Methods for Educating Special-Needs Students

Special needs students are often the most challenging to teach yet also the most neglected by politicians and government educational policymakers. The number of students in special education has skyrocketed since the 1980s and only stabilized in the last few years. During the 2008–2009 academic school year, about 6.5 million students aged 3 through 21 were enrolled in special education programs for students with disabilities. This figure represents 13.2 percent of total US public school enrollment (2). Because of the increased level of special education enrollment, schools must pay more attention to the effectiveness of their current special education curriculums, including whether special needs students learn better with structure or freedom in the classroom. Schools must determine whether special needs students respond to a rigid teaching style with strict disciplinary measures or a flexible curriculum in a lenient classroom setting.

Studies indicate that special needs students need a balance between structure and outlets for creativity. Policymakers consider a broad spectrum of special-needs student disabilities, ranging from mild learning disabilities to severe mental handicaps. Analyzing different types of special education programs by assessing their results is important given the severe problems special needs students can encounter later in life. For instance, many people with special needs have limited higher education and job opportunities. Thirty-eight percent of students placed in special education had learning disabilities and 22 percent had speech or language impairments during the 2008-2009 academic school year. About 12 percent of students had experienced emotional disturbances or developmental delay (2). These trends have stayed very consistent over the past few years. Some students, particularly in impoverished areas, have severe past emotional disturbances, while others have behavioral issues like ADHD or learning disabilities such as dyslexia (1). Students with behavioral problems often lack social skills and frequently disrupt class, which thwarts their ability to learn in a regular classroom.

Students with learning disabilities need extra help to retain material and often benefit from more one-on-one instruction, which is the intended goal of a special education program. A student is placed into a special education program after a specialist monitors what skills the student lacks. Then, a special education teacher creates an Individualized Educational Program for the child (IEP), which outlines specific skills that the student should develop (6). Policymakers believe that a curriculum should be catered to the specific needs of each student. Thus, it is usually actively deliberated between the teacher, the student, and his or her family.

The teacher has the more difficult task of individualizing the instruction to the student, which may be based on his or her disability. Many researchers believe that a strict set of classroom rules and structured activities keeps students with learning disabilities well-behaved and focused on their work. Doctors Edward M. Hallowell and John J. Ratey, specialists on adolescent ADD at Hallowell’s Center in Massachusetts, emphasize structure as the key to effectively teaching students with ADD. They stress the importance of creating strict guidelines for students with ADD in the classroom. For instance, they believe students should have constant reminders about classroom rules and directions for assignments. Since many students with ADD become confused by change, every activity should have a set time, and daily classes should have a high level of predictability. Hallowell and Ratey believe that setting limits on children is “soothing” for them, rather than constraining. On the other hand, they also emphasize the importance of play time and creativity for students, since many of them may get frustrated or bored with monotonous, structured work. They advocate fitting playtime and creative intellectual work within the boundaries of strict guidelines and disciplinary measures for students with ADD (3).

However, it is uncertain whether playtime is beneficial for all special-needs students with other disabilities. Paige, a special-needs student featured in a 2005 New York Times article, was confused and bored due to the lack of structure in her special education classroom. After transferring from a south side Chicago school to one in New York, she despised her special education class, complaining that “everyone just plays around in there too much.” Her special education fifth-grade classroom did not have many assignments and assessments, and substitute teachers constantly rotated in and out of the classroom. Though Paige may have been able to do what limited homework there was, she received bad grades because of the lack of structure in class (4).

The choice between a structured and creative curriculum leads to the controversy of integration into regular classrooms. Is it beneficial for special-needs students to be taught with students in regular classrooms, or should they be separated? Integration implies that students must adhere to the regular curriculum, which often consists of more regimented teaching methods. Fifty-eight percent of all students with disabilities spent most of their school day in an integrated classroom during the 2008-2009 academic school year. On the other hand, about 15 percent of students with disabilities spent the majority of their time in a special education classroom (2). Education experts who are proponents of integration believe that integration helps students develop socially. However, opponents argue that integration thwarts teachers’ abilities to create a curriculum tailored to the special needs student, putting pressure on general education teachers to meet the needs of students with a wide range of abilities and on special needs students to keep up with the class. Opponents additionally believe that disabled students always surrounded by other disabled students lose confidence in their school work and are not as motivated, a phenomenon similar to Paige’s (7).

Researchers such as Anne Hocutt, an associate professor at the University of Miami’s School of Education, have found that special needs students benefit much more from special education classrooms than integrated classrooms. For instance, one study of 11 poor readers diagnosed with learning disabilities showed that the students gained twice as many new reading words per week in the special education classroom as the integrated classroom (9). Studies such as these suggest that individual, specialized instruction is more effective for special-needs students. However, individualized teaching plans within an integrated classroom may be hard to implement and detract from its structure.

It seems that schools need to find a balance between structure and creativity, between integration into the structured curriculum and a curriculum individualized to the needs of a student in special education. Ms. Sharron Carothers, a teacher who mentors students with behavioral issues at Dumas Elementary School in Chicago’s south side, believes that school should be a combination of many learning styles. She asserts that students should be integrated into regular classrooms during social studies and science lessons, because these subjects account for a wide variety of learners such as kinesthetic and visual. If structured, these subjects provide special-needs students direction and an opportunity for creativity. For math and reading, traditionally more difficult subjects, Carothers believes students should work in a separate classroom with more flexibility. “Some students need some time to adjust to regulations and structure in increments, so students should have an opportunity to play in between,” she said (8).

It is difficult to determine a standard successful special education curriculum since it is so contingent on the individual student. Schools must effectively construct a curriculum balancing integration and time in a special needs classroom while also balancing discipline and creativity. A curriculum with all of these components in place will help a greater amount and variety of special needs students. Suggestions such as Ms. Carothers’ provide hope that these changes will be implemented provided that schools set up a network of communications between administrators, teachers, parents, and students. Though providing an individualized curriculum for each student is difficult, this level of support can make it possible.


  1. Mauro, Terri. “What are special needs?” [Internet] [Updated 2011] Available from:
  2. Snyder, T.D. and Dillow S.A. Digest of Education Statistics 2010 (NCES 2011-015) [Internet] National Center for Education Statistics, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Washington, D.C. [April 2011] Available from:
  3. Edward M. Hallowell and John J. Ratey. “50 Tips on the Classroom Management of ADD” [Internet] [updated 2010 February 19] Available from:
  4. Davey, Monica. “A Child Held Behind.” [Internet] New York Times (New York, NY). Educ. Sec., 1+ SIRS Researcher. 2005 January 16. Available from:
  5. Holt, Emily W., and others. “Timing and Duration of Student Participation in Special Education…” [Internet] ISSUE BRIEF. SIRS Government Reporter. 2007 March 1. Available from:
  6. Decade of the Brain: Learning Disabilities. Sept. 1993. Page(s) : 15-26. Health and Human Services Department (HHS). National Institute of Mental Health. SuDoc Number : HE 20.8102:B 73/3
  7. “Special Education.” [Internet] Issues & Controversies On File: Issues & Controversies. Facts On File News Services, 2000 September 7. Available from: <>.
  8. Interview with Ms. Sharron Carothers. Dumas Elementary School, Chicago. May 11, 2011.
  9. Hocutt, Anne. “Effectiveness of Special Education: Is Placement the Critical Factor?” [Internet].. The Future of Children: Special Education for Students with DisabilitiesVol. 6, No. 1, 1996. Available from:
  10. Special ed teacher. (Wikimedia Commons). 2008 Feb 3 [cited 2011 July 31]. Available from:
  11. AF Kindergarten. (Wikimedia Commons). 2004 Nov 10 [cited 2011 July 31]. Available from:

Tanya Mookerji is a second-year economics and public policy student at the University of Chicago. Join The Triple Helix Online on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.