Specialized Support

Classroom with plant in window

The Far End of the Continuum

Author: Frances Stetson, Ph.D.

One of the primary goals of education is to provide equitable, quality learning opportunities that enable students to achieve post-school success. This goal is the same for all students, including students with disabilities.  Until the past decade, students that needed extra support and were eligible to receive special education services were typically sent out of the general education classroom to receive those services. Today, educators are motivated to include students in the general education classroom setting as much as possible and to use services delivered outside of the general education class as a last option. This decision is based on the needs of each individual student and is known as specialized support.  This article will take a closer look at how the need for specialized supports is determined and at the quality standards that should be met.


In an effort to help students reach their fullest potential, schools seek to educate students in an inclusive classroom setting beside their typical peers to the greatest extent appropriate. This means that expectations are high for all students and decisions are made on the basis of student needs and not labels or locations. The general education curriculum is standards-based and individualized supports are available as needed within the general education classroom. In line with the goal of inclusion, today’s continuum of support emphasizes the general education setting as the desired placement for all children regardless of the disability or level of need.

Special education is no longer conceived of as a place, but rather a system of individual supports. The general education classroom is the first consideration and educators and parents must determine what instructional accommodations, curricular modification, assistive technology and/or personal supports may be needed to facilitate student success in this environment.  Providing accommodations and modifications to students within a general education setting can, for many students, reduce the need for specialized support. It should be fairly rare that a student with even the most significant needs cannot be successfully integrated into the general education classroom for some part of the school day.

A Closer Look at Specialized Support

When, or if, the general education setting is not appropriate, even with reasonable supports provided, we then turn our attention to specialized support.  The first thing we need to do is re-conceptualize traditional pull-out settings as specialized supports. As long as we use the old words like resource room or self-contained classrooms, we will continue to see a focus on places rather than services. By removing these old location terms from our vocabulary and substituting the phrase “specialized supports,” it reinforces SERVICES rather than PLACES or LABELS. This is not only a vocabulary change but a philosophical shift.

Decisions regarding services should be made on the basis of individual student needs and reviewed often to see if returning to the general education classroom would be appropriate.  How do you decide if a student is in need of specialized support in a different setting? Here are a few scenarios that might require specialized support outside of the general education classroom. Remember, there are no hard and fast rules and every decision must be based on student strengths and needs.

Specialized support scenarios

How do we determine if some part of the school day or week should be delivered to the student in a specialized setting?  A student-centered process for making decisions means that support decisions are truly individualized and consider all legal requirements. The first step focuses on the student’s individual IEP goals and objectives and takes into consideration how those might be addressed within the general education classroom. The second step focuses on instructional and personal support decisions. The last step is to schedule available staff to provide the necessary supports.

Quality Standards for Delivering Specialized Support

There is an old expression that takes on new significance when evaluating services for students with disabilities:  What is so special about special education?  Beginning with the premise that the majority of students with disabilities can and should have their needs met in the general education classroom for all or most of the day, what should characterize special education services delivered in a specialized classroom?  What are the quality standards that must be met in a special education classroom?

Necessary Characteristics of Quality Instruction in Special Education Settings

  1. The standards-based general education curriculum is the framework for instructional delivery.
  2. Teacher(s) do not address multiple subjects or grade levels at the same time.
  3. Instruction is effective and research-based and accelerated – not remedial in approach.
  4. Students are grouped appropriately for instruction.
  5. Instructional accommodations are applied appropriately.
  6. Curriculum modifications are not applied if an instructional accommodation would be effective.
  7. Data-based decisions inform next steps in instruction for each student individually.
  8. Academic learning time is protected, and students are actively engaged in learning for a minimum of 90% of the lesson or day.
  9. Personal supports are faded, as appropriate, over time in an effort to achieve greater independence.
  10. Specialized support teachers plan regularly with grade level or subject area team.
  11. The opportunity for each student to return to the general education classroom is reviewed frequently and plans for a successful transition are made well in advance.

Only when each student receives targeted support, instructional and/or behavioral, through a lens of high expectations, will data trends for students served in specialized settings (separate) reverse.  It is ineffective to rely on program or label designations for the kinds of services and supports required by students who are eligible for specially designed instruction.  This term means exactly what it says— specially and individually designed instruction. That is what is special about special education.


What should specialized support look like? When reflecting on the quality standards for specialized support in an educational setting, educators must frequently review current practices to decide what is working, what is not working, and what should be changed.  To continue to improve services provided to students with disabilities, we must purposefully engage in conversations about these issues. Specialized support should be utilized only when it is the best option for the student’s needs.  When specialized support is the best option for the student, it is reassuring to know that the quality standards are followed, and that time spent in the separate classroom is of high impact and results in post-school success, which is the goal for all!

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