Education that fits: Review of international trends in the education of students with special educational needs

Publication Details

The purpose of this review is to outline international trends in the education of students with special educational needs, with the aim of informing the Ministry of Education’s current review of special education.

Author(s): David Mitchell PhD, College of Education, University of Canterbury, for the Ministry of Education.

Date Published: July 2010

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Chapter 8: Curriculum

8.1 Different Models of the Curriculum for SWSEN

13In a wide-ranging analysis of what should constitute an appropriate curriculum for students with disabilities, Browder et al. (2004) commenced by recognising that ‘curriculum, the content of instruction, has been one of the most controversial areas in education because determining what students will learn in school reflects both educational philosophy and societal values’ (p.211). They go on to trace the evolution of different approaches to the curricula for students with disabilities.

The first approach was the developmental model, which emerged in the 1970s after PL94-142 established the right for all students with disabilities to have a free, appropriate education. In this model, educators adapted existing infant and early childhood curricula, on the assumption that the educational needs of students with severe disabilities could best be met by focusing on their mental age.

The second was the functional model, which was based on what was required to function in the daily life of a community. By the late 1980s, according to Browder et al., a strong consensus had emerged that curricula should focus on age-appropriate functional skills. This typically involved selecting from a range of such skills those which best fitted a particular student – hence the IEP.

The third model was described as an additive model, initially reflecting a focus on including students with severe disabilities in general education classrooms and with a strong emphasis on social inclusion and student self-determination (reflected, for example in ‘person-centred planning’). Browder et al. noted that with the continued efforts to promote inclusive education, this additive curriculum focus became extended to embrace ways of enabling students with disabilities to participate in the general education curriculum.

It is this third, and current, model that will form the basis of the following analysis.

8.2 Policies Requiring Access to the General Curriculum14

With the advent of inclusive education policies and practices, many countries are addressing the need for students with special educational needs to have access to the general education curriculum. Thus, in the US, IDEA 1997, IDEIA 2004 and the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 specified that all students, including those with significant cognitive disabilities, must have the opportunity to participate and progress in the general curriculum. As stated in the IDEIA 04, IEPs must incorporate ‘a statement of measurable annual goals, including academic and functional goals, designed to … meet the child’s needs that result from the child’s disability to enable the child to be involved in and make progress in the general education curriculum’ (IDEIA 2004 614(d)(I)(A)(i)(II)).

In interpreting these requirements, Pugach & Warger (2001) observed that

Although the law still maintains the right of each student with disabilities to an individually referenced curriculum, outcomes linked to the general education program have become the optimal target. It is no longer enough for students with disabilities to be present in general education classrooms (p.194).

Even so, this requirement for students with special needs to access the general education curriculum is not always adhered to. For example, in a survey of 84 special education teachers in Iowa, Agran & Wehmeyer (2003) found that the majority were not frequently involved in curricular planning with regular teachers and half of the school districts represented did not have clear plans to involve students with disabilities in the general curriculum.

Scotland is another country that seeks to ensure that students with special educational needs can access the common curriculum framework, while at the same time ensuring appropriate and targeted support (Riddell et al., 2006). This arrangement has been in place since the early 1990s, when the 5-14 Curriculum, with its accompanying Support for Learning pack, came into force. This material endorsed five strategies for customising the curriculum: differentiation, adaptation, enhancement, enrichment and elaboration. According to Riddell et al., these strategies would enable teachers to plan a suitable curriculum for individual students, while ensuring that their learning was framed by the national curriculum guidelines.

In contrast with the US and Scotland (and New Zealand), some countries have separate curricula: one for mainstream students and the other for students with special educational needs.  The Flemish community in Belgium is one such country (Riddell et al., 2006).

In England, a compromise has been reached with the introduction in 2006 of ‘P Scales’ to support the structured progression of students with special educational needs working towards level 1 of the National Curriculum. Beyond the level when P Scales are employed, Attainment Targets and Programmes of Study are designed to allow maximum participation in the National Curriculum for all students. To enable this to occur for those with special educational needs, teachers are encouraged to recognise that such students need time, support, carefully structured teaching programmes, and, in some cases, use of alternative means of communication. While modifications and exemptions to the national Curriculum can be written into students’ Statements, it is hoped that the need for these would be minimised. Find out more on The National Curriculum and Special Educational Needs webpage.

8.3 Adaptations and Modifications to the General Curriculum

According to Mitchell (2008), ‘Making appropriate adaptations or modifications to the curriculum is central to inclusive education’ (p.30). He described curriculum in an inclusive classroom as having the following features:

  • It is a single curriculum that is, as far as possible, accessible to all learners, including those with special educational needs. (Conversely, special educational needs are created when a curriculum is not accessible to all learners.)
  • It includes activities that are age-appropriate, but are pitched at a developmentally appropriate level.
  • Since an inclusive classroom is likely to contain students who are functioning at two or three levels of the curriculum, this means that multi-level teaching will have to be employed; or, at a minimum, adaptations will have to be made to take account of the student diversity.
  • To make the curriculum accessible, consideration should be given to the following alternatives in relation to content, teaching materials, and the responses expected from the learners, as noted by Jönsson (1993): 
    • modifications: e.g., computer responses instead of oral responses;
    • substitutions: e.g., braille for written materials;
    • omissions: e.g., omitting very complex work;
    • compensations: e.g., self care skills, vocational skills.

Mitchell went on to give an example of curriculum differentiation in South Africa, where, a ‘curriculum ladder’ is used to indicate how to adapt work according to the strengths and needs of individual learners (Department of Education, 2005). In spelling, for example,

  • in step 1 educators ascertain if learners can work at the same level as their peers; 
  • in step 2 the learners may be able to do the same activity but with adapted expectations (e.g., fewer words);
  • in step 3 they may be able to do the same activity but with adapted expectations and materials (e.g., matching words to pictures);
  • in step 4 they may be able to do a similar activity but with adapted expectations (e.g., using words that are functional to the learners’ environment);
  • in step 5 they may be able to do a similar activity but with adapted materials (e.g., using a computer spelling programme);
  • in step 6 they may be able to do a different, parallel activity (e.g., learning a computer programme with a spell check);
  • in step 7 they may be able to carry out a practical and functional activity with assistance (e.g., playing with a word puzzle, flash cards etc., possibly assisted by a peer or a teaching assistant).

Several researchers have investigated ways in which IEPs can be connected with the general curriculum. For example, Fisher & Frey (2001) described a study in which students with ‘significant disabilities’ accessed the core curriculum in several regular classrooms. The authors concluded that, despite there being ‘a disconnect between the IEP and curriculum and instruction’ (p148), ‘the findings… indicated that students with significant disabilities can and do access the core curriculum with appropriate accommodations and modifications’ (p.155). These accommodations and modifications are worth quoting at length:

An accommodation is a change made to the teaching or testing procedures in order to provide a student with access to information and to create an equal opportunity to demonstrate knowledge and skills. Accommodations do not change the instructional level, content, or performance criteria for meeting standards. Examples of accommodations include enlarging the print, providing oral versions of tests, and using calculators.

A modification is a change in what a student is expected to learn and/or demonstrate. A student may be working on modified course content, but the subject area remains the same as for the rest of the class. If the decision is made to modify the curriculum, it is done in a variety of ways, for a variety of reasons, with a variety of outcomes. Again, modifications vary according to the situation, lesson or activity. The four most common ways are listed here:

Same, only less – The assignment remains the same except that the number of items is reduced. The items selected should be representative areas of the curriculum. …

Streamline the curriculum – The assignment is reduced in size, breadth, or focus to emphasize the key points. …

Same activity with infused objective – The assignment remains the same, but additional components, such as IEP objectives or skills, are incorporated. This is often done in conjunction with other accommodations and/or modifications to ensure that all IEP objectives are addressed. …

Curriculum overlapping – The assignment for one class may be completed in another class. Students may experience difficulty grasping the connections between different subjects. In addition, some students work slowly and need additional time to complete assignments. This strategy is especially helpful for both of these situations…. (p.157).

Clayton et al. (2006) described a four-step process for enabling students with significant cognitive disabilities to access the general curriculum. Step 1 involves identifying the appropriate content standard and what is the most basic concept or critical function that the standard defines. The second step is to define the learning outcome of instruction in a particular unit for all students and then consider the ways in which the complexity of what is required may be adjusted for students with significant cognitive disabilities. Step 3 involves identifying the instructional activities, ensuring that students with significant cognitive disabilities have equitable access to instruction and the curriculum provided to other students. The final step requires the targeting of specific objectives from the IEP for instruction within the unit. Clayton et al. noted that in addition to grade-level curriculum standards, students with significant cognitive disabilities often need instruction in such areas as basic communication, motor skills, and social skills. They argued that ‘by embedding these skills within the context of general education activities, the teacher gives students access to the curriculum as required by IDEA 2004 and NCLB, while still providing ongoing instruction on those essential basic skills’ (p.25).

With particular reference to the unique needs of students with mental retardation in accessing the general curriculum, Wehmeyer et al. (2002) presented a multi-step, multi-level decision-making model. It involves three levels of action (planning, curriculum, and instruction), three levels relating to the scope of instruction (whole school, partial school, and individualised), and three levels of curriculum (adaptation, augmentation, and alteration). At one extreme, this model suggests that some students have extensive needs for support, significant alterations to the general curriculum, and individual teaching; at the other extreme, some have only intermittent needs for support, and require minor adaptations to the general curriculum and a school-wide implementation of high quality instructional strategies.

Other writers who have examined ways in which students with special educational needs can access the general curriculum include Sullivan (2003), who suggested that teachers should augment the general curriculum rather than replace it for such students; Udvari-Solner (1996), who described a process for designing curricular adaptations; Udvari-Solner & Thousand (1996), who outlined ways of creating responsive curricula for inclusive schools; and Janney & Snell (1997), who looked at curricular adaptations for students with moderate and severe disabilities in regular elementary classes.

8.4 Problems in Accessing the General Curriculum

Ensuring that students with special needs can access the general curriculum, while at the same time having their essential needs met, is far from being unproblematic. In their recent review of special education in the ACT, Shaddock et al. (2009), for example, noted that several submissions to the review pointed out that ‘what a student with a disability learns when participating in a lesson or course may not be what they actually need to learn’ (p.66). This becomes particularly evident when the gap between such students’ performance and that of their peers is too great, when the students lack the necessary skills to keep pace with the rest of the class, and when the focus of the teacher is more on getting through the course than on the mastery of essential content by all students.

In a similar vein, Karnoven & Huynh (2007) observed that evidence is suggesting that curricula for students with significant disabilities have begun to ‘shift away from functional approaches seen in the 1980s and 1990s to include more academics’ (p.275). They thought that it was encouraging that 97% of the 292 IEPs for students with significant disabilities in their study contained academic objectives.  

A more critical perspective is offered in a recent book by Farrell (2010), who argued that ‘a special curriculum may differ from a regular curriculum with regard to: the balance of subject and areas; and the balance of components of subjects; and the content of certain areas of the curriculum’ (p.3). He went on to put ‘a case for a distinctive curriculum for some pupils’ (p.99), pointing out that in England, the DfES recognises that the needs of students with moderate learning difficulties ‘will not be able to be met by normal differentiation and the flexibility of the National Curriculum’ (DfES, 2005, p.6).

8.5 Summary

  1. Approaches to conceptualising curricula for students with disabilities have moved from a developmental model in the 1970s, through a functional model in the 1980s and 1990s, to the contemporary model of embracing ways of enabling such students to participate in the general education curriculum.
  2. In the US, IDEA 1997, IDEIA 2004 and the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 specified that all students, including those with significant cognitive disabilities, must have the opportunity to participate and progress in the general curriculum.
  3. To make the curriculum accessible, consideration should be given to the following alternatives in relation to content, teaching materials, and the responses expected from the learners: (a) modifications (e.g., computer responses instead of oral responses, enlarging the print), (b) substitutions (e.g., Braille for written materials); (c) omissions (e.g., omitting very complex work); and (d) compensations (e.g., self care skills).
  4. Other modifications can include (a) expecting the same, but only less, (b) streamlining the curriculum by reducing its size or breadth, (c) employing the same activity but infusing IEP objectives, and (d) curriculum overlapping to help students grasp the connections between different subjects, for example.


  1. This chapter is mainly drawn from Mitchell et al. (2010).
  2. The notion of SWSEN having access to the general curriculum has long been a feature of New Zealand special education policy.