Special Education and Learning Disabilities

By Susan Oliverio, MSEd, Certified School Psychologist


Special education is a broad term used by the law to describe specially designed instruction that meets the unique needs of a child who has a disability.Under Pennsylvania law, children with a specific learning disability may be eligible to receive special education services through the public school system and at no cost to the family.

What is a Learning Disability?

A child may have a specific learning disability in one or more of the following areas: oral expression, listening comprehension, written expression, basic reading skills (dyslexia), reading fluency skills, reading comprehension, math calculation (dyscalculia) and math problem solving. A learning disability is not determined by academic achievement alone. For example, a child who has never been exposed to appropriate reading instruction or reading materials would likely read far below age and grade level. However, the child's inability to read would not be explained by a reading disability.

The most common way in which a learning disability is determined isthrough the use of the discrepancy model. Students with a learning disability will show an unexpected gap between their potential (IQ) and academic achievement. You will frequently hear parents say, for example, “She is very bright and creative. She learns quickly and easily, but just can't quite master reading.” Determining whether the gap is unexpected or unexplained requires assessment from a psychologist who will administer an IQ test and an achievement test. The results of these assessments will be compared to determine if there is a significant gap between the scores.

The Special Education Process

The special education process begins with determining whether a child is eligible to receive specially designed instruction in the school setting. A group of qualified professionals in the school will review evaluation materials which can include: medical reports, psychological evaluations, review of educational records, parent and teacher report and interviews, and individual (one-on-one) assessment with the child. If a child has been determined to be in need of specially designed instruction, the school will create and implement an individual education plan (IEP) for the child.  The IEP document will include information about your child's current developmental and academic levels and will include educational goals that the child will work towards. The document will also include Specially Designed Instruction (SDI’s) strategies that teachers will use to assist the child in reaching those goals.

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