Special Needs not Special Education

By Donna Nelson

Identifying the Needs

Students who do not qualify for Special Education can often have needs of the same or greater intensity. Who are these students and how do we assist them for optimal learning? They can fall under many categories but share this; their learning is at risk and their success depends largely on the quality of instruction and the care received from classroom teachers. Similar strategies can be used to assist all students with special needs, not just those protected under IDEA.
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Another At-Risk Group

Gifted and Talented Students

There is also a challenge to appropriately meet the needs of students who may have extraordinary skills or abilities. Approximately 6% of students are labeled as "gifted and talented". These children are defined as having demonstrated or potential high-performance capability in intellectual, creative/ visual/ performing arts, leadership or specific academic areas. No level of services are mandated for this group of students, so access to programming is determined by local and state policy. Appropriate interventions for these students can include replacing content they already know with special projects, working with a mentor, or using advanced content through enrichment. Advancement in grades may be an option for some students.
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Culture and Language in Schools

There is great cultural, racial and linguistic diversity in US schools and this is expected to continue. More than 10% of students in schools are English language learners (ELL) and 80% of those speak primarily Spanish. Children in these groups experience significantly higher rates of school failure and drop out rates. They may lack role models of their race or nationality within educationals settings or be expected to learn in ways that are not native to them. These situations put them at a disadvantage and may cause them to disengage. Additionally, such students may be placed in special education inappropriately.


Biases within the educational setting can be addressed through use of RtI, where a team of professionals carefully analyze, monitor and make decisions about interventions. Teachers should learn about different cultures and respect differences. Teaching must be culturally relevant. Equity pedagogy refers to matching student needs to instructional methods. Multicultural and/or bilingual education programs should be utilized.

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