Adapted from
October 2010

Photo of the edge of a dictionary.

Need to know how key terms in special education are defined?
Special education is full of terms that people constantly use in writing and in conversation, and it’s important to know what those terms mean. NICHCY is pleased to provide this handy reference to special education terminology, and hopes it helps our readers quickly connect with the meaning of pivotal words and phrases in the field.
Quick-Jump Index to the Terms

Point of Reference: IDEA

It’s extremely important to understand that the terms you’re likely to hear in special education come from our nation’s special education law, the IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act). NICHCY frequently refers to this law on our website and in our publications, because it guides how special education and related services are provided to children with disabilities in the United States. States develop their own special education policies and procedures based on what IDEA requires. They are allowed to go beyond what IDEA requires–and frequently do, because the law leaves a great many things to state and local discretion–but they are not permitted to have policies or procedures that are not consistent with IDEA’s provisions.
This being the case, then, the starting point of special education terms and what they mean is always IDEA’s definitions (most of which are provided through this page and elsewhere on NICHCY’s site). Your state’s definition of a term is also important to consider, because it will influence how the term is being used in your area, especially if the state definition isn’t exactly the same as IDEA’s.

Onward, to the Terms!

Can’t find the term or phrase what you’re looking for? Enter the term in the search box at the top of the page and view the results for IDEA’s use of the term. If you still can’t find a term, please email NICHCY

Child with a Disability |

IDEA defines this very important term as follows:
§300.8 Child with a disability
(a) General. (1) Child with a disability means a child evaluated in accordance with §§300.304 through 300.311 as having mental retardation, a hearing impairment (including deafness), a speech or language impairment, a visual impairment (including blindness), a serious emotional disturbance (referred to in this part as ‘‘emotional disturbance’’), an orthopedic impairment, autism, traumatic brain injury, an other health impairment, a specific learning disability, deaf-blindness, or multiple disabilities, and who, by reason thereof, needs special education and related services.
(2)(i) Subject to paragraph (a)(2)(ii) of this section, if it is determined, through an appropriate evaluation under §§300.304 through 300.311, that a child has one of the disabilities identified in paragraph (a)(1) of this section, but only needs a related service and not special education, the child is not a child with a disability under this part.
(ii) If, consistent with §300.39(a)(2), the related service required by the child is considered special education rather than a related service under State standards, the child would be determined to be a child with a disability under paragraph (a)(1) of this section.
(b) Children aged three through nine experiencing developmental delays. Child with a disability for children aged three through nine (or any subset of that age range, including ages three through five), may, subject to the conditions described in §300.111(b), include a child—
(1) Who is experiencing developmental delays, as defined by the State and as measured by appropriate diagnostic instruments and procedures, in one or more of the following areas: Physical development, cognitive development, communication development, social or emotional development, or adaptive development; and
(2) Who, by reason thereof, needs special education and related services.
Editor’s note: We’ve included the text of §300.111(b), mentioned above and very relevant to “Developmental Delay,” at the very end of this definition of “child with a disability.”
(c) Definitions of disability terms. The terms used in this definition of a child with a disability are defined as follows:
(1)(i) Autism means a developmental disability significantly affecting verbal and nonverbal communication and social interaction, generally evident before age three, that adversely affects a child’s educational performance. Other characteristics often associated with autism are engagement in repetitive activities and stereotyped movements, resistance to environmental change or change in daily routines, and unusual responses to sensory experiences.
(ii) Autism does not apply if a child’s educational performance is adversely affected primarily because the child has an emotional disturbance, as defined in paragraph (c)(4) of this section.
(iii) A child who manifests the characteristics of autism after age three could be identified as having autism if the criteria in paragraph (c)(1)(i) of this section are satisfied.
(2) Deaf-blindness means concomitant hearing and visual impairments, the combination of which causes such severe communication and other developmental and educational needs that they cannot be accommodated in special education programs solely for children with deafness or children with blindness.
(3) Deafness means a hearing impairment that is so severe that the child is impaired in processing linguistic information through hearing, with or without amplification that adversely affects a child’s educational performance.
(4)(i) Emotional disturbance means a condition exhibiting one or more of the following characteristics over a long period of time and to a marked degree that adversely affects a child’s educational performance:
(A) An inability to learn that cannot be explained by intellectual, sensory, or health factors.
(B) An inability to build or maintain satisfactory interpersonal relationships with peers and teachers.
(C) Inappropriate types of behavior or feelings under normal circumstances.
(D) A general pervasive mood of unhappiness or depression.
(E) A tendency to develop physical symptoms or fears associated with personal or school problems.
(ii) Emotional disturbance includes schizophrenia. The term does not apply to children who are socially maladjusted, unless it is determined that they have an emotional disturbance under paragraph (c)(4)(i) of this section.
(5) Hearing impairment means an impairment in hearing, whether permanent or fluctuating, that adversely affects a child’s educational performance but that is not included under the definition of deafness in this section.
(6) Mental retardation means significantly subaverage general intellectual functioning, existing concurrently with deficits in adaptive behavior and manifested during the developmental period, that adversely affects a child’s educational performance.
(7) Multiple disabilities means concomitant impairments (such as mental retardation-blindness or mental retardation-orthopedic impairment), the combination of which causes such severe educational needs that they cannot be accommodated in special education programs solely for one of the impairments. Multiple disabilities does not include deaf-blindness.
(8) Orthopedic impairment means a severe orthopedic impairment that adversely affects a child’s educational performance. The term includes impairments caused by a congenital anomaly, impairments caused by disease (e.g., poliomyelitis, bone tuberculosis), and impairments from other causes (e.g., cerebral palsy, amputations, and fractures or burns that cause contractures).
(9) Other health impairment means having limited strength, vitality, or alertness, including a heightened alertness to environmental stimuli, that results in limited alertness with respect to the educational environment, that—
(i) Is due to chronic or acute health problems such as asthma, attention deficit disorder or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, diabetes, epilepsy, a heart condition, hemophilia, lead poisoning, leukemia, nephritis, rheumatic fever, sickle cell anemia, and Tourette syndrome; and
(ii) Adversely affects a child’s educational performance.
(10) Specific learning disability—(i) General. Specific learning disability means a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, that may manifest itself in the imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or to do mathematical calculations, including conditions such as perceptual disabilities, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia.
(ii) Disorders not included. Specific learning disability does not include learning problems that are primarily the result of visual, hearing, or motor disabilities, of mental retardation, of emotional disturbance, or of environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage.
(11) Speech or language impairment means a communication disorder, such as stuttering, impaired articulation, a language impairment, or a voice impairment, that adversely affects a child’s educational performance.
(12) Traumatic brain injury means an acquired injury to the brain caused by an external physical force, resulting in total or partial functional disability or psychosocial impairment, or both, that adversely affects a child’s educational performance. Traumatic brain injury applies to open or closed head injuries resulting in impairments in one or more areas, such as cognition; language; memory; attention; reasoning; abstract thinking; judgment; problem-solving; sensory, perceptual, and motor abilities; psychosocial behavior; physical functions; information processing; and speech. Traumatic brain injury does not apply to brain injuries that are congenital or degenerative, or to brain injuries induced by birth trauma.
(13) Visual impairment including blindness means an impairment in vision that, even with correction, adversely affects a child’s educational performance. The term includes both partial sight and blindness.
And, as promised above, here are the provisions at §300.111(b) Relevant to “Developmental Delay”
(b) Use of term developmental delay. The following provisions apply with respect to implementing the child find requirements of this section:
(1) A State that adopts a definition of developmental delay under §300.8(b) determines whether the term applies to children aged three through nine, or to a subset of that age range (e.g., ages three through five).
(2) A State may not require an LEA to adopt and use the term developmental delay for any children within its jurisdiction.
(3) If an LEA uses the term developmental delay for children described in §300.8(b), the LEA must conform to both the State’s definition of that term and to the age range that has been adopted by the State.
(4) If a State does not adopt the term developmental delay, an LEA may not independently use that term as a basis for establishing a child’s eligibility under this part.

FAPE | Free Appropriate Public Education.

IDEA defines this term (also referred to as FAPE, for short) as follows:
Free appropriate public education
Free appropriate public education or FAPE means special education and related services that—
(a) Are provided at public expense, under public supervision and direction, and without charge;
(b) Meet the standards of the SEA, including the requirements of this part;
(c) Include an appropriate preschool, elementary school, or secondary school education in the State involved; and
(d) Are provided in conformity with an individualized education program (IEP) that meets the requirements of §§300.320 through 300.324.


IDEA is an acronym for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, our nation’s special education law. IDEA was first passed in 1975, where it was called the Education for All Handicapped Children’s Act. Every few years, the law has been revised (a process called reauthorization).
The most current version of IDEA is Public Law 108-446, passed in 2004 and called the “Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004.” It’s still most commonly referred to as IDEA, or IDEA 2004 (to distinguish it from other reauthorizations). Final regulations for IDEA 2004 were published in 2006.

IEP | Individualized Education Program (IEP)

IDEA defines this term as follows:
§300.22 Individualized education program
Individualized education program or IEP means a written statement for a child with a disability that is developed, reviewed, and revised in accordance with §§300.320 through 300.324.
In addition to this brief definition of the term at §300.22, IDEA includes a much longer, much more useful description at §300.320.
§300.320 Definition of individualized education program.
(a) General. As used in this part, the term individualized education program or IEP means a written statement for each child with a disability that is developed, reviewed, and revised in a meeting in accordance with §§300.320 through 300.324, and that must include—
(1) A statement of the child’s present levels of academic achievement and functional performance, including—
(i) How the child’s disability affects the child’s involvement and progress in the general education curriculum (i.e., the same curriculum as for nondisabled children); or
(ii) For preschool children, as appropriate, how the disability affects the child’s participation in appropriate activities;
(2)(i) A statement of measurable annual goals, including academic and functional goals designed to—
(A) 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; and
(B) Meet each of the child’s other educational needs that result from the child’s disability;
(ii) For children with disabilities who take alternate assessments aligned to alternate achievement standards, a description of benchmarks or short-term objectives;
(3) A description of—
(i) How the child’s progress toward meeting the annual goals described in paragraph (2) of this section will be measured; and
(ii) When periodic reports on the progress the child is making toward meeting the annual goals (such as through the use of quarterly or other periodic reports, concurrent with the issuance of report cards) will be provided;
(4) A statement of the special education and related services and supplementary aids and services, based on peer-reviewed research to the extent practicable, to be provided to the child, or on behalf of the child, and a statement of the program modifications or supports for school personnel that will be provided to enable the child—
(i) To advance appropriately toward attaining the annual goals;
(ii) To be involved in and make progress in the general education curriculum in accordance with paragraph (a)(1) of this section, and to participate in extracurricular and other nonacademic activities; and
(iii) To be educated and participate with other children with disabilities and nondisabled children in the activities described in this section;
(5) An explanation of the extent, if any, to which the child will not participate with nondisabled children in the regular class and in the activities described in paragraph (a)(4) of this section;
(6)(i) A statement of any individual appropriate accommodations that are necessary to measure the academic achievement and functional performance of the child on State and districtwide assessments consistent with §612(a)(16) of the Act; and
(ii) If the IEP Team determines that the child must take an alternate assessment instead of a particular regular State or districtwide assessment of student achievement, a statement of why—
(A) The child cannot participate in the regular assessment; and
(B) The particular alternate assessment selected is appropriate for the child; and
(7) The projected date for the beginning of the services and modifications described in paragraph (a)(4) of this section, and the anticipated frequency, location, and duration of those services and modifications.
(b) Transition services. Beginning not later than the first IEP to be in effect when the child turns 16, or younger if determined appropriate by the IEP Team, and updated annually, thereafter, the IEP must include—
(1) Appropriate measurable postsecondary goals based upon age appropriate transition assessments related to training, education, employment, and, where appropriate, independent living skills; and
(2) The transition services (including courses of study) needed to assist the child in reaching those goals.
(c) Transfer of rights at age of majority. Beginning not later than one year before the child reaches the age of majority under State law, the IEP must include a statement that the child has been informed of the child’s rights under Part B of the Act, if any, that will transfer to the child on reaching the age of majority under §300.520.
(d) Construction. Nothing in this section shall be construed to require—
(1) That additional information be included in a child’s IEP beyond what is explicitly required in section 614 of the Act; or
(2) The IEP Team to include information under one component of a child’s IEP that is already contained under another component of the child’s IEP.

LRE | Least Restrictive Environment

IDEA’s provisions with respect to LRE are not a “definition” per se,  but they are nonetheless very important to know. These provisions appear in the final Part B regulations at §§300.114 through 300.120, as part of IDEA’s provisions addressing “State Eligibility.” The conceptual core of IDEA’s LRE provisions are at §300.114, cited below.
§300.114 LRE requirements.
(a) General. (1) Except as provided in §300.324(d)(2) (regarding children with disabilities in adult prisons), the State must have in effect policies and procedures to ensure that public agencies in the State meet the LRE requirements of this section and §§ 300.115 through 300.120.
(2) Each public agency must ensure that—
(i) To the maximum extent appropriate, children with disabilities, including children in public or private institutions or other care facilities, are educated with children who are nondisabled; and
(ii) Special classes, separate schooling, or other removal of children with disabilities from the regular educational environment occurs only if  the nature or severity of the disability is such that education in regular classes with the use of supplementary aids and services cannot be achieved satisfactorily.
(b) Additional requirement—State funding mechanism—(1) General. (i) A State funding mechanism must not result in placements that violate the requirements of paragraph (a) of this section; and
(ii) A State must not use a funding mechanism by which the State distributes funds on the basis of the type of setting in which a child is served that will result in the failure to provide a child with a disability FAPE according to the unique needs of the child, as described in the child’s IEP.
(2) Assurance. If the State does not have policies and procedures to ensure compliance with paragraph (b)(1) of this section, the State must provide the Secretary an assurance that the State will revise the funding mechanism as soon as feasible to ensure that the mechanism does not result in placements that violate that paragraph.

Related services |

IDEA defines this term as follows:
§300.34  Related services.
(a) General. Related services means transportation and such developmental, corrective, and other supportive services as are required to assist a child with a disability to benefit from special education, and includes speech-language pathology and audiology services, interpreting services, psychological services, physical and occupational therapy, recreation, including therapeutic recreation, early identification and assessment of disabilities in children, counseling services, including rehabilitation counseling, orientation and mobility services, and medical services for diagnostic or evaluation purposes. Related services also include school health services and school nurse services, social work services in schools, and parent counseling and training.
(b) Exception; services that apply to children with surgically implanted devices, including cochlear implants.
(1) Related services do not include a medical device that is surgically implanted, the optimization of that device’s functioning (e.g., mapping), maintenance of that device, or the replacement of that device.
(2) Nothing in paragraph (b)(1) of this section—
(i) Limits the right of a child with a surgically implanted device (e.g., cochlear implant) to receive related services (as listed in paragraph (a) of this section) that are determined by the IEP Team to be necessary for the child to receive FAPE.
(ii) Limits the responsibility of a public agency to appropriately monitor and maintain medical devices that are needed to maintain the health and safety of the child, including breathing, nutrition, or operation of other bodily functions, while the child is transported to and from school or is at school; or
(iii) Prevents the routine checking of an external component of a surgically implanted device to make sure it is functioning properly, as required in §300.113(b).
(c) Individual related services terms defined. The terms used in this definition are defined as follows:
(1) Audiology includes—
(i) Identification of children with hearing loss;
(ii) Determination of the range, nature, and degree of hearing loss, including referral for medical or other professional attention for the habilitation of hearing;
(iii) Provision of habilitative activities, such as language habilitation, auditory training, speech reading (lip-reading), hearing evaluation, and speech conservation;
(iv) Creation and administration of programs for prevention of hearing loss;
(v) Counseling and guidance of children, parents, and teachers regarding hearing loss; and
(vi) Determination of children’s needs for group and individual amplification, selecting and fitting an appropriate aid, and evaluating the effectiveness of amplification.
(2) Counseling services means services provided by qualified social workers, psychologists, guidance counselors, or other qualified personnel.
(3) Early identification and assessment of disabilities in children means the implementation of a formal plan for identifying a disability as early as possible in a child’s life.
(4) Interpreting services includes—
(i) The following, when used with respect to children who are deaf or hard of hearing: Oral transliteration services, cued language transliteration services, sign language transliteration and interpreting services, and transcription services, such as communication access real-time translation (CART), C-Print, and TypeWell; and
(ii) Special interpreting services for children who are deaf-blind.
(5) Medical services means services provided by a licensed physician to determine a child’s medically related disability that results in the child’s need for special education and related services.
(6) Occupational therapy
(i) Means services provided by a qualified occupational therapist; and
(ii) Includes—
(A) Improving, developing, or restoring functions impaired or lost through illness, injury, or deprivation;
(B) Improving ability to perform tasks for independent functioning if functions are impaired or lost; and
(C) Preventing, through early intervention, initial or further impairment or loss of function.
(7) Orientation and mobility services
(i) Means services provided to blind or visually impaired children by qualified personnel to enable those students to attain systematic orientation to and safe movement within their environments in school, home, and community; and
(ii) Includes teaching children the following, as appropriate:
(A) Spatial and environmental concepts and use of information received by the senses (such as sound, temperature and vibrations) to establish, maintain, or regain orientation and line of travel (e.g., using sound at a traffic light to cross the street);
(B) To use the long cane or a service animal to supplement visual travel skills or as a tool for safely negotiating the environment for children with no available travel vision;
(C) To understand and use remaining vision and distance low vision aids; and
(D) Other concepts, techniques, and tools.
(8)(i) Parent counseling and training means assisting parents in understanding the special needs of their child;
(ii) Providing parents with information about child development; and
(iii) Helping parents to acquire the necessary skills that will allow them to support the implementation of their child’s IEP or IFSP.
(9) Physical therapy means services provided by a qualified physical therapist.
(10) Psychological services includes—
(i) Administering psychological and educational tests, and other assessment procedures;
(ii) Interpreting assessment results;
(iii) Obtaining, integrating, and interpreting information about child behavior and conditions relating to learning;
(iv) Consulting with other staff members in planning school programs to meet the special educational needs of children as indicated by psychological tests, interviews, direct observation, and behavioral evaluations;
(v) Planning and managing a program of psychological services, including psychological counseling for children and parents; and
(vi) Assisting in developing positive behavioral intervention strategies.
(11) Recreation includes—
(i) Assessment of leisure function;
(ii) Therapeutic recreation services;
(iii) Recreation programs in schools and community agencies; and
(iv) Leisure education.
(12) Rehabilitation counseling services means services provided by qualified personnel in individual or group sessions that focus specifically on career development, employment preparation, achieving independence, and integration in the workplace and community of a student with a disability. The term also includes vocational rehabilitation services provided to a student with a disability by vocational rehabilitation programs funded under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as amended, 29 U.S.C. 701 et seq.
(13) School health services and school nurse services means health services that are designed to enable a child with a disability to receive FAPE as described in the child’s IEP. School nurse services are services provided by a qualified school nurse. School health services are services that may be provided by either a qualified school nurse or other qualified person.
(14) Social work services in schools includes—
(i) Preparing a social or developmental history on a child with a disability;
(ii) Group and individual counseling with the child and family;
(iii) Working in partnership with parents and others on those problems in a child’s living situation (home, school, and community) that affect the child’s adjustment in school;
(iv) Mobilizing school and community resources to enable the child to learn as effectively as possible in his or her educational program; and
(v) Assisting in developing positive behavioral intervention strategies.
(15) Speech-language pathology services includes—
(i) Identification of children with speech or language impairments;
(ii) Diagnosis and appraisal of specific speech or language impairments;
(iii) Referral for medical or other professional attention necessary for the habilitation of speech or language impairments;
(iv) Provision of speech and language services for the habilitation or prevention of communicative impairments; and
(v) Counseling and guidance of parents, children, and teachers regarding speech and language impairments.
(16) Transportation includes—
(i) Travel to and from school and between schools;
(ii) Travel in and around school buildings; and
(iii) Specialized equipment (such as special or adapted buses, lifts, and ramps), if required to provide special transportation for a child with a disability.

Special Education

IDEA defines “special education” as follows:
§300.39 Special education.
(a) General. (1) Special education means specially designed instruction, at no cost to the parents, to meet the unique needs of a child with a disability, including—
(i) Instruction conducted in the classroom, in the home, in hospitals and institutions, and in other settings; and
(ii) Instruction in physical education.
(2) Special education includes each of the following, if the services otherwise meet the requirements of paragraph (a)(1) of this section—
(i) Speech-language pathology services, or any other related service, if the service is considered special education rather than a related service under State standards;
(ii) Travel training; and
(iii) Vocational education.
(b) Individual special education terms defined. The terms in this definition are defined as follows:
(1) At no cost means that all specially-designed instruction is provided without charge, but does not preclude incidental fees that are normally charged to nondisabled students or their parents as a part of the regular education program.
(2) Physical education means—
(i) The development of—
(A) Physical and motor fitness;
(B) Fundamental motor skills and patterns; and
(C) Skills in aquatics, dance, and individual and group games and sports (including intramural and lifetime sports); and
(ii) Includes special physical education, adapted physical education, movement education, and motor development.
(3) Specially designed instruction means adapting, as appropriate to the needs of an eligible child under this part, the content, methodology, or delivery of instruction—
(i) To address the unique needs of the child that result from the child’s disability; and
(ii) To ensure access of the child to the general curriculum, so that the child can meet the educational standards within the jurisdiction of the public agency that apply to all children.
(4) Travel training means providing instruction, as appropriate, to children with significant cognitive disabilities, and any other children with disabilities who require this instruction, to enable them to—
(i) Develop an awareness of the environment in which they live; and
(ii) Learn the skills necessary to move effectively and safely from place to place within that environment (e.g., in school, in the home, at work, and in the community).
(5) Vocational education means organized educational programs that are directly related to the preparation of individuals for paid or unpaid employment, or for additional preparation for a career not requiring a baccalaureate or advanced degree.

Supplementary Aids and Services

IDEA defines “supplementary aids and services” as follows:
§300.42 Supplementary aids and services.
Supplementary aids and services means aids, services, and other supports that are provided in regular education classes, other education-related settings, and in extracurricular and nonacademic settings, to enable children with disabilities to be educated with nondisabled children to the maximum extent appropriate in accordance with §§300.114 through 300.116.

Transition Services

IDEA defines “transition services” as follows:
§300.43 Transition services.
(a) Transition services means a coordinated set of activities for a child with a disability that—
(1) Is designed to be within a results-oriented process, that is focused on improving the academic and functional achievement of the child with a disability to facilitate the child’s movement from school to post-school activities, including postsecondary education, vocational education, integrated employment (including supported employment), continuing and adult education, adult services, independent living, or community participation;
(2) Is based on the individual child’s needs, taking into account the child’s strengths, preferences, and interests; and includes—
(i) Instruction;
(ii) Related services;
(iii) Community experiences;
(iv) The development of employment and other post-school adult living objectives; and
(v) If appropriate, acquisition of daily living skills and provision of a functional vocational evaluation.
(b) Transition services for children with disabilities may be special education, if provided as specially designed instruction, or a related service, if required to assist a child with a disability to benefit from special education.

TA&D | Technical Assistance and Dissemination Network

Editor’s note: IDEA’s provisions with respect to the Technical Assistance and Dissemination (TA&D) network of OSEP do not contain a “definition” of TA&D but, rather, authorize the Secretary of Education to fund projects intended to improve the education of children with disabilities. In Section 663 of the statute (Public Law 108-446), the following authorization
“(e) Linking States to Information Sources.—In carrying out this section, the Secretary shall support projects that link States to technical assistance resources, including special education and general education resources, and shall make research and related products available through libraries, electronic networks, parent training projects, and other information sources, including through the activities of the National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance established under part D of the Education Sciences Reform Act of 2002.”