What is special education?
Special education is a wide variety of academic and therapeutic services that help students with disabilities learn. Special education teachers support students with diverse needs and either adapt the general education curriculum or develop a separate curriculum to address students’ needs.
Some students with disabilities have Individualized Education Programs (IEPs): a legal document outlining the services and supports the child needs to achieve at the level of general education students. IEPs are written for students whose disabilities impact their success in a school setting and, therefore, require specialized instructional supports.
Some students with disabilities and health needs have 504 Plans. A 504 Plan addresses a student’s health needs in a school setting, but these health needs do not mean the child requires specialized instructional support. Often, a special education teacher manages 504 plans to ensure they are updated and followed by the team but does not change anything academic for this student to succeed.
Students with disabilities receive accommodations, which are things that are changed or added to a typical classroom setting. Some examples include extra time to take tests, breaks in a calming room, a scribe to write for them, speech-to-text access for writing, or access to leave a class to see a social worker.
The best school setting for a child with a disability is the Least Restrictive Environment. This means that the child is with peers without disabilities as much as possible (or appropriate). School settings exist on a continuum from least restrictive to most restrictive, and different settings are appropriate for different children.
A Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) is legally afforded to every child with a disability until the end of the school year of the 22nd birthday. That means if you bring your child to a public school, the special education team there will find and pay for the school setting that is most appropriate for your child.
What is the continuum of school environments for special education?
Public schools are typically the starting point for the least restrictive environments.
- General education classroom with accommodations
- The student attends classes with peers with and without disabilities with a general education classroom teacher. A special education teacher may come into the classroom part-time for testing support or consultation.
- The student attends classes with peers with and without disabilities, but two teachers lead; one general education teacher and one special education teacher as co-teachers. The teachers work together to support all students.
- General education with push-in services
- The student attends classes with peers with and without disabilities. The class may be taught by a general education teacher or co-teachers. The special education teacher may work with small groups of students in the same room at a side table to reinforce concepts learned. Speech, occupational therapy (OT), or social work providers come to support classroom activities or run small groups.
- Mostly general education with some pull-out services
- The student spends most of their day in a general education classroom, with some support from a special education teacher, but gets pulled out of the general education classroom for a “resource” class. The resource class may be a study hall with only a few students so they can receive 1:1 support from a special education teacher. Students may leave the classroom for small groups or 1:1 time with therapists like OT, speech, or social work.
- Some general education, some special education
- The student attends some general education classes where they only need a few accommodations. For more challenging academic classes, the student goes to modified classes taught by special education teachers. This class may be slower-paced, provide additional practice opportunities, and have fewer students. All of their peers in this class have documented disabilities. Students go back to the general education classroom for other classes. Therapists may push in or pull the student out to provide additional services. There may be teacher aides for the whole classroom or for specific students 1:1.
- Mostly special education
- The student attends most or all academic classes with a special education teacher in rooms where all students have a disability. The curriculum is modified to meet all students’ needs and provide them with accommodations. The student may attend classes like electives, lunch, and PE with their general education peers (with or without additional support from a teacher’s aide).
- All special education
- A student attends classes in a “self-contained” special education program because access to any general education setting, even with accommodations, is inappropriate. Class sizes continue to be small. These classes may work on functional academics or have built-in behavior supports. Students may require supervision when walking in the hall or lunchroom. The student may or may not be able to attend after-school activities with support. This self-contained program might be in a general education school building or in a separate public school building.
Therapeutic schools provide a heavily modified curriculum and schedule or include a variety of intensive supports for students with specific support needs.
- Therapeutic day school
- Therapeutic day schools are completely separate from public school districts. A student attends classes during the day with many breaks or integrated therapeutic supports in the schedule. Class sizes are small with a lot of adult support. Special education teachers lead the classrooms but many classroom aides are present to support students 1:1 and in small groups. Therapists have a smaller caseload and can spend more time with students inside and outside the classroom. Students focus on academic and functional skills like fine motor and emotional regulation (depending on the school).
- Therapeutic boarding school
- This is a separate building from a public school that is privately managed and provides housing. A student attends classes taught by special education teachers during the school day. In the afternoon and evening, they are still supported and supervised by adults specializing in behavior management. Staff members provide a consistent, safe, and stable environment for students who may struggle with behavior or emotional regulation.
Not listed: private schools with special education programs because of differences between schools.
If my child attends a more restrictive school like a therapeutic school, could they go to a public school later?
Yes. Attending a private therapeutic school can occur in one of two ways. The first way is when you go to your local public school first. Your family requests an evaluation by this local public school and the entire team (of the teacher, psychologist, director, therapists, technical assistance supervisor, and you) decides that a private therapeutic school is the most appropriate setting for your child. At that point, your child will go to a therapeutic school once they are accepted. The public school district you live in will pay for your child to attend this private therapeutic school. Every year, the team from your local public school district will meet with you and the therapeutic school to reassess if they should continue there or come back to the public school setting.
The second way is when you choose, independently, to send them to a therapeutic school. If you choose to send them to public school in the future, you will set up a meeting with the special education administrators there. They will assess your child and determine if they have the resources to support them in the public school setting. If they cannot, they will pay for your child to continue to attend the therapeutic school.
If you are in the Chicagoland area and are interested in a therapeutic preschool for your child ages 2-6, check out CST Academy’s website to see if our programs may be a good fit. If you are seeking an outside evaluation to bring to your child’s IEP meeting, contact the Goldman Center to set up an appointment.