to all people (not just to students), its provisions are more specific and “stronger” than those of Section 504. In particular, ADA extends to all employment and jobs, not just those receiving Federal funding. It also specifically requires accommodations to be made in public facilities such as buses, restrooms, and telephones. ADA legislation is therefore responsible for some of the “minor” renovations in schools that you may have noticed in recent years, like wheelchair-accessible doors, ramps, and restrooms, and public telephones with volume controls.

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (or IDEA)


As its name implied this legislation was more focused on education than either Section 504 or ADA. It was first passed in 1975 and has been amended several times since, including most recently in 2004 (PL 108-446, 2004).[7] In its current form, the law guarantees the following rights related to education for anyone with a disability from birth to age 21. The first two influence schooling in general, but the last three affect the work of classroom teachers rather directly:

  • Free, appropriate education: An individual or an individual’s family should not have to pay for education simply because the individual has a disability, and the educational program should be truly educational (i.e. not merely caretaking or “babysitting” of the person).
  • Due process: In case of disagreements between an individual with a disability and the schools or other professionals, there must be procedures for resolving the disagreements that are fair and accessible to all parties—including the person himself or herself or the person’s representative.
  • Fair evaluation of performance in spite of disability: Tests or other evaluations should not assume test-taking skills that a person with a disability cannot reasonably be expected to have, such as holding a pencil, hearing or seeing questions, working quickly, or understanding and speaking orally. Evaluation procedures should be modified to allow for these differences. This provision of the law applies both to evaluations made by teachers and to school-wide or “high-stakes” testing programs.
  • Education in the “least restrictive environment”: Education for someone with a disability should provide as many educational opportunities and options for the person as possible, both in the short term and in the long term. In practice this requirement has meant including students in regular classrooms and school activities as much as possible, though often not totally.
  • An individualized educational program: Given that every disability is unique, instructional planning for a person with a disability should be unique or individualized as well. In practice this provision has led to classroom teachers planning individualized programs jointly with other professionals (like reading specialists, psychologists, or medical personnel) as part of a team.

Considered together, these provisions are both a cause and an effect of basic democratic philosophy. The legislation says, in effect, that all individuals should have access to society in general and to education in particular. Although teachers certainly support this philosophy in broad terms, and many have welcomed the IDEA legislation, others have found the prospect of applying it in classrooms leads to a number of questions and concerns. Some ask, for example, whether a student with a disability will disrupt the class; others, whether the student will interfere with covering the curriculum; still others, whether the student might be teased by classmates. Since these are legitimate concerns, I will return to them at the end of this chapter. First, however, let me clarify exactly how the IDEA legislation affects the work of teachers, and then describe in more detail the major disabilities that you are likely to encounter in students.

Responsibilities of Teachers for Students with Disabilities


The IDEA legislation has affected the work of teachers by creating three new expectations. The first expectation is to provide alternative methods of assessment for students with disabilities; the second is to arrange a learning environment that is as normal or as “least restrictive” as possible; and the third is to participate in creating individual educational plans for students with disabilities.

Alternative Assessments


In the context of students with disabilities, assessment refers to gathering information about a student in order both to identify the strengths of the student, and to decide what special educational support, if any, the student needs. In principle, of course, these are tasks that teachers have for all students: assessment is a major reason why we give tests and assignments, for example, and why we listen carefully to the quality of students’ comments during class discussions. For students with disabilities, however, such traditional or conventional strategies of assessment often seriously underestimate the students’ competence (Koretz & Barton, 2003/2004; Pullin, 2005).[8][9] Depending on the disability, a student may have trouble with

  1. holding a pencil,
  2. hearing a question clearly,
  3. focusing on a picture,
  4. marking an answer in time even when he or she knows the answer,
  5. concentrating on a task in the presence of other people, or
  6. answering a question at the pace needed by the rest of the class.

Traditionally, teachers have assumed that all students either have these skills or can learn them with just modest amounts of coaching, encouragement, and will power. For many other students, for example, it may be enough to say something like “Remember to listen to the question carefully!” For students with disabilities, however, a comment like this may not work and may even be insensitive. A student with visual impairment need not be reminded to “look at the page closely" or "at what I am writing on the board”; doing so will not cause the student to see the chalkboard more clearly—though the reminder might increase the student’s anxiety and self-consciousness.

There are a number of strategies for modifying assessments in ways that attempt to fair and that at the same time recognize how busy teachers usually are. One is to consider supplementing conventional assignments or tests with portfolios, which are collections of a student’s work that demonstrate a student’s development over time, and which usually include some sort of reflective or evaluative comments from the student, the teacher, or both (Carothers & Taylor, 2003; Wesson & King, 1996).[10][11] Another is to devise a system for observing the student regularly, even if briefly, and informally recording notes about the observations for later consideration and assessment. A third strategy is to recruit help from teacher assistants, who are sometimes present to help a student with a disability; an assistant can often conduct a brief test or activity with the student, and later report on and discuss the results with you.

If you reflect on these strategies, you may realize that they may sometimes create issues about fairness. If a student with a disability demonstrates competence one way but other students demonstrate it another, should they be given similar credit? On the other hand, is it fair for one student to get a lower mark because the student lacks an ability—such as normal hearing—that teachers cannot, in principle, ever teach? These ethical issues are legitimate and important, and I therefore return to them in Chapters 10 and 11, which discuss assessment in much more detail.

Least Restrictive Environment


The IDEA legislation calls for placing students with disabilities in the least restrictive environment (or LRE), defined as the combination of settings that involve the student with regular classrooms and school programs as much as possible. The precise combination is determined by the circumstances of a particular school and of the student. A kindergarten child with a mild cognitive disability, for example, may spend the majority of time in the regular kindergarten, working alongside and playing with non-disabled classmates and relying on a teacher assistant for help where needed. An individual with a similar disability in high school, however, might be assigned primarily to classes specially intended for slow learners, but nonetheless participate in some schoolwide activities alongside non-disabled students. The difference in LREs might reflect teachers’ perceptions of how difficult it is to modify the curriculum in each case; rightly or wrongly, teachers are apt to regard adaptation as more challenging at “higher” grade levels. By the same token, a student with a disability that is strictly physical might spend virtually all his or her time in regular classes throughout the student’s school career; in this case, adjustment of the curriculum would not be an issue.

For you, the policy favoring the least restrictive environment means that if you continue teaching long enough, you will very likely encounter a student with a disability in one or more of your classes, or at least have one in a school-related activity for which you are responsible. It also means that the special educational needs of these students will most often be the “mildest.” Statistically, the most frequent forms of special needs are learning disabilities, which are impairments in specific aspects of learning, and especially of reading. Learning disabilities account for about half of all special educational needs—as much as all other types put together. Somewhat less common are speech and language disorders, cognitive disabilities, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorders (abbreviated ADHD). Because of their frequency and of the likelihood that you will meet students for whom these labels have been considered, I describe them more fully later in this chapter, along with other disability conditions that you will encounter much less frequently.

Individual Educational Plan


The third way that IDEA legislation and current educational approaches affect teachers is by requiring teachers and other professional staff to develop an annual individual educational plan (or IEP) for each student with a disability. The plan is created by a team of individuals who know the student’s strengths and needs; at a minimum it includes one or more classroom teachers, a “resource” or special education teacher, and the student’s parents or guardians. Sometimes, too, the team includes a school administrator (like a vice-principal) or other professionals from outside the school (like a psychologist or physician), depending on the nature of the child’s disability. An IEP can take many forms, but it always describes a student’s current social and academic strengths as well as the student’s social or academic needs. It also specifies educational goals or objectives for the coming year, lists special services to be provided, and describes how progress toward the goals will be assessed at the end of year. Figure 5-1 shows a simple IEP for a student named Sean, a boy having difficulties with reading. IEPs like the one in the figure originally served mainly students in the younger grades, but more recently they have been extended and modified to serve transition planning for adolescents with disabilities who are approaching the end of their public schooling (West, et al., 1999).[12] For these students, the goals of the plan often include activities (like finding employment) to extend beyond schooling as such.

If you have a student with an IEP, you can expect two consequences for teaching. The first is that you should expect to make definite, clear plans for the student, and to put the plans in writing. This consequence does not, of course, prevent you from taking advantage of unexpected or spontaneous classroom events as well in order to enrich the curriculum. But it does mean that an educational program for a student with a disability cannot consist only of the unexpected or spontaneous. The second consequence is that you should not expect to construct an educational plan alone, as is commonly done when planning regular classroom programs. When it comes to students with disabilities, expect instead to plan as part of a team. Working with others ensures that everyone who is concerned about the student has a voice. It also makes it possible to improve the quality of IEPs by pooling ideas from many sources—even if, as you might suspect, it also can challenge professionals to communicate clearly and cooperate respectfully with team members in order to serve a student as well as possible.

Categories of Disabilities—and Their Ambiguities


So far I have said a lot about why inclusion has come to be important for teachers, but not much about the actual nature of students’ disabilities. Part of the reason for delaying was because, to put it simply, disabilities are inherently ambiguous. Naming and describing “types” of them implies that disabilities are relatively fixed, stable, and distinct, like different kinds of fruit or vegetables. As many teachers discover, though, the reality is somewhat different. The behavior and qualities of a particular student with a disability can be hard to categorize. The student may be challenged not only by the disability, but also by experiences common to all students, disabled or not Any particular disability, furthermore, poses problems more in some situations than in others. A student with a reading difficulty may have trouble in a language arts class, for example, but not in a physical education class; a student with a hearing impairment may have more trouble “hearing” a topic that he dislikes compared to one that he likes. Because official descriptions of types or categories of disability overlook these complexities, they risk stereotyping the real, live people to whom they are applied (Green, et al., 2005).[13] Even the simplifications might not be a serious problem if the resulting stereotypes were complimentary—most of us would not mind being called a “genius,” for example, even if the description is not always true. Stereotypes about disabilities, however, are usually stigmatizing, not complimentary.

Still, categories of disabilities do serve useful purposes by giving teachers, parents, and other professionals a language or frame of reference for talking about disabilities. They also can help educators when arranging special support services for students, since a student has to “have” an identifiable, nameable need if professionals are to provide help. Educational authorities have therefore continued to use categories (or “labels”) to classify disabilities in spite of expressing continuing concern about whether the practice hurts students’ self-esteem or standing in the eyes of peers (Biklen & Kliewer, 2006).[14] For classroom teachers, the best strategy may be simply to understand how categories of disabilities are defined, while also keeping their limitations in mind and being ready to explain their limitations (tactfully, of course) to parents or others who use the labels inappropriately.

That said, what in fact are the major types of disabilities encountered by teachers? The next sections of this chapter look at them one at a time, beginning the more common ones.

Learning disabilities


A learning disability (or LD) is a specific impairment of academic learning that interferes with a specific aspect of schoolwork and that reduces a student’s academic performance significantly. (read more...)

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder


Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (or ADHD) is a problem with sustaining attention and controlling impulses. (read more...)

Intellectual disabilities


An intellectual disability is a significant limitation in a student’s cognitive functioning and daily adaptive behaviors...(read more...)

Behavioral disorders


Behavioral disorders are a diverse group of conditions in which a student chronically performs highly inappropriate behaviors. (read more...)

Physical disabilities and sensory impairments


A few students have serious physical, medical or sensory challenges that interfere with their learning. (read more...)

The value of including students with special needs


I have hinted at it already in this chapter, but it is worth saying again: including students with disabilities in regular classrooms is valuable for everyone concerned. The students with disabilities themselves tend to experience a richer educational environment, both socially and academically. Just as with racial segregation, separate education is not equal education, or at least cannot be counted on to be equal. But classmates of students with disabilities also experience a richer educational environment; they potentially meet a wider range of classmates and to see a wider range of educational purposes in operation. Teachers also experience these benefits, but their programs often benefit in other ways as well. The most notable additional benefit is that many teaching strategies that are good for students with disabilities also turn out to benefit all students—benefits like careful planning of objectives, attention to individual differences among students, and establishment of a positive social atmosphere in the classroom. Later (in Chapter 8 and 9) we will return to these topics because of their importance for high-quality teaching. But at that point we will frame the topics around the needs of all students, whatever their individual qualities.


  1. Robinson, W. (1982). Critical essays on Phillis Wheatley. Boston: Hall Publishers.
  2. Keller, H. (1952). The story of my life. New York: Doubleday.
  3. Bogdan, D. (2006). Who may be literate? Disability and resistance to the cultural denial of competence. American Educational Research Journal, 43(2), 163-192.
  4. Bogdan, D., Attfield, R., Bissonnette, L., Blackman, L., Burke, J., Mukopadhyay, T., & Rubin, S. (Eds.). (2005). Autism: The myth of the person alone. New York: New York University Press
  5. Public Law 93-112, 87 Stat. 394 (Sept. 26, 1973). Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Washington, D.C.: United States Government Printing Office.
  6. Public Law 101-336, 104 Stat. 327 (July 26, 1990). Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. Washington, D.C.: United States Government Printing Office.
  7. Public Law 108-446, 118 Stat. 2647 (December 3, 2004). Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act. Washington, D.C.: United States Government Printing Office.
  8. Koretz, D. & Barton, K. (2003/2004). Assessing students with disabilities: Issues and evidence. Assessment and Evaluation, 9(1 & 2), 29-60.
  9. Pullin, D. (2005). When one size does not fit all: The special challenges of accountability testing for students with disabilities. Yearbook of the National Society for Studies in Education, 104(2), 199.
  10. Carothers, D. & Taylor, R. (2003). Use of portfolios for students with autism. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disorders, 18(2), 121-124.
  11. Wesson,C. & King, R. (1996). Portfolio assessment and special education students. Teaching Exceptional Children, 28(2), 44-48.
  12. West, L., Corbey, S., Boyer-Stephens, A., Jones, B. Miller, R., & Sarkees-Wircenski, M. (1999). Integrating transition planning into the IEP process, 2nd edition. Alexandria, VA: Council for Exceptional Children.
  13. Green, S., Davis, C., Karshmer, E., March, P. & Straight, B. (2005). Living stigma: The impact of labeling, stereotyping, separation, status loss, and discrimination in the lives of individuals with disabilities and their families. Sociological Inquiry, 75(2), 197-215.
  14. Biklen, S. & Kliewer, C. (2006). Constructing competence: Autism, voice and the “disordered” body. International Journal of Inclusive Education, 10(2/3), 169-188.