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How do special needs schools support students?

The different types of special needs support offered by private schools

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Quick summary

  • Two of the main ways schools support special needs students is through the environment and form of support.
  • There are many environments through which special needs support can be delivered. For instance, there are dedicated special needs schools and classes, integrated classes, part-time withdrawal classes, and regular classes with direct or indirect support.
  • There are also different forms of special needs support. The main ones are accommodations, modifications, and remediations.
  • Many schools offer additional services for special needs students, such as speech-language therapy and occupational therapy. These are often based on alternative learning expectations that are specified by an Independent Education Plan (IEP).

 

Many private and public schools in Canada provide some kind of support for students with special needs. This includes support for students with learning, developmental, physical, and behavioural disabilities.

But how do schools provide this support? There are two main ways. First, there’s the setting or environment in which special needs support is provided. Second, there’s the type or form of support that’s provided. Some schools also provide additional services to support students with special needs.

Click here to view a list of special needs schools

Special needs support: the environment

There are several environments through which schools can provide special needs support. The main ones are dedicated schools, dedicated classes, integrated classes, withdrawal or “pull-out” classes, regular classes with resource support, and regular classes with indirect support. Note, a school might offer more than one of these environments.

Full-time support

  • Dedicated schools: These schools are exclusively devoted to special education. They provide self-contained environments where all students receive support for one or more special need. Normally, they’re run by staff and teachers with focused training in special education.
  • Dedicated classes: These are classes exclusively devoted to special education, which run parallel to regular classes. Like dedicated schools, they provide a self-contained environment where all students receive support for their special needs. And they’re also usually run by teachers with intensive special education training.

Part-time support

  • Integrated classes: These are classes which have both students with and without special needs. In this setting, students with special needs receive focused support for their challenges, just as they do in a dedicated school or class. But they also learn, work, and interact with students who don’t have special needs.
  • Withdrawal classes: Some schools offer part-time withdrawal or “pull-out” classes for special needs students. In these classes, students spend most of their time in a regular class, but are taken out periodically for extra support. This support is provided by special education staff in a separate room, and may be offered in groups or one-on-one.
  • Regular class with resource support: In this type of class, students periodically receive break-out support from special education staff, either on their own or in small groups. The rest of their time is spent learning with the rest of the class.
  • Regular class with indirect support: In this type of class, teachers and staff adapt their approach and tailor their instruction to meet the unique challenges of special needs students.

 

Special needs questions (read our in-depth answers)

 

Special needs support: the form of delivery

Similar to environments, special needs support can be delivered in many forms. There are three main forms of special needs support: accommodations, modifications, and remediations.

Accommodations

Accommodations are a type of support that removes obstacles to learning. They concern how kids learn, not what they learn. And they’re normally provided by teachers or staff and specified by an Individual Education Plan (IEP).

Accommodations are individualized, to meet each student’s unique learning needs. According to School Mental Health Assist, the main types offered are instructional, environmental, and assessment accommodations.

 

Instructional accommodations

Environmental accommodations

Assessment accommodations

  • Note-taking assistance
  • Ability grouping
  • Assistive technology
  • Non-verbal signals
  • Time-management aids
  • Mind maps
  • More frequent breaks
  • Concrete materials
  • Large-size font
  • Computer options
  • Study guides
  • Dramatizing information
  • Repetition of information
  • Alternative work space
  • Strategic seating
  • Reduction of audio/visual stimuli
  • Study carrel
  • Use of headphones
  • Special lighting
  • Assistive devices or adaptive equipment
  • Extended time limits
  • Alternative settings
  • More frequent breaks
  • Assistive devices or adaptive equipment
  • Prompts to return attention to task
  • Augmentative and alternative communication systems
  • Colour cues
  • Computer options
  • Use of a calculator

 

Modifications

Modifications change what’s taught and can alter standards. They can involve simplifying material or lowering grade-level expectations. Like accommodations, they’re normally provided by teachers or staff and outlined by an IEP.

Ideally, modifications aren’t needed, since changing what’s taught and lowering expectations can cause students problems later on (e.g., when they move on to new schools). But if accommodations don’t work, modifications may be needed. The two main types of modifications are assignment and curriculum modifications.

 

Assignment modifications

Curriculum modifications

  • Complete fewer or different homework problems
  • Write shorter papers
  • Answer fewer or different test questions
  • Complete alternative assignment or project
  • Learn different material
  • Get graded or assessed using a different standard
  • Get excused from a class assignment or project

 

Remediations

Remediations often involve individualized interventions (and sometimes treatments). For instance, a student might be given one-on-one teaching, to help them to “catch up.” Remediations are meant to eliminate, reduce, or ameliorate challenges facing special needs students.

Like accommodations and modifications, remediations are often stipulated in IEPs. Unlike these other forms of support, though, remediations are often provided by specialists who work mostly outside of the school setting.

 

Remediation

Provided by

  • Eliminating speech defects
  • Improving social skills
  • Helping with an emotional issue/trauma
  • Recovering from a major injury
  • Speech-language pathologist
  • Social worker/psychologist
  • Psychologist/psychiatrist
  • Doctor/nurse/occupational therapist/physiotherapist

 

Additional services

In addition to providing the right environment and form of support, special needs schools can support students in other ways. Many offer a range of services that can help special needs students cope and excel, both in and outside of school. These are often based on alternative learning expectations specified by an IEP.

They include the following:

  • Speech-language pathology and audiology
  • Interpreting
  • Psychology and counselling
  • Social work
  • Physical and occupational therapy
  • Recreation, including therapeutic recreation
  • Assessment and diagnosis
  • Orientation and mobility
  • Health and wellness

Many private and public special needs schools pay for these kinds of services (or at least for part of them). Otherwise, both schools and the government offer subsidies to help with their cost. If a service isn’t covered and there’s no financial aid available for it, you’ll need to pay for it on your own.

Answers to the question “How do special needs schools support students?” from educational experts and school officials

School environment


Dr. Maria Kokai, president of the Association of Chief Psychologists with Ontario School Boards
“In the province of Ontario, the Ministry of Education determines five placement options school boards/schools can offer to students with special education needs. These five placement options are:

A regular class with indirect support, where the student is placed in a regular class for the entire day, and the teacher receives specialized consultative services (from a qualified special education teacher).

A regular class with resource assistance, where the student is placed in a regular class for most or all of the day and receives specialized instruction, individually or in a small group, within the regular classroom from a qualified special education teacher.

A regular class with withdrawal assistance, where the student is placed in a regular class and receives instruction outside the classroom, for less than 50 percent of the school day, from a qualified special education teacher.

A special education class with partial integration, where the student is placed by the Independent, Placement, and Review Committee (IPRC) in a special education class for at least 50 percent of the school day, but is integrated with a regular class for at least one instructional period daily.

A full-time special education class, where the student is placed by the IPRC in a special education class for the entire school day and receives specialized instruction from a qualified special education teacher.

Not all district school boards, and consequently, not all schools, offer all five placement options for their students with special education needs. Similarly, the placement options for one type of exceptionality may be different from the placement options for another type of exceptionality offered within a district school board. (“Exceptionalities” are formally identified special needs, such as autism, developmental disabilities, and learning disabilities).

For example, a district school board may provide special education support to students with autism in different types of placements, depending on the needs of each student:

  • in the regular class in the child’s local school through either indirect support (via a special education teacher supporting the teacher),
  • resource assistance (via a special education teacher working with the student in the regular class for certain periods of time),

                  or,

  • withdrawal assistance (the student is withdrawn from the class to work with a special education teacher) for certain periods of time.

For students who need a more intensive and specialized support, the placement may be in a special education class with partial integration. This may be located in another school (since these classes would serve a number of schools), and the student would be provided with transportation.

To give another example, a district school board may provide special education support to students with learning disabilities only in the regular class in the child’s local school through either

  • indirect support,  
  • resource assistance,

or

  • withdrawal assistance.

To support regular classroom teachers and special education teachers in meeting the special needs of their students, most district school boards have professionals working closely with the school team, such as psychologists, social workers, and speech-language pathologists. The role of these professionals is to consult with school staff, and to provide direct services to students,  including assessment, prevention, and intervention.” 


Ann Wolff, educational consultant at Wolf Education Services, in Toronto, Ontario
“A full-time segregated class addresses the common needs of the students. These students often have the same type of special need or might have similar needs in a particular subject area.

A withdrawal program usually has a fewer number of students than a regular class in order to meet the specific needs of the students. In this type of setting, the students are usually working on a modified program, indicating that the content is different from the grade-expectations that they should be working on based upon their age. Withdrawal programs might be ‘fluid,’ meaning that they change based on the curriculum and the needs of the students. A student might require withdrawal for some content, but not for others.

In-class adaptations or accommodations are based on the individual strengths and needs of each student. These might include a change in how the content is delivered and how it is assessed.  For example, can the student take notes and listen at the same time? Perhaps, the teacher will provide the student with a copy of notes. Can the student read the required information? Perhaps the student can listen to the content on a computer. Does the student have difficulty writing? This student might use technology for all written work. Is the student easily distracted? There might be a ‘quiet place’ in the room with fewer distractions.

Resource support ‘looks’ different in different schools. Sometimes it is an additional teacher or assistant in the room to support the students, while in other settings the students might leave the class to receive support in another room.

There is no one method that is most effective. It is based solely on whether the program is meeting the needs of the individual student. The majority of students who attend special needs schools will have had a psycho-educational assessment and the type of program should be based on the results and recommendations described in the assessment.” 


Joanne Foster, educational specialist, and co-author (with Dona Matthews) of Beyond Intelligence, Secrets for Raising Happily Productive Kids
“In general there are five placement options that are most common. (These are typically quite fluid so as to be accommodating of individuals and changes.)

  • Regular classroom with indirect support
  • Regular classroom with resource assistance
  • Regular classroom with withdrawal assistance
  • Special education classroom with partial integration
  • Special education classroom on a full time basis.” 

Una Malcom, director of Appletree Learning, a personalized educational support program in Toronto, Ontario
“There are a variety of different placements available for students with special needs. The delivery of support may be as simple as a resource teacher supporting a classroom teacher’s programming and planning. Some students may receive in-class support from a resource teacher, or they may be withdrawn individually or in small groups for classroom support or remediation. Students may have a part-time special education placement where they spend part of their day in resource (e.g., a homeschool program), or they may be fully segregated into a more intensive need-based classroom.

The reality of having so many different placement and support delivery options can make it challenging for parents to navigate the school system, and to advocate for their child’s needs! There truly is no one support style that is inherently superior. The method of delivering support truly depends on each individual child’s needs. Some children would excel in a full-time special education class in order to receive the most intensive remediation and support. For some students, the social ramifications of being withdrawn for small-group resource time is significant. A child like this may prefer more subtle support, such as in-class resource support.” 


Robert Spall, president of the Ontario Council for Exceptional Children
“The trend in Ontario is toward delivering programming in the regular classroom in the neighbourhood school whenever and wherever possible. The general rule is least intrusive to more intrusive, as necessary. Some school districts philosophically do not move students from regular classrooms to segregated special education settings. More remote school districts with vast distances and small populations do not have this option. Research does not entirely endorse or reject any approach of service or delivery.

There are very few public ‘special education’ schools in Ontario. There are at the provincial level to support students with severe learning disabilities, who are deaf, or who are blind or deaf/blind. Students from anywhere in the province can attend if they meet the the criteria for entry and cannot be served by special education programs and services in their school districts.”


Dona Matthews, educational specialist, and co-author (with Joanne Foster) of Beyond Intelligence, Secrets for Raising Happily Productive Kids
“The best approach to special needs service delivery includes many different approaches, a flexible range of options that can be tailored to meet each child’s needs at a given point of time, and change as the child’s abilities develop, and their interests and learning needs change. Options can include accelerated learning (subject by subject, so a child might receive advanced instruction in language arts, but age-normal instruction in other subject areas), intensive support for targeted learning needs (e.g., reading or attentional issues), extracurricular enrichment, arts-based learning, full-time special programming, part-time programs, within-class adaptations (e.g., extended time allowances, amended assignments), interest-based learning, and more choice of assignments.” 


Form of support
 

Robert Spall, president of the Ontario Council for Exceptional Children
“In Ontario, all students who have been identified through the Identification, Placement and Review Committee (IPRC) process are entitled/required to receive programming to meet their special education needs and must have an Individual Education Plan (IEP) that lays out the plan for instruction and assessment. This plan is reviewed (re: the student’s progress) with the family/student in each reporting period. Many school districts also provide special education programs and services to students who are not formally identified. The severity of the learning challenge may not be seen to require the identification, or the parent may object to the process.

Accommodations are the least intrusive way that instruction and evaluation can be changed to support the student. A complete list of ministry accepted accommodations is listed on the EDU website. Common accommodations include multi-modal instructional methods, more time for tests, scribes to copy answers, or quiet places to complete seatwork or tests. The student demonstrates the same learning mastery as other students working at grade level. The curriculum outcomes remain the same. Many students receive accommodations without being identified.

Modifications are more intrusive, as the learning outcomes may vary from those outlined in the grade-appropriate curriculum. For instance, a student may not be able to process a complex curriculum task, and thus have the curriculum expectation reduced to that of a lower grade level. This can affect a student’s ability to receive a secondary school diploma, so this option should only be undertaken with the full comprehension and approval of the family/student. For instance, a grade 11 student may work toward the curriculum expectations in only part of their language arts program. The other parts relate to the Grade 8 language arts curricular expectations.

Alternative learning expectations are initiated when the curriculum expectations are not appropriate. Some students with developmental issues will not receive a curricular-based language arts program, but may have a skills course in how to complete a successful job interview or appropriate social language to use when on an outing with friends, etc. Again, because this programming is outside the curriculum it can affect future educational and employment options. Thus the family or student needs to approve of this alternative programming.

Accommodations, modifications, and alternative learning expectations can be implemented in different settings. They can be offered in the regular classroom by the teacher or with the support of an educational assistant, in a resource room with a special education teacher for part of the school day, or in a special education classroom for most or all of the school day with more specialized staff support.” 


Ann Wolff, educational consultant at Wolf Education Services, in Toronto, Ontario
“There are several ways to support the needs of students. Accommodations are those changes made to the curriculum at the grade level that the student ‘should be’ working at according to his/her age. That means that the student is working on the same curriculum expectations as his/her peer. However, there might be changes to the how the curriculum is delivered and/or assessed based on the students’ needs. For instance, they may require the use of technology or a change in setting to demonstrate their learning.

Modifications indicate a change in age-appropriate, grade-level expectations. This might mean expectations at a different grade-level are being taught or that there is a change in the expectations at the regular-level expectations. This usually involves a decrease in the number of expectations a student is required to demonstrate knowledge in.

Remediation is not an Ontario Ministry of Education term, but it is often what is needed in order for a student to “catch up.” This often involves one-to-one teaching on a specific topic. For example, it might be a certain strand in math or a particular strategy in reading. Remediation implies that the student is not able to demonstrate the expected knowledge.” 


Elaine Danson, educational consultant at Elaine Danson and Associates Educational Consultants, in Toronto, Ontario
“Special needs students are supported in many ways depending on their own specific requirements.

Students could be accommodated so that the student learns the same curriculum as the other students in the class but uses supports to make their learning possible. For example, a student may use graph paper to keep their numbers more legible in math or use a computer for written work because their handwriting is very slow. The student does the same work as the grade curriculum, but is accommodated to do so.

If a student is on a modified program, the curriculum will be different than the other students.  Perhaps, instead of reading a grade-level book, there is a book at a lower grade, or the amount of output is reduced compared to the other students.  

Remediation occurs when a student is given instruction on the gaps in their learning.  Remediation is used to fill in the areas that the student is weak in.  So, for instance, a student requiring reading remediation, may with a remedial specialist go back to vowel sounds to relearn them, even though that was done in the curriculum years before.

Sometimes, students require assistance in other ways. A student who is inattentive or has weak executive functioning skills may have a teacher who uses strategies to help this student and these strategies are often recommended through an educational assessment. A couple examples may be to allow the student to take movement breaks or have their agenda checked each day to make sure that they are organized.” 


Una Malcom, director of Appletree Learning, a personalized educational support program in Toronto, Ontario
“Special needs schools can support exceptional learners in a variety of different ways. Smaller class sizes and enhanced teacher training and experience can often lead to more individualized accommodations to the curriculum. Accommodations maintain the same curriculum (i.e., the child would still be working at the same grade level and learning the same curriculum), however he or she would be able to take advantage of changes to the delivery of the content. For example, a child at a special needs school may be able to use assistive technology to scaffold written output, or use a structured checklist process to support executive functioning skills.

Some students may benefit from both accommodations as well as modifications. Modifications involve a change in the specific curriculum expectations for a child. For example, a child with an identified learning exceptionality may be working at grade level with a reduced number of expectations. In a geometry unit, for example, this child may only focus on 2D shapes instead of both 2D shapes and 3D objects. Alternatively, a child may be instructed at a different grade level altogether. Special needs schools typically have the flexibility necessary to more individually customize instruction to fit each child. Some classrooms are able to accommodate flexible needs-based grouping and differentiation. For example, a teacher may be able to have two separate math groupings to allow each student to have more customized instruction. With smaller class sizes, as well as more assistants and support staff, accommodations and modifications can be used more effectively to benefit an exceptional learner.

Special needs schools are often able to deliver alternative programming and remediation, as well. Alternative programming is typically instruction that falls outside of the Ontario-mandated curriculum, but that would be beneficial for a given student population. For example, keyboarding, mindfulness, or executive functioning coaching may be appropriate for specific students. Evidence-based remediation programming is key for struggling learners. Research shows that reading remediation for students with language-based learning disabilities must be both early and intensive in order to produce meaningful gains. Special needs schools have the ability to provide the effective programming, such as Reading Mastery or the Orton-Gillingham approach, in order to develop student skill. Unfortunately, this type of remediation is typically not available in public schools, despite significant student need.” 


Joanne Foster, educational specialist, and co-author (with Dona Matthews) of Beyond Intelligence, Secrets for Raising Happily Productive Kids
“There are thousands of different schools within hundreds of school boards across the country, and delivery models for special education services can differ from one location to the next. Factors such as transportation costs, information access across networks, funding considerations, resource availability, and other issues can affect service provision. There are many types of student supports, ranging from in-class adaptations, modifications, and teaching aides, through to very specialized assistive technology and even robotics. Support personnel might include psychologists, pediatric nurses, speech-language pathologists, and other highly trained professionals. Assessments, identification procedures, consultations, documentation, and other formal, informal, or provisional protocols may also differ from district to district.

There are various school-based initiatives and programs, and myriad ways to provide children with additional or intensive supports, on a daily or less frequent basis, and depending on their exceptionality and domain-specific needs. It’s important to keep in mind that each child and each case is unique, there can be complexities, and situations are always in flux. Students’ individual learning profiles and well-being should be monitored regularly and taken into account over time, so that changes (with respect to supports and services) can be implemented as deemed necessary.

The ideal is to pay attention to the optimal development of all children—their cognitive, social, emotional, behavioural, moral, and physical development—and to ensure their safety, support their well-being, and offer access to appropriately targeted, timely, and thoughtfully planned services and learning opportunities.” 


Ruth Rumack, director of Ruth Rumack’s Learning Space, a personalized educational support program, in Toronto, Ontario
“Specialized programs can offer additional support to students by targeting specific learning needs. These forms of support are valuable because they provide additional opportunities to encourage students to practice and work towards skill acquisition and development. The use of direct instruction programs such as Reading Mastery, Wilson Reading System, Essay Coach, Power Writing, Handwriting Without Tears, and JUMP Math can be very effective in group and one-to-one situations. These programs should be systematic and structured based on mastery and incorporate kinesthetic, dynamic, visual, auditory, tactile, or other creative teaching elements to engage all students and learning styles. Additionally, assistive technologies can provide students with academic support and foster independence in learning. These technologies include voice-to-text (Dragon Naturally Speaking, Google Voice Typing, built-in dictation tools), and text-to-speech capabilities, along with research, organization, and study tools (Read and Write Gold or Chrome, Inspiration). Although these technologies can benefit all students, they can be instrumental in supporting students with learning differences as well as physical and visual challenges.” 


Simon Williams, co-executive director of Foothills Academy, a learning disabilities school in Calgary, Alberta
“Students with learning disabilities should be supported in a variety of ways. Many students will require accommodations to support their learning, so that they can access the curriculum like any other student, and can reach their true potential. Some accommodations that are provided to students with learning disabilities are through assistive technology, where students use voice-recognition software for their work in class and in exams, as well as electronic reading software. Some students will require modifications to their workload, or to the pace of their learning, so that work is manageable, but so that they can still access the higher-order learning skills demanded of the curriculum in order for them to be as academically successful as possible.

A student’s academic needs should be supported by intense and consistent instruction and intervention at the necessary level. A wide range of specific programs, supports and strategies should be employed by the teachers to ensure that all students’ learning needs are met. Equally as important is supporting the social and emotional needs of students who have struggled within the regular school program elsewhere.” 


Jenna Rowney-Giroux, vice principal of Heritage Academy of Learning Excellence, a special needs school in OttawaOntario, specializing in dyslexia and ADHD
“A special needs school will put into place several transitional methods that aim to support a student entering their environment. They will review all pertinent assessments, reports, and collaborate with both educators as well as parents/guardians to develop a relevant Educational Accommodation Plan (EAP). From there, educator(s) should create an academic environment that is both based on the mandated curriculum as well as on the individual student’s EAP. This EAP will outline accommodations, modifications, and remediations that are necessary. It is important to note the a child’s EAP is a fluid document that will grow with the child.

Some accommodations used are preferential seating, extended time on assignments and/or tests, and sensory breaks as needed in and outside of the classroom. Other examples of accommodations are noise cancellation headphones, use of music to regulate or calm down, shortened assignments, scaffolding of curriculum, guided notes, and copies of lecture notes.” 


Kelley Caston, principal of Wildwood Academy, a special needs school in Oakville, Ontario
“No two students are alike; they each present unique personality traits and life experiences, as well as individual learning styles. If a child isn’t learning, it’s important to figure out why. All children can learn; they just need to be taught in a way that works for them. Often, modifications and accommodations for students are needed. This should start at the very beginning, when students are placed at the correct academic level for their level of functioning (e.g., if a student is performing at a grade 3 level in math, then they are placed in a program that teaches to the grade 3 level).” 


William Dickerman, admissions director of Hampshire Country School, a boarding school in Ridge, New Hampshire, supporting students with advanced learning abilities, and learning and developmental disabilities
“Many special needs cannot or need not be ‘cured.’ The child (or those around him) may mostly need assistance and support for behaviors or conditions that may be life long. Prescription glasses may be a long-term tool for accommodating a visual deficit. Today, schools and public facilities, by law, make accommodations for numerous special needs that presented a barrier to schooling for many children a few decades ago. Buildings are wheelchair accessible, extended time is permitted on tests, school cafeterias may be peanut-free, and sign-language interpreters may be provided for children with impaired hearing.”


Terry Stevenson, director of Applewood Academy for Progressive Learning, a special needs school in Belleville, Ontario 
“Special needs support starts with a comprehensive review of the history of information on the student. This is not only educational progress since kindergarten, but a full developmental review of their overall developmental patterns. An individualized treatment plan can then be developed based on building skills and resiliency for the student. The prioritization of targets starts with areas that ensure readiness to learn and then optimization of instructional and assessment-based interventions. The therapeutic milieu of the school is important, as it allows for teachers, clinical supports, and educational staff to teach skills in ideal moments of need, compared to being dependent on learning a skill in a therapist’s office and having to transfer it to the real world.”


Virginia Trott, teacher at Kohai Educational Centre, a special needs school in TorontoOntario, supporting a wide range of special needs, including autismDown syndrometroubled behaviour, and dyspraxia 
“Accommodations and modifications for students can be made in a variety of ways. These changes are made on a case-by-case basis. For example, if a student has difficulty with writing information, but is able to say the information, we would not expect the student to work on writing and organizing their thoughts at the same time. We might make the task a speaking-only task and work on writing separately. We might also have the person type work if this is something they can do.” 

 

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