Special Education

Teaching Students with Learning and Behavioural Differences
A Resource Guide for Teachers


Following in-class intervention, the classroom teacher should decide whether or not to access the expertise of colleagues and other professionals.

In-School Collaboration

If the student continues to struggle in the classroom after adjustments have been made the teacher, in consultation with the parents, may decide to refer the student to other in-school personnel such as the:

  • Learning Assistance Teacher,
  • Resource Teacher,
  • School Counsellor, and/or
  • Child Care Worker.

The teacher will embark on a process of consultation and collaboration with the school-based resources. This may take the form of classroom observation by the resource teacher, additional assessment, the consideration of additional classroom intervention strategies, implementation and evaluation of those strategies, or intervention by the school counsellor.

For many students, such collaborative planning and the resulting interventions will successfully address the student's needs. If this is not the case, the teacher can approach the school-based team for further assistance.

Referral to the School-based Team

The school-based team can provide:

  • extended consultation on possible classroom strategies,
  • planning for and coordination of services for the student,
  • access to additional school, district, community or regional services, and
  • planning for and coordination of services in the school.

The structure and process followed by school-based teams vary from school to school and from district to district. Check with your in-school administrator or school-based special education staff to find out more about the school-based team in your school. After in-school consultation has taken place, further referrals can be made to:

  • district-based services (speech/language therapy, school psychology services, learning or behavioural consultants/coordinators, etc.),
  • medical professionals,
  • community-based services (Child and Youth committee, Social Services, Mental Health, etc.)

Referral to a Speech-Language Pathologist

Children with speech and language difficulties may have problems in one or many areas of their communication skills. The difficulties may manifest themselves in spoken and/or written language.

Indications that a child is experiencing a speech and/or language difficulty include:

  • difficulty articulating certain sounds or "wrapping their tongue around" longer words,
  • difficulty finding the right word (could be an indicator of a memory difficulty and/or limited vocabulary),
  • difficulty with grammatical structures (e.g., relies on simple sentences or leaves off word endings), or
  • difficulty interpreting oral directions.

Without some or all of the above mentioned skills, children are at risk for academic failure because they have difficulty knowing what is expected of them, completing assignments and otherwise demonstrating their learning.

Articulation difficulties can be an indication of difficulty segmenting words to sounds and often leads to difficulty with reading and writing. Poor language skills often impact on conversational and social skills. Spoken language problems identified when a child is very young often emerge as writing problems years later.

The speech-language pathologist can assist with diagnosis, remediation and compensation strategies in all these skill areas. Indications by the teacher of specific areas of concern are extremely valuable to the speech-language pathologist when the referral is made.

Referral to Medical Professionals

Consultation with parents can reveal past medical concerns that may affect the student's behaviour or ability to learn. For example:

  • A student who experienced conductive hearing loss as a result of ear infections in early childhood may have delayed language acquisition even though the hearing loss is no longer a concern.
  • A student who missed a significant portion of a school year as a result of a car accident or major illness may have difficulty readjusting after returning to school.

Teachers are in a good position to observe current medical concerns, sometimes even before the parents notice a problem. For example:

  • A need for an updated eye examination may be obvious to a teacher who observes a student having difficulty copying from the blackboard.
  • A drastic change in a student's behaviour or ability to learn should be brought to the parent's immediate attention so that parents can pursue a medical referral, if necessary.

Sometimes a student has an undiagnosed medical condition that affects his/her learning and/or behaviour. A thorough medical assessment may lead to a diagnosis that could assist teachers in determining which strategies will be most effective for the student. Refer to Awareness of Chronic Health Conditions : What the Teacher Needs to Know for a more comprehensive listing of disorders and syndromes that affect student learning and behaviour.

Referral to the School District Psychologist

School Psychology is a district-based resource to help teachers and parents plan educational programs for learners who seem to be difficult to teach. Some of these students may have Special Needs, however, many do not.

Some districts have school psychologists as part of their staff, working from the district office or student services centre. Other districts contract private psychologists to complete assessments of students' learning needs.

Because the school psychologist is trained in both education and psychology, he/she can help teachers, parents and students in a number of ways.

Questions and Answers

The following sample questions and answers are among the most common answered by school psychologists.

Q   Why is it so hard for Jim to follow instructions in my Grade 9 English class?

A1   Jim may find it difficult to follow instructions because he has problems understanding orally presented material.

A2   Jim may find it difficult to follow instructions because short term memory is not a strenghth for him.

A3   Jim may find it difficult to follow instructions because he is easily distracted by extraneous stimuli. He may find it easier to follow instructions if he were sitting closer to the front of the room.

A4   Jim finds numeric and figurative information much easier to understand than language- related information.

Q   Ellen is in my Grade 10 Science class. Does she have a learning disability that is interfering with her ability to progress academically?

A1   Ellen does have a learning disability that interferes with her ability to progress academically. She will probably need to learn some strategies to cope with this disability. I can provide a list of suggestions.

A2   Ellen does not have a learning disability. It is very difficult for Ellen to observe small details; she tends to focus on the whole, rather than the parts. A carefully selected lab partner could assist Ellen to observe more details during their science experiments.

The school psychologist can help directly, by helping the teacher to:

  • identify students' learning strengths and needs.
  • identify appropriate programs and instructional strategies.
  • access community resources for students' with possible mental health needs.

The school psychologist can help by helping parents to:

  • view their child in terms of normal development and understand the significance of any differences.
  • develop realistic expectations for their child.
  • help their child at home.

The school psychologist can help students to:

  • recognize their strengths and understand and accept their difficulties.
  • identify appropriate compensatory strategies and set realistic goals.

Referral to School Counsellors

Counselling services are provided in a variety of ways from individual districts. School counsellors provide assistance to students who need help with:

  • personal problems,
  • social development,
  • behavioural change, and
  • career planning.

They foster self esteem and provide support for decision making, social skills, and transition planning. Further referral to community agencies may be made for counselling services outside the school as well. Agencies may include: Ministry of Social Services, Ministry of Health and drug rehabilitation programs.

Accessing District Services

Since school districts vary in the way they provide specialized services, there is no standard procedure that is followed throughout the province. Typically, referrals are made through the school-based team. Some basic standards are essential to accessing services:

Parents must give informed written consent before a referral to the specialist is made. The phrase "informed consent" indicates that the parent understands the purpose of the referral, the process involved, and how the results will be used, stored and shared. The specialists's report will be confidential, to be shared only with those who have a need to know the results, and must be appropriately stored.

Some specialist personnel may be available to consult about pre-referral interventions or to assist with program planning without a formal referral. In this instance, the expertise is accessed without direct involvement with the student. Diagnosis and identification for the purpose of special education designation cannot be done in this manner, but suggestions for strategies can sometimes reduce the need for more comprehensive intervention.

School psychologists, consultants and other district specialists can help answer many questions that arise when a student is demonstrating learning or behavioural differences. In some cases there may be a psycho-educational report in the student's confidential file with information that can assist the teacher to plan appropriately for the student. If teachers need help interpreting the information in a psycho-educational report, they should contact the school psychologist who wrote the report. Teachers who are not able to access a qualified educational psychologist to interpret a previous report may want to contact the 1-800-Integration line (1-800-876-8542) for assistance.