Special Education Classifications
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is the federal law that mandates that students with a disability receive Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE), tailored to their individual needs. It defines 13 categories of disabilities:
- Specific Learning Disabilities
- Other health impairments (ex. ADD/ADH)
- Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)
- Emotional disturbance (ex. Anxiety/Depression, Schizophrenia, Bipolar Disorder)
- Speech or language impairment
- Visual impairment, including blindness
- Hearing impairment
- Orthopedic impairment (ex. Cerebral palsy)
- Intellectual disability (ex. Down syndrome)
- Traumatic brain injury (TBI)
- Multiple disabilities
While the categories appear distinct, many of them involve deficits in foundational cognitive skills. Students with Specific Learning Disabilities, by definition, have a weakness in one or more cognitive skills, but other categories also may relate to cognitive processes.
Specific Learning Disabilities (SLD) is the category with the largest number of students, about 33% of covered students. SLD is a disorder in one or more basic psychological or cognitive processes involved in learning. When the cognitive processes responsible for learning are impaired, students fall behind and often do not catch up to their grade-level peers, despite the supports they receive. The category includes learning disabilities such as dyslexia, dyscalculia, dysgraphia, auditory processing disorder and nonverbal learning disability.
ADD/ADHD is really a set of symptoms that include developmentally inappropriate levels of inattention, impulsivity and hyperactivity. As of 2016, an estimated 6.1 million children in the U.S. are diagnosed as having ADD/ADHD. Often ADD/ADHD is comorbid with learning disabilities because of the disrupted underlying cognitive processes associated with these deficits.
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is the 4th largest group covered under IDEA, with 11% of students having ASD. ASD also refers to a group of symptoms and a spectrum of diagnoses, referred to as Autism Spectrum Disorders. Two of most common cognitive struggles that individuals with ASD face are issues with perceptual processing and sensory integration problems.
Indeed, most of the IDEA categories include students with weaknesses in underlying cognitive processes, although some students in these categories may not.
Supports for Students with IEPs
The adjustments to general education provided to a student who qualifies for them are detailed in an Individualized Education Plan. The adjustments traditionally focus on three approaches:
- Accommodations (for example, a student with slow processing speed may receive extra time to complete a test or an assignment, or a deaf student is supported by an aide who uses sign-language to communicate).
- Modifications to the curriculum (for example, a student is graded on a different scale than their peers or reads a text at an easier level)
- Compensatory strategies (for example, a student with limited working memory capacity receives written instructions or oral instructions delivered one step at a time).
These approaches do not seek to strengthen or remediate the cognitive processes that are impaired, but help students work around their areas of weakness.
In recent years, educators have begun to recognize that cognitive skills can be developed, often to a considerable degree. Thus, some special education programs, as well as the tiered interventions that usually precede a special ed classification (MTSS or RTI), sometimes include cognitive remediation through cognitive training a vital fourth pillar in special education.
Cognitive Assessment and Special Ed
Most students with an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) have already had some form of cognitive assessment. That assessment provides the basis for the IEP, especially when the impairment is a specific learning disability.
However, it is often difficult for teachers and other Special Education (SPED) professionals to translate a neuropsychological evaluation into specific supports and practical strategies. Also, neuropsychological evaluations are usually only performed every 3 years, so they may not accurately reflect the current situation.
The Mindprint Cognitive Assessment is a quick and affordable, online assessment that can facilitate the translation of cognitive strengths and weaknesses to specific supports and strategies. Mindprint does not produce a diagnosis, although it can be used by a qualified professional to diagnose a learning disability. What the assessment does is connect an individual’s cognitive profile to an extensive database of evidence-based strategies that are keyed to cognitive strengths and weaknesses. In 1 hour (the time to take the assessment) and 3 clicks or so, a personalized learning plan is generated for each student.
Cognitive Training and Remediation
Children that qualify for Special Education invariably have significant gaps in academic achievement, which often stem from the gaps in their cognitive foundation for learning.
Ground-breaking research with students with SLD shows how cognitive skills can be strengthened, enabling students to learn more like their typically developing peers, and allowing them to catch up, not settle for incremental progress.
In this peer-reviewed published study, the students who were in the control group (no cognitive training) experienced no significant change in their cognitive proficiency. The students who received cognitive training using BWS 3 to 5 times a week (30 to 45 minutes) for 12 weeks, improved their cognitive skills almost to the level of normally developing students.
It should be noted that all of the students, because of their SLD diagnoses, were receiving the standard reading and math interventions that they school offered as part of the IEPs. The control group’s academic gains in reading and math over the time period were incremental as they usually are for these students. The students who received cognitive training, on the other hand, gained 0.8 Grade Equivalent in reading and 1.0 Grade Equivalent in math over the 12 weeks, helping them being to close the gap to grade-level progress in a meaningful way.
Similar results have been seen on other academic measures including state standardized test scores and the formative assessments that schools use to predict how students will do on state tests.
In one study, elementary school students in Millville, PA, used BrainWare SAFARI. The chart below shows the students’ scores on the Grooup Reading Assessment and Diagnostic Evaluation (GRADE) in fourth grade and in fifth grade after 12 weeks of cognitive training. The students with IEPs more than doubled the Growth Scale Value (GSV) scores gains experienced by the total student group and performed well above grade-level expectations.
The impact of cognitive skills training for students for students with ADHD and ASD has been the subject of small case studies.
Providing cognitive training to students within MTSS/RTI and to those in Special Education is an important “fourth pillar” of strategies and supports. Remediating cognitive skills can help strengthen weaker skills, enabling students to learn like their more typically development peers, rather than continually working around those skills. Research with this population suggests that cognitive training may be able to play an important role in closing the long-standing academic achievement gap for students in Special Education.
Incorporating Cognitive Training in an IEP or Intervention Plan
When including cognitive training in an IEP or other intervention plan, the following factors should be addressed:
- The current level of performance needs to be assessed both cognitively and academically. Cognitive assessments such as Mindprint or the CogAT can be used to create a baseline measure of cognitive functioning.
- Establish measurable goals for cognitive growth. Cognitive assessments can also be used to track progress to ensure these cognitive goals are being met after intervention.
- Define the cognitive training services to be provided, including the cognitive training tool and/or materials that will be used, the frequency and duration of use of the training, the role of the individual working with the student, and how progress will be monitored.
- Consider participation along with non-disabled students, something that can be achieved with cognitive training with BrainWare SAFARI.