An Overview of Exceptionalities1

According to the National Information Center for Children and Youth with Disabilities (NICHCY), 6.6 million U.S. children received some sort of special education services in the 2003-04 school year2. In the 2003-2004 school year, fourteen percent of all students enrolled in public schools (grades K–12) received services in federally supported programs for children with disabilities, up from 8 percent in 19773(U.S. Department of Education, 2000). These students have a range of differences, from specific learning disabilities to severe restrictions of movement or communication.

We all have strengths in some areas and weaknesses in others. A student may have severe problems in math and science but be a gifted public speaker with a talent for learning foreign languages. A student may be an intelligent, creative learner in all academic areas, but may be hampered by a wheelchair that makes many locations and activities inaccessible. You may, for example, have students like these in your classroom:

  • Jason, a tall fifth grader, can throw a baseball at eighty miles per hour yet cannot hear.
  • Michael, an excellent mountain climber, cannot see.
  • Susan, whose drawings and paintings show a sophisticated understanding of composition and color, reads two years beneath her grade level.

As a teacher, you must carefully evaluate each child’s strengths and weaknesses. The process of “assessing” a child’s learning needs includes (1) evaluation and screening by psychologists and therapists, and (2)determining the child’s day-to-day specific needs in academic, social, and creative realms. Deciding whether a student needs special education services rests on the degree to which a disability interferes with normal functioning. We all mix up left and right now and then, but that does not mean we have a learning disability or dyslexia.

Students with exceptionalities might be any sort of placement, from the regular classroom to a special school or residential setting.


A child who has an exceptionality has some area of functioning in which he or she is significantly different from an established norm. This definition includes both students with disabilities and those with special gifts or talents. For example, an average score on a standardized intelligence test such as the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children–III (WISC-III) is 100, with a standard deviation of 10 points. If your IQ score is between 80 and 120, you are considered of “normal” intelligence. If your IQ score is above 120, you may be identified as “gifted,” and if your IQ score is lower than 80, you may be labeled “developmentally disabled” or “mentally retarded.” Of course, intelligence tests are not always accurate, and educators consider further measures of ability and achievement before placing a child in a special category.

The same holds true for exceptionalities in other areas, such as emotional development, amount of leg movement, white blood cell count, and so forth. Any behavior or performance outside the “normal” range is exceptional. If an exceptionality interferes with normal functioning across various situations, educators consider “labeling” a student as exceptional in order to provide services. For all disabilities, the process of screening, identification, and labeling includes numerous evaluations and observations.

Although some see the act of giving a person a label as unfair and insensitive, current laws governing U.S. schools require that a student be identified as exceptional in order for the school or treatment center to receive funding to support that child’s education. That is the main reason for classifying students by exceptionality. As you read this book, keep in mind that your teaching tools and methods should be based on each child’s individual needs, not on the child’s label.

learning disabilities
developmental delays
emotional and behavioral disorders
communication disorders
hearing disabilities
visual impairments
physical disabilities