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Special Education definitions
  • Disabilities that qualify for special education - In order to fully meet the definition (and eligibility for special education and related services) as a “child with a disability,” a child’s educational performance must be adversely affected due to the disability.

1. Autism means a developmental disability significantly affecting verbal and nonverbal communication and social interaction, generally evident before age three, that adversely affects a child’s educational performance. Other characteristics often associated with autism are engaging in repetitive activities and stereotyped movements, resistance to environmental change or change in daily routines, and unusual responses to sensory experiences. The term autism does not apply if the child’s educational performance is adversely affected primarily because the child has an emotional disturbance, as defined in #5 below.

A child who shows the characteristics of autism after age 3 could be diagnosed as having autism if the criteria above are satisfied.

2. Deaf-Blindness means concomitant [simultaneous] hearing and visual impairments, the combination of which causes such severe communication and other developmental and educational needs that they cannot be accommodated in special education programs solely for children with deafness or children with blindness.

 3. Deafness means a hearing impairment so severe that a child is impaired in processing linguistic information through hearing, with or without amplification, that adversely affects a child’s educational performance.

4. Developmental Delay is for children from birth to age three (under IDEA Part C) and children from ages three through nine (under IDEA Part B), the term developmental delay, as defined by each State, means a delay in one or more of the following areas: physical development; cognitive development; communication; social or emotional development; or adaptive [behavioral] development.

 5. Emotional Disturbance means a condition exhibiting one or more of the following characteristics over a long period of time and to a marked degree that adversely affects a child’s educational performance:

(a) An inability to learn that cannot be explained by intellectual, sensory, or health factors

(b) An inability to build or maintain satisfactory interpersonal relationships with peers and teachers

(c) Inappropriate types of behavior or feelings under normal circumstances

(d) A general pervasive mood of unhappiness or depression

(e) A tendency to develop physical symptoms or fears associated with personal or school problems

The term includes schizophrenia. The term does not apply to children who are socially maladjusted, unless it is determined that they have an emotional disturbance.

6. Hearing Impairment means an impairment in hearing, whether permanent or fluctuating, that adversely affects a child’s educational performance but is not included under the definition of “deafness.”

 7. Intellectual Disability means significantly sub average general intellectual functioning, existing concurrently [at the same time] with deficits in adaptive behavior and manifested during the developmental period, that adversely affects a child’s educational performance.

8. Multiple Disabilities means concomitant [simultaneous] impairments (such as intellectual disability-blindness, intellectual disability-orthopedic impairment, etc.), the combination of which causes such severe educational needs that they cannot be accommodated in a special education program solely for one of the impairments. The term does not include deaf-blindness.

9. Orthopedic Impairment means a severe orthopedic impairment that adversely affects a child’s educational performance. The term includes impairments caused by a congenital anomaly, impairments caused by disease (e.g., poliomyelitis, bone tuberculosis), and impairments from other causes (e.g. cerebral palsy, amputations, and fractures or burns that cause contractures).

10. Other Health Impairment means having limited strength, vitality, or alertness, including a heightened alertness to environmental stimuli, that results in limited alertness with respect to the educational environment, that:

(a) Is due to chronic or acute health problems such as asthma, ADD or ADHD, diabetes, epilepsy, a heart condition, hemophilia, lead poisoning, leukemia, nephritis, rheumatic fever, sickle cell anemia, and Tourette syndrome; and

(b) Adversely affects a child’s educational performance.

11. Specific Learning Disability means a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, that may manifest itself in the imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or to do mathematical calculations. The term includes such conditions as perceptual disabilities, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia. The term does not include learning problems that are primarily the result of visual, hearing, or motor disabilities; of intellectual disability; of emotional disturbance; or of environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage.

 12. Speech or Language Impairment means a communication disorder such as stuttering, impaired articulation, a language impairment, or a voice impairment that adversely affects a child’s educational performance.

13. Traumatic Brain Injury means an acquired injury to the brain caused by an external physical force, resulting in total or partial functional disability or psychosocial impairment, or both, that adversely affects a child’s educational performance. The term applies to open or closed head injuries resulting in impairments in one or more areas, such as cognition; language; memory; attention; reasoning; abstract thinking; judgment; problem-solving; sensory, perceptual, and motor abilities; psychosocial behavior; physical functions; information processing; and speech. The term does not apply to brain injuries that are congenital or degenerative, or to brain injuries induced by birth trauma.

14. Visual Impairment Including Blindness means an impairment in vision that, even with correction, adversely affects a child’s educational performance. The term includes both partial sight and blindness.


  • Scaffolding is the gradual fade of teacher assistance (modeling of a technique) to increase student independence. The degree and type of modeling required by an individual student is dependent upon the achievement and ability levels of the student.  The student may need the skill broken down into small steps that can be mastered one at a time. Gradually increasing the level of complexity of the task is another form of scaffolding. For example, you might use text with a lower readability level to teach a skill like 'scanning for main ideas,’ then move the student to grade-level text or introduce a math process using only whole numbers, then teach it with fractions once the student masters the basic process.
  • Graphic organizers and Note-Taking Guides give students a visual representation of concepts being studied and their relationships to other concepts. Process guides provide explicit reminders of the steps involved in a skill (such as long division or writing a paragraph).
  • Preteaching and Reteaching: Introducing a student to a challenging skill before it is presented to the whole class can allow the student to better understand the whole group instruction. Reteaching solidifies understanding, provides extra practice, and allows teachers to correct any misunderstanding. Presenting the material in a different way (e.g., using manipulatives, visuals, videos, etc.) may help the student grasp the concept or skill.
  • Flexible Grouping is the use of small groups that change depending on the activity, student prior knowledge, skill set, and interest level. Small groups can be used for preteaching, reteaching, extra practice, to present material in different ways, and for enrichment.  Using heterogeneous groups allow for students to help one another while homogeneous groups work better if you need to target a specific skill with a particular group of students. Make sure you do not always group students with IEPs in the same group to avoid recreating a separate class within a class.
  • Tiered Instruction is used to ensure all students focus on essential understandings and skills, but at different levels of abstractness and complexity. By keeping the focus of the activity the same, but providing different routes of access at varying degrees of difficulty, the teacher maximizes the likelihood that each student comes away with pivotal skills and understandings and that everyone is appropriately challenged.
  • Specially Designed Instruction (SDI): What the teacher does through evidence based instructional practices. SDI means adapting, as appropriate to the needs of an eligible child, the content, methodology or delivery of instruction to address the unique needs of the child that result from the child's disability and to ensure access of the child to the general curriculum, so that he or she can meet the educational standards in place for all students. There is no requirement of a separate curriculum, separate location or requirement that a special education staff member must deliver the instruction. However, there is a requirement that the special education certificated staff member design and monitor the instruction. The key concepts of specially designed instruction to remember are that the instruction is adapted either in the content taught, the learning methods used or how the instruction is delivered. Specially designed instruction is not simply monitoring, checking in, or providing only accommodations or modifications.
  • Accommodation: Accommodations are practices and procedures in the areas of presentation, response, setting, and timing/scheduling that provide equitable instructional and assessment access for students with disabilities. Accommodations reduce or eliminate the effects of a student’s disability and do not reduce learning expectations. An accommodation is a change that helps a student overcome or work around a disability. Allowing a student who has trouble writing to give his or her answers orally is an example of an accommodation. This student is still expected to know the same material and answer the same questions as fully as the other students, but he or she does not have to write his or her answers to show that he or she knows the information. Accommodations are provided to help students better access the instruction or access testing materials. Standards and goals for learning in school do not have to change when accommodations are used.
  • Adapted Physical Education (APE): A component of the educational curriculum in which physical, recreational, and other therapists work with children who exhibit delays in motor development and perceptual motor skills. It is a related service some children might need in addition to or in place of physical education.
  • Adverse Educational Impact: in order to qualify for special education services, a student must have a disability that interferes with some aspect of learning.
  • Activities of Daily Living (ADL): Activities of daily living (ADL) are routine activities that people tend do every day without needing assistance such as feeding ourselves, bathing, dressing, grooming, work, homemaking, and leisure.
  • Alternative Assessment: measures student performance on alternate achievement standards or for a functional life skills curriculum.
  • Alternative Augmentative Communication (AAC): includes all forms of communication other than oral speech that are used to express thoughts, needs, wants, and ideas. We all use AAC when we make facial expressions or gestures, use symbols or pictures, or write. People with severe speech or language problems rely on AAC to supplement existing speech or replace speech that is not functional. Special augmentative aids, such as picture and symbol communication boards and electronic devices, are available to help people express themselves. This may increase social interaction, school performance, and feelings of self-worth. AAC users should not stop using speech if they are able to do so. The AAC aids and devices are used to enhance their communication.
  • Antecedent: something that comes before, precedes, or causes a behavior
  • Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA): is the process of studying and modifying behavior by systematically applying interventions based upon the principles of learning theory to improve socially significant behaviors to a meaningful degree, and to demonstrate that the interventions employed are responsible for the improvement in behavior.
  • Antecedent, Behavior, Consequence (ABC): This simple formula helps a professional write a Functional Behavioral Analysis (FBA)
  • Assessment or Evaluation: The testing and diagnostic processes leading up to the development of an appropriate IEP for a student with special education needs. The assessment will measure areas of cognition, academics and language skills along with social, emotional, developmental and medical findings, using a variety of tools, tests and strategies.
  • Assistive Technology: an item, piece of equipment, or product system purchased commercially, modified or customized and used to increase, maintain or improve functional capabilities of students with disabilities; also, services that assist students in selecting, acquiring, and using devices
  • Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP): A BIP takes the observations made in a Functional Behavioral Assessment (FBA) and turns them into a concrete written plan of action for managing a student's problem behaviors. A BIP may include ways to change the environment to keep behavior from starting in the first place, provide positive reinforcement to promote good behavior, employ planned ignoring to avoid reinforcing bad behavior, and provide supports needed so that the student will not be driven to act out due to frustration or fatigue. 
  • ChildFind: The responsibility of the school district to locate, identify, and evaluate children with disabilities in their jurisdiction.
  • Cumulative File: The records maintained by the district for any child enrolled in school. The file may contain evaluations and information about a child’s disability and placement. It also contains grades and the results of standardized assessments. Parents have the right to inspect these files at any time.
  • Differentiation: a way of thinking about and planning in order to meet the diverse needs of students based on their characteristics; teachers differentiate content, process, and product according to students' readiness, interest, and learning profiles through a range of instructional and management strategies
  • Early Childhood Special Education (ECSE): An educational program that is designed to meet the unique developmental needs of an individual child with a disability who is three, four, or five years of age.
  • Educational Evaluation: The tests and observations done by the school staff to find out if the child has a disability and requires special education and related services. The school’s multi-disciplinary team is required to do this evaluation and hold a meeting with the parent to discuss the results. A parent may choose to share any evaluation and assessment information done by the child and family agency or by other qualified persons.
  • Eligibility: the process of qualifying for a service under one of the federally defined disability categories
  • Evaluation or Assessment: The testing and diagnostic processes leading up to the development of an appropriate IEP for a student with special education needs. The assessment will measure areas of cognition, academics and language skills along with social, emotional, developmental and medical findings, using a variety of tools, tests and strategies.
  • Extended School Year (ESY): The delivery of special education and related services during the summer vacation or other extended periods when school is not in session. The purpose for ESY is to prevent a child with a disability from losing previously learned skills. The IEP team must consider the need for ESY at the IEP meeting and must describe those services specifically with goals and objectives. Very few special education students require an extended school year. Extended school year services must be individually crafted.
  • Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE): the guaranteed right of children with disabilities to receive Special education and related services that meets their unique needs and are provided at public expense, without charge to the parents.
  • Functional Behavioral Assessment (FBA): A special education term used to describe an attempt to look beyond the obvious interpretation of behavior as "bad" and determine what function it may be serving for a child. Truly understanding why a child behaves the way he or she does is the first, best step to developing strategies to stop the behavior. Schools are required by law to use functional behavior assessments when dealing with challenging behavior in students with special needs, although you may need to specifically push for that FBA. The process usually involves documenting the ABCs – the antecedent (what comes before the behavior), behavior, and consequence (what happens after the behavior) over a number of weeks; interviewing teachers, parents, and others who work with the child; evaluating how the child's disability may affect behavior; and manipulating the environment to see if a way can be found to avoid the behavior. This is usually done by a behavioral specialist, and then becomes the basis for a BIP.
  • Inclusion: Term used to describe services that place students with disabilities in general education classrooms with appropriate support services. Student may receive instruction from both a general education teacher and a special education teacher.
  • Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA 2004): The original legislation was written in 1975 guaranteeing students with disabilities a free and appropriate public education and the right to be educated with their non-disabled peers.
  • Individualized Education Plan (IEP):  A written statement of a child’s current level of educational performance and an individualized plan of instruction, including the goals, specific services to be received, the staff who will carry out the services, the standards and timelines for evaluating progress, and the amount and degree to which the child will participate with typically developing peers (Inclusion/Least Restrictive Environment). The IEP is developed by the child’s parents and the professionals who evaluated the child and/or are providing the services. It is required by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) for all children eligible for special education.
  • Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE): A school district is required by law to conduct assessments for students who may be eligible for special education. If the parent disagrees with the results of a school district's evaluation conducted on their child, they have the right to request an independent educational evaluation. The district must provide parents with information about how to obtain an IEE. An independent educational evaluation means an evaluation conducted by a qualified examiner who is not employed by the school district. Public expense means the school district pays for the full cost of the evaluation and that it is provided at no cost to the parent.
  • IEP Team: Term used to describe the committee of parents, teachers, administrators and school personnel that provides services to the student. The committee may also include medical professional and other relevant parties. The team reviews assessment results, determines goals and objectives and program placement for the child needing services.
  • Informed Consent: signed parental agreement to an action proposed by the district after the parent is provided full information in a way he or she can understand.
  • Intervention: action taken to correct, remediate, or prevent identified or potential educational, medical, or developmental problems
  • Least Restrictive Environment (LRE): The placement of a special needs student in a manner promoting the maximum possible interaction with the general school population. Placement options are offered on a continuum including regular classroom with no support services, regular classroom with support services, designated instruction services, special day classes and private special education programs. refers to the concept that children with disabilities should be educated to the maximum extent possible with children who are not disabled while meeting all their learning needs and physical requirements; the type of setting is stipulated in a child's IEP; LRE is an individual determination, where what is right for one student is not necessarily right for another.
  • Manifestation Determination: Within 10 school days of any decision to change the placement of a child with a disability because of violation of school code, the IEP team must review all relevant information in the student's file to determine if the conduct in question was caused by the child's disability or if the conduct was a direct result of the school district's failure to implement the child's IEP.
  • Mastery Criteria/Mastery Level: the cutoff score on a criterion-referenced test; the condition for mastery of an IEP goal.
  • Meaningful progress: improvement in student performance individually determined to be sufficient to indicate that FAPE is being provided.
  • Modification: A change in what is being taught to, or expected from, the student. Making an assignment easier, so that the student is not doing the same level of work as other students, is an example of a modification.  Modifications change, lower or reduce learning expectations. For this reason, modifications can increase the gap between the achievement of students with disabilities and expectations related to proficiency at a particular grade level. While modifications may be appropriate for some students, long-term use of modifications without assessing their effectiveness would adversely affect students throughout their educational career and widen the achievement gap for these students.
  • Non-public School (NPS) Districts contract with non-public schools when an appropriate placement cannot be found within the scope of the public education setting. Non-public school placement is sought only after efforts to find appropriate placement in public schools have been exhausted.
  • Occupational Therapist (OT): A professional who is devoted to improving a person’s physical abilities through activities that assist in fine motor control.
  • Orientation and Mobility (O&M): Services provided to the blind or visually impaired by an O&M Specialist to enable a child to safely move in school and other environments.
  • Paraeducator: are instructional assistants who assist the teacher(s) in various special education programs.  The paraeducator’s duties include small group instruction, one-on-one instruction, preparing materials for a lesson, correcting papers, teaming, collaboration between regular and special education staff and assisting students with individual learning and health needs.
  • Parent: As used under IDEA, the term "parent(s)" includes: the student’s biological or adoptive parent(s), unless he or she does not have legal authority to make educational decisions for the student; foster parent(s); a guardian generally authorized to act as the student’s parent(s), or authorized to make educational decisions for the student, but not the state, if the student is a ward of the state; an individual acting in the place of the biological or adoptive parent(s) and with whom the student lives, such as a grandparent(s), stepparent(s) or other relative, or an individual who is legally responsible for the student’s welfare; a surrogate parent(s) who has been appointed in accordance with WAC 392-172A-05130;  a person identified by judicial decree or order to act as the parent(s) of the student or to make educational decisions on behalf of the student; or the adult student whose rights have transferred to them pursuant to WAC 392-172A-05135
  • Parent Consent: Special education term used by IDEA that states you have been fully informed in your native language or other mode of communication of all the information about the action for which you are giving consent and that you understand and agree in writing to that action.
  • Part B: Early intervention through ECSE for children ages 3 - 5
  • Part C: Early intervention for children ages birth through 2
  • Physical Therapist (PT): A professional who is devoted to improving a person’s physical abilities through activities that strengthen muscular control and motor coordination.
  • Present Levels of Academic Achievement and Functional Performance (PLAAFP): a statement in the IEP of the child's current baseline of strengths and needs as measured by formal and informal evaluations.
  • Prior Written Notice: required written notice to parents when the school proposes to initiate or change, or refuses to initiate or change, the identifications, evaluation, or educational placement of the child. It is a form that the school must use to tell parents why they’re doing what they’re doing or why they’re not doing what they’re not doing—they must tell parents in writing.
  • Procedural Safeguards: The Notice of Special Education Procedural Safeguards for Students and Their Families is a booklet that describes rights regarding the special education of students who are either identified with a disability or suspected of having a disability; it is required to be provided to parents once each year, as well as upon referral for special education, filing of a complaint, or upon parent request.
  • Referral: a written request for evaluation or eligibility for special education and related services.
  • Related Services: Transportation and such developmental, corrective, and other supportive services as are required to assist a child with a disability to benefit from special education, and includes speech-language pathology and audiology services, interpreting services, psychological services, physical and occupational therapy, recreation, including therapeutic recreation, early identification and assessment of disabilities in children, counseling services, including rehabilitation counseling, orientation and mobility services, and medical services for diagnostic or evaluation purposes. Related services also include school health services and school nurse services, social work services in schools, and parent counseling and training.
  • School Psychologist: School Psychologists have specialized training in both psychology and education. School psychologists understand school systems, effective teaching and successful learning. Their primary function is to complete special education evaluations on students that are referred for special education services. Other core services they provide include: consultation, intervention prevention, education, and planning.
  • Specially Designed Instruction (SDI): is the teaching strategies and methods used by teachers to instruct students with learning disabilities and other types of learning disorders. To develop appropriate specially designed instruction for each learning disabled student, educators and parents work together to analyze student work, evaluation information, and any other available data to determine the student's strengths and weaknesses. Based on that student's unique learning needs, strategies are developed. Teachers continue to measure students' progress and make changes in instruction as needed.

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  • Specially Designed Instruction (SDI): is what a teacher does to present information to the student that is different than what other students received.  It may be instruction that is additional to what other students received and/or different methods or techniques to present the instruction not used with other students. SDI is what makes special education “special.”  SDI is what is done by the teacher, not the student, to help close the academic performance gap between students with disabilities and their general education peers. SDI is to be based upon the specific skills the student does not have which are necessary for them to improve their academic performance required for their measurable annual goals. SDI is what unique teacher instruction is written on the IEP that will be provided to the students to support him/her in being able to perform the measurable annual goal. Properly selected SDI instruction will allow the student to make progress in the general education curriculum and close their gap in academic performance as compared to their regular education peers.  Student abilities are factors in this closing of the gap, but don’t make this an excuse for setting low expectations of a student with disabilities.  It is clear that having high expectations for any student- regular or ones with a disabilities, has a positive influence on both teacher instructional decisions and increased performance by students.
  • Speech and Language (SL) Disorders: Problems in communication and related areas such as oral motor function. These delays and disorders range from simple sound substitutions to the inability to understand or use language or use the oral-motor mechanism for functional speech and feeding. Some causes of speech and language disorders include hearing loss, neurological disorders, brain injury, developmental delay, drug abuse, physical impairments such as cleft lip or palate, and vocal abuse or misuse. Frequently, however, the cause is unknown.
  • Speech Language Pathologist (SLP): A trained therapist, who provides treatment to help a person develop or improve articulation, communication skills, and oral-motor skills, Also helps children with speech errors and/or those with difficulties in language patterns.
  • Student Study Team (SST): A school team that evaluates a child’s performance makes recommendations for success and develops a formal plan. The team includes the classroom teacher, parents, and educational specialists. They may make a recommendation for a special education evaluation.
  • Screening: the process of administering global methods to determine if the child has a suspected disability and whether the child should have evaluations to determine if he qualifies for special education services and/or related services.
  • Special Education: specialized instruction specifically designed to meet the unique needs of a student with a disability, including classroom instructions, instruction in physical education, home instruction, and instruction in hospitals and institutions.
  • Standardized Tests: tests where the administration, scoring, and interpretations are set or prescribed and must be strictly followed; scores resulting from these tests are based on a normed population and compare students to their same-age peers.
  • Supplementary Aides and Services (SAS): aids, services, and other supports that are provided in the classroom, extracurricular, and nonacademic settings to allow a student with a disability to be educated with his nondisabled peers to the maximum extent appropriate; when possible these supports should be scientifically based.
  • Transition Services: Transition is designed to be within a results-oriented process that is focused on improving the academic and functional achievement of the child with a disability to facilitate the student’s move from school to post-school activities, including postsecondary education, vocational education, integrated employment (including supported employment), continuing and adult education, adult services, independent living, or community participation. It is based on the individual student’s needs, taking into account his/her strengths, preferences, and interests.
  • Transition IEP: At age 16 the IEP must include a statement about transition including goals for post-secondary activities and the services needed to achieve these goals.
  • Washington Access to Instruction & Measurement (WA-AIM): is an alternate assessment based on alternate achievement standards aligned to the Common Core State Standards for students with significant cognitive challenges. The WA-AIM is built off of Access Point Frameworks that expand upon the mathematics and English language arts Common Core State Standards and the Washington State science standards to provide students with significant cognitive challenges a continuum of access points to the standards. The WA-AIM will measure student knowledge and skills through the use of twice annual administered performance tasks. The WA-AIM will be used for federal and state accountability in grades 3-8 and 11 and can be used to meet a student’s Certificate of Individual Achievement (CIA) requirements.