Psychology is the study of the biological, social, and environmental influences that affect how people think, behave, and learn. This last item has been the subject of great debate in the special education field, where educators strive to help students overcome achievement gaps. With about 14% of all public school students in the U.S. receiving special education services, how can educators provide the ideal learning environment for these young boys and girls?

To answer this question, we’ll have to take a look at the role of psychology in special education, i.e., educational psychology. Educational psychology has been the driving force behind some of the greatest advances in the field of special education, including the reintegration of students with disabilities into general education classrooms. If you’d like to learn how educational psychology can be used to help students with disabilities achieve academic success, consider pursuing a Master of Arts in Special Education from The University of Texas Permian Basin.

What Is Educational Psychology?

Educational psychology is the branch of psychology concerned with the processes and problems that influence learning. By understanding how people absorb and retain information, educational psychologists can inform instructional processes and help ensure improved academic outcomes for students, regardless of their abilities, resources, or environments. This is especially important for students with disabilities, who are affected to varying degrees by a range of developmental challenges.

The origins of educational psychology can be traced back to Aristotle and Plato, but it’s psychologists like Jean Piaget who laid the foundations for one of the most important principles of educational psychology: knowledge can’t simply be given. Teachers can present information in an engaging and relevant manner, but it’s ultimately up to the student to learn and retain information. This is the idea behind the constructivist theory, a theory of learning that asserts that students can only learn by building upon previous knowledge. Cooperative learning is another key principle of constructivist theory and is the idea that students will more easily overcome problems and comprehend lessons if they are able to work through them in groups.

Although a number of other theories, including the cognitive learning theory, shape how lessons are taught across the United States, the idea that a student is an active participant in their learning experience is continuing to shape how students with special needs are taught in the classroom.

The Effect of Educational Psychology on Special Education

With the reauthorization of the Individuals With Disabilities Act (IDEA), all children with disabilities are guaranteed free, appropriate public education. As Congress reasserted the importance of this groundbreaking legislation in 2004, educators began shifting their focus to the individual rather than their impairments. With this dynamic shift, general education teachers are increasingly teaching a mix of disabled of nondisabled students—a task that comes with its own set of challenges. For assistance, general educators often rely on special educators, who can apply their knowledge of educational psychology to the classroom and help provide the ideal learning environment.

The Impact of Educational Psychology on Classrooms

Educational psychology has completely altered the special education landscape. Whereas students with disabilities were once segregated from the rest of the student population, educators now know that the majority of students with disabilities can achieve the same academic standards as their nondisabled peers. However, the needs of every student with a disability must be accounted and provided for if they are to achieve academic success.

Planning Lessons Around Students’ Strengths and Weaknesses

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to educating students with disabilities. Taking the lessons learned by educational psychologists, teachers differentiate instruction so that every student has a chance to learn regardless of their abilities. In addition to flexibility, ongoing assessment, and collaboration, differentiated instruction prioritizes group work and a challenging work environment: student-centered concepts shared by the constructivist view of learning. In an inclusive classroom, students with disabilities are taught alongside their nondisabled peers and receive individual, small-group, and whole-class instruction, as well as the opportunity to discuss lessons with peers of varying ability and interests.

Providing a challenging learning environment often proves more difficult. How do you provide engaging content to both disabled and nondisabled students? Remember, students learn by building upon their own experiences, which is why it’s best that students always engage with content they are able to learn. This means assessing the progress and needs of every student and planning lessons accordingly.

Why Is Educational Psychology Important for Special Education?

Prior to the passing of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act in 1975 (currently enacted as IDEA), individuals with disabilities were often relegated to state institutions, where they would receive little more than the bare necessities—food, clothing, shelter. Individuals with disabilities were rarely educated and rehabilitated. What is the role of psychology in special education? Educational psychology provides teachers with a means to educate individuals with disabilities who may not otherwise have access to the first-rate education they deserve.

Learn About Educational Psychology and So Much More

Educational Psychology covers theories of behavior, learning and instruction and research on human ontological development, and it’s one of the many courses taught in UT Permian Basin’s online MA in special education program. In our online program, you’ll learn how to apply these concepts to the classroom. Additional program courses that can prepare you for a rewarding career as a special education teacher include:

  • Research Design in Education and the Social Sciences
  • Foundations of Special Education
  • Programs and Practices for Exceptional Learners
  • Methods of Teaching Exceptional Learners
  • Characteristics of ASD and Developmental Disorders

Upon completion of UT Permian Basin’s online MA in special education program, graduates are prepared to plan lessons, manage classrooms, and provide instruction, all while accounting for the needs of students with disabilities. If you’re interested in applying the expertise of educational psychologists to your classroom, enroll in our affordable, flexible, 100% online program. The principles of educational psychology will serve you well in the classroom as one of the many considerations you’ll need to take into account when providing the ideal learning environment for special education students.

Learn more about UT Permian Basin’s online MA in special education program.