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  • Special Education

    Diversity and inclusion are common words in the world today. In education, inclusin is needed for all types of students in the classroom. One area of diversity that is often overlooked is special populations. Special Populations are 15% of individuals served in classrooms nationwide (NCES, 2022). Students that are identified in special populations are serviced in special education. Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) (IDEA) is the main law reigning the education of students who qualify for special education and/or related services. Understanding IDEA is critical for all educators to understand. There are six principles that we need to understand:

    1.     Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE)

    2.     Nondiscriminatory and Appropriate Evaluation

    3.     Individualized Educational Plan (IEP)

    4.     Least Restrictive Environment (LRE)

    5.     Parent Participation

    6.     Procedural Safeguards


    What is Special Education?

    According to the Department of Education (n.d.), special education is governed by the federal law IDEA. It is defined as: “Specially designed instruction, at no cost to parents, to meet the unique needs of a child with a disability.” Special Education is designed for cognitively, physically, socially, and/or emotionally delayed students compared to neuro-typical peers. Special education services will modify and adjust content and strategies to deliver instruction that meets the students where they are at. 

    Qualifications for Special Education

    “Unmotivated.” “Lazy.” “At-Risk.” These words often describe the student's educators serve when they believe the student could be in the special populations or are currently being served in Special Education. Implicit bias can get in the way of many educators when working with identified students. A shift in mindset needs to occur when we are serving the students, from identifying deficits to looking for strengths to build upon.

    Federal law requires educators to look, find, and evaluate students who may need special education. This is known as Child Find. Child Find covers students in public/private schools, students who are homeschooled, and, additionally, students who are migrants or vagrants. Therefore, general education educators must be diligent in progress monitoring and collecting data to aid in qualification for special education. To qualify, students must meet two prongs:

    1. The student must meet and exhibit one or more disability criteria outlined in IDEA law. (see Figure 1)
    2. The student must require individualized instruction (the student’s needs cannot be met in the traditional classroom environment)

    **When the two prongs above are met- the team must agree that the student qualifies for Special Education.


    Figure 1

    Chart of the 13 IDEA disabilities


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    Lighter, L. (n.d). IDEA 13 disabilities [image]. A Day In Our Shoes. https://adayinourshoes.com/iep-disability-classification/

    How are Special Population Students served in schools?

    Special Education services will vary with every student that is identified. Services will depend on the need of the individual student. The two most common ways students are served are through pull-out (services outside the general education classroom may be needed based on higher needs) or inclusion (services can be given within the classroom; special education staff will support students with the accommodations and modifications they need to reach their learning potential). Most typically, students are served with both. An example is that a student receives 30-minute pull-out services in Language Arts and will be included in the content areas of History and Science. You will see full-time pull-out services for about 2% of the district population; an example would be students with multiple disabilities receiving a functional curriculum.            

    Individual Education Plan (IEP)

    In the United States, the Department of Education passed the IDEA Act in 1975. Since then, IEPs, or Individual Education Plans, have been utilized in schools to help children who learn differently to receive the same education as their general education peers. An IEP is a legal document that defines how the school will meet the student's individual educational needs that result from the disability that the student was identified. The IEP will serve as a map to ensure the student receives a free appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment that will meet the student's individual needs, allowing the student to progress at the same rate as the general education peers. The IEP document can only be built after the student has been eligible for special education by the IEP team. It must include specially designed instruction and related services and any accommodations, modifications, or supports the student will be provided. In addition, the student’s present levels of educational performance (PLEP) will include general education data, related service providers' data, observations, interviews, and academic records.  The team will use the information on the PLEPs to create goals and determine accommodations/modifications and the services the student will require. The PLEP will allow you, as the teacher, to know where to start with the student. The development of the IEP will be a collaboration between the general and special education teachers, related service providers, and at times administration.

    IEPs allow all individuals to understand their role in ensuring the student has educational success. The IEP is given to the student, parents, and the school team so that everyone understands what they will be held accountable for in terms of providing best practices for the student. When the roles are understood, and the IEP is put into place based on the map outlined in the document, the student can achieve academic or social-emotional success. Ultimately, the IEP is employed so the student has equity and equal opportunity in the general education classroom. Therefore, through data collected after the implementation of the IEP, the team should see progress; if there is no progress or a decline, the team will need to meet again and determine what the student needs for individualized instruction.

    At the start of the year, you must identify the case manager for any student on an IEP. Communication about the needs of each student will need to be ongoing, authentic, honest, and student-centered. I would schedule a meeting with the SPED teacher bi-weekly or monthly to discuss any concerns you may have regarding a student. This will ensure that the team is on the same page and that best practice for the individual student is occurring. 

    Types of IEPs.

    Initial: An initial IEP requires a Referral, Evaluation, and Eligibility meeting in addition to the IEP because it involves a decision of eligibility. This meeting can only occur with the parent/guardian or educational advocate.

    Annual: An annual review must be held at least every 365 days but can be held as often as the parent and district agree to. No extension beyond 365 days is allowed; if we go beyond 365 days, we are in non-compliance. 

    Re-Evaluation IEP: A re-evaluation IEP must be held at least every three years for a student eligible for special education. A re-evaluation of IEP is to decide on continued eligibility, a change of eligibility, or termination of eligibility. It is up to the team to decide if the same evaluations and assessments are done in the initial IEP need to occur.

    Section 504

    Section 504 is a non-discriminatory federal civil rights law that protects students with disabilities to have equity in the classroom through accommodations and modifications given by the general education teacher (DOE, 2020). Section 504 affirms that no individual can be denied participation in activities or programs that receive federal funding based on a disability (DOE, 2020). Due to this, public education institutions are bound by law due to receiving federal money. The Office of Civil Rights (OCR) will respond to any complaint concerning the 504.

    A 504 plan should be considered when a student isn't progressing with instruction due to a physical or mental impairment. Sometimes, students will meet the first prong in eligibility for special education (meet one or more of the IDEA disability criteria) but not the second prong. When this occurs, the team needs to consider a 504 for the student. A 504 is a legal document like the IEP, but it is more straightforward; it primarily comprises accommodations, behavior plans, and modifications. 

    Qualifications for the 504 in Education.

    The FAPE law, as stated early, indicates that the student will receive a free appropriate public education. Section 504 ensures that schools will evaluate students at no cost to families and provide an appropriate education. Like the IEP, the 504 has two prongs that must be met for a student to acquire a 504. The two prongs that must be met are:

    1. A student is determined or perceived to have a physical or mental impairment.
    2. Due to physical or mental impairment, a student is limited in one or more major life activities.

    There will need to be an evaluation to determine if the student qualifies for a 504. The evaluation process will vary from district to district. The 504 teams will look to different sources to qualify and identify the student who requires a 504. Some districts will require a complete evaluation like the IEP, others will look to a medical diagnosis from a doctor, academic or behavioral needs, and some will be placed on them due to the information reported through an evaluation and eligibility meeting in the IEP process.

    Teachers often will bring the student to the referral process to determine the need for the IEP, when ultimately, the student may have just needed a 504. A 504 or an IEP must be understood (see Figure 2). Hence, the student is in the least restrictive environment—asking professionals such as the school psychologist, counselor, or others to come into the classroom to observe the student would be beneficial. We are often too invested in the student to see clearly. It is suitable for another professional to give us recommendations on instruction, accommodations, etc., to increase the student's productivity. 

    Figure 2

    This IEP vs. 504 Plan chart visualizes the differences and similarities.

    Diagram, venn diagram

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    Lighter, L. (n.d) IEP vs. 504 plan chart [image]. A Day In Our Shoes. https://adayinourshoes.com/difference-504-iep/#1-504-plan-vs-iep


    “Diversity is being invited to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance” (Myers, 2016). When placed on an IEP or a 504, 80% of identified students will spend 75% of the day in the general education classroom (NCES, 2020), where they will receive support from special education; this is called inclusion. The official definition of inclusive education is “when all students, regardless of their challenges, are placed in age-appropriate general education classes in their neighborhood schools to receive high-quality instruction, interventions, and supports that enable them to succeed in the core curriculum.” (Bui, Quirk, Almazan, & Valenti, 2020; Alquraini & Gut, 2012). Therefore, as teachers, we must ensure that we use research-based instruction and create equity in the classroom.

    Making sure you are creating a community in the classroom is a must. Building acceptance, belonging, and empathy will benefit the learning process. Multiple schools are using restorative practices and an increase in social-emotional standards in classrooms nationwide. 

    Accommodations and Modifications

    Due to the inclusive classroom, educators must implement multiple modalities so that all learners thrive. Instruction needs to be engaging and accessible to all learners in the classroom. All students have distinctive learning preferences, especially identified students. Educators need to identify strengths and learning preferences to maximize learning for special populations in the general education classroom. Creating opportunities for special population students to engage in active learning through inquiry, discussion, collaboration, and creation is necessary. Educators can address obstacles during instruction by providing identified students with accommodations and modifications (see Figure 3). Remember that if the accommodations or modifications are listed on the IEP or the 504, they must be implemented. Please consistently implement the accommodations during the school year to ensure the student receives the accommodations on high-stakes assessments.

    Figure 3

    Definition of what is a modification and accommodation with examples.


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    Bender, B., (2023) Modifications and accommodations [image]. The Bender Bunch. http://www.thebenderbunch.com/


    Today, education is beautifully diverse and inclusive, which is to be celebrated. Inclusion is beautiful for our special populations and general education peers. Knowing whom you teach must be at the forefront, as you must be well-versed in the IEP or 504. When we are well-versed, understanding each identified student's strengths and needs will allow us to form our instruction to provide an appropriate education. 


    Bender, B., (2023) Modifications and accommodations [image]. The Bender Bunch. http://www.thebenderbunch.com/

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