Article Index

Students with special educational needs

Which students are concerned? How can their needs be identified? How to accommodate these students in their normal classes?

By Caroline Planchamp – April 2016

Caroline Planchamp is a psychologist, with an occupational psychology master degree. She is specialized in group work and team building within organisations. She is also a teacher with 15 years of experience in primary year classes at a number of private schools in Geneva. She is the mother of three children, one with special needs. She is currently specializing in supporting inclusive education for students with special needs.

Contact : planchamp.caroline{at}

All students presenting learning difficulties in a given situation have “special educational needs”. Pedagogical arrangements are necessary in order to ensure their progression in school. Sometimes, specific resources or specialised environments are required; however remaining in the ordinary class remains a priority in inclusive schools and societies (see the article "the inclusive school").

In this article, we will discuss the diversity of special educational needs, how to identify the students and their needs, and finally, which pedagogical options are available to accommodate the student in the school.

The elements encountered in this document stem from various sources, most of which are Francophone (Swiss, French, Belgian, Quebecois). When it is possible and relevant, the chosen references are from Geneva based sources, as it is more interesting for a reader from the Geneva area to share the language and references from professionals in the region. The information presented will clarify certain queries regarding this vast area of concern. Nevertheless, this article does not cover every aspect of each disorder and specific difficulty. It cannot replace a professional opinion. For further information, references are given at the bottom of each page. Additional material can be accessed by clicking on these links.

Who are the students with special educational needs?

“Students with special educational needs” is a relatively recent concept derived from an Anglophone expression, and encompasses a diverse range of students.The notion of student with a “handicap” is partially associated with this expression. However understanding of “handicap” has evolved rapidly over the last few years. Today, we do not consider a handicap or a disorder to have any actual significance, unless it is spoken about in its environmental context1. A student can be in a “position of handicap” at a given time, but can be assisted with targeted adjustments. For instance, a person with an auditory disorder could be in a position of handicap when communicating with those who express themselves orally. As soon as sign language is used or that this person is able to lip-read, they are not in a context where they are considered to have a handicap. Nevertheless, they still have “Special needs”.2So who are these students exactly? Students with special needs in the classroom can be confronted with various challenges.


We distinguish the following cases:

-> Neurodevelopmental disorders
-> Organic disorders
-> Psychological disorders
-> Socio-economical or cultural difficulties
-> The particular cases of gifted students

Each category is detailed below. The presentation of each difficulty is briefly summarised in order to give the reader an overview. For each point there are links to specific documents (the definitions and records come mostly from the Geneva website “cap integration”3 (in French) and the Canadian website “learn Alberta”4.

Special educational needs (illustration from the Aix-Marseille academy’s website,


1. Neurodevelopmental disorders:

This category regroups difficulties linked to the development of one’s nervous system. These difficulties generally appear in early childhood, before the start of the child’s schooling. They appear as a delay in development, which affects the person’s functioning in different areas of their everyday life: personal, social, educational and professional5.


" alt="troubles neurodéveloppementaux bulles" />

- Communication disorders : dysphasia (language, speech, fluency other non-specific communication)
- Motor function disorders : transitional disorders, motor function or vocal disorders, Tourettes Syndrome, coordination development disorders.
- Developmental disorders : intellectual deficiency – light, moderate, severe, profound. Global developmental delay.
- Attention deficit disorder, with or without hyperactivity (ADD/ADHD)
- Autism spectrum disorders
- Specific learning difficulties : dyscalculia (maths), dysorthographia (writing), dyslexia (reading), all with light, moderate or severe degrees.
- Other neurodevelopmental disorders

Visual synthesis of neurodevelopmental disorders according to DSM V (Illustration originating from the ANPEIP website – National Association for Intellectually Premature Children

-> Specific learning disorders: persistent learning difficulties and weaker academic competencies in the areas of reading, writing or mathematics which manifest in the absence of any visual, auditory, neurological or intellectual deficit despite a normal schooling.
Dyslexia: disorder specific to learning when writing, linked to a particular difficulty in recognizing letters, syllables or words.
Dysorthographia: severe and lasting disorder when learning spelling..
Dyscalculia: disorder specific to calculations or more globally arithmetics or mathematics
Dysgraphia: disorder of the writing movement.

-> Motor function disorders: disorders regrouping difficulties with coordination of movement, stereotyped movements or tics, interfering with social activities.
Dyspraxia: disorder specific to motor development.
Tourette’s Syndrome: neurological disorder resulting in many involuntary motor tics and uncommon behaviours.

-> Communication disorders: language, speech and receptive or expressive language delay, pragmatic language and other non-specific communication disorders).
Dysphasia: specific, primary, structural and persistent disorder of spoken development. It may present itself more or less severely, and under different forms.
Stuttering: disorder affecting the flow and rhythm of speech.

-> Cognitive (or intellectual) disorders:
Light cognitive impairment: intellectual capacity noticeably inferior than average, which may or may not be combined with an adaptive behavioural deficit.
Moderate cognitive impairment: intellectual capacity noticeably inferior than average, combined with an adaptive behavioural deficit.
Severe cognitive impairment: intellectual capacity significantly inferior than average, combined with a significant adaptive behavioural deficit.
Down’s syndrome or Trisomy 21: chromosomal abnormality resulting in physical and intellectual developmental handicaps.
Fragile X syndrome: hereditary mental incapacity with cognitive deficiencies ranging from light to severe.



Young boy with trisomy in normal class

-> Attention deficit with or without hyperactivity disorder (ADD /ADHD): neurobiological disorder affecting certain cerebral circuits mainly responsible for retaining attention across any duration of time and resisting distractions.

-> Autism spectrum disorders: permanent and complex neurological disorders, which alter cerebral functions and can result in communication and behavioural problems, as well as difficulties interacting with others.

2. Organic disorders

This category describes the students who present sensory or physical deficiencies, as well as those suffering from a chronic organic illness.

-> Sensory deficiencies (auditory or visual)

Impaired hearing or deaf: partial or total loss of auditory function.
Visually impaired or blind: partial or total loss of visual function.

-> Motor deficiencies: comprises genetic, systemic, neurological, neuromuscular or rheumatoid disorders which can impact one’s motor function to varying degrees.

-> C hronic organic illnesseslong-term illnesses eliciting absences from school, and potentially causing the student to be removed from school temporarily, with a risk of marginalization provoking an inevitable feeling of exclusion.

3. Psychological disorders:

This category encompasses mood, behavioural and personality disorders.

Depression: psychological illnesses with the following habitual symptoms: sadness, feeling of failure, guilt, inability to feel pleasure, difficulty in starting a task/an activity, but which can take on many different forms in adolescence.
Bipolar disorder in adolescence: pathological mood swings which, according to the duration, intensity and recurrence, have a significant impact on social and academic functioning.
Anxiety disorder: excessive and persistent apprehension, accompanied by physical symptoms such as sweating, heart palpitations, or stomach discomfort.
Behavioural disorders: persistent misbehaviour infringing upon and degrading another’s fundamental rights: impulsive behaviour, often dangerous and socially unacceptable.
Obsessive-compulsive disorders: syndrome in which obsessions (thoughts) or compulsions (repetitive behaviours) are serious enough to be time consuming and resulting in noticeable distress or significantly disrupting day-to-day activities.
Oppositional Defiant Disorder: persistent behaviours (aggression and provocation) and a need to upset or irritate others.

4. Socioeconomic or cultural difficulties:

This category applies to students who present difficulties originating mainly from environmental factors: socio-economical, cultural or linguistic.

Difficult family or social situation: students of which families are dealing with significant professional, familial, social or financial difficulties, which greatly limit beneficent monitoring of their child’s learning.
Recently arrived in the countrystudents who do not speak the country’s language.
Nomadic lifestyle: children from travelling or sedentary families, who have seldom frequented schools and who sometimes present difficulties with the French language.

5. The specific case of students with high potential (HP or intellectually premature students)

Students with HP are students with exceptional intellectual aptitudes (greater than average IQ), with a way of thinking and an affective functioning that are qualitatively different and which can lead to learning difficulties.


Meeting with a HP student’s thoughts (illustration from the Versaille academy – the high potential student:


1 Since 2001, in its Classification of Function, Handicap and Health, the World Health Organization recommends to evaluate a problem which takes into consideration the disorders, but also the activity limitations arising from these disorders and the participation restrictions in daily society, all linked to environmental factors which can present as additional obstacles or, on the contrary, facilitators. Therefore, the concept of handicap becomes very changeable in function of the context and of the time.

2 MEULI, Natalina, ZUCCONE, Cecilia. Intégrer à Genève, inclure en Finlande : qu’en pensent des élèves à besoins éducatifs particuliers ?. Maîtrise : Univ. Genève, 2013

3 Website of the department of public instruction, who give educational professionals courses of action for students with educational special needs:

4 Canadian website recommending various documents on disorders and adaptation strategies for teachers:

DSM 5 Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of mental disorders, 2013 

For further information:

Specialised Swiss pedagogical website featuring pages on “information for teachers in reference to disorders, pedagogical measures of differentiated instruction and the compensation of disadvantages”:

Website, which has for objective to “inform in order to better school afflicted children”, presenting a classification by alphabetical order of the illnesses, disorders, health problems, handicaps, etc., with corresponding suggestions:

Privately developed website based in Geneva (created by a mother) offering information concerning certain learning impairments or difficulties as well as an unbiased directory within which therapists can offer their services:

Documentary and pedagogical file to identify, understand and help children with high potential:

Example of a welcome device for students who do not speak the national language in France:

File on the schooling of the Roma people in Europe:

Are there indicators to help identify the specific educational needs of a student in my class?

1. An established diagnostic

In certain situations a pupil arrives in a class with poor cognitive skills, a visible disorder or a pre-existing diagnosis. The support of this student must be in line with the diagnosis or obvious requirements of the child and he or she must follow an integration program, which is developed at the beginning of the school term. In this situation, communication between the adults supporting the child is relatively simple, as each individual understands the child’s needs from a shared point of reference. Despite this, the parties concerned may disagree with regards to what they believe is an appropriate support system for the student and the accommodations that are required.

2. Signs observed at home and in the classroom

In other situations, often within younger classes, a diagnosis has not yet been established. Difficulties are identified by parents and adults supporting the child (kindergarten, nanny, grandparents, etc.) but in many cases addressing the issue is put on hold until the child has reached a later developmental stage. Should they persist, both inside as well as outside the classroom, and should they affect the child’s learning abilities, parents and teachers must collaborate in order to provide complementary observations of the issues in the school and the environment. The parents must seek advice from the child’s doctor with regards to the situation. The school, provided parental authorisation is given, can consult members of staff in charge of the evaluation and subsequent interventions for pupils with learning difficulties (medico-pedagogical staff, school psychologists...).

3. Issues that arise in class

In some scenarios only the teacher in charge seems to notice behavioural issues or worrying academic results. In this case the parents don’t appear to be concerned or even notice the warning signals given by the teacher. This can be explained by a difficulty for the parents to acknowledge and admit that their child is facing difficulties at this stage. This is a common reaction to the stress induced by this reality. It is important that the teacher respects and allows the parents time to digest the news and subsequently assist parents in identifying how best to cater for the needs of their child. The first way to approach this is for the teacher to take a non-judgemental stance and propose that all parties work together as a team for the ultimate wellbeing of the child. This approach appears simple and obvious. However, it can be a difficult task for a teacher who may be feeling overwhelmed by a child’s behaviour issues or learning difficulties that they do not know how to approach. If this is the case, referring to a person with specific knowledge of such situations who can help guide and give support for the situation can be very useful.

4. The identification of symptoms

Symptoms are the visible manifestations of a disorder. They can provide information about the origins of the student’s difficulties. Not every student that presents a particular symptom will necessarily be affected by a particular pathology. However knowing how to detect these signs can help identify more specific needs. The following links give access to lists of behaviours. If they are recurring, they should act as signals for a teacher to take action:

Attention disorders
Behavioural disorders
Language disorders
Problems with fine and gross motor skills

Once these difficulties have been identified, the educational team with the responsibility of supporting the child, the parents and professionals must take the time to share their joint observations regarding the child’s issues or difficulties. Following this, the necessary arrangements can be organised in order to optimize the child’s learning.


Privately developed website based in Geneva (created by a mother) offering information concerning certain learning impairments or difficulties as well as an unbiased directory within which therapists can offer their services:

What measures can one take to ensure the best learning experience for a child with special needs within an ordinary class?

In French speaking countries (and many others) the traditional approach has been to educate students separately in accordance with their skills. Some may have been integrated into mainstream schooling whereas others were not. This meant that students with handicaps were orientated to specialized establishments and students facing academic failure were quickly removed from the school system. Today, our society is evolving towards schools open to all students, inclusive school. For a considerable amount of time now, various laws ensure that diversity is found within classes (1989 in France, 1993 in Geneva). However, laws ensuring inclusion have existed for a much shorter period of time (2005 in France, 2010 in Geneva), and furthermore, mainstream schooling is no longer considered a privilege, but a right. On top of this the more one considers inclusive schooling the more natural and humane the concept becomes. Yet it is not always as straightforward. Schools were previously conceived to educate the largest number of students possible and now we are asking the same establishments to respond to very specific needs of certain students. This requires adaptations to the previous way of functioning, which must be developed and put in place by the educational team.

1. Evaluation of needs

The first tool is observation. However, in cases of significant and persistent difficulties, an evaluation of a student’s needs can be undertaken with specific tools (GEVA-SCO for France, PES in Switzerland, other cognitive assessments according to the individual’s needs). Depending on outcomes of testing, different levels of adaptations are available, ranging from the most basic to more specific adaptations.

2. Differentiated instruction

This occurs on a daily basis. According to Philippe Perrenoud (translated from French), “The act of differentiating is drawing away from didactic instruction, the same lesson, the same exercises for all; most importantly it is putting in place an organization and resources which place each individual in an optimal situation on a regular basis. This organization consists of using available resources and playing with all the available parameters to organise activities in a manner such that each student is constantly, or at least frequently, faced with the most fruitful didactic situations for him or herself.”1 The document “« adapting one’s teaching methods » presents the following paths in a summarized yet very complete manner:

-> reduce difficulties linked to sequencing (alphabet, days, months, multiplication tables...)
-> reduce difficulties linked to visual treatment
-> reduce difficulties linked to memories : working memory/ long term memory
-> reduce difficulties linked to attentive resources.
-> avoid the vicious spiral of a loss of self-esteem (love of one’s self, vision of one’s self, belief in one’s self).

According to the level and needs of the student, differentiated instruction can range from simply showing flexibility to more significant adaptations. This does not mean the student cannot follow the same program as his or her classmates. It simply means they must be followed in a different manner.

Sometimes, certain students have different objectives. In such cases it is beneficial for the pedagogical content as well as evaluations to be modified. The program is no longer the same as that of other students. In such a scenario the educational team and the family must be in agreement as this decision will impact the future academic path of the student in question.2


Pyramide Differenciation


Differentiated instruction (Illustation borrowed from the « Plan d’intervention et mesures adaptatives en primaire », Intervention plans and adaptive measures in primary education,




In Switzerland, many documents produced by institutional organisations, designed for teachers, recommend various adaptations to help with specific difficulties or disorders. These enable the access to an “official” policy of differentiated pedagogy, especially with regards to evaluations. These documents are available on the Geneva Cap Integration website ( or on the website of the Swiss Centre of specialized pedagogy (CSPS)  ( in Bern.

3. Referring to support structures

For students with difficulties, the intervention of existing support structures can be useful: personalised assistance, support teacher, co-teaching, help with homework... To ensure access to such support services one must consult the school or the educational networks (other schools, social services, municipality, associations...) that exists to ensure the students and the families receive the help best tailored to their needs. For example, in the case of a student who does not speak the language, an “FLE” class (“Français comme Langue Etrangère”, French as a Foreign Language) is available within the school or in another school. Furthermore, it can be of interest to invite the parents to participate in an information session promoting awareness of the host countries school culture, which are often animated by social partners of the city.

4. The development of an integration program


plan perso

Certain needs require a specific integration program. In the Swiss Romande a PEI (Projet Educatif Individualisé -> Individual Educational Plan) is a document, which synthesises the strengths and weaknesses of a student and determines the conditions required for optimal integration in an educational environment. In France, several programmes exist (PAI, PPRE, PAP or PPS – see illustration and translations above) which allow the appropriate responses to students’ specific needs ranging from dietary requirements to learning difficulties as well as handicaps. These plans propose medical protocols, reinforced measures of scholarly support, the presence of a personal caretaker (Assistant in Scholarly Integration, Auxiliary of Scholarly Life) or the establishment of specific teaching program.3 All of these measures are coordinated by persons who are able to unite different players required around the students.

Welcome plans specific to France – Picture of the National Education, Superior Education and Research Minister.


5. Compensation for disadvantages during exams

In Switzerland, official guidelines define the policies regarding “compensation for disadvantages”. This expression refers to the adaptation of conditions under which an exam takes place. The goal of the guidelines is to neutralise or reduce the limitations caused by the difficulty or deficiency of the student. Therefore they only concern the conditions of the exam, they do not concern the academic or schooling objectives, which remain unchanged. Thanks to such guidelines, a sign language interpreter can accompany a student with an auditory deficiency, another student can benefit from extra time, etc. For such compensations to be effective they must be requested through a precise procedure.4

6. The student and their parents at the centre of the plan

It is important to end this article with a reminder that a key element is to maintain the student and their parents at the centre of all measures put in place. In a majority of cases, parents are the primary caregivers for the child. Furthermore it is the parents who follow the child, without interruption, year after year and ensure, to the best they can, the continuity of the measures taken. They are often very well informed about the difficulties of their child and are able to communicate important information to the teacher as of the start of the academic year or even at the end of the previous school year. On the other hand, professionals assist and shoulder the parents, allowing them to fully understand the difficulties observed and the help, which is offered. The collaboration between families and professionals is unavoidable; it’s a real partnership. The final decisions regarding facilities put in place or the student’s orientation are the fruit of a consensus.5

For more information on the organisation of an inclusive class 
For more information on the organisation of an inclusive school

Examples of the schooling of students with special learning needs in France. Schooling of students with handicaps. EducationFrance.



1 Differentiated instruction. Wikipedia.

2 Three forms of differentiation in evaluations. The website for differentiated instruction.

3 Handicap, Besoins éducatifs particuliers, Quelle scolarisation ? Pour une école inclusive. ONISEP Basse-Normandie, 2014.

4 Compensation for disadvantages. The website of the Swiss Center of Specialized Pedagogy,

5 Guerdan, V. (2010). Vers de nouvelles formes d’engagement social unissant familles, praticiens et chercheurs. Brochure d’information, ART21.

For further information:


This Canadian website offers several differentiation tools for lessons and evaluations in a visual and accessible format:

The Department of Public Instruction’s website which proposes different ways of intervening with students with specific needs for educational professionals:

The website of Swiss specialised pedagogy, offers documents “of information to the attention of teachers on difficulties, the measures of pedagogical differentiation and compensation of disadvantages”:

The following website proposes many paths to be considered regarding the construction of an inclusive school in France: