Special education is typically described as an approach designed to serve exceptional students who either have physical disabilities, developmental disorders, behavioral disorders or challenges with learning, or who are gifted. In Canada, a variety of terms have been used interchangeably across the provinces and territories when referring to exceptional students. For example, Ontario and New Brunswick use the term “students with exceptionalities,” while other provinces use the phrase “students with special needs.”

History of Special Education

Historically (1700s1800s), handicapped people were excluded from general society and largely ignored. The Eugenics movement (early 20th century) influenced the field of intellectual disabilities, which was associated with high levels of institutionalization, and early history was much influenced by the use of required intelligence testing which resulted in the prevention of many students with disabilities from moving into the regular education system. From the 1950s to 1990s there was a progressive inclusion movement in Canadian education (from segregation to categorization of students to integration, mainstreaming, and inclusion of students). Hence, over time the notion of exceptional children has broadened and the shared understanding across the provinces and territories now recognizes that exceptional children frequently require something more than what their non-exceptional peers receive from their teachers and that they should receive differentiated instruction within the regular education system. During the integration-mainstreaming period (1970s1980s), special education usually followed a five step process, beginning with the identification of students with exceptional needs, and ending with individual programming in special education classes or with part-time individualized assistance and /or accommodations in or outside of the regular classroom (i.e. referral for testing, labeling, placement, programming). Throughout the 1980s and 1990s many educators across Canada recognized the fundamental flaws inherent in the special education approach (e.g., large and static organizational structures and complicated professional deployment procedures, long delays in application, conflicts between parents and educators regarding identification of educational problems and placement decisions, overly costly and labor intensive services, and problems associated with eligibility for service requirements). Due to these challenges school districts within the provinces and territories across Canada have generally adopted inclusive education (the merger of special education and regular education into a unified educational system) as a framework for addressing all students learning needs including students with exceptionalities.

High Incidence Exceptional Students

The majority of exceptional students (e.g., approximately 80 to 90 per cent) and are those students who have been identified as having exceptional gifts and talents, as well as those with mild and moderate intellectual/developmental disabilities, learning disabilities, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, behavior disorders, emotional problems, and communication problems. These students can usually benefit from differentiated instruction, and collaborative learning experiences within well organized and structured classroom environments.

Students with gifts and talents show high abilities in one or more areas including intellectual functioning, academics, leadership, creativity, and performing arts. A minority of these children also show challenging behaviour which can be difficult to deal with in some settings. Students with mild and moderate intellectual or developmental disabilities tend to develop their cognitive abilities and adaptive or social behaviours at a significantly slower rate than their peers, which results in difficulties relative to their academic, social, and vocational development. Students with learning disabilities have problems in perceiving and processing information and have significant difficulties with reading, and/or writing, and/or mathematics. Students with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder are characterized by chronic and maladaptive inattentiveness and/or hyperactivity-impulsiveness that impact their academic, social, and /or vocational success. Students with behavioral and emotional exceptionalities behave in ways that depart significantly from social and cultural norms and that influences their ability to learn, build, and maintain relationships with peers and teachers. In addition, these students can have a general pervasive mood of unhappiness or depression, develop fears associated with personal and school problems, and demonstrate inappropriate types of behavior or feelings under normal circumstances. Children with learning disabilities are those with challenges in areas such as reading and mathematics.

Low Incidence Exceptional Students

Low incidence exceptional students represent a minority of exceptional students (e.g., approximately 10 to 20 per cent) and are typically those students who have visual and hearing impairments, physical and health impairments, pervasive developmental disorders (e.g., autism), traumatic brain injury, and/or severe disabilities (e.g., moderate to severe intellectual/developmental disabilities) who often require specialized assistance (e.g., specialists and teaching assistants) as well as particular teaching accommodations and modified interventions. Yet it should also be recognized that the prevalence of some of these conditions appear to be increasing (e.g., Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder and Autism Spectrum Disorder) which frequently are associated with major behavioral challenges.

Students with visual impairments and students who are blind have partial or complete loss of sight and need the provision of information through non-visual senses (e.g. auditory and tactile sources of information) while also having a full range of instructional experiences. Students who are hard of hearing or who are deaf have partial or complete hearing loss that causes difficulties and limitations with respect to the development of their speech and oral language. They need help communicating with others by way of a variety of forms of communication (e.g., oral, sign language).Students with physical impairments often have difficulties associated with their joints, skeleton, and muscles which create problems for them in using their body. Students with health impairments have a disease or medical condition that interferes with their ability to lead a normal life. Some students with autism spectrum disorder have a wide range of affective, social, communication, and behavioral deficits in comparison to others at their developmental level. Students with traumatic brain injury tend to have problems with attention, concentration, memory, and executive functioning which result in difficulties in academic and social learning. Students with severe disabilities have significant deficiencies in cognitive and adaptive functioning. They tend to have poor language skills, have difficulty developing self- help skills, lack social and vocational abilities and have limited physical mobility due to impaired physical and motor development. Yet many of these can show improvement with support and adaptive education.

Planning and Delivering Instruction

Exceptional students with major challenges (emotional, cognitive or physical) require educational procedures that are responsive to their learning needs, which may require specialized supports and services. Currently, the processes and procedures most utilized in today’s schools are (1) Universal Design for Learning, (2) Differentiated Instruction, (3) Participant Model, (4) Collaboration and Consultation, and (5) Response to Intervention.

Universal Design for Learning involves a set of principles for ensuring that students are provided equal opportunities to learn by creating environments, materials and systems that allow options — such as multi-modal (e.g., visual, verbal, tactile) and multifaceted learning environments — to maximize students’ learning. Differentiated instruction acknowledges that students vary according to learning styles and abilities, strengths, weaknesses, interests, and modalities. Moreover, differentiated instruction adapts and accommodates to student learning and developmental variance by providing direct and mediated instruction (e.g., modeling, guided practice, feedback, student control,) or cognitive instruction (e.g., activation of prior learning, organizing content, development of conceptual awareness (e.g., imaging the outcome and forward planning), facilitation of memory, problem solving, and collaborative learning).

The participation model focuses on increasing both the academic and social participation of students and their levels of independence by evaluating their augmentative and alternative communication abilities and developing interventions to better meet their needs. Collaboration and consultation allow people involved in the education of exceptional students (e.g., teachers, parents, teaching assistants, counselors, psychologists, occupational therapists, and speech therapists) to work together, learn from one another, and support each other in addressing the students’ needs. The monitoring of students’ learning progress is required to determine whether or not they may require more specialized and intensive teaching approaches or more individualized therapeutic treatment.

Assessment of Exceptional Children

Assessment of exceptional students involves the process of collecting and interpreting information from various sources to inform students and parents/guardians about the progress the students are making relative to their attainment of knowledge, skills, abilities, attitudes, and behaviors, and to inform those who make educational decisions (e.g., instructional, diagnostic, placement, promotion, curriculum planning, program development, policy). Intelligence tests are still used, although on a much more limited basis, for identifying specific areas of difficulty.

Assessment of exceptional students typically includes formal assessment, such as standardized testing, and informal assessment, such as classroom assessment techniques that gauge students’ learning progress, which can indicate the need for instructional modifications, and suggest directions for further assessment with respect to their educational setting. Informal assessments include skilled and structured observations of students’ behavior and work; interviews with students to determine approaches they are using to solve problems; classroom quizzes; criterion-referenced tests (to compare students’ performance relative to the curriculum); checklists and rating scales; portfolio assessment (assessment of students work overtime relative to the instructional goals for the students); curriculum based assessment (assessment of students’ specific skills taught in the classroom); dynamic assessment (assessment of students’ thinking processes); and authentic assessment (performance-based assessment to determine how students are interpreting and applying their knowledge to real life activities).

The Evolution of Special Education

Over time, those considered falling within the domain of special education has widened significantly. Initially, special education pertained to a relatively small number of individuals within society (i.e. those with the most obvious and encompassing disabilities); now there are more children identified as exceptional within schools and regular classroom settings (e.g., students with more mild to moderate disabilities such as children and youth with learning disabilities, autism spectrum disorder, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder) than at any time within our history. As a result of the increasing numbers of exceptional children as well as the growing number of children across Canada with English as a second language, and the increasing variance of children and youth in todays’ schools with respect to gender, religion, social class, race, culture and ethnicity, teachers are faced with providing appropriate instruction that addresses all of their students’ individual and collective needs. Within this structure the use of the internet and web plus a variety of other assistive devices are proving to be of considerable value. From this perspective, the evolution of special education has gone from exclusion to inclusion to diversity education (i.e. teaching and learning that addresses all student diversity).

Our educational system in Canada has gone through major pedagogical paradigm shifts and school reorganization and restructuring with respect to our view and educational treatment of diverse students wherein student diversity is no longer thought of as exceptional and a burden to schools and teachers but as a normality within the Canadian educational scene and as an enrichment to schools and the broader society. In this historical evolution, we have moved from excluding, separating, and accommodating particular groups of children to the view and practice of recognizing the need and value of better understanding, appreciating, respecting, and addressing student diversity within Canadian schools and classrooms. Challenges remain, however. Many teachers recognize the need for more support in often large classes. The role of teacher aides and their professional education is critically important. The importance of diverse education involving the fine arts (e.g., music, drama) become increasingly important as effective special education requires making use of children’s particular talents despite their disabilities. As these children grow and develop further education and support is required to enter an inclusive adult world. Finally, special education can learn much from holistic quality of life approaches within the context of lifespan education, which is developing in many areas of disability in a variety of contexts internationally.