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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.


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- 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: