Special Education » Glossary of Special Education Terms

Glossary of Special Education Terms

Glossary of Special Education Terms

Prepared by Dr. Joy J. Rogers, Professor, Loyola University School of Education


Achievement/ability discrepancy. A criterion often used to determine whether a child has a learning disability. It asks, is the child working up to expectations? One "formula" for determining the presence of a discrepancy has been promulgated by the Illinois State Board of Education. Some districts have developed their own. Some scholarly texts offer alternative formulae.

ADA - Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. This law follows the principles established under Section 504. It provides for the protection from discrimination of persons with disabilities and allows claims for compensatory and punitive damages.

Adaptive behavior. A sort of "practical intelligence." It is usually measured by scales that identify how well a person manages within his or her own environment.

ADHD - Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder. A condition identified as a medical diagnosis by the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual III-Revised (DSM III-R). This condition is also often called Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) because of that usage in a previous edition of DSM. Although it is not a service category under IDEA, children with this condition may be eligible for service under other categories or under Section 504.

Advocate. An individual who is not an attorney, but who assists parents and children in their dealings with school districts regarding the children's special education programs.

Affective. A term which refers to emotions and attitudes.

Autism. A new category of eligibility for special education services added by IDEA.

Board of Education v. Rowley ("Rowley"). Case that helped to define how a special education program may be determined to be "appropriate."

Chronologically age appropriate. A standard by which children's activities may be evaluated. Instruction and materials should be directed at the student's actual age, rather than to the interests and tastes of younger children.

Cognitive. A term which refers to reasoning or intellectual capacity.

Community-based. A standard by which special education services may be judged. Skills are taught at varied locations in the community rather than in the classroom in order to facilitate generalization and application.

Continuum of services. The range of services which must be available to the students of a school district so that they may be served in the least restrictive environment.

Conference. Generic term that may refer to a multidisciplinary conference, IEP meeting, annual review, or other type of meeting. When in doubt, it is important to clarify the purpose of any conference.

Curriculum. The subject matter that is to be learned. A curriculum is usually described in terms of its scope and sequence. One might examine the curriculum of a special school, for example, to determine whether it matches the IEP of a student who had been recommended to go there.

Curriculum-based assessment. A methodology of increasing importance in special education in which a child's progress in the curriculum is measured at frequent intervals.

Delay. Development which does not occur within expected time ranges.

Disability. A physical, sensory, cognitive or affective impairment that causes the student to need special education. NOTE: There are significant differences in the definitions of disability in IDEA and Section 504.

Due process. In general, due process includes the elements of notice, opportunity to be heard and to defend oneself. With regard to IDEA, due process refers to a specific set of procedures described in 23 IAC Part 226. With regard to Section 504, procedures are less clearly specified. With regard to student discipline matters, the amount of process that is due is largely dependent upon the degree of jeopardy involved.

E.D.G.A.R. Complaint. A complaint filed with a state agency under rules promulgated as (federal) Education Department General Administrative Regulations (EDGAR) that each state have a means for receiving complaints that federal laws are being violated. Enforcement mechanisms are weak.

EHA - Education for All Handicapped Children Act. More commonly identified as P.L. 94-142. It became effective in 1975 and has been significantly modified by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (1977).

Emotional Disturbance. An eligibility category under IDEA which is described in detail within the statute.

Extended school day. A provision for a special education student to receive instruction for a period longer than the standard school day. This sometimes includes later afternoons, or earlier starting times.

Extended school year. A provision for a special education student to receive instruction during ordinary school "vacation" periods.

FERPA - Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. A federal law that regulates the management of student records and disclosure of information from those records. The Act has its own administrative enforcement mechanism.

FAPE - "free appropriate public education." Provision as required under IDEA.

Fine motor. Functions which require tiny muscle movements. For example, writing or typing would require fine motor movement.

Functional curriculum. A curriculum focused on practical life skills and usually taught in community based settings with concrete materials that are a regular part of everyday life. The purpose of this type of instruction is to maximize the student's generalization to real life use of his/her skills.

Gross motor. Functions which require large muscle movements. For example, walking or jumping would require gross motor movement.

Heterogeneous grouping. An educational practice in which students of diverse abilities are placed within the same instructional groups. This practice is usually helpful in the integration of children with disabilities.

Homogeneous grouping. An educational practice in which students of similar abilities are placed within the same instructional groups. This practice usually serves as a barrier to the integration of children with disabilities.

Honig v. Doe. This case offers significant information on the nature of discipline that may be used with special education students.

IEP - Individualized Education Plan. The document developed at an IEP meeting which sets the standard by which subsequent special education services are usually determined appropriate.

IEP meeting. A gathering required at least annually under IDEA in which an IEP is developed for a student receiving special education.

IFSP - Individual Family Service Plan. Document which outlines the services to be delivered to families of infants and toddlers receiving special services.

Inclusion. A popular philosophical position based upon the belief that we need to return to one educational system for all students and that every student is entitled to an instructional program which meets his or her individual needs and learning characteristics.

IDEA - Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Law that modifies and extends the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHA).

Infants and toddlers. Children not yet three years of age.


Instructional placement. Phrase used to describe the situation in which a child spends at least half of his/her school day in special education.

Irving Independent School District v. Tatro ("Tatro"). A case that helped to distinguish (federally required) related services from "medical services" which are not required to be provided under IDEA.

LEA - Local Educational Agency. i.e., a local public school district.

Learning disability. An eligibility category under IDEA and described in detail within the statute.

LRE - Least Restrictive Environment. A requirement of IDEA.


Mainstreaming. This term does not actually appear in law. It refers to IDEA's preference for the education of every child in the least restrictive environment for each student and has been most widely used to refer to the return of children with mild disabilities to a regular classroom for a portion of each school day.

Mediation. A voluntary dispute resolution process for which OAH (office of Administrative Hearings) will provide a mediation.

Occupational therapy. A special education related service which is usually focused upon the development of a student's fine motor skills and/or the identification of adapted ways of accomplishing activities of daily living when a student's disabilities preclude doing those tasks in typical ways (e.g. modifying clothing so a person without arms can dress himself/herself).

OCR - US Office for Civil Rights. An agency of the federal government's executive branch within the Department of Education. It is charged with enforcing a number of civil rights statutes including Section 504.

OSEP - US Office of Special Education Programs. An office within OSERS charged with assuring that the various states comply with IDEA.

OSERS - US Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services. An agency of the federal government's executive branch within the Department of Education.

Placement. The setting in which the special education service is delivered to the student. It must be derived from the student's IEP.

Present levels of educational performance. PLOPS. A required IEP component.

Referral. Notice to a school district that a child may be in need of special education. Although good practice suggests making referrals in writing, an oral referral may be valid. A referral sets certain timelines in place.

Regression/recoupment. The amount of loss of skills a child experiences over an instructional break (primarily summer vacation) and the amount of time it takes him/her to recover the lost skills. Standards for when regression and recoupment concerns require summer school are developed in case law and in state and federal policy letters.

Related services. IDEA requires that school districts provide whatever related services (other than medical care which is not for diagnostic purposes) a child needs in order to benefit from his or her special education program.

Resource placement. A special education placement for less than half a child's school day. Such a classroom is usually called a "resource room."

Respite care. A service provided to the families of children who require extraordinary forms of care so that the family can take vacations, handle business affairs, and have some relief from the duties of caring for the child.

Section 504. Provision of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 which prohibits recipients of federal funds from discrimination against persons with disabilities.

Section 504 hearing. An evolving area of administrative procedures. School districts must make a Section 504 hearing process available; but that process need not be the same as the IDEA hearing mechanism.

Self-contained placement. See "instructional placement."

Short-term objectives. A required component of an IEP. Each annual goal must have at least one short-term objective.

Standardized tests. Tests which have norms reflecting a larger population (usually these are age or grade based norms reflecting the performance of children throughout the country on the same tests).

Supplementary aids and services. Accommodations which could permit a student to profit from instruction in the least restrictive environment. They are required under IDEA.

Surrogate parent. An individual trained and appointed by the court to exercise special education rights on behalf of children with disabilities who are wards of the California Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) or are otherwise without access to parents. This is not a mechanism for evading parents who disagree with a school's proposed interventions.

Therapeutic day program. An instructional placement for students with serious emotional disturbance in which aspects of treatment for the emotional difficulty are incorporated into the school program. Depending on the theoretical orientation of the school, these services may include psychotherapy, behavior management, positive peer culture, or other types of intervention.

Total communication. An instructional strategy in which teachers instruct children with severe hearing loss both by speaking to them and by using sign language. The theory is that if the children can learn to speak, then the stimulation is being presented. Even if they do not learn to speak, they will still be provided with a language-rich environment.

Transition planning. At a minimum, this is planning for adolescents' post-school lives and must begin by age 14-1/2. This involves preparation of a document called an Individual Transition Program (ITP). Good practice may involve planning for earlier transitions as well as incorporating such plans into the child's IEP.

Traumatic brain injury. A new disability category added for eligibility under IDEA.

Visual-motor. Coordination of what is seen with an action. For example, one uses visual-motor coordination when catching a ball.