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Special Education vs. Regular Education

Angela Oswalt Morelli , MSW, edited by Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

The basic goal of special education is to provide exceptional children with disabilities which will prevent them from fully benefiting from traditional educational approaches with specialized instruction and intervention sufficient to enable them to benefit from their education.

school buildingMany people have the misconception that special education is merely a watered-down version of regular education. This is understandable, but incorrect. In fact, the opposite is often true. Special education is in many ways more intensive than conventional education.

Special education differs from regular education in two ways:

  • Different instructional methods are used, and
  • Additional specialists (specialized teachers, speech therapists, occupational therapists, physical therapists, aides, social workers, etc.) are involved beyond regular classroom teachers. These professionals' specialized skills are matched to the specialized needs of identified children.

Special education uses intensive, individualized instructional methods. Most special education students will work on traditional academic content areas such as reading, writing, math, social studies, and science. In addition to traditional academic content, many exceptional students also benefit from a functional curriculum. A Functional Curriculum is designed to help students learn basic daily living skills they have not developed on their own such as toileting, eating, grooming, using money, filling out forms, communicating basic needs, and following directions that a teacher or boss gives them. Functional curriculums teach students the basic skills required for independent living.

Traditional and functional curricula are augmented on a child-by-child, as needed basis by specialty services that help individual children to manage or overcome impediments to their learning. Intervention services students may receive at school include physical therapy (PT), occupational therapy (OT), speech and language therapy, and other related services. These specialties serve several purposes: 1) to help prevent minor problems from becoming a disability, 2) to prevent the effects of a disability from getting worse, 3) to resolve problems in connection with a disability, or 4) to teach students to complete certain tasks in spite of their disability.

For example, psychological and other specialists may collaborate to create a behavior plan designed to help a child reduce acting-out behaviors, learn to meet their daily living needs, and to focus their energy on learning. A behavior plan is a written plan that specifies what positive behaviors the student should be exhibiting, such as completing work in a timely manner, or sharing toys with other students during group activities. The behavior plan also specifies what tools school staff can use to motivate students to model those appropriate behaviors. Some school staff and families think that behavior plans should mainly create planned consequences for a student's misbehavior, but these punishment-oriented plans often do not get the full benefits that a more comprehensive behavior plan could provide. Both children in regular education and special education can benefit from behavior plans, but often, children with special needs will need a more detailed plan.