Frequently Used Special Educational Terms

If you are active in your child’s education, there is a high chance that you have heard teachers and administrators use many terms that may sound new or confusing to you. Here are some of the commonly used terms used in the school setting.


Accommodations: Techniques and materials that don’t change the basic curriculum but do make learning a little easier or help kids communicate what they know.

Achievement Tests: Measures of acquired knowledge in academic skills, such as reading, math, writing and science.

Advocacy: Recognizing and communicating needs, rights and interests on behalf of a child; making informed choices.

Asperger’s Syndrome (AS): An Autism Spectrum Disorder that is milder than autism but shares some symptoms. Common features include obsessive interest in a single subject, difficulty with social interactions and strange movements or mannerisms.

Assessment: Process of identifying strengths and needs to assist in educational planning; includes observation, record review, interviews, and tests.

Assistive Technology (AT): Any item, piece of equipment or system that helps kids with learning disabilities bypass, work around or compensate for specific learning deficits.

Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (AD/HD): A neurobehavioral disorder that causes an individual to be inattentive or hyperactive/impulsive or to display a combination of those symptoms.

Auditory Discrimination: Ability to identify differences between words and sounds that are similar.

Auditory Processing: Among kids with normal hearing, the ability to understand spoken language.

Autism (AU): A disorder that usually arises in early childhood. Symptoms include major problems with communication, social interactions and repetitive behaviors. Autism, sometimes referred to as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) or Pervasive Developmental Disorder (PDD), is considered a “spectrum disorder” because the symptoms and features range widely.

Behavioral Intervention Plan (BIP): A set of strategies designed to encourage appropriate classroom behavior and social skills. It may be necessary to develop a BIP as part of your child’s IEP (Individualized Education Program, see below) if teachers find that his or her behavior interferes significantly with learning. Depending on the circumstances, a BIP may specifically aim to teach your child new skills, reinforce positive behaviors or increase motivation.

Collaboration: Working in partnership on behalf of a child; e.g., parent and teacher, or special education teacher and general education teacher.

Compliance Complaint: Complaint filed with the state department of education or local school district by a person who feels that an educational law has been broken.

Designated Instruction and Services (DIS): Sometimes called related services; specialized instructional, and/or support services identified through an assessment and written on an IEP as necessary for a child to benefit from special education (e.g., speech/language therapy, vision services, etc.).

Discrepancy: Difference between two tests, such as between measures of a child’s intellectual ability and his academic achievement.

Due Process: Procedural safeguards to protect the rights of the parent/guardian and the child under federal and state laws and regulations for special education; includes voluntary mediation or a due process hearing to resolve differences with the school.

Dysarthria: Disorder of fine motor muscles involved in speech; affects ability to pronounce sounds correctly.

Dyscalculia: Problems with basic math skills; trouble with numbers and solving math problems.

Dysgraphia: Difficulty writing legibly, spelling and with written expression. Commonly referred to as “a disorder in written expression” by psychologists.

Dyslexia: A language-based learning disability. In addition to reading problems, dyslexia can also involve difficulty with writing, spelling, and math.

Dysnomia: Difficulty remembering names or recalling specific words; word-finding problems.

Dyspraxia: Difficulty performing and sequencing everyday physical tasks and fine motor movements, such as jumping, speaking clearly and gripping a pencil. Children with dyspraxia may also have difficulty with balance and posture.

Emotional Disturbance (ED): Under current federal law, students with emotional, behavioral or mental disorders are categorized as having an ED. A student may have this condition if he or she displays inappropriate behaviors and feelings, an inability to learn or develop interpersonal relationships and a general mood of unhappiness over a long period of time.

Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE): Entitles a public school child with a disability to an educational program and related services to meet her unique educational needs at no cost to the parents; based on IEP; under public supervision and meets state standards.

Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA): Federal law that provides for special education and related services to eligible children with disabilities.

Individualized Education Program (IEP): Written plan to meet the unique educational needs of a child with a disability who requires special education services to benefit from the general education program; applies to kids enrolled in public schools.

Informed Consent: Agreement in writing from parents that they have been informed and understand implications of special education evaluation and program decisions; permission is voluntary and may be withdrawn.

Intelligence Quotient (IQ): Score used to indicate general cognitive ability; average range of intelligence, which includes 68 percent of the population, is between 85 and 115.

Least Restrictive Environment (LRE): Educational instruction in a place that encourages maximum interaction between disabled and nondisabled kids and is appropriate for both.

Learning Disability (LD): A neurobiological disorder that affects the way a person of average to above-average intelligence receives, processes or expresses information. LD impacts one’s ability to learn the basic skills of reading, writing or math.

Modification: Modifications are changes in the delivery, content or instructional level of a subject or test. They result in changed or lowered expectations and create a different standard for kids with disabilities than for those without disabilities.

Multidisciplinary Team: Professionals with different training and expertise; may include, but is not limited to, any combination of the following public school personnel – general education teacher, special education teacher, administrator, school psychologist, speech and language therapist, counselor – and the parent.

Out-of-Level Testing: When a student who is in one grade is assessed using a level of a test developed for students in another grade. Below-grade-level testing is generally what is meant when the term “out-of-level testing” is used.

Primary Language: Language the child first learned, or the language that’s spoken in the home.

Procedural Safeguards: Legal requirements that ensure parents and kids will be treated fairly and equally in the decision-making process about special education.

Pupil Records: Personal information about the child that is kept by the school system and is available for review by legal guardians and others directly involved in his or her education.

Referral: Written request for assessment to see if the student is a “child with a disability” who needs special education and related services to benefit from her general education program.

Resource Specialist Program (RSP): Students receiving special education instruction can be “pulled out” of the regular education classroom for special assistance during specific periods of the day or week and are taught by credentialed resource specialists.

Retention: The practice of having a student repeat a certain grade level (year) in school; also called “grade retention.”

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act: Federal civil rights law requiring school programs and buildings to be accessible to children with disabilities; protects from discrimination.

Self-Advocacy: Child’s ability to explain specific learning needs and seek necessary assistance or accommodations

Special Day Class (SDC): Students in Special Day Classes (SDC) are enrolled in self-contained special education classes. They are assigned to these classes by their IEP eligibility and receive support from the Special Day Class teacher and the support staff.

Special Education: Specially designed instruction to meet the unique needs of eligible kids whose educational needs can’t be met through modification of the regular instructional program; provides for a range of options for services, such as pull-out programs, special day classes; available to kids enrolled in public schools.

Transition: Process of preparing kids to function in future environments and emphasizing movement from one educational program to another, such as from elementary school to middle school, or from high school to work.

Visual Processing Issue: Difficulty with interpreting visual information. Can affect a child’s ability to complete everyday tasks and can cause problems with socializing and self-esteem.

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