In the United States, about 15 percent of students between the ages of 3 and 21 are considered special needs. That means over 7 million children are in desperate need of special attention in the classroom to ensure they learn and grow. What’s more, the number of students with disabilities that qualify for special education is growing — though many parents and teachers remain unable to identify students in need of special help at school. To help every child receive the academic support they need, here are a few tips for understanding which students have special needs.

Students With Physical Disabilities

Some students experience physical disabilities that significantly interfere with their ability to navigate a general education environment. The term “physical disabilities” covers a wide range of health impairments; though it is often associated with a child’s ability to move and be active, in truth, physical disabilities can include any concern that involves special treatment or medical equipment. For example, celiac disease can be considered a physical disability because it demands children follow an exceedingly restrictive diet that teachers may need to monitor; asthma, too, can be considered a physical disability because teachers may need to administer an inhaler.

Most physical disabilities are organized into one of two categories: congenital or acquired. Congenital disabilities are those that a child experiences from birth and are usually caused by a genetic defect or fetal exposure to a virus or chemical. Acquired physical disabilities occur when a child suffers an injury in the midst of normal development.

Students With Learning Disabilities

Some students experience difficult understanding or directing their attention toward certain concepts within the classroom. Students with learning disabilities may struggle to develop basic academic skills like reading, writing or arithmetic, or they may have trouble with executive skills such as time management, organization, long- or short-term memory. Learning disabilities can be present in the youngest children, but learning disabilities often go unnoticed until a child is engaged with more formal education.

Not all students who demonstrate difficulty learning in the classroom have learning disabilities; in fact, studies have found that many students with learning disabilities are of above-average intelligence. To help identify and treat learning disabilities, teachers might pay close attention to students who demonstrate high potential but manage low achievement. Though learning disabilities cannot be cured, proper support from instructors can ensure positive student outcomes.

Students With Developmental Delays

Children tend to grow and develop along a predictable path — unless they don’t. Some children experience delays in achieving certain development milestones, which can persist into school age. Children can struggle with one or more types of developmental delays, to include:

  • Physical development delays in fine or gross motor skills
  • Cognitive development delays which can impair intellectual ability
  • Communication development delays in speech and language
  • Social or emotional developmental delays which can involve emotional control or social skills
  • Adaptive developmental delays in self-care skills

With the right interventions, many students are capable of overcoming their developmental delays, which allows them to return to general education. However, older children who continue to exhibit delays in the acquisition of certain skills may have disabilities that will necessitate continued support from special education.

Students With Behavioral Conditions

Perhaps the most common form of disability, behavioral conditions affect a student’s ability to manage their behavior. In the general education classroom, behavioral conditions can be exceedingly disruptive, both to students suffering from the condition and to students around them. In some cases, behavioral conditions can be dangerous to students and classrooms.

All behavioral conditions require specially designed programs to ensure that students experience education in a safe, structured environment. Teachers may need to apply behavior management techniques to facilitate appropriate social, emotional and behavioral responses.

Different states, schools and families have different definitions of a special needs child. Some children who might qualify for special education in one school system might be forced to muddle through general education in another. In truth, all teachers benefit from pursuing a Master’s in Special Education to prepare them for handling students of all ability levels and needs. Research has shown that special needs students perform better when integrated into the general education environment, meaning that to increasing degrees, even dedicated general education teachers are likely to encounter a large number of students with special needs. With the right experience, teachers can ensure that every student survives and thrives in their classroom.