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Teaching Students With a Range of Disabilities

Special education teachers experience many challenges that their colleagues in general education may not. But as more and more students with disabilities are mainstreamed into traditional classroom settings, all teachers must become more familiar with special education skills and techniques.

A recent article published by U.S. News & World Report focused on the trend of mainstreaming special ed students. “Special education is a growing demographic in schools across the nation, and these students are spending more time than ever before in regular classrooms.” In addition, according to a report from the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD), one in five students in the United States has a learning or attention difference.

Determining and Identifying Disabilities

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) lists 13 disability categories that all states must use to determine if students between ages 3 and 21 are eligible to receive special education and related services. To qualify, a child’s school performance must be adversely affected by a disability in one or more of these 13 categories:

  • Autism
  • Deaf-blindness
  • Deafness
  • Emotional disturbance
  • Hearing impairment
  • Intellectual disability
  • Orthopedic impairment
  • Other health impairment
  • Specific learning disability
  • Speech or language impairment
  • Traumatic brain injury
  • Visual impairment including blindness
  • Multiple disabilities

Although many other factors can affect a student’s low performance – such as a lack of motivation, socioeconomic status or cultural difference — these factors cannot be considered when assessing a student for possible services under the IDEA.

Mild to Moderate Learning Disabilities

According to Forward Together, a report on students who learn differently published by the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD), “Mild to moderate learning disabilities include: Students who have been identified with dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia, ADD, ADHD, processing disorders, or other language-based learning disabilities or students who struggle with these same challenges but do not have an identification.”

Although this definition does not include students with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), oppositional defiant disorders (ODD) or unrelated emotional issues, many states do classify high-functioning ASD as a mild to moderate learning disability.

Students with mild to moderate disabilities may spend most of their day in a general education classroom, supplemented by time in speech therapy, occupational therapy or some other specialized program. They may struggle with reading or math but can function in a general classroom with appropriate modifications and accommodations. A mild to moderate learning disability, however, is not the same as a medical diagnosis of an intellectual disability. In fact, many students with mild to moderate learning disabilities have average or high intelligence.

Severe or Multiple Disabilities

According to the Education Resources Information Center (ERIC), ” The classifications of severe handicaps, severe/profound impairments, or multiple disabilities are less than precise.” The needs and abilities of children identified as having severe or profound disabilities are complex. However, with sufficient support, some students with severe or multiple disabilities can receive appropriate services in self-contained special education classes. Their disabilities might include severe physical limitations, emotional disturbances or extreme developmental delays.

Some students with autism may fall on the more severe end of the spectrum and therefore require a more structured learning environment.

Preparing Teachers for Students With Learning Disabilities

A recent survey of general education teachers found that only 30% feel strongly that they can successfully teach students with learning disabilities. The inclusive education classroom model ideally involves both a general education teacher and a special education teacher, but more and more general education teachers are working with students with mild to moderate disabilities without help.

Teachers who work with students with mild to moderate disabilities can strengthen their skills by earning a Master of Education (M.Ed.) in Curriculum & Instruction with a Concentration in Special Education in Mild/Moderate Grades 1-12 from the University of Louisiana Monroe (ULM). The online program is designed for the certified teacher who wants to continue working while pursuing this specialized degree.

Program candidates will learn methods to teach basic subjects to students with mild/moderate disabilities in general education classrooms, resource rooms, hospitals or homebound settings. In addition, the program includes training in educational techniques for exceptional children in regular classroom settings, and behavior management and classroom organization.

This online program consists of 36 credit hours, and you can complete it in as few as 15 months. There are multiple start dates per year, and the tuition is very affordable at $300 per credit hour. Courses are taught by the same experienced faculty who teach on campus, and the program includes a site-based internship.

Learn more about ULM’s M.Ed. in C&I with a Concentration in Special Education in Mild/Moderate Grades 1-12 online program.


Education Resources Information Center: ED371507 1990-00-00 Severe Disabilities. ERIC Digest #311. Revised

EducationWeek: Most Classroom Teachers Feel Unprepared to Support Students With Disabilities

National Center for Learning Disabilities: Forward Together Teaching Special Education

U.S. News & World Report: Mainstreaming Grows Along With Special Education Population

U.S. Department of Education: IDEA Individuals with Disabilities Education Act: Sec 300.8 Child With a Disability

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