Special needs education & accommodation resources for parents

Explore resources, tips, and information about special needs education in the United States

What is special needs education?

Special needs education, commonly shortened to special needs, refers to the practice of accounting for and addressing the individual needs and differences of students with disabilities in the classroom. There are specific learning disabilities (such as dyslexia or dyscalculia) that make it more difficult for students to learn using traditional methods, or conditions (like ADHD) that are not learning disabilities but can interact with a student's learning habits and skills.

In the United States, several laws outline the support schools are obligated to provide for disabled students. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, also known as IDEA, is the primary law specifying service and accommodation requirements that schools provide for eligible students with disabilities. IDEA contains six main elements; these elements define the rights of schools, parents, and students, as well as the evaluation and allocation process to address any individual student's needs.

The components of IDEA are:

  • Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE), a concept that describes the type and quality of education students with disabilities are entitled to. An appropriate education includes regular classes with consistent accommodations and services that meet the educational needs of a student with disabilities.
  • Least Restrictive Environment (LRE), which describes the type of school setting disabled students are entitled to. That is, students should be accommodated in general education settings unless supplemental aids and services in general classrooms are not sufficient to compensate for the severity of their disability.
  • Individualized Education Program (IEP), a document that describes a student's needs and outlines appropriate modifications, accommodations, and services that will help them learn most effectively.
  • Appropriate Evaluation, which is a student's right to receive an accurate assessment that takes into account all information to properly determine the student's needs and provide information that informs and supports the IEP.
  • Parent and Teacher Participation, which expresses the desired framework for evaluations and IEP creation wherein parents and teachers collaborate and communicate throughout the process.
  • Procedural Safeguards that provide methods for parents or teachers to challenge decisions that they feel do not allow the student to access the Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) that they are entitled to.

What is the difference between special needs and disabilities?

Special needs, short for special educational needs, describes the resources, accommodations, and modifications that students with disabilities or other conditions may need in the classroom. People who are disabled may have special needs, but a person themselves cannot be "special needs". It is necessarily a broad category, and so each student with special needs will have a different set of needs. Accordingly, different modifications and accommodations will be appropriate.

The broad term "special needs" can be divided into four subcategories:
  • Medical Needs include conditions like cystic fibrosis, muscular dystrophy, asthma, and cerebral palsy that may mean a student requires special health equipment and more frequent medical testing. Hospital stays can affect the schedule and pace of schooling, and accommodations or modifications for physical activities or motor capabilities may be required.
  • Behavioral/Emotional Challenges include diagnoses like ADHD, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Students with these challenges may not respond well to traditional methods of teaching and reinforcing positive behavior. Additionally, they may have sensory needs that restrict the amount of stimulation they can comfortably handle in a learning environment.
  • Developmental Challenges include conditions such as Down syndrome, spina bifida, and some autism spectrum disorders. These can be the result of impairments that can occur prior to birth or during the developmental period. Students with developmental challenges are best served when interventions are conducted as early as possible, and when families partner with educators, therapists, and other health professionals.
  • Learning Difficulties which can include learning disabilities like dyslexia and dyscalculia among other diagnosable conditions, impact the way a person learns and processes information. They do not affect intellectual ability or intelligence. Individualized learning approaches, including accommodations like extended testing time and text-to-speech technology, may be required to enable students to access learning material and demonstrate concept mastery.

What are accommodations in special education?

Accommodations are changes made in order to facilitate the best possible learning environment for students with special educational needs. Accommodations do not involve adjusting the level of the material that a student learns; they are intended to make the topics and concepts accessible so that a student is able to learn in the way that works best for them.

Even among students with the same disability, necessary accommodations will naturally have some variation. No two students will find the same set of accommodations helpful in the same way. The main four categories of special needs accommodations in education are:

  • Presentation accommodations include how information is delivered to a student.
  • Response accommodations include how a student completes and delivers their work.
  • Setting accommodations include how a room or area is set up for a student.
  • Timing and scheduling accommodations include how long, when, or in what portions a student completes tests or other assignments.

Example accommodations in special education

  • Accommodation Type
  • Examples
  • Presentation accommodations
    • Using a variety of sensory modes to introduce information – speaking, reading, visual stimulation
    • Repeating or summarizing information at key points
    • Increasing font size in learning materials
    • Providing closed captioning
    • Providing access to lesson outlines, notes, or transcripts instead of requiring traditional note-taking
  • Response accommodations
    • Allowing a student to dictate to a scribe or use speech-to-text technology
    • Recording verbal responses instead of written work
    • Using a computer to record responses or accepting typed responses
  • Setting accommodations
    • Preferential seating arrangements (close to a whiteboard or presentation screen, or close to the teacher)
    • Testing in small groups or in a separate location
    • Adjusting the level of lighting and noise
    • Providing noise-cancelling headphones or using a white noise machine
  • Timing and scheduling accommodations
    • Receiving more time to complete a task
    • Allowing for frequent breaks
    • Taking an assessment in multiple, shorter testing sessions offers customized online learning

  • engaging instruction illustration
  • Engaging Instruction
  • Approachable video lessons with supportive features including transcripts and concept summaries
  • flexible timing illustration
  • Flexible Timing
  • Learning material accessible every day, just before a test, or on the go with the app
  • organized coursework illustration
  • Organized Coursework
  • Structured courses suitable for homeschool or supplementary learning

How supports students with special needs's engaging and easy-to-use learning platform can accommodate a variety of special needs when it comes to the way your child learns. supports language processing and reading skills

  • Videos with closed captions boost reading skills and deliver information in more than one sensory mode
  • Video speed controls accommodate a variety of language processing speeds
  • Printable transcripts with fill-in-blank entries simplify note-taking while paying attention
  • Bolded key terms in lesson transcripts visually signpost key vocabulary
  • Summary segments wrap up each lesson by drawing out key information and reinforcing new vocabulary and concepts
  • Short quiz questions check for understanding and promote content mastery encourages executive functioning

  • End of lesson summaries repeat and reinforce important concepts to boost retention for students with working memory challenges
  • Lesson timelines break each lesson into segments and visually signpost important points
  • Course and chapter organization acts as a visual study plan, demonstrating how lessons build into chapter concepts
  • Automatic progress tracking shows advancement through coursework to keep students motivated makes math approachable

  • Expert instructors break concepts into digestible chunks
  • Visual demonstrations link ideas with concrete examples and show step-by-step problem solving
  • Access to thousands of lessons at all grade levels means your child can start learning at whatever level is most comfortable; never get locked into lessons set at just one grade level
  • Revisit concepts any time, with no restrictions, to build understanding before moving on supports response accommodations

  • Printable transcripts let students read and highlight along with videos as they learn, instead of struggling with difficult handwritten notetaking
  • Video notes create a flexible, typed note-taking option
  • Multiple choice quizzes allow students to show their acquired skills and knowledge without having to write long form responses keeps attention engaged

  • Short, self-paced lessons focus on one concept at a time while naturally integrating breaks into the learning process
  • Go-anywhere app lets learning happen in any setting
  • Written transcripts limit the need for long periods of note-taking
  • Concise assessments check for understanding without being repetitive or daunting
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Special education questions

What is the difference between special needs and learning disabilities?

Although the terms 'special needs' and 'learning disabilities' are closely related, they are not the same. Special needs, or special educational needs, is the term used to describe difficulties that cause someone to require additional or specialized accommodations in the classroom. These difficulties can be physical, emotional, behavioral, or a learning disability or impairment. Learning disabilities are a subset of special needs caused by a neurological disorder that affects information processing (e.g. dyslexia).

What are the 13 categories of Special Education?

IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) defines thirteen categories of disability. Students who fall under one or more categories are eligible for special education services under the law, if those services are required to ensure good progress in school. The categories are:

  • Autism
  • Deaf-Blindness
  • Deafness
  • Emotional Disturbance
  • Hearing Impairment
  • Intellectual Disabilities
  • Multiple Disabilities
  • Orthopedic Impairment
  • Other Health Impairment
  • Specific Learning Disability
  • Speech or Language Impairment
  • Traumatic Brain Injury
  • Visual Impairment Including Blindness

Not all students with a disability have special needs when it comes to education. A student may have a disability that does not affect their ability to learn, or they may have a mild disability that does not impair their learning ability to the extent that special education is necessary or appropriate.

What is the difference between an accommodation and a modification?

Both accommodations and modifications can be used to assist learning. However, there is an important distinction to make between the two tools: accommodations make grade-level learning accessible to a student (changing how they learn), while modifications adjust the level and difficulty of material a student is expected to complete (changing what they learn). Both accommodations and modifications are included in students' IEPs, and a single student may have both accommodations and modifications included in their IEP. See the table below for a side-by-side comparison of some example accommodations versus modifications.

Example accommodations vs. modificatons for special needs

  • Subject
  • Accommodation Examples
  • Modification Examples
  • Testing
  • Taking an assessment in a separate location with less distraction
  • Taking an assessment that is shorter or has a modified difficulty level
  • Reading
  • Listening to an audiobook format of an assigned reading
  • Receiving truncated reading assignments, or reading different texts
  • Writing
  • Dictating a written assignment to a scribe
  • Reducing the number of required pages for a written assignment
  • Math
  • Receiving the same problem sheet, broken into more sections
  • Receiving fewer problems or modified problems

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