Perspectives on special needs education

Perspectives on special needs education

Interestingly enough, we can distinguish two completely different approaches to the question of perspectives on special needs education. On the one hand, we have those who think that the discussion is unnecessary and leads in the wrong direction. The important thing is to find ways to help students with problems. Why discuss different perspectives?

On the other hand, we have those who believe that the issue of perspective is absolutely central to the area. According to this approach, different perspectives provide completely different understandings of problems in school and how they can be handled

Those who advocate that the perspective issue is important are almost always critical of the group that believes that the perspective issue is more or less irrelevant. Furthermore, the former group believes that the latter also has a perspective, although it is often unspoken. The group's perspective is referred to in slightly different ways, for example as a shortcoming perspective, a compensatory perspective or as a categorical perspective.

Interestingly, these researchers do not have their own name for their perspective because they do not see the perspective issue as relevant. However, I would argue that they have a perspective, let's for simplicity's call it a compensatory perspective here.

The compensatory perspective is described by the researchers who discuss the perspective issue, often in opposition to some other perspective, often a relational perspective. The subtext is that the latter perspective is more developed than the former, although it is rarely stated correctly.

No one who has a compensatory perspective writes as far as I know about the perspective issue. This is quite logical because the starting point is usually that there is only one starting point, one's own, within the framework of which one studies the world as it is.

Personally, I believe that both of these approaches can contribute to the development of work with students in need of special support in school. Unfortunately, however, communication between the positions is lacking. This is not so strange because in both cases it is often difficult to see what you can learn from the other camp.

As an example of a lack of communication, I can mention that when I was once commissioned by the Swedish Research Council to arrange a conference with the country's professors in the field of special education, they failed with a more pronounced compensatory perspective. It may in itself have been a coincidence, but I could give more examples of similar phenomena.

My experience is that perspective meetings are demanding but rewarding. These meetings can force you to re-evaluate what you have taken for granted, which is always a process that challenges and takes time. When at one point I wanted to immerse myself within the framework of the compensatory perspective, I contacted some leading researchers with compensatory approaches and it gave me new insights. What became clear to me was not least the actual variation in students' conditions.

In any case, my starting point is that it is not possible to approach the area without having some form of perspective and that it is also important to be clear with which perspective is used and what legitimizes the chosen perspective. The perspectives differ mainly when it comes to defining what is problematic when problems arise in educational contexts.

Where is the problem located?

Several have thus argued that the perspectives differ with regard to where the problem is located. The starting point is then that special education is what could be called a "problem discourse", ie it is about problems that arise in the education system. I think almost everyone can share that starting point.

The problem can be attributed to various factors: the student, the student's social background, the way the class works, the teaching, the school leadership, the education policy, the discourses of professionals and society to name a few of the most common.

A dividing line can be said to go between those who focus on student factors and those who focus on environmental factors when problems arise in school. It feels like the former group is now starting to gain traction partly due to more general societal changes, such as an increased focus on the individual's performance in relation to pre-determined goals in school and the more general and new-age tendency to biologize identities in modern society.

How, then, can a compromise be reached between what appear to be fundamentally different views?

A dilemma perspective

My proposal for such a compromise is to see school difficulties as a dilemma. These dilemmas are basically about how differences should be handled within the framework of the education system. The dilemma means that you have to find a balance between goals that are desirable but also go against each other. The dilemma requires a balance to be achieved, but unlike problems, the dilemma cannot be solved.

An absolutely fundamental dilemma is about finding a balance between seeing difference as an asset (which is desirable) and giving students extra support (which is also desirable, but requires them to be singled out and valued negatively).

Unfortunately, the dilemma perspective is often misunderstood. I think the word "dilemma" struck because many feel that special education is a complex area. But what many people mean by the term "dilemma" is something that I would characterize as "problems", which thus differ from the dilemma in that they do not create a need for balance but rather a need for solutions.

The dilemma perspective is also based on the fact that it is seen as ethically problematic to point out children and students as deviant. I have met many people in the field of special education who do not see this as problematic at all and then one starts from a compensatory rather than a dilemma perspective.

In a more critical perspective on special education where the problem is placed in the environment, on the other hand, one misses, among other things, that any existing education system as we know them will value students because this is more or less inevitable. Such a critical perspective then easily becomes an advocacy of utopias which are difficult to realize.

The dilemma perspective in my interpretation is closer to a critical than a compensatory perspective but tries to address some of the shortcomings in a more critical perspective. At the same time, it is very important to take into account insights gained within the framework of more compensatory approaches.

Since I do not claim in my interpretation of a dilemma perspective that there is a right way to look at how education systems should handle the dilemma, the question of who should decide the perspective becomes important. This is an issue that has hardly received attention within either the compensatory perspective or the critical / relational perspective. Therefore, I have seen it as important to raise the issue of democracy in relation to special education. The question of who should decide the perspective thus becomes at least as important as which perspective professionals should work from.

A quest to communicate clearer….

In various contexts, I have strived to communicate clearer about what I mean by a dilemma perspective. Now I have also had the time and opportunity to work on my book Perspective on special needs education, which has just been published in a third edition (see reference below).

In this new edition, I have thus tried to become even clearer, not least with regard to the description of the dilemma perspective. For example, I have built on and developed examples used in previous blogs in order to concretize the consequences that different perspectives, including the dilemma perspective, have for everyday work.

Although my book is about theoretical perspectives on special education, I thus believe that they have clear implications for everyday work. I have also included study questions in each chapter which are intended to help the reader go into the different perspectives in depth.

The new edition also has a new cover that I am very fond of. The cover is designed by Karl Stefan Andersson. On the cover is the German artist Adam Macke's painting "Segelboot am morgen", which is intended to inspire a journey among different perspectives on special education.


Nilholm, Claes. (2020) Perspektiv på specialpedagogik. Lund: Studentlitteratur. (3rd edition)

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