Back to Special Education

Glossary: Special Education

Photo credit: sirawut/Adobe Stock

Back to Special Education


Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA): Passed in 1975, this federal law governs how public schools provide special education services to eligible children ages 3 to 21 with disabilities.

Special Education: IDEA defines special education as “specially designed instruction, at no cost to the parents, to meet the unique needs of a child with a disability.” Special education may be provided to a child in a variety of settings.

Exceptionality: In special education, the term exceptionality is used to refer to a student’s disability or area of giftedness. Every child’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) has at least one exceptionality listed. Children may also have multiple exceptionalities, including the combination of both a disability and an area of giftedness. These children are commonly referred to as “twice exceptional.”

Disability: To qualify for special education, a child’s identified disability must adversely affect their educational performance. For example, a child may have a medical diagnosis of autism. But if that child’s autism does not affect how they learn or perform in school, they would not qualify for special education services. IDEA lists (and defines) 13 disability categories under which 3- through 21-year-olds may be eligible for services:

  • Autism
  • Deaf-Blindness
  • Deafness
  • Emotional Disturbance
  • Hearing Impairment
  • Intellectual Disability
  • Multiple Disabilities
  • Orthopedic Impairment
  • Other Health Impairment
  • Specific Learning Disability
  • Speech of Language Impairment
  • Traumatic Brain Injury
  • Visual Impairment

Free and Appropriate Education (FAPE) and Least Restrictive Environment (LRE): IDEA requires schools to provide special education students with a free and appropriate education in the least restrictive environment. In practical terms, this means eligible children must receive individualized supports and services that allow them to participate and progress in the general education curriculum to the greatest extent possible, at no cost to their parents. Further, those supports and services must be provided to special education students in a setting alongside nondisabiled peers to the greatest extent possible.


Child Find: Under IDEA, states are required to look for and evaluate all children from birth through age 21 with disabilities, regardless of whether they are attending public or private school. This is known as the child find mandate.

Early Intervention: Under child find, states must provide early intervention services to children from birth through age three suspected of, or identified with, developmental delays. These services target a variety of areas, including physical, cognitive and self-help skills.

Evaluation: In order to receive special education services, a child must first undergo an evaluation, a series of steps that includes testing, observations and interviews. Evaluations may be requested by parents or teachers. Parents must provide written consent for an evaluation.

Response to Intervention (RTI): RTI is used to describe the educational strategy of identifying a child’s current performance and then providing targeted instruction and supports, or interventions, to catch them up. Schools will often first use this approach before referring a child for a special education evaluation.

Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS): RTI services are commonly provided by schools along with a multi-tiered system of supports. Using a universal screening assessment, such as MAP, schools will identify children in one of three tiers. Students requiring Tier 1 services typically progress fine with strong teaching in a regular education setting; Tier 2 students often require small group interventions; and Tier 3 students require individualized support.

Differentiated Instruction: Differentiated instruction is often paired with RTI and MTSS. Using this instructional strategy, a teacher will provide multiple ways to learn content and/or skills, as well as multiple ways for children to show what they have learned, often through flexible grouping.

Reevaluation: Once qualified for special education, IDEA requires schools to reevaluate a child every three years to see if their needs have changed or if they no longer require special education services. Parents may waive their right to the triennial reevaluation should they believe current services and supports remain appropriate. Parents or teachers may also request a reevaluation before the three-year mark if they believe new information is needed to better support the child.


Individual Education Program (IEP): An IEP is a formal legal document under which a child with a disability or giftedness receives special education services at school. All IEPs will note the exceptionality/ies for which a student has been identified. An IEP must contain the following components:

  • A child’s present levels of academic achievement and functional performance (PLAAFP, or “present levels”), including a statement of how the child’s disability affects their progress in the general education curriculum.
  • Annual goals, which should be specific, measurable, attainable, results-oriented and time-bound, or “SMART.” These goals cover different areas depending on a child’s disability, including goals for academic, behavioral or motor skills.
  • A description of how a child’s progress toward meeting those annual goals will be measured and when periodic progress reports will be provided to parents. IEP progress reports are commonly provided to parents every nine weeks of a school year. (IDEA used to require short-term objectives, or benchmarks, as well, but the law now only requires them for children taking an alternate assessment).
  • A statement of the special education and related services, as well as supplementary aids and services, to be provided to a child. This section of an IEP should describe how often a student will receive these services (often referred to as “IEP minutes”) and in what setting.
  • A statement of program modifications and supports for school personnel required for the child to advance appropriately toward attaining their annual goals.
  • A description of the child’s participation in state and district testing, including what accommodations they must receive and whether the child will participate in an alternate assessment.
  • An explanation of the extent to which the child will not participate alongside their nondisabled peers in a regular classroom, as well as in extracurricular or nonacademic activities, such as field trips.
  • During the academic year in which a student turns 16, the IEP must also include postsecondary goals and a description of the transition services the individual will receive to prepare them for life after high school.

IEP Team: A child’s IEP must be developed by a team including the parent/guardian, at least one of the child’s regular education teachers, at least one of the child’s special education teachers, a school district representative and a school psychologist or other expert who can interpret the child’s evaluation results. At age 16, other students must also be included as members of an IEP team. Parents also always have the option of bringing an advocate, such as a special education attorney, to an IEP meeting.

Annual Review: IDEA requires that a child’s IEP is reviewed annually by the IEP team. The discussion should include an update on the child’s performance and progress toward their annual goals, as well as whether the child’s individualized supports and services are working or need to be revised.

Prior Written Notice: Parents have a right to a 10-day prior written notice, such as a letter, of any meeting to discuss and potentially revise a child’s IEP, including the annual review meeting. Schools must document that such notice was provided before they can proceed without a parent’s attendance.

504 Plan: Not all children with diagnosed disabilities have special education plans. Many have 504 plans, a formal document covered under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Like IEPs, 504 plans denote required accommodations to meet a particular student’s needs – such as extra time on tests, sitting closer to the teacher’s desk to hear better, or frequent breaks to move around – but they do not include specialized instruction or related services.


Educational Placements: IDEA requires that schools provide a continuum of educational placements for students with disabilities, noted here from least restrictive to most restrictive:

  • Regular or “inclusion” class: The student spends 80 percent or more of their school day in a classroom with nondisabled peers.
  • Resource class: The student spends 60 percent to 79 percent of their day in a classroom with nondisabled peers.
  • Self-contained class: The student spends less than 60 percent of their day in a classroom with nondisabled peers.
  • Special school: The student spends more than 50 percent of their day at a school exclusively for children with disabilities.
  • Residential Facility: The student  spends more than 50 percent of their day at a public or private residential facility, at public expense.
  • Homebound/hospital: The student is at  home or in a hospital due to a medical condition.

Students with disabilities in correctional facilities must also receive special education services, as must children placed in private schools per an IEP team decision.

Inclusion: Inclusion describes a class in which one or more special education students receive instruction alongside their nondisabled peers. Special education students in an inclusion setting may receive individualized instruction or support from a paraprofessional or instructional aide, a special education teacher or a regular education teacher.

Co-Teaching: An instructional strategy in which a regular education and special education teacher work alongside each other in the same classroom. There are several models of co-teaching which can be used interchangeably.

Self-Contained: A self-contained classroom only includes children with disabilities, typically 10 or fewer students. This is the most restrictive setting in a regular school and should be reserved for students with disabilities that severely impact their ability to learn alongside nondisabled peers.

Resource Room: In a resource setting, special education students receive small group or individualized instruction. Students in an inclusion class often spend part of their day in a resource setting, which could take place within a self-contained classroom.

Homebound and Hospitalized Services: Students with disabilities who are unable to attend school due to a medical condition must be provided special education services in their home or in a hospital until they are able to return to school.


Accommodation: An accommodation provided under an IEP or 504 plan should allow the child to complete the same tasks as their nondisabled peers by varying how the special education student learns or demonstrates the content and/or skill. Accommodations vary widely, from giving a child extra time to complete an assignment to providing a “scribe” to a child who struggles writing their responses.

Modification: Modifications are more intensive than accommodations because they change the requirements for what a child learns or is expected to demonstrate. Common modifications include different assignments or test questions.

Related Services: Related services are typically provided by people other than a teacher and target aspects of a student’s disability hindering them from progressing to their annual goals. These services include speech-language, occupational and physical therapies, audiology or mobility services, and counseling.

Assistive Technology (AT): Assistive technology describes the devices and services a child requires to progress toward their annual IEP goals. Examples include hearing aids and FM systems, text-to-speech software and voice output communication aids. AT can also be as simple as a pencil grip or graphic organizer.

Due Process: Due process may be used as an umbrella term when discussing a child’s rights under IDEA. A due process complaint is a specific step in resolving disagreements between parents and a school about a child’s special education services. Complaints may be resolved through mediation or could reach a hearing in which a hearing officer, typically from a state education department, issues a judgment about the case.

Compensatory Education: Case law has determined that students who have been deprived of special education or related services are entitled to compensatory, or makeup, services.


Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS): PBIS describes a proactive approach to school discipline, in which positive behaviors are rewarded (rather than a traditional disciplinary approach involving punishments for negative behaviors). Examples of PBIS range from schoolwide point/reward systems to individualized incentive programs, such as a check-in/check-out sheet.

Functional Behavior Assessment (FBA): FBAs are most often used when schools want to understand why students are misbehaving in a certain way. These assessments involve observations of a student across multiple settings and times of day, and should be conducted by trained staff. Using information gathered through an FBA, schools can create plans to reduce a child’s behavioral triggers or to teach the student coping strategies.

Behavior Support Plan (BSP) and Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP): Both BSPs and BIPs are written plans documenting how a school will support a child in attaining behavioral goals. The main difference is that BIPs are required, along with FBAs, under IDEA for special education students whose behaviors persistently impact their educational progress or that of their classmates.

Manifestation Determination Review (MDR): One protection granted to special education students under IDEA is a process that safeguards them from being disciplined because of their disability. The process, called a manifestation determination review, requires an IEP team to document whether a student’s misbehavior was a result of their disability or due to the school’s failure to implement the child’s IEP. An MDR is required when a student’s misbehavior could cause them to be removed from school for more than 10 days or to receive a change in placement.

Interim Alternative Educational Setting (IAES): Under IDEA, there are “special circumstances” under which schools can remove children from their schools without regard to whether their behavior is a manifestation of a disability and reassign them to an interim alternative educational setting: possessing a weapon at school; possessing, using or selling drugs at school; or causing serious bodily injury to another person while at school. Students may not be reassigned for more than 45 days.

Seclusion and Physical Restraint: These practices are most commonly, though not exclusively, applied to children with disabilities. Seclusion is when a child is placed in solitary isolation and prevented from leaving for any period of time. Physical restraint is when an adult uses physical force to restrain the free movement of a child’s body. Both should be used as a measure of last resort.


Giftedness: Gifted and talented programming is a component of special education. Students identified as gifted and/or talented perform (or have the ability to perform) at higher levels than their peers in one or more of the gifted and talented domains: intellectual, creative, artistic, leadership and academic. Within those domains, children are most commonly identified as having one or more of the following exceptionalities:

  • General intellectual ability
  • Specific academic ability (i.e. math, writing)
  • Creative ability
  • Leadership ability
  • Visual and performing arts ability
  • Psychomotor ability (the ability to perform precise physical movements)

These students require services not normally provided by schools in order to fully develop their capabilities. Just like students with disabilities, gifted and talented students have IEPs identifying their exceptionality/ies and stipulating what in-school services they must receive, which can range from modified assignments to specialized instruction.

CogAT Test: The Cognitive Abilities Test, often referred to as the “CogAT,” is an assessment commonly used by schools to identify children for gifted programming. Some equity advocates have pushed for schools to instead use nonverbal tests, such as the Naglieri Nonverbal Ability Test, which may better account for cultural or linguistic differences. Other ability tests include the Stanford Binet, Wescher Intelligence Scale for Children and Woodcock Johnson.

Updated May 2021.