Working with children with disabilities might seem like a challenge, but it can also be an incredible gift. Not only do these students contribute to the classroom, but they also help their peers and teachers grow. Students can learn patience and empathy, and educators can strengthen their skills and add to their teaching strategy toolboxes.
Unfortunately, most teachers aren’t adequately trained in working with special education students, as the majority of teacher preparation programs require few special education courses. While each student’s needs will be different, and disability alone doesn’t define a learner, it’s important to have a basic understanding of various disabilities and how you can work with students who have them. This guide serves as a starting point for you to navigate the waters of serving students with special needs.
Important Terms to Know
Before jumping into the guide, you may find it helpful to review the following terminology.
Types of Special Education Teachers
Though there are special education teachers who work with students in a variety of areas—including all of the 13 below—they tend to fall into two basic categories: resource teachers and center-based teachers. Resource teachers’ students typically spend a great deal of time in general education settings and receive supports as needed based on their IEPs; these students fit more under the “push-in” category above. Center-based teachers generally work with students who need more time in the special education classroom itself, i.e., “pull-out” expectations. You’ll likely encounter both types of teachers during your career.
The 13 IDEA-Recognized Disabilities and How to Help Diagnosed Students
The IDEA of 2004 has defined 13 categories of disability covered by special education services and IEPs for learners in the public school system. This doesn’t mean there are no other kinds of disabilities; however, such challenges are often covered through 504 plans or standard classroom differentiation.
Below, you can find information about each of these 13 categories, along with recommended best practices a classroom teacher can use with students who have these diagnoses. Keep in mind, however, that best practices aren’t necessarily the best options for every student. The most important things you can do are implement the IEPs—which you’re legally required to use—and communicate with the child’s special education teacher and support team. Don’t be afraid to ask for help!
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a developmental disorder impacting verbal and nonverbal communication and social interactions. Because the range of indicators is so broad, Autism is described as a spectrum. As of 2018, around one in 59 children had an Autism diagnosis. Children are typically diagnosed between the ages of two and four—though the American Academy of Pediatrics suggests screening for Autism and other challenges as early as 18 months.
As ASD is a spectrum, the indicators vary widely and might be subtle in some cases. Common signs include challenges with typical social situations (e.g., lack of eye contact, not responding to direct interaction, misunderstanding common social cues), repetitive behaviors, and unusual reactions to changes in schedule or expectations.
The Organization for Autism Research (OAR) recommends these five support strategies in working effectively with ASD students:
Deaf-blind students have simultaneous hearing and visual impairments that impact their ability to access the general education curricula. These students may otherwise be fully capable of achieving grade-level or above success, so accommodations and modifications are imperative. Not all children with deaf-blindness will have complete vision or hearing loss, though they may. But, both senses must be impaired for them to fit under this category. According to the National Center on Deaf-Blindness, just under 10,000 children in the United States live with this disability. While there isn’t an average age of diagnosis, hearing and vision tests begin at birth, and pediatricians perform regular checkups as children age.
Indicators for hearing loss include not responding or reacting to sounds or voices. Signs for sight loss include children not following the motions of other people, holding objects close to their faces, and squinting and/or adjusting their heads as if they’re trying to focus on something.
3. Developmental Delay
IDEA recognizes interventions for children with developmental delays only between the ages of three and nine. Children are said to have developmental delays when they don’t reach their designated milestones in cognitive, social and emotional, speech and language, fine and gross motor, and daily activity skills on time. These delays go beyond “falling behind.” Remember, only doctors can diagnose developmental delays, especially as developmental milestones are averages, not universalities.
While the meanings behind developmental delays and developmental disabilities are similar, the latter indicates longer-term or life-long challenges. Interventions for a child with developmental delays might assist that child in catching up to the typical developmental milestones. In contrast, developmental disabilities will likely be reclassified as a different sort of disability by the time the child “ages out” of the developmental delays range. It’s federally required that an IEP re-evaluation occurs before the child’s 10th birthday to ensure the team has time to decide if the child will make progress or catch up with peers or will need an IEP for a long-term issue. The team will determine which new exceptionality, if any, the student will qualify under.
According to the 2017 Annual Disability Statistics Compendium, in 2016, the number of children with developmental delays served under IDEA was 153,391. Children can be diagnosed with a developmental delay as early as 18 months, though diagnosis often happens a bit later.
Because developmental delays aren’t all created equal, there are different accommodations and interventions required for the various delays. To know exactly how to work with a child’s needs, you also need to understand their challenges. Scholastic and Understood highlight ways you can work with children with developmental delays:
4. Emotional Disturbance
Children with emotional disturbances experience adverse educational effects due to mental health challenges. According to the 2017 Annual Disability Statistics Compendium, in 2016, the number of children with emotional disturbances served under IDEA was 333,434.
Because “emotional disturbance” is an umbrella term including a variety of disorders, there isn’t one typical age for diagnosis. They may be problems the child has experienced from a young age with no external reason, or they could be caused by trauma. Indicators include displaying aggressive behavior, lacking empathy, disrupting activities, struggling with concentration, having inexplicable physical illnesses or fears, and difficulty complying with rules or social norms. Though teachers can’t diagnose children, they can communicate their concerns to parents and, if they desire support in this conversation, school counselors or psychologists.
Both the National Science Teaching Association (NSTA) and the National Association of Special Education Teachers (NASET) suggest the following interventions:
5. Hearing Impairment (Including Deafness)
Hearing impairment refers to a lessened ability to hear, and deafness involves significant or near-complete loss of hearing. Two to three out of every 1,000 children are diagnosed with hearing loss in one or both ears, usually between 14 months and three years old.
While there are many potential accommodations for students with hearing impairments, here are some overall suggestions:
6. Intellectual Disability
A child diagnosed with an intellectual disability displays two primary indicators: challenges with intellectual functioning and difficulties with adaptive behavior, i.e., the ability to perform everyday tasks and social interactions. These initially appear during the developmental period, so students with developmental delays may be recategorized as having intellectual disabilities once they turn 10, if not before. As of 2016, 1.19% of children ages three to 17 were diagnosed with an intellectual disability. Due to the all-encompassing nature of the term, there is no typical age of diagnosis.
Early indicators look like developmental delays, including severe delays in language development and physical functioning. Additionally, children show an inability to perform everyday functions, such as personal care, social and work skills, and keeping themselves safe.
As the Center for Parent Information & Resources (CPIR) notes, children with intellectual disabilities should be involved in the general education curriculum but supported by appropriate accommodations and modifications per the their IEP. CPIR has some concrete tips for teachers to ensure they’re helping their students with intellectual disabilities, including the following:
7. Multiple Disabilities
“Multiple disabilities” refers to “concomitant” conditions—that is, a combination of conditions including concurrent developmental, physical, cognitive, and/or learning disabilities; this doesn’t include deaf-blindness. As of 2017, 124,544 children served under IDEA had multiple disabilities. As the diagnoses vary, there is no typical age of diagnosis—though, like all other potential challenges, doctors recommend regular visits beginning in infancy so that problems can be recognized as early as possible.
Students with multiple disabilities may have many needs and will likely need additional instruction and support. However, general education teachers can do a lot for these students by creating a supportive and welcoming environment per students’ IEPs. While there are numerous strategies for working with these students (and the Center for Parent Information & Resources, Project IDEAL, and VeryWell Family have some extensive lists of ideas), here are a few places to start:
8. Orthopedic Impairment
Children with orthopedic impairments have disabilities of the bones, muscles, or joints impeding their educational performance. In 2017, 35,929 children served under IDEA had orthopedic impairments. Assessments begin during early developmental checks, but there is no typical age of diagnosis. Even though this impairment is under the umbrella of special education because of IDEA, students with orthopedic impairments don’t necessarily have any difficulty with learning itself. They need physical assistance to allow for learning.
Because orthopedic impairments are physical, some indicators might be more evident than others, such as loss of limbs, unsteady gait, or paralysis. But some physical differences—such as muscle spasms or poor muscle control—are subtler and might be harder to detect. In some cases, speech could also be affected by orthopedic impairments.
For students with orthopedic impairments, you need to make physical accommodations based on their specific needs. VeryWell Family, Project IDEAL, and the National Association of Special Education Teachers (NASET) provide comprehensive tips, but here are some considerations to take into account:
9. Other Health Impairment
Other health impairments include chronic or acute health problems that affect a student’s educational performance by impacting strength, alertness, or vitality. A total of 910,699 children with other health impairments were served under IDEA in 2017, and the age of diagnosis varies as each condition behaves differently. Like orthopedic impairments, other health impairments under IDEA don’t necessarily mean students struggle with learning itself—some students do, but others need medical accommodations alone—for the latter, they may be issued a 504 instead of an IEP.
Many challenges fall under this category, including diabetes, asthma, ADHD, and heart conditions. Because the list of potential health impairments is so long, the indicators differ from condition to condition. Some general signs are changes in wakefulness and strength, having a heightened amount of energy in comparison to their peers, and frequent complaints of not feeling well.
Accommodations and modifications should be IEP- or 504-driven—a student with attention deficit disorder will have vastly different needs than one with diabetes. However, some overall best practices (expanded upon by NSTA) for creating accommodations include the following:
10. Specific Learning Disability
Usually simply referred to as a learning disability or learning disorder, “specific learning disability” is an umbrella term for a variety of neurological disorders adversely affecting the way a person learns. These most commonly include problems with reading, writing, and math, but they can be the cause of other challenges in school.
As of 2017, 2,281,197 children with specific learning disabilities were served under IDEA. The American Psychiatric Association estimates 5% to 15% of school-aged children have learning disabilities, and 80% of those are reading disorders or dyslexia. Many conditions could fall under this category, including dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia, and auditory processing disorder; therefore, there is no typical age for diagnosis. The Learning Disabilities Association of America provides details about the specific disorders under this category.
It can be hard to tell if a student has a learning disability or just struggles in a particular subject. This is one of the reasons learning disabilities can go undetected until a child is older—even into adulthood. Some indicators the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NIH) highlights include consistent problems with reading, writing, or math (not necessarily all together), trouble paying attention, difficulty with organization, consistent low school performance, and poor memory. Some other non-academic indicators can manifest through behaviors including impulsiveness, not listening to instructions, and difficulty handling schedules or changes.
Early interventions can make a huge difference for students with learning disabilities. Teachers should, of course, adhere strictly to the student’s IEP and approach the student with respect and empathy. Some best practices for teachers working with students with learning disabilities by VeryWell Family and LD Online include these tips:
11. Speech or Language Impairment
Speech or language impairments are communication disorders wherein the child has trouble speaking or communicating and includes language or voice impairments, stuttering, and difficulty with articulation. Approximately 7.7% of children in the U.S. ages three to 17 have a speech or language impairment, and they’re often diagnosed before the age of three.
CPIR states that the three main indicators of a speech or language impairment manifest through fluency, voice, and language development. Impairments in fluency, or flow of language, usually appear through halting or stilted language. Voice impairments are issues with voice production indicated by differences in pitch, volume, or the quality of their voice. Language impairments refer to how a child processes and understands meaning, manifesting in challenges with vocabulary, inability to follow directions, or the improper use of words.
Most children with a speech or language impairment receive support from a speech-language pathologist (SLP). However, most of the time, your student will be in the general education classroom, and you can do a lot to support them. Here are some strategies based on tips from CPIR and Project IDEAL:
12. Traumatic Brain Injury
Traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) are injuries caused by “external physical force” to the head, including being hit, shaken, or experiencing a fall. These injuries can cause changes in behavior, movement, and the way students process information. As of 2017, 25,136 children with TBIs were served under IDEA. There is no typical age of diagnosis because TBIs result from external events. As early intervention is essential, if a student hits their head with any real force during class, you must seek medical attention for them—even if they say they feel fine. Make sure to record the incident and contact parents as well.
A significant sign of a TBI is if a child is acting differently than they did before an injury. They may display challenges with memory, reasoning skills, and attention span. Additionally, they might exhibit behavioral changes, becoming more erratic, moody, or impulsive, among other signs.
A TBI occurs unexpectedly. Teachers must help the student and their peers adapt to the new reality, as well as work with parents, specialists, and administration on developing an IEP as soon as possible. Some other tips highlighted by CPIR and Project IDEAL include the following:
13. Visual Impairment (Including Blindness)
Visual impairments affect a person’s ability to see. While this includes complete blindness, it also refers to people who have partial sight and other vision difficulties. There were 568,202 children with vision impairments in the U.S. as of 2017, according to the American Foundation for the Blind. The age of diagnosis often depends on the cause. For example, Prevent Blindness says Amblyopia, often called “lazy eye,” is discovered between six months and six years of age, while Strabismus (misalignment of the eyes) is usually found in children under six. For Refractive Errors (blurry vision because of how light refracts in the eye), the diagnosis ages vary.
Physical signs a child might have a visual impairment include crossed eyes, pupils of uneven sizes, and eyes moving around erratically. Other indicators are increased clumsiness, frequent blinking, squinting, and holding objects close to their face.
While individual support will be based on the IEP, an overarching practice is to ensure children with visual impairments are included in the classroom as much as possible. Remember, many students with visual impairments will not have other learning challenges, so they can often study the same materials as the rest of the class—just with accommodations. CPIR and Danene K. Fast provide some great tips, including the following:
Resources for Teachers of Students with Learning Disabilities
There are many resources out there about students with disabilities. Here are a few with comprehensive information for most, if not all, of the 13 IDEA-recognized disabilities.
Meet the Expert
Alyson has a bachelor’s degree in Elementary Education, and her master’s degree is in Functional Special Education. Alyson taught in the classroom for eight years as Special Education teacher for students with significant and severe disabilities. Alyson is currently a high school vocational teacher who helps students with disabilities transition from school services to life after high school.