Lesson 1.1: The Purpose & Promise of Special Education

This is the 1st part of online course "Introduction to Special Education." In this lesson, we will dig deep into the nature, psycho-social and educational needs of individuals, across the life-span, with physical, mental, emotional, or sensory impairments. We will also discuss the way these special education programs fit into ongoing work in schools.

After learning this course you should be able to identify characteristics of individuals with disabilities and the impact of characteristics on the learner and their family members. By learning this course, beginning teachers should be able to achieve initial classroom success, and experienced teachers will get a chance to extend and refine their skills. 


Topics covered: 


The takeaways and additional resources are provided by the end of each chapter.

Chapter One: Exceptional Children

Learning Objective

After learning this chapter, you should be able to:

  • Identify characteristics of individuals with disabilities
  • Understand the impact of this characteristics on the learner and their family members
  • Identify the benefit and possible disadvantages of labeling and classifying exceptional learners

[Read and Think] The Story of Daniel

Daniel is nine years old, profoundly gifted, but diagnosed with sensory processing disorder and ADHD. Despite his health problems, Daniel continued to reach intellectual developmental milestones far ahead of his age peers. At eighteen months, Daniel started reading simple words without help and by age five he was reading chapter books with ease. Daniel went to kindergarten with many of the apprehensions shared by other new students. Unfortunately, things did not get easier for Daniel as school progressed. While his classmates were settling into the routines and expectations of school, the constant noise, movement, and transitions that are part of a normal kindergarten day overwhelmed Daniel. His teacher reported to Dawn that he constantly fidgeted, looked around the room, avoided eye contact, and had to be prompted, two or three times, to follow directions. To make matters worse, his fine motor skills were extremely weak and he often had difficulty with the writing, drawing, and cutting projects. At recess he sat in the corner of the small kindergarten playground with his sweatshirt pulled over his head.  

(Curated and edited from article by Dr. Melanie Johnson Hayes https://medium.com/@bigmindsunschool/daniel-98000d13f357)

Think About:

Take a minute to reflect on your own teaching experience (or past life experience), have you ever come across any special learners who are significantly exceptional in their learning or behavior? In what way they were different from the normal students? 

[Read] Who Are Exceptional Children

Daniel is not alone. There are many children like Daniel who are exceptional in that their learning and behaviour deviates significantly from the norm, they are called "exceptional children".

Exceptional Children

Exceptional children differ from the norm (either below or above) to such an extent that they require an individualized program of special education. They may show differences in the physical, intellectual, communicative, social, or emotional domains, or in some combination of these. There are four key terms of being "exceptional":

  • Impairment - The loss or reduced function of a body part or organ 
  • Disability - Exists when an impairment limits the ability to perform certain tasks 
  • Handicap - A problem encountered when interacting with the environment Not all children with a disability are handicapped 
  • At Risk - Children who have a greater-than-usual chance of developing a disability

Some Key Numbers About Exceptional Children

Additional Resources

If you want to learn more about exceptional learners, please read:

[Knowledge Check] Are They Exceptional Children?

Please choose all the answers that you think can be identified as children with special needs.

  • Speak with incorrect sentence structure or grammar, e.g., “Why not me can play?”
  • Have difficulty concentrating during classes and are easily distracted, such as often looking out of windows or being distracted by sounds outside.
  • Always irritate people intentionally, sometimes by doing things such as casting classmate's stationery purposively.
  • Diagnosed as Autism by the doctor
  • Have a hearing impairment that is so severe that they cannot process linguistic information through hearing, with or without amplification.
  • Diagnosed as dyslexia, slow in reading and sometimes skip words or lines

[Think] Should We Label and Classify Exceptional Children?

Different Opinions

Some educators argue that a system of classifying children with exceptionalities is a prerequisite to providing the special programs these children require. 

Other educators propose alternative approaches to classifying children with exceptionalities that focus on educationally relevant variables, like the curriculum and skill areas that they need to learn.

Your Opinion: 

Think about the boy Daniel that you read at the beginning of this chapter again. You can also relate to your own teaching experience. What are some possible benefits and disadvantage of labeling the exceptional children? Please write down your answer.

[Read] Possible Benefits and Disadvantages

While disability labels are used in special education to help build the special programs these children require. We need to aware that labeling might have potential disadvantages. 

As educators, only if we fully understand the benefits and disadvantages of classifying individuals with disabilities, can we create a better learning environment and appropriate individualized programs for them.

[Bonus] Takeaways and Additional Resources

Chapter Takeaways

  • Exceptional learners differ from the norm (either below or above) in the physical, intellectual, communicative, social, or emotional domains to such an extent that they require an individualized program of special education. 
  • Four key terms about exceptional learners are: Impairment, Disability, Handicap, and At Risk.
  • While a system of classifying children with exceptionalities is a prerequisite to providing the special programs these children require, we still need to be aware of the possible disadvantages of labeling exceptional learners.

Additional Resources

Chapter Two: Special Education

Learning Objective

After learning this chapter, you should be able to:

  • Describe what Special Education is, both as intervention and as instruction
  • Identify when Special Education is needed
  • Understand the history of Special Education and identify its current and future challenges

[Read] What is Special Education

Special Education

Special education is individualized purposeful intervention designed to help students with disabilities become more independent and successful in school and society. 

When is Special Ed needed?

Children in need of special education are usually identified by parents, teachers, and/or assessment instruments. When a child is not progressing as expected and not responding to attempts at remediation,multifactored nondiscriminatory assessments can be administered to determine eligibility for special education services.

Special Education As Intervention

Special education may be described as a purposeful intervention designed to overcome or eliminate the obstacles that keep children with disabilities from learning. In other words, it is about providing children with disabilities with individualized plans of instruction to help them succeed. It's preventive, remedial, and compensatory.

Special Education As Instruction

The cornerstone of special education is individualized and intensive instruction. Some students will need to receive some of their instruction in a separate setting in order for the teacher to deliver individualized and intensive instruction. 

Additional Resources:

To learn more about special education instruction, please refer to What is special education instruction? | Request PDF. 

[Think] Reflecting as an Educator

Who, what, how, and where - in local school and classroom teaching practice, which one do you think is the most neglected factor? Combining with your previous experience talk about it.

[Watch, Read & Think] Special Education: The Past, The Present, and The Future


Prior to 1975, schools were allowed to deny enrollment to children with disabilities. When schools began to accept children with disabilities, they often attended isolated classrooms away from the typically developing children. Providing equal educational opportunities and services for children with disabilities closely parallels the struggle by historically underrepresented groups to gain access to and enjoy the rights to which all Americans are entitled.

IDEA - Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (1975)

The landmark law that would later become known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, changed this by declaring that schools could no longer deny an education to students with disabilities. Now, 40 years later, AIR Managing Director Louis Danielson discusses the law’s evolution and its continued commitment to greater educational accountability, inclusion and quality for all students.

Think about:

Our work as special educators is most often performed in local schools. Why do we also need judicial and legislative action to ensure that children with disabilities receive a free appropriate education?

Current and Future Challenges

Although great changes have been made in the field of Special Ed, there are still many challenges that need educators, researchers, and policy maker to put effort in.

Additional Resources:

If you want to learn more about Special Education, please read:

Exceptionality and Special Education. PDF (Pearson)

[Bonus] Takeaways and Additional Resources

Chapter Takeaways

  • Special Education as intervention is preventive, remedial, and compensatory.
  • Special Education as instruction - can be differed from general education by asking "Who","What", "How", and "Where".
  • Although a great changes have been made since 1975, there are still many challenges in this field.

Additional Resources

[Read] What is special education instruction? | Request PDF (Paige C. Pullen, Daniel P Hallahan)