What is special education?

Many young people may experience learning difficulties at some point. This is pretty normal and for most the difficulties are situational and temporary.

We would say a student needs to be in special education if they have a learning challenge or disability that makes it more difficult for them to learn than most children their age. There could be problems with schoolwork, communication or behavior.

In this section:

Helping special education students in your class

The role of technology in special education

Tracking the progress of students in special education

What kinds of differences are covered by special education?


Students may experience difficulties in thinking, understanding, and processing. They could find all learning activities difficult, or have particular difficulties with some learning activities such as reading and writing.

Emotional and behavioral

Students who have emotional and behavioural differences may have low self-esteem and lack confidence. They may find it difficult to follow rules or settle down and concentrate properly in school.

Speech, language, and communication

Those young people who have difficulties with speech and language may struggle to express themselves or understand what others are saying to them. They may find it hard to make friends or relate to others. They may find it difficult to make sense of the world around them or to organise themselves.

Physical or sensory difficulties

These students may have a disability or a medical condition that has an impact upon their learning. They may have a visual or hearing impairment.

How can you help special education students in your classroom?

Teaching special education students might present us with some unique challenges. These students demand more of our time and may require specialized instructional strategies, as well as a structured environment that supports and enhances their learning potential.

It’s important to remember that special education students aren’t incapacitated or unable to learn; they simply learn in a different way to their peers. They need differentiated instruction tailored to their individual learning abilities.

Here’s some easy-to-apply classroom strategies which can offer immediate help.

Try not to structure lessons around reading

Provide oral instruction for students who struggle with reading. Present tests and reading materials in an oral format so the assessment is based on their knowledge and understanding, and not their reading ability.

Check in often

Offer frequent progress checks. Let them know how well they are progressing toward an individual or class goal.

Make feedback the norm

Give immediate feedback to learning disabled students. Closing the feedback loop quickly means students and teachers can see the relationship between what was taught and what was learned. Students, and not just those with additional needs, require good feedback and praise. Instead of saying, “You did well,” or “I like your work,” provide specific comments that link the activity directly with the recognition; for example, “I was particularly pleased by the way in which you organized the rock collection.”

Create activities to suit all abilities

Make activities short, and easy to understand. Long, complex projects are particularly frustrating for students with special education needs.

Offer instructions multiple times

Plan to repeat instructions or offer information in both written and verbal formats. It’s vitally necessary that students with additional needs are given the opportunity to engage and understand the content of our lessons in ways that suit them.

Working together

Encourage cooperative learning activities when possible. Invite students of varying abilities to work together on a specific project or toward a common goal.

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The role of technology in special education

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2019–20, the number of students ages 3–21 who received special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was 7.3 million, or 14 percent of all public school students. Among students receiving special education services, the most common category of disability (33 percent) was specific learning disabilities.

Properly designed technology in education is helping these millions of students to work more independently alongside their peers and can be freeing from the constant need for direct teacher involvement.

Choosing the right tools for each individual student is crucial to the progression and achievement of the student. You can learn more about how to choose the right educational technology for your students in our dedicated guide.

How to track the progress of our special education students?

Measuring student progress is important in choosing and implementing instructional strategies for special education students. Progression is also a great way to evaluate the support being provided by learning tools and other interventions. Here’s three easy ways to track the progress of our students in special education.

Student observation

Classroom observations can provide accurate and detailed information on students’ strengths and weaknesses.

They can include observations on defined behaviors, any interactions or characteristics that seem significant. For special education students, observations are particularly important as they help us to understand how the learning environment can be adapted to suit our student’s individual needs.

Recording and monitoring interventions

Observing our special education students often leads to recommendations for interventions to be put in place.

It’s important to record and regularly monitor our interventions to ensure that they’re right for our student, and that they’re helping them to make the expected progress. Not every intervention put in place will have tangible outcomes but, it’s important that they’re recorded and tracked. Simple data points for these might be student attendance, or readiness to get involved in classroom activities, rather than a precise data point.

Achievement testing

Standardized tests assess reading, writing, maths and topic areas.

The outcome of these provides information about a student’s abilities in these areas. For special education students it’s important not to get hung up on their scores in line with national norms, but to ensure that they’re making progress based on previous test scores. Focus on whether or not interventions and tools provided are helping the student to improve and achieve their goals.

Keep reading

Selecting the right tools for students in special education

Understand what special education is, and discover ways we can help our special eduation students.

Helping students with dyslexia in our classrooms

Pick up helpful tips, tools, and classroom strategies on supporting students in our classrooms with dyslexia.

Closing the achievement gap

Learn the difference between equity and equality in education, as well as how edtech can help us to both identify learning gaps, and close the gap.