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Empowering Special Needs Students Through Navigating Complexity

Navigating complexity involves embracing uncertainty and provisionality. This means that any action you take will likely have unforeseen consequences.

To help students with disabilities, consider incorporating information and communication technology into your lessons. For example, switches can allow students to control devices by tapping on them. This can empower students to tap into their abilities and overcome challenges.

Learning Disabilities

The largest share of special needs students in prekindergarten through 12th grade are those with learning disabilities. These are defined under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) as disorders in one or more of "the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or using language, spoken or written," including perceptual disabilities, dyslexia and minimal brain dysfunction.

These are lifelong conditions that cause people to struggle with learning, but they don't make them stupid. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses, and a combination of treatment, support, kindness and patience can help people thrive.

Many people have multiple overlapping learning disabilities, while others have one that has little impact on their lives. However, research shows that the earlier students are classified with a learning disability, the more likely they are to improve test scores.


Autism, or a developmental and neurological disorder on the autism spectrum, can make communication and interaction challenging. People with autism often have trouble understanding what others are saying and may be preoccupied by a certain interest or activity.

Repetitive behaviors, such as hand flapping or body rocking, and repetitive vocalizations, can be disruptive to the classroom. However, most of these behaviors are harmless and often mild compared to other symptoms of autism.

Some autistic students will qualify for accommodations under an IEP or 504 plan allowing them to be in a more tailored school environment, but the process can be lengthy. In the meantime, keep a log of specific issues and their frequency to help support your case when talking to the school district.


Students with ADHD often struggle to complete assignments, are easily distracted in class and have trouble focusing on tasks. They may also experience difficulty with executive function, which includes planning and organizing. These challenges are especially difficult around puberty when the demands of school increases, requiring greater concentration and sophisticated thinking.

Students who have ADHD can qualify for special education services under Part B of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. They must demonstrate that their learning difficulties stem from the condition. They may also be able to qualify for services if they have coexisting emotional disturbances, such as oppositional defiant disorder, anxiety disorders or mood disorders.

Parents need to help their children understand that ADD/ADHD is not their fault, and that their brains work differently. They should view it similarly to a physical health impairment.


Dyslexia is a learning disability that can affect reading, writing and spelling. It can also impact math, memory and organization, study skills and self-esteem.

Students with dyslexia may require specialized instruction. While the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act provides funding for special education, schools and districts typically pay for the majority of those costs.

Parents can be proactive by educating themselves about the IDEA and its corresponding state laws. This includes becoming familiar with the special education cycle and knowing their rights at each stage.

In addition, they can advocate for their children by requesting an evaluation of dyslexia. Families can seek private evaluations for free or at a reduced cost through local universities and teaching hospitals. They can also ask that emails or documents be written in larger print, use a different font or colored paper.

Emotional Disorders

Many students with emotional disabilities experience a variety of challenging emotions and behaviors. These include intense feelings and self-destructive behaviors that can interfere with personal relationships, school performance and daily living.

Emotional disorders can be caused by any number of things, including stress, unstable family environments and genetic predisposition. Regardless of the cause, it is important to seek professional mental health help for your child.

The term "emotional disturbance" is used in the IDEA to describe children who are socially maladjusted or whose behavior and emotions are inappropriate for their age, cultural group or situation. The criteria for this diagnosis require that these characteristics persist over a long period of time and that they have an adverse impact on the student's educational performance. Read more about this definition here.