The Individuals with Disabilities Act defines a disability as, "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, speak,read, write, spell, or do mathematical equations." Students with special needs are entitled to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) with their peers in the most least restrictive environment (LRE) possible. This means that they get extra support to help them become successful in school. Many require differentiated instruction that based on their individual needs. This may affect the style of teaching used with them and even what these students learn. Some may also require assistive technology devices. "An assistive technology device is any item, piece of equipment, or product system, whether acquired commercially off the shelf, modified, or customized, that is used to increase, maintain, or improve the functional capabilities of a child with a disability. This can range from a wheelchair to a communication device."

Special Education

Special education has been defined by the Individual with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA, 2004) as "specifically designed instruction, at no cost to the parents, to meet the unique needs of a child with a disability." Children with a specific disability may have trouble performing specific types of skills or tasks. What special education attempts to do is to provide support and interventions needed to help these children succeed in school so they can go on to be successful in their adult life. Most learning disorders can be categorized into four areas of information processing. These include; input, integration, storage, and output (Understanding Special Education, 2009).

Special Education disability categories include (MARSE, 2013):

  • Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD),
  • Cognitive Impairments (CI),
  • Early Childhood Developmental Delay (ECDD),
  • Emotional Impairment (EI),
  • Hearing Impairment (HI),
  • Physical Other Health Impairment (POHI),
  • Speech and Language (SLI),
  • Otherwise Health Impairments (OHI),
  • Specific Learning disability (SLD),
  • Severe Multiple Impairment (SMI),
  • Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI),
  • Visual Impairment (VI)

Other Special Education terms and Definitions (Understanding Special Education, 2009)

Accommodations: Changes that allow a person with a disability to participate fully in an activity. Examples include, extended time, different test format, and alterations to a classroom.
Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP): Special education term used to describe the written plan used to address problem behavior that includes positive behavioral interventions, strategies and support. May include program modifications and supplementary aids and services.
Designated Instruction Services (DIS): Instruction and services not normally provided by regular classes, resource specialist programs or special day classes. They include speech therapy and adaptive physical education.
Due Process: Special education term used to describe the process where parents may disagree with the program recommendations of the school district. The notice must be given in writing within 30 days. IDEA provides two methods for resolving disputes, mediation or fair hearing.
Extended School Year Services (ESY): An extended school year is a component of special education services for students with unique needs who require services in excess of the regular academic year.
Typically, the students who receive ESY services are those with more severe disabilities, and are often served in self-contained programs; students with less pronounced disabilities are least likely to be selected as needing these services. As stated, each IEP team should carefully consider a student’s needs and make a data-based decision. (Bishop 2013)
Functional Behavioral Assessment (FBA): A problem solving process for addressing inappropriate behavior.
Inclusion: Term used to describe services that place students with disabilities in general education classrooms with appropriate support services. Student may receive instruction from both a general education teacher and a special education teacher.
Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA 2004): The original legislation was written in 1975 guaranteeing students with disabilities a free and appropriate public education and the right to be educated with their non-disabled peers. Congress has reauthorized this federal law. The most recent revision occurred in 2004.
Individualized Education Plan (IEP): Special education term outlined by IDEA to define the written document that states the disabled child's goals, objectives and services for students receiving special education.
Individualized Education Program Team: Term used to describe the committee of parents, teachers, administrators and school personnel that provides services to the student. The committee may also include medical professional and other relevant parties. The team reviews assessment results, determines goals and objectives and program placement for the child needing services.
Individualized Transition Plan (ITP): This plan starts at age 14 and addresses areas of post-school activities, post secondary education, employment, community experiences and daily living skills.
Least Restrictive Environment (LRE): The placement of a special needs student in a manner promoting the maximum possible interaction with the general school population. Placement options are offered on a continuum including regular classroom with no support services, regular classroom with support services, designated instruction services, special day classes and private special education programs.
Mainstreaming: Term used to describe the integration of children with special needs into regular classrooms for part of the school day. The remainder of the day is in a special education classroom.
Manifestation Determination: Within 10 school days of any decision to change the placement of a child with a disability because of violation of school code, the IEP team must review all relevant information in the student's file to determine if the conduct in question was caused by the child's disability or if the conduct was a direct result of the school district's failure to implement the child's IEP.
Transition IEP: IDEA mandates that at age 16, the IEP must include a statement about transition including goals for post-secondary activities and the services needed to achieve these goals. This is referred to an Individual Transition Plan or (ITP).

Today, many students with special needs are educated with their general education peers in inclusive classrooms. Students in self-contained programs may be mainstreamed into the general education classroom with their peers for one or two class periods per day. Some general education classrooms may offer a co-teaching model. Co-teaching is when two teachers, in this case a special education teacher and a general education teacher, share a classroom and teach together. Other classrooms may use the teach and assist model, while some special education teachers may push in and pull out. Every student with a disability has an Individualized Education Program (IEP) that is prepared by the IEPC team (this may include the special education teacher, MET representative, school psychologist, the general education teacher, speech and language teacher, school social worker, and district representative/administrator). The IEP details the specific goals of the student that would affect the technology, pedagogy, and content the child will encounter in the classroom. On some instances the teacher may need to utilize the TPACK framework differently when it come to students' with special needs. Let us take a look at these differences.


The teacher may offer accommodations for a student with special needs. Accommodations are made to assist the student in achieving academic success. Accommodations can take the form of decreased lengths of homework assignments, tests in a quiet area, small group testing, text-to-speech, preferred seating arrangements, or extended time on tests. An instructor may also make modifications to the actual curriculum. Modifications are made for students with disabilities who are unable to comprehend all the content given in class. Assignments may be modified significantly and/or reduced in number. The student generally will follow an altered grading scale as well. Students who receive modifications in the regular classroom setting can receive passing grades, regular report cards, and diplomas. This depends on the extent of the modification. Students in center-based or self-contained classrooms that receive extensive curriculum modification and so not take common core based state assessments will usually receive a certificate of completion at the end of high school rather than a diploma.


Differentiated instruction is often used for students with disabilities. It is ubiquitous in special education classrooms. Differentiated instruction is based on the Universal Design of Learning (CAST, 2011). Each student with a disability has an IEP (Individualized Learning Plan) which describes the student's particular disability, his/her strengths and weaknesses, goals and objectives for the duration of the IEP, and services being provided. The IEP is a legal document that must be adhered to by all teachers and service providers. It also lists the modifications and accommodations required to help the student achieve academic success. Accommodations can include extra time to complete and assignment, or presentation of assignment or assessments in a different manner than his/her gen ed peers (ie; oral test vs written). Modifications can be as simple as fewer problems to complete or (in the case of a written assignment), fewer pages or paragraphs, or an illustrated story vs written, or a typed or video presentation.




An assistive technology device is defined as a device that is used to increase, maintain, or improve the functional capability of an individual with a disability (IDEA, 2004). An instructional (or educational) technological device can be defined simply as a device used for learning. During their training, educators often believe assistive technology be to a separate part of the educational experience because it is taught as an isolated subject. A better approach is given by Marino, Sameshima, & Beecher (2009) (see the Figures to the left). In their method, assistive technology is included in part of the teacher's ongoing TPACK training. The teacher becomes familiar with multiple modes in which a lesson may be taught using techniques such as parallaxic praxis. The educator is able to support the class's multiple ways of learning.

The assistive and instructional technology could be the same. The main difference between these two is that a device is considered assistive if it is used to compensate for a diagnosed disability. Word prediction software, spell checkers, and screen readers were once the province of special education. Now they are widely used and enjoyed by the general public. However, there are still additional supports for those with low incidence disabilities. For instance, students with more severe impairments can use communication devices in order to interact with others. Assistive communication devices come in many forms, ranging from advanced eye gaze technology to simple switches (Big Mac) to communication tablets (Dynavox and GoTalks). All are dedicated to giving a student with a disability a voice.

TPACK in Special Education

Since the content, pedagogy, and technology can be altered for special education, the other domains of TPACK have specific considerations in special education as well. These will be presented. Some research has been done in the areas of the subdomains of TPACK as well and are included.

Pedagogical Content Knowledge

Lessons in an inclusive classroom with higher functioning students with special needs follow the course of the general education classroom with adaptations (differentiated instruction) for the student's particular disability. Lessons with students with more severe impairments in a special education classroom often include active learning. Co-teaching and experiential learning are also widely practiced when available. Differentiation is even more prevalent with a class of students who are low functioning as each student's individual needs have to be considered, including their form of communication.

Technological Content Knowledge

With the adoption of much, formerly special education technology by the general public, alternate and augmentative communication has become the largest field in strictly special educational technology. There are other technologies, however. For instance, the "Komputer Saya" program is software that integrates a special education syllabus for students with learning disabilities into a learning multimedia theme.

Technological Pedagogical Knowledge

Technology has had a major impact on the teaching practices in special education. It has allowed students to interact in ways that simply were not possible before. For example, touch screens have brought computer technology within reach of individuals with severe disabilities. The ease of use of tablets and interactive whiteboards have made them prominent features in many special education classrooms.

TPACK Subdomain Links

Pedagogical Content Knowledge

Technological Content Knowledge

Technological Pedagogical Knowledge


Technological Pedagogical Content Knowledge

Altan (2013) provides an overview of TPACK in special education and notes that very little research has been done. The sole example being a study by Lyublinskaya & Tournaki (2013) which measure the effect of TPACK on pre-service special education teachers. During a college course, the pre-service teachers integrated TPACK into their class work with a marked improvement being shown in later work.

Sample TPACK Lesson Plans

Lesson Plan on Anger Management
In this lesson, students will learn how to handle angry feelings in ways that are helpful to themselves and their classmates. They will experience a variety of techniques (anger thermometers, counting, deep breathing, and stress balls) using a variety of materials (a story, an iPad app, videos, and stress balls.)

Lesson Plan on the Five Food Groups
Here, students will learn about the five food groups and why you need them. They will learn this from a video tutorial. The students will practice their comprehension utilizing iPads. Finally, they will go on a field trip to a grocery store to further emphasize this knowledge.

Lesson Plan on the basic concepts of fractions
This lesson provides an exploratory approach to help students understand the basic concepts of fractions. Students will use a laptop computer and the tools on to work with virtual manipulitives to answer questions in a teacher provided packet.

Lesson Plan on Budgeting a Vacation
This lesson is a project activity to be completed over multiple days. Students will use Google Sheets to create a budget spreadsheet to keep track of spending for an imaginary vacation.

Lesson Plan on AAC device-Proloquo2go
This lesson is for students who have a Cognitive Impairment and who are non-verbal requiring them to use an AAC device to communicate. An adapted story is read to the students, and students have the opportunity to use their voice by using the Proloquo2go App on the iPad to tell the class their favorite part of the story.

Lesson Plan on Leader in Me on the Whiteboard
This lesson is for younger students. This is for a Leader in Me activity, but could be used for any social situation. Students will use the whiteboard to organize what are good and bad choices.


  1. Altan, T. (2013). The quest of TPACK in special education. Retrieved from
  2. Center for Applied Special Technology (2011). Universal design for learning guidelines version 2.0. Retrieved from
  3. Individuals with Disabilities Education Act Reauthorization, Public Law 108-446 (2004). Retrieved from Main site is
  4. Lyublinskaya, I. & Tournaki, N. (2013). Integrating TPACK framework into coursework and its effect on changes in TPACK of pre-service special education teachers. Retrieved from
  5. Marino, M.T., Sameshima, P., & Beecher, C.C. (2009). Enhancing TPACK with assistive technology: Promoting inclusive practices in preservice teacher education. Contemporary Issues in Technology and Teacher Education, 9 (2). Retrieved from
  6. MARSE. (2013). Michigan administrative rules for special education. Retrieved from Michigan Department of Education.
  7. North Central Regional Educational Laboratory. Assistive technology to meet k-12 student needs. Retrieved from
  8. Understanding Special Education (2009) Retrieved from
  9. Bishop, N (2013, July, 15). What Are Extended School Year Services and Who Qualifies?. retrieved April 6, 2016, from Special Education Guide Web Site:

† The special education logo was found at

Special Education Resources

Smart Brief: Special Education
Learning Disabilities Association
Special Education Teachers Math and Science using TPACK study.
Council for Exceptional Children.