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Exceptional Learners  

Daniel P. Hallahan, Paige C. Pullen, James M. Kauffman, and Jeanmarie Badar

Exceptional learners is the term used in the United States to refer to students with disabilities (as well as those who are gifted and talented). The majority of students with disabilities have cognitive and/or behavioral disabilities, that is, specific learning disability (SLD), intellectual disability (ID), emotional disturbance, (ED), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism spectrum disorders (ASD). The remaining have primarily sensory and/or physical disabilities (e.g., blindness, deafness, traumatic brain injury, cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy). Many of the key research and policy issues pertaining to exceptional learners involve their definitions and identification. For example, prior to SLD being formally recognized by the U.S. Department of Education in the 1970s, its prevalence was estimated at approximately 2% to 3% of the school-age population. However, the prevalence of students identified for special education as SLD grew rapidly until by 1999 it reached 5.68% for ages 6 to 17 years. Since then, the numbers identified as SLD has declined slowly but steadily. One probable explanation for the decrease is that response to intervention has largely replaced IQ-achievement as the method of choice for identifying SLD. The term intellectual disability has largely replaced the classification of mental retardation. This change originated in the early 2000s because of the unfortunate growing popularity of using retard as a pejorative. Although ID used to be determined by a low IQ-test score, one must also have low adaptive behavior (such as daily living skills) to be diagnosed as ID. That is the likely reason why the prevalence of students with ID at under 1% is well below the estimated prevalence of 2.27% based solely on IQ scores two standard deviations (i.e., 70) below the norm of 100. There are two behavioral dimensions of ED: externalizing (including conduct disorder) and internalizing (anxiety and withdrawal) behaviors. Research evidence indicates that students with ED are underserved in public schools. Researchers have now confirmed ADHD as a bona fide neurologically based disability. The American Psychiatric Association recognizes three types of ADHD: (a) ADHD, Predominantly Inattentive Type; (b) ADHD, Predominantly Hyperactive-Impulsive Type; and (c) ADHD, Combined Type. The American Psychiatric Association recognizes two types of ASD: social communication impairment and repetitive/restricted behaviors. The prevalence of ASD diagnosis has increased dramatically. Researchers point to three probable reasons for this increase: a greater awareness of ASD by the public and professionals; a more liberal set of criteria for diagnosing ASD, especially as it pertains to those who are higher functioning; and “diagnostic substitution”—persons being identified as having ASD who previously would have been diagnosed as mentally retarded or intellectually disabled. Instruction for exceptional children, referred to as “special education,” differs from what most (typical or average) children require. Research indicates that effective instruction for students with disabilities is individualized, explicit, systematic, and intensive. It differs with respect to size of group taught and amount of corrective feedback and reinforcement used. Also, from the student’s viewpoint, it is more predictable. In addition, each of these elements is on a continuum.


Evidence-Based Practices for Teaching Learners with Multiple Disabilities  

Vera Munde and Peter Zentel

Designing education for learners with profound intellectual and multiple disabilities (PIMD) is a special challenge for both professionals and researchers. Learners with PIMD experience a combination of significant intellectual and other disabilities, such as motor and sensory impairments. Heterogeneity in terms of combination and severity of disabilities is a common characteristic of this group. In the past, learners in this target group were described as not being able to learn due to the complexity of their disabilities. Recent studies do provide evidence that learners with PIMD are in fact able to learn, however, evidence-based practice for designing education for this group of learners is still scarce. One reason could be the difficulties associated with conducting intervention studies such as randomized controlled trials or controlled clinical trials with this target group. Most studies are designed as single-case studies. Hence, only a small number of studies have investigated topics such as communication, assessment, and teaching curricula to generate knowledge about the education of these learners. The most important conclusion of these studies is that all teaching activities need to be designed according to the strengths and needs of each individual learner with PIMD.


International Policies on Inclusion  

Bronagh Byrne

The education of children and young people with disabilities and the appropriate form this should take is an issue with which countries across the world are grappling. This challenge has not been assisted by the diverse interpretations of “inclusion” within and between States. The international community, in the form of the United Nations (UN), its associated treaty bodies, and its related agencies have taken on an increasingly critical role in working with countries to develop some kind of global consensus on how inclusion should be defined, its core features, and what it should look like in practice. The conclusions of discussions on these issues have emerged in the form of declarations, treaties, general comments, and guidelines, which countries across the world are expected to adhere to, to varying extents. Together, these constitute a set of international policies and benchmarks on inclusion in an educational context, informing and shaping contemporary national policy and practice. At its core is the underlying principle that children and young people with disabilities have a fundamental right to education without discrimination. Examination of international discourse on inclusion indicates that its meaning, form, and content has become more refined, with increasing emphasis being placed on the quality of inclusive practice as opposed to merely questioning its merits.


Effective Practices for Collaborating With Families and Caregivers of Children and Young Adults With Disabilities  

Shridevi Rao, Nadya Pancsofar, and Sarah Monaco

A rich literature on family-professional collaboration with families and caregivers of children and youth with disabilities has developed in the United States. This literature identifies key barriers that impede family-professional relationships including deficit-based perceptions of families and children with disabilities, narrow definitions of “family” that limit the participation of some members such as fathers or grandparents, and historical biases that constrain the participation of culturally and linguistically diverse (CLD) families. Principles for building collaborative relationships with families include honoring the strengths of the family, presuming competence in the child and the family, valuing broad definitions of “family,” and understanding the ecology of family routines and rituals. Practices that help facilitate family-professional relationships are building reciprocal partnerships with various caregivers in the family including fathers as well as extended family members, adopting a posture of cultural reciprocity, using a variety of modes of communication with families, and involving families in all aspects of the special education process such as assessment, planning, prioritizing of skills, and identification of interventions. Pivotal moments in the family’s journey through their child’s schooling, including early intervention and transition to post-school environments, provide opportunities to build and strengthen family-professional relationships. Each of these moments has the potential to involve families in a variety of processes including assessment, planning, and articulating the goals and vision for their child/youth. A focus on strengths, collaborative partnerships, and family agency and voice is at the core of strong family-professional relationships.