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What Is Special Education? (Probably Not What You Think)

For parents of general education students, special education is often a great unknown. Unfortunately, even for parents of students with disabilities or special needs, it can also feel that way.

This begs the question, what is special education, exactly?

Decades ago, special education often meant a special classroom for “special” students – of varying physical, emotional and learning needs. But now, the implementation of special education is often invisible and integrated. And it’s constantly changing.

If you find yourself wondering what special education truly is, we’re here to help.

IEPs are the Gateway to Special Education

Any student with an Individualized Educational Plan (IEP) is considered a student who receives special education services.

Learn more: What Is an IEP?

Students qualify for an IEP after a formal evaluation through their local education system, which follows the initial referral written by a school professional and approved by the parent/guardian. If it is determined that a child is eligible for special education services, the IEP meeting is scheduled and crafted from there. In every circumstance, parents/guardians have the right to agree or disagree with the findings and recommendations. When the IEP is finalized, services begin, and the child is considered to be a recipient of special education.

Special education is not expensive, it is a child’s right as outlined by IDEA.

Who Is Special Education Available to?

All students ages 3-21 are entitled to special education services when deemed necessary by their IEPs. If the setting they are recommended for is not available within their school, they are legally entitled to receive the services needed within the closest public school, within the least restrictive environment (LRE) free of cost to their families.

For students enrolled in private schools, the services might look a bit different than those in public schools, but students are still entitled to their services as outlined by their IEPs under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

If services can’t be provided during the school day within the school in which a student is enrolled, it’s possible students can receive them via a Related Services Authorization (RSA) given to parents, which allows them to retain provider services including speech, occupational therapy, physical therapy, counseling and tutoring outside of the school day, at no cost.


Students who receive special education services can be serviced in “typical” or general education classrooms, in integrated or collaborative team teaching classrooms (with two teachers – one special educator and one general educator), or self-contained classrooms, often referred to by ratios such as 12:1 (12 students to one special education teacher) or 8:1.

Based on the unique student needs, the program setting will be outlined in their IEP and will not change unless an IEP is revised during an annual meeting.


IEP accommodations can vary greatly, and often include specific means of transportation, test taking, modified resources, use of assistive technology, preferential seating within the classroom, the use of a paraprofessional, and beyond.

For example, one student may have only testing accommodations that provide them extra time to test, or perhaps testing in a more private setting, while another student may require the use of a special transportation, the use of a scribe, and an FM unit for audio impairments.

At times, the accommodations may also include alternate paths to graduation or diploma achievement.

Testing accommodations are often the most popular, but accommodations can be found in any and all combinations – highly individualized to the student’s needs.


Special services that students with IEPs receive are also explicitly outlined within the document. Commonly they refer to speech therapy, occupational or physical therapy, SETSS (Special Education Teacher Support Services ), counseling, therapy, and more. These services can be performed as push-in (the provider joins the student’s classroom for less disruption to the academic day) or pull-out (performed in a separate location.)


Unfortunately, the world of special education is largely misunderstood and often still associated with stigma, despite great gains. Contrary to what you may have heard:

  • Special education students are not “labeled” in any sense, or any way that will follow them through higher education or adulthood.
  • Special education is possible within a typical classroom setting, and no longer automatically means a “special” classroom is necessary.
  • A student can have physical disability and not necessitate special education.
  • Special education is not expensive, it is a child’s right as outlined by IDEA.
  • Students with special education services do not have to take designated transportation, unless it’s determined as necessary within their IEP.

Student-First Language

Throughout schools, the adoption of “student-first language” or “person-first language” goes a very long way in battling misconceptions, stigma, and the potential for discrimination. This means referring to the child as just that – a child, or a student, first. It takes a conscious effort at times, but always refer to a child as a “student with special needs” instead of a “special needs student.” It does wonders while acknowledging what is most important — that above all else the fact that they are children and students, always comes first.

Continue your research:

What Happens To Your Child’s IEP After High School?

Why Montessori Schools Can Be Awesome for Kids With ADHD

Find the right school for your child

Author: Erin Nicole Celletti

Erin Celletti is a freelance journalist and the Director of Communications at Integration Charter Schools. With seven years of classroom teaching and leadership experience, Erin has a BA in Journalism from Quinnipiac University, as well as a M.S.Ed. in Childhood and Special Education from St. John's University, and a M.S.Ed. in School and Building Leadership from Wagner College. Erin lives in Hoboken, NJ with her husband, and baby girl on the way. Her work has also appeared in BRIDES, Teen Vogue, Allure, and TODAY Parents.