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Special Education Glossary

empowerED exists to support both students and parents on the learning journey. We’ve compiled a list of terms professionals frequently use when explaining to parents and while working with students with learning disabilities.

The list of terms below are in alphabetical order.

[ABA Therapy – Dyspraxia]

[Echolalia – Home and Hospital Instruction]

[Individualized Health Plan – Learning Disability]

[Mental Health Treatment Plan – Psychoeducational Assessment]

[Receptive Language – Syllabication]

[Word Attack – Visual Perceptual/Visual Motor Deficit]

If you have any questions or are ready to book a free, 15-minute consultation to discuss your child’s needs, email us at, or contact us here.

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ABA therapy: A form of behavior therapy for autism that targets language and communication skills, attention, focus, and social skills through positive reinforcement. It works to decrease problem behaviors by teaching the relationship between actions and consequences. 

Academic Achievement Testing: Academic achievement tests measure a student’s strengths and weaknesses in an academic setting. These tests identify if a student is where they are supposed to be in comparison to their peers. Academic achievement tests can also be a factor when determining if a student has a learning disability or is gifted. 

Accommodations (for Students with Disabilities): Accommodations are techniques and materials that allow students with learning disabilities to complete school or work tasks with greater ease and effectiveness. These include, but are not limited to, tape recorders, spell checkers, a different learning environment, and extended time for completing assignments and tests. 

Asperger’s Syndrome: This was originally considered separate from autism, defined by average or higher IQ and normal speech milestones (no early childhood speech delays). Although today people with Asperger’s are considered to be on the autism spectrum, many people still consider their traits to be significantly different in terms of social functioning, cognitive ability, and language skills. 

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD): ADHD is not considered a learning disability, but rather a mental health disorder. However, it is considered a disability under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which allows eligible students access to special education services. 

Students with ADHD may also qualify for accommodations under the ADA and Section 504 if their ADHD impacts a major life function, such as learning. 

There are three subtypes of ADHD: 

Hyperactive/Impulsive: This type has difficulty staying focused and paying attention, exhibits controlling behavior, and is hyperactive. They can also be fidgety, have poor impulse control, and produce messy written work.

Inattentive: This type has limited attention spans, is easily distracted and often forgetful, or tends to procrastinate. Students with inattentive ADHD have trouble sustaining focus, following detailed instructions, finishing projects, and organizing tasks and activities. They are more difficult to pick out in a classroom than a student who is hyperactive because they tend not to call attention to themselves.

Combined: This type displays both inattentive and hyperactive/impulsive symptoms.

Assessment: Pre- and post-assessments are used to gather information about a student’s performance in a particular area. This information helps educators create efficient and effective individualized treatment plans.

Auditory Discrimination: Students with auditory discrimination difficulties are unable to detect the differences between distinct and different sounds. For example, detecting the difference between ship and chip.

Auditory Processing Disorder (APD): Students with APD have difficulty processing sounds because the brain misinterprets the information received and processed from the ear. They may often not be able to filter different sounds or may confuse the order of sounds

Autism Spectrum Disorder: A neurological and developmental condition involving a wide range of differences related to social interaction, communication, restricted interests, and repetitive behaviors. Although the term “disorder” is widely used, many people on the spectrum and professionals prefer to use the term “differences,” when appropriate.

Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP): A behavior intervention plan is a formal, written plan to help teach and reward good behaviors. The goal is misbehavior prevention.  

Decoding: Decoding is the ability to translate a word from print to speech or applying the knowledge of letter-sound relationships. It is also the act of deciphering a new word by sounding it out.

Developmental Disability: Challenges in areas such as learning, mobility, communication, and self-care, which impact an individual’s level of independence. These typically begin in early childhood and are recognized by delays in developmental milestones, such as walking, speaking, and motor activities.

Differentiated Instruction: A teaching approach that includes planning out and executing different approaches to learning in order to meet an individual student’s learning needs. 

Dynamic Intelligence: The ability to use flexible thinking to understand different perspectives, cope with change, and integrate information from multiple sources simultaneously without becoming overwhelmed. Think of this as having enough “bandwidth” to process incoming information effectively and being able to respond appropriately.

Dyslexia: Dyslexia is a language-based learning disability. Specifically, it’s a language processing disorder impacting reading, writing, comprehension, and pronouncing words. 

Dysgraphia: Dysgraphia is a learning disorder causing students to have trouble converting their thoughts into writing or drawing. Those with dysgraphia often have poor handwriting, trouble translating their thoughts into writing, poor motor planning and spatial awareness, and trouble thinking and writing simultaneously.

Dyscalculia: Students with dyscalculia have trouble with math skills and concepts, learning numbers, and reasoning. It’s a learning disability related to math and is often referred to as having “math dyslexia.” 

Dyspraxia: Students with dyspraxia experience severe difficulty writing, drawing, buttoning, and other tasks requiring fine motor skills or in sequencing the necessary movements.

Echolalia: This is when a child repeats phrases or noises they hear or repeats a question instead of answering it. They can also engage in “scripted speech,” repeatedly reciting parts of a movie or song they have heard. This is one of the first signs of autism in young children. It can be the result of expressive language issues, difficulty comprehending language, or an attempt to practice language.

Encoding: Encoding, the opposite of decoding, is using individual sounds to build words.

Experimental Writing: Experimental writing is when children are in the beginning stages of learning to write and experiment with writing. This is done through writing pretend and real letters and by organizing scribbles and marks on paper.

Expressive Language: The use of words, sentences, gestures, and writing to convey meaning and messages to others is expressive language. Expressive language skills include being able to label objects in the environment, describe actions and events, put words together in sentences, use grammar correctly, and tell a story in chronological order.

Executive Functioning: Executive functioning is the ability to organize cognitive processes. Executive functioning skills are a set of processes having to do with managing oneself and one’s resources in order to achieve a goal. It is an umbrella term for neurologically based skills involving mental control and self-regulation. These skills are controlled by an area of the brain called the frontal lobe. 

10 Executive Functioning Skills and Why They Are Necessary

Flexible Thinking: The ability to adapt and alter plans as circumstances change. This refers to both cognitive and emotional flexibility. Flexible thinking is also required to be an effective problem solver.

Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE): Under the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA), public schools are required to provide every child with a disability free, appropriate public education (FAPE) in the least restrictive environment, at no cost to the child’s parents.

“FAPE” is shorthand for “free, appropriate public education.” It outlines which educational services benefits a child will receive in order to prepare them for further education, employment, and independent living. 

Fluency: Fluency is the ability to read a text accurately, quickly, and with proper expression and comprehension. Because fluent readers do not have to concentrate on decoding words, they can focus their attention on what the text means.

Functional Behavior Assessment (FBA): Through the FBA process, professionals identify problem behaviors and develop and implement appropriate interventions to improve or eliminate the identified behaviors. Behavior serves a purpose, and children act in certain ways for a reason. If schools and families know what’s causing the behavior, a solution can be found. 

Graphic Organizers: Text, diagram, or other pictorial devices that summarize and illustrate interrelationships among concepts in a text. Graphic organizers are often known as maps, webs, graphs, charts, frames, or clusters. These are great tools, particularly for visual learners.

Health Evaluation: A health assessment is a care plan identifying a person’s specific needs and how those needs will be addressed by the healthcare system or skilled nursing facility. It is the evaluation of one’s health status by performing a physical exam after taking an in-depth health history. 

Hidden Curriculum, or “Hidden Rules”: These are the rules for social situations that are implied and not always obvious. While most people learn these through experience, some individuals find it challenging to interpret people’s true intentions and motivations, which can result in misunderstanding.

Home and Hospital Instruction: Home/hospital instruction is provided to students who are temporarily unable to attend school for an estimated period of four weeks or more because of a physical and/or mental disability or illness. The program does not provide tutoring to students caring for an infant or a relative who is ill.

Individualized Health Plan (IHP): IHPs are documents outlining tools school nurses use in aiding all learners to improve their well-being and academic success.

Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA): A U.S. federal law that requires school districts to provide eligible students with disabilities a free, appropriate public education (FAPE). This means that special education and related services are to be provided as described in an Individualized Education Program (IEP) and under public supervision at no cost. 

Individualized Education Program (IEP): An IEP maps out the special education instruction, supports, and services an eligible student with a disability needs to thrive in school. Services are provided by the public school system.

Informal Assessment: Informal assessments include examining a student’s academic activities and gathering evidence in a less prescribed manner than a formal assessment. This provides evidence for teachers enabling them to give feedback to students/parents/professionals in relation to improving learning.

Intelligence Quotient (IQ): A measure of someone’s intelligence as indicated by an intelligence test measuring one’s cognitive ability. An IQ score is the ratio of a person’s mental age to his chronological age multiplied by 100. The average score is 100. 

Joint Attention: The ability to share attention and interests with other people. A child demonstrates this with gestures such as pointing to something, showing an object, using eye contact, and smiling. This skill is one of the first observed to be missing in young children on the autism spectrum.

Language Processing Disorder: According to the Learning Disabilities Association of America, those with a language processing disorder have “difficulty attaching meaning to sound groups that form words, sentences, and stories.” Language processing disorder is a subset of auditory processing disorder, and it impacts both expressive and receptive language.  

Learning Disability (LD): A learning disability affects people’s ability to either interpret what they see and hear or to link information from different parts of the brain. A learning disability may also be called a learning difference or learning disorder

Mental Health Treatment Plan: A mental healthcare plan is a plan written by a doctor about treating a mental health condition to help the patient access eligible allied health professionals like psychologists, social workers, or occupational therapists who help one live a better life. 

Mental Health Treatment Plans are useful for people with minor mental health conditions or very serious conditions, short-term concerns, or long-term illnesses. You don’t already have to be diagnosed with a mental health condition to talk to your doctor about making a mental healthcare plan.

Metacognition: The process of “thinking about thinking.” For example, good readers use metacognition before reading when they clarify their purpose for reading and preview the text.

Neurodiversity: An idea growing in popularity that proposes all differences in neurological functioning should be recognized as natural variations of the human genome, and that these differences should be recognized, understood, and supported. This includes autism, Asperger’s, ADHD, and others with differences that lead to innovative, creative, and “outside the box” thinking and ideas.

Neuropsych Testing: Neuropsychological evaluation is an assessment of how one’s brain functions, which indirectly yields information about the structural and functional integrity of the brain.

Nonverbal Learning Disabilities (NVLD): While it may sound like nonverbal learning disabilities relate to an individual’s inability to speak, it actually refers to difficulties in decoding nonverbal behaviors or social cues. NVLD sufferers struggle with understanding body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice, or the nonverbal aspects of communication.

Occupational Therapy (OT): OT helps people throughout their lifespan participate in everyday activities they want and need help to do. Common occupational therapy interventions include helping children with disabilities fully participate in school and social situations, helping people recovering from injury to regain basic functioning skills, and providing support for older adults experiencing physical and cognitive changes. 

Oppositional Defiance Disorder (ODD): ODD is a behavioral disorder when a child displays patterns of anger, defiance, combativeness, and vindictiveness toward those in authority. This behavior is disruptive in daily routines, in both family and academic settings. 

Oral Language Difficulties: A person with oral language difficulties may exhibit poor vocabulary, listening comprehension, or grammatical abilities for his or her age.

Oral/Written Language Disorder + Specific Reading Comprehension Deficit: These are learning disabilities affecting an individual’s understanding of what they read or hear in spoken language. The ability to express oneself with oral language may also be impacted.

Orton-Gillingham: This is a multisensory approach which remediates dyslexia.  The program was created by Dr. Samuel Orton, a neuropsychiatrist and pathologist, and Anna Gillingham, an educator and psychologist.

Other Health Impairments (OHI): OHI is another category of special education services for students with limited strength, vitality, alertness, and mental health due to chronic or acute health problems (such as asthma, ADHD, diabetes, or a heart condition).

Phonemic Awareness: Phonemic awareness is the ability to recognize, think about, and work with individual sounds in spoken words. An example of how beginning readers show us they have phonemic awareness is combining or blending the separate sounds of a word to say the word (/c/ /a/ /t/ – cat).

Phonics: Phonics is an instruction method cultivating the understanding and use of alphabetical principles. It emphasizes the predictable relationship between phonemes (the sounds in spoken language) and graphemes (the letters that represent those sounds in written language). Phonics shows how this information can be used to read or decode words. Phonics is the baseline for reading, writing, and spelling.

Phonological Awareness: Phonological awareness is an understanding of relationships between sounds of words and word parts. It also includes identifying and manipulating larger parts of spoken language such as words, and syllables–as well as other aspects of spoken language such as rhyming and syllabication.

Procedural Safeguards: Procedural safeguards provide parents, legal guardians, and surrogate parents of children with disabilities from ages three (3) through twenty-one (21) with an overview of educational rights.

Proprioception: This term refers to sensory input related to movement and position of the body. People on the autism spectrum or with sensory processing issues often have difficulty with gross-motor coordination (throwing and catching, balance, and large muscle movements) and fine-motor coordination (handwriting, tying shoes, and using utensils). This is usually addressed through occupational therapy.

Psychoeducational Assessment: A psychoeducational assessment is administered by a psychologist who uses standardized testing to measure intellectual and academic abilities. Clinical interviews, observations, and historical records are also used to help understand how the student learns, and identify if, how, and where they are struggling. The assessment measures overall cognitive abilities and academic achievement around core skills, such as reading, writing, and math. 

Assessments vary based on a child’s age. Results help the psychologist understand potential (i.e., if they are gifted or have a learning disability) and provide support strategies. Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder or anxiety can also be assessed. Recommendations are based on a combination of standardized test results and the evaluation of psychosocial and/or mental health issues.

Receptive Language: Receptive language refers to how we understand language, including listening, reading, and expressive language. Those with receptive language difficulties may have trouble interacting with others. 

Scaffolding: A teaching method where the teacher offers support in the form of modeling, prompts, direct explanations, and targeted questions which build upon one another. As students acquire mastery of specific objectives, direct support is reduced and learning becomes more student guided. 

Self-Advocacy: The development of specific skills enabling students to explain to others and cope positively by standing up for themselves.

Self-Monitoring: Self-monitoring teaches students to self-assess their behavior academically and personally in order to increase or decrease the intensity, duration, or frequency of an existing behavior. 

Sensory Diet: A planned and scheduled activity program designed to meet a child’s specific sensory needs. This often includes objects that provide tactile stimulation (sand or clay), swings, bean bags or other chairs that encourage movement, music, trampoline, deep pressure, or “sandwiching” with pillows or balls.

Sensory Processing: The brain’s ability to take in sensory input from the environment and create meaning out of it. 

Sensory Processing Disorder: Difficulty processing sensory stimuli which can result in anxiety, feelings of being overwhelmed, or problems staying engaged. A person can be over-responsive, such as highly sensitive to noises, textures (clothing), taste, visual stimuli (lights or colors), or under-responsive, in which they might not react appropriately to stimuli and appear sluggish or unengaged as a result. 

Stimming: Repetitive sounds, words, or movements (some common examples are spinning, rocking, humming, and hand flapping). The child uses these to provide sensory stimulation to calm down and self-soothe.

Sight Words: Sight words are recognized without having to sound them out. Students are taught to memorize them by sight so they recognize them without having to use decoding skills. These words are unable to be sounded out phonetically and do not “play fair” (by the phonics rules).

Special Education (SPED): Special education is a service offered to students with the following disabilities: specific learning disabilities, speech or language impairments, intellectual disability, emotional disturbance, autism, hearing impairments, visual impairments, combined deafness and blindness, orthopedic impairments, traumatic brain injury, among other health impairments.

Specific Learning Disability (SLD): SLD is defined in U.S. legislation as difficulty in certain areas of learning. It is synonymous with learning disabilities.

Speech and Language Disorder (SLD): SLD refers to problems in communication. The delays and/or disorders range from simple sound substitutions to the inability to understand or use language or use the oral-motor mechanism for functional speech and feeding.   

Stay Put: Until due process hearing procedures are complete, a special education student is entitled to remain in his or her current educational placement, unless the parties agree otherwise. (20 U.S.C. § 1415(j); 34 C.F.R. § 300.518(a) (2006); 56505, subd. (d).) This is referred to as “stay put.” 

Syllabication: Syllabication refers to breaking words into syllables.

Word Attack: An aspect of reading instruction that includes intentional strategies for learning to decode, sight read, and recognize written words is called word attack. 

Working Memory: Working memory is the ability to store and manage information in one’s mind for a short period of time. Working memory is sometimes called short-term memory.

Visual Perceptual/Visual Motor Deficit: Individuals with visual perceptual/visual motor difficulties often exhibit poor hand-eye coordination, lose their place while reading, and have difficulty with pencils, crayons, glue, scissors, and other fine-motor activities. They may also confuse similar looking letters, have trouble navigating their surroundings, or demonstrate unusual eye activity when reading or completing assignments.

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