How do schools in Ontario support students with special education needs?

Schools in Ontario must identify when students have unique learning needs, and help them get the support they need to meet their goals.

What are special needs?

In education, special needs are unique learning abilities that students may need extra support for. Special needs often arise from disabilities, disorders, exceptionality (also called giftedness), neurodivergence, or other conditions. 

When these conditions affect a student’s physical, intellectual, emotional, or behavioural performance or development, it is a school’s responsibility to provide accommodations to help them reach their educational goals in a supportive and inclusive environment.

According to Ontario’s Education Act, there are five different categories of special needs that can affect how a student learns. These categories are called “exceptionalities” and include:

  • Behaviour: challenges a student faces with their reactions, fears, anxieties, social interactions, etc.
  • Communication: challenges a student faces that impact how they receive or relay information (e.g., learning disabilities, Autism Spectrum Disorder, hearing, language or speech differences)
  • Physical: challenges a student faces because of condition that affects their body (e.g., blind and low vision, physical disabilities)
  • Intellectual: differences in mental or cognitive abilities (e.g., developmental disability, giftedness)
  • Multiple: when a student’s needs fall into more than one category of exceptionality (e.g., an Autistic student who is also gifted)

Remember, no two brains are the same, and there is no such thing as “normal.” Everyone learns things differently, and in some situations, we may need more support than what’s available in a typical classroom. 

What is special education?

Special education programs are designed to support the learning goals of students with particular needs. 

Students in special education programs are assessed and evaluated periodically so that their support can be modified as their needs change. Special education services can include unique resources, equipment, or specially trained support people. 

In Ontario, all students have a right to accommodation and support.

Every school board must provide special education programs and services to help students with different learning needs. If a school does not have their own special education programs or services, it’s the administration’s responsibility to find them for students and help them get access, for instance, by arranging support through another school or school board; this often happens in rural areas. 

How are special needs identified?

Special learning needs can be identified in many different ways, for instance through:

  • Feedback from the student who needs particular support
  • Feedback from parents or other caregivers
  • Observations from teachers and educators
  • Reports from doctors or other healthcare professionals
  • Psychoeducational assessments by a psychologist 

Please note that school boards do NOT have to provide psychoeducational assessments and can rely on other methods to identify special needs. They often refer you to assessments and may even approve your request to do one through the school’s resources, so you should talk to them first. 

Psychoeducational assessments can cost as much as $5,000 through a private practice; some of this cost may be covered through private insurance. Some university psychology programs allow students to do these assessments while being supervised by a professor, with a sliding scale payment option, including:

Once a student, parent, educator, or healthcare professional identifies a need that is not being met, an Individual Education Plan (IEP) should be developed. An IEP outlines what programs and services can be put in place to help support the student’s needs. 

Students may get an IEP by going through a formal process called the Identification, Placement, and Review Committee (IPRC). This process involves:

  1. Observing and reporting that extra support is needed.
  2. Making a written request to the school board.
  3. Having an IPRC meeting with school staff, parents, and the student requiring support.
  4. Identifying what exceptionality the student has and determining what placement they need.

Students can also get an IEP informally without going through the IPRC process. For example, if the support need is not so great that a formal process is required, a teacher may identify a special learning need and suggest appropriate support. Almost half of all students who receive special education got an IEP without going through the formal IPRC process. 

What kind of special education placements are there?

Once your support needs have been identified, you will be placed in one of the five different kinds of placements:

  • A regular class with indirect support, where a special education teacher comes into your classroom and helps your teacher support you
  • A regular class with resource assistance, where a special education teachers comes into your classroom and helps you directly
  • A regular class withdrawal assistance, where you see a special education teacher outside of your regular classroom for part of the school day
  • A special education class with partial integration, where you see a special education teacher outside of your regular classroom for most of the school day
  • A full-time special education class, where you spend the entire school day with a special education teacher

The class size that a special education teacher can support depends on how great the needs of the students are. For students who require more support, a special education class cannot exceed eight students. For students who require less support, classes can be up to 16 students. 

What should I keep in mind about special needs as a newcomer?

As a newcomer coming from a different culture, you and your family may not be aware of all the resources that are available, or you may have a unique approach to your health.

Here are some things to consider:

  • Gather as much information as you can. Talk to educators at your school, your doctor and counsellors, your parents, friends, and other immigrants. To get the right help and make the best decisions, you should try to be as knowledgeable as possible.
  • Research treatments and resources available to you. It is perfectly fine if you prefer alternative medicine and healthcare, but again, you should know all your options before deciding on any kind of treatment or plan. 
  • Advocate for yourself, and if you can, advocate for others. Needing extra support is nothing to be shy or ashamed about. Everyone needs help at some point, and you have a better chance of success the sooner you are able to get it. 
  • Consider your cultural and family values and try to find a way to honour them while getting the support you need.