Meeting the Needs of Every Learner: The Role of Special Education Professionals

March 11, 2024

illustration of a group of teachers and special education students overlayed on background of four puzzle pieces (image thanks to pch.vector on Freepik)


Students with disabilities used to be grouped together in one special education classroom — a “one size fits all” approach. Thankfully, educators have come to realize that approach is highly ineffective. School districts now prioritize a variety of learning mechanisms to provide the most support to students with special needs. But with approximately 15% of all public school students receiving special education and/or related services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), how can educators meet those needs while still providing quality instruction?

The answer is surprisingly simple: recognizance, collaboration, and inclusion.


The first step toward ensuring a student receives a quality education is recognizing what physical, mental, or emotional challenges a child may be experiencing. IDEA defines disabilities as falling under one of these categories:

  • illustration of teacher pointing to letters A  and Z on a chalkboard, one student in a wheelchair at desk, girl reads book
  • Deafness
  • Emotional disturbance
  • Hearing impairment (including deafness)
  • Intellectual Disability
  • Multiple disabilities
  • Orthopedic impairment
  • Other health impairment
  • Specific learning disability
  • Speech or language impairment
  • Traumatic brain injury
  • Visual impairment (including blindness)


It is crucial to remember that a student’s disability often has little bearing on their capacity to learn. For example, a student who is deaf may need assistive technology or a notetaker to thrive in a general education setting, while a student with a learning disability may need alternative techniques to reinforce instruction. When teachers, administrators, and parents collaborate to recognize the needs of an individual learner and identify the resources available to that student, they can create a positive classroom environment that promotes student learning and success.

According to the U.S. National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), more than 60 percent of students with disabilities spend at least 80 percent of their school day in general education classrooms. As a result, it is often up to special education teachers and special education administrators to set the tone for these environments. They also take the lead in providing resources and support for students in a variety of learning settings. Most public schools have adopted the following three intervention-based approaches: push-in, pull-out, or a self-contained special education classroom.

The push-in method involves a special education teacher providing differentiated instruction to the student within the general education classroom at designated points throughout the day. This allows a student to remain in their normal environment, surrounded by their peers and teacher. However, this approach can lend itself to distraction by virtue of the other students and the teacher being in the room. Additionally, it is very important that the teachers work together to ensure their instruction is complementary to one another in support of the student’s needs.

The pull-out method is exactly as it sounds — a student is pulled out of the classroom and taken to a separate setting for small group or one-on-one instruction. This setting is often known as a resource room, where students have time with a special educator to focus on a particular need. Students may thrive from receiving personalized attention; however, they may have apprehensions about how they are perceived by their peers for receiving necessary interventions. Additionally, schools tight on space may struggle with finding a separate location for students to learn.

A self-contained special education classroom is considered the most restrictive environment in a public school setting for students. Every student in the class has an individualized education plan (IEP) and there may be multiple teacher’s aides to support the special education teacher and ensure every student’s individual needs are met. It offers the greatest personalized instruction, but may limit opportunities for social interaction with typically developing peers in other classrooms. For students who have more specialized needs, there are also separate schools, programs, or home or hospital instruction.


Prioritizing inclusion has become increasingly important — not just for students with physical, mental, or emotional disabilities, but also supporting students from other cultures. In recent years, students for whom English is not their first language have also become a target audience for special educators due to their needs for culturally and linguistically diverse classrooms. That means special educators must not only understand the multidimensional needs of students with disabilities, they must also create inclusive classroom environments that support the needs of all learners — no small task!

illustration of a group of elementary children drawing together, one student embraces another student in a welcoming gesture

Understanding the full range of abilities and learning to implement instructional and behavioral strategies is key to maximizing success for all students. While it’s not likely to know every nuance of every disability or special need, there are certainly ways to equip oneself with as much knowledge as possible to be an effective special educator.

In an ideal school district, ongoing professional development is provided to focus on inclusive teaching practices and share resources of new advances in technology or understanding of ability. However, it takes extensive cooperation between general and special ed teachers to create a truly inclusive and equitable learning environment. In this way, students gain a positive individualized learning experience that caters to their needs. They also benefit from a more level playing field where equity is achievable.

Another path to enhancing your special education teaching methods is to pursue an advanced degree in special education, such as a master’s or doctorate. At the George Washington University Graduate School for Education and Human Development, graduate programs in special education and disability studies focus on social justice ethics, culturally responsive practices, strength-based strategies, and disability rights to develop well-rounded and learned special educators.

Given that this field is only expected to grow, educators can benefit greatly from pursuing additional education that promotes inclusion and equity for all learners through an individualized teaching and learning approach. If you’re already a special educator, consider advancing your capabilities in creating equitable and inclusive classrooms with a special education graduate degree and drive meaningful change for students with special needs. To learn more about our programs, request information from a GSEHD admissions coach.