A Parent's Guide to Special Education / Special Needs

  • Glossary of Special Education Terms

    Prepared by Dr. Joy J. Rogers, Professor, Loyola University School of Education

    Achievement/ability discrepancy. A criterion is often used to determine whether a child has a learning disability. It asks, is the child working up to expectations? One "formula" for determining the presence of a discrepancy has been promulgated by the State Board of Education. Some districts have developed their own. Some scholarly texts offer alternative formulae.

    ADA - Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. This law follows the principles established under Section 504. It provides for the protection from discrimination of persons with disabilities and allows claims for compensatory and punitive damages.

    Adaptive behavior. A sort of "practical intelligence." It is usually measured by scales that identify how well a person manages within his or her own environment.

    ADHD - Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder. A condition identified as a medical diagnosis by the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual III-Revised (DSM III-R). This condition is also often called Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) because of that usage in a previous edition of DSM. Although it is not a service category under IDEA, children with this condition may be eligible for service under other categories or under Section 504.

    Advocate. An individual who is not an attorney, but who assists parents and children in their dealings with school districts regarding children's special education programs.

    Affective. A term which refers to emotions and attitudes.

    Annual goals. A required component of an IEP. Goals are written for the individual student and can be for a maximum of one year.

    Board of Education vs. Rowley ("Rowley"). Case that helped to define how a special education program may be determined to be "appropriate."

    Categorical placement. Special education programs in which students are grouped on the basis of their IDEA eligibility category. Alternative models include "noncategorical" placement and "cross-categorical" placement.

    Characteristics often associated with autism. The student has been diagnosed with autism, a developmental disability affecting verbal and non-verbal communication and social interaction, that adversely affects educational performance.

    Cognitive. A term which refers to reasoning or intellectual capacity.

    Community Based Instruction. Skills are taught at varied locations in the community rather than in the classroom in order to facilitate generalization and application.

    Continuum of services. The range of services which must be available to the students of a school district so that they may be served in the least restrictive environment.

    Conference. Generic term that may refer to a multidisciplinary conference, IEP meeting, annual review, or other type of meeting. When in doubt, it is important to clarify the purpose of any conference.

    Cooperative. Voluntary association of school districts that band together to provide special education services using a shared administrative structure.

    Crippled. Pejorative terms are no longer in accepted use.

    Cued speech. Method of communication is used by some people with hearing impairments. It is used to reduce the ambiguities involved in lip reading. This method is caught in the controversy between teaching deaf children to rely on oral methods of communication or to use sign language.

    Curriculum. The subject matter that is to be learned. A curriculum is usually described in terms of its scope and sequence. One might examine the curriculum of a special school, for example, to determine whether it matches the IEP of a student who has been recommended to go there.

    Curriculum-based assessment. A methodology of increasing importance in special education in which a child's progress in the curriculum is measured at frequent intervals.

    Deaf. The student demonstrates a hearing impairment that is so severe the student is impaired in processing linguistic information through hearing, with or without amplification, which adversely affects educational performance.

    DB - Deaf-Blind. The student demonstrates concomitant hearing and visual impairments causing such communication and other developmental and educational problems that they cannot be accommodated in special education programs solely for deaf or blind students.

    Delay. Development which does not occur within expected time ranges.

    Disability. A physical, sensory, cognitive or affective impairment that causes the student to need special education. NOTE: There are significant differences in the definitions of disability in IDEA and Section 504.

    Due process. In general, due process includes the elements of notice, opportunity to be heard and to defend one's self. With regard to IDEA, due process refers to a specific set of procedures described in 23 IAC Part 226. With regard to Section 504, procedures are less clearly specified. With regard to student discipline matters, the amount of process that is due is largely dependent upon the degree of jeopardy involved.

    Due Process Hearing. When parents and school districts have disagreements about Special Education services which mediation fails to resolve, a hearing may be requested before a State-appointed Hearing Officer. This is a formal proceeding with a legally binding outcome.

    ED - Emotional Disturbance. The student exhibits one or more of the following characteristics over a long period of time and to a marked degree that adversely affects the child's educational performance.

    1. An inability to learn which cannot be explained by intellectual, sensory, or health factors.
    2. An inability to build or maintain satisfactory interpersonal relationships with peers and teachers.
    3. Inappropriate types of behavior or feelings under normal circumstances.
    4. General pervasive mood of unhappiness or depression.
    5. A tendency to develop physical symptoms or fears associated with personal or school problems.

    EHA - Education for All Handicapped Children Act. More commonly identified as P.L. 94-142. It became effective in 1975 and has been significantly modified by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (1977).

    Extended school day. A provision for a special education student to receive instruction for a period longer than the standard school day. This sometimes includes "double" kindergarten, later afternoons, or earlier starting times.

    Extended school year. A provision for a special education student to receive instruction during ordinary school "vacation" periods.

    FERPA - Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. A federal law that regulates the management of student records and disclosure of information from those records. The Act has its own administrative enforcement mechanism.

    FAPE - Free Appropriate Public Education. Provision as required under IDEA.

    Fine motor. Functions which require tiny muscle movements. For example, writing or typing would require fine motor movement.

    Functional curriculum. A curriculum focused on practical life skills and usually taught in community-based settings with concrete materials that are a regular part of everyday life. The purpose of this type of instruction is to maximize the student's generalization to real life use of his/her skills.

    Gross motor. Functions which require large muscle movements. For example, walking or jumping would require gross motor movement.

    Handicap. Pejorative terms are no longer in accepted use.

    Heterogeneous grouping. An educational practice in which students of diverse abilities are placed within the same instructional groups. This practice is usually helpful in the integration of children with disabilities.

    HH - Hard of Hearing. The student exhibits a hearing impairment, which adversely affects educational performance.

    Homogeneous grouping. An educational practice in which students of similar abilities are placed within the same instructional groups. This practice usually serves as a barrier to the integration of children with disabilities.

    Honig vs. Doe. This case offers significant information on the nature of discipline that may be used with special education students.

    IEP - Individualized Education Plan. The document developed at an IEP meeting which sets the standard by which subsequent special education services are usually determined appropriate.

    IEP meeting. A gathering required at least annually under IDEA in which an IEP is developed for a student receiving special education.

    IFSP - Individual Family Service Plan. Document which outlines the services to be delivered to families of infants and toddlers receiving special services.

    Inclusion. An educational practice which combines Special Education and General Education services to best meet the needs of individual students, primarily in a General Education setting.

    IDEA - Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Law that modifies and extends the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHA).

    IDELR - Individuals with Disabilities Education Law Reporter. Specialized full text reporting service publishes policy letters and administrative level actions as well as case law.

    Infants and toddlers. Children not yet three years of age. Instructional placement. Phrase is used to describe the situation in which a child spends at least half of his/her school day in special education.

    Intellectual disability. The student experiences significantly sub-average general intellectual functioning, existing concurrently with deficits in adaptive behavior and manifested during the developmental period that adversely affects a child's educational performance.

    Irving Independent School District vs. Tatro ("Tatro"). A case that helped to distinguish (federally required) related services from "medical services" which are not required to be provided under IDEA.

    Joint agreement. Also called a "cooperative." A joint agreement is a voluntary association of school districts who join together to provide special education services.

    LEA - local educational agency i.e., a local public school district.

    Learning disability. An eligibility category under IDEA and described in detail within the statute.

    LRE - least restrictive environment. A requirement of IDEA.

    Mainstreaming. This term does not actually appear in law. It refers to IDEA's preference for the education of every child in the least restrictive environment for each student and has been most widely used to refer to the return of children with mild disabilities to a regular classroom for a portion of each school day.

    MD - Multiple Disabilities. The student exhibits concomitant impairments (mentally retarded-blind, mentally retarded-orthopedically impaired, etc.) causing such severe educational problems that they cannot be accommodated in special education programs solely for one of the impairments. (Does not include deaf-blind)

    MDC - "multidisciplinary conference." A required gathering under IDEA and is the only body that can make certain determinations — specifically about a child's eligibility for special education.


    • Informal: A voluntary dispute resolution process which provides a forum to settle issues relating to the IEP.
    • Formal: A voluntary dispute resolution process which provides a forum to settle issues relating to the IEP for which CDE (California Department of Education) will provide mediators upon request.

    Occupational therapy. A special education related service which is usually focused upon the development of a student's fine motor skills and/or the identification of adapted ways of accomplishing activities in daily living when a student's disabilities preclude doing those tasks in typical ways (e.g. modifying clothing so a person without arms can dress himself/herself).

    OCR - US Office for Civil Rights. An agency of the federal government's executive branch within the Department of Education. It is charged with enforcing a number of civil rights statutes, including Section 504.

    OI - Orthopedic Impairment. The student has a severe orthopedic impairment which adversely affects the pupil's educational performance. Such orthopedic impairments may include those caused by congenital anomalies, diseases, and other causes.

    OHI - Other Health Impairment. The student exhibits limited strength, vitality or alertness, which is due to a chronic condition or acute health problem that adversely affects educational performance. (This includes a heightened alertness to environmental stimuli that results in limited alertness with respect to the educational environment.

    OSEP - US Office of Special Education Programs. An office within OSERS is charged with assuring that the various states comply with IDEA.

    OSERS - US Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services. An agency of the federal government's executive branch within the Department of Education.

    Permanent record. A brief document upon which essential information is entered and preserved. The contents of the permanent record are specified in the California Student Records Act.

    Placement. The setting in which the special education service is delivered to the student. It must be derived from the student's IEP.

    Present levels of educational performance. A required IEP component.

    Referral. Notice to a school district that a child may be in need of special education. Although good practice suggests making referrals in writing, an oral referral may be valid. A referral sets certain timelines in place.

    Regression. The amount of loss of skills a child experiences over an instructional break (primarily summer vacation).

    Related services. IDEA requires that school districts provide whatever related services (other than medical care which is not for diagnostic purposes) a child needs in order to benefit from his or her special education program.

    Resource placement. A special education placement for less than half a child's school day. Such a classroom is usually called a "resource room."

    Satellite program. A classroom operated in another facility. For example, a special education cooperative might rent classrooms in its member school districts' facilities to operate classes for students who are able to move out of the cooperative's segregated special education facility.

    Section 504. Provision of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 which prohibits recipients of federal funds from discrimination against persons with disabilities.

    Self-contained placement. See "instructional placement."

    Short-term objectives. A required component of an IEP. Each annual goal must have at least one short-term objective.

    SLD - Specific Learning Disability. The student exhibits a significant discrepancy between ability and achievement in the areas of math calculation, math reasoning, reading comprehension, basic reading skills, written expression, listening comprehension, or oral expression due to a processing disorder in attention, visual processing, auditory processing, sensory motor skills, conceptualization, or expression and is not primarily the result of environmental, cultural economic disadvantage or limited English proficiency.

    SLI - Speech/Language Impairment. The student exhibits a communication disorder in the area of expressive or receptive language, stuttering, impaired articulation, and/or fluency difficulties which adversely affects educational performance.

    Standardized tests. Tests which have norms reflecting a larger population (usually these are age or grade-based norms reflecting the performance of children throughout the country on the same tests).

    Supplementary aids and services. Accommodations which could permit a student to profit from instruction in the least restrictive environment. They are required under IDEA.

    TBI - Traumatic Brain Injury. The student exhibits Traumatic Brain Injury (caused by an external force or internal occurrence such as aneurysm or stroke) resulting in total or partial functional disability or psychosocial maladjustment that adversely affects educational performance.

    Therapeutic day program. An instructional placement for students with serious emotional disturbance in which aspects of treatment for emotional difficulty are incorporated into the school program. Depending on the theoretical orientation of the school, these services may include psychotherapy, behavior management, positive peer culture, or other types of intervention.

    Total communication. An instructional strategy in which teachers instruct children with severe hearing loss both by speaking to them and by using sign language. The theory is that if the children can learn to speak, then the stimulation is being presented. Even if they do not learn to speak, they will still be provided with a language-rich environment.

    Transition planning. At a minimum, this is planning for adolescents' post-school lives and must begin by age 14. This involves preparation of a document called an Individual Transition Program (ITP). Good practice may involve planning for earlier transitions as well as incorporating such plans into the child's IEP.

    Traumatic brain injury. A new disability category added for eligibility under IDEA.

    VI - Visual Impairment. The student exhibits a visual impairment that, even with correction, adversely affects educational performance. (Includes partially sighted and blind.)

    Visual-motor. Co-ordination of what is seen with an action. For example, one uses visual-motor coordination when catching a ball.