Educational Practices

student writing on chalkboard with a teacher


Youth with disabilities are disproportionately represented within correctional facilities,1 with nearly four times as many students requiring special education and related services in the adjudicated population versus the general population.2,3 According to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), youth with disabilities must be identified and receive the special education and related services for which they are eligible while they are incarcerated.4 Unfortunately, educational practices within correctional facilities often do not adhere to the practices mandated by IDEA,5 with less than half of youth with a diagnosed learning disability attending a special education program while in custody.6,7 It is critical that these youth receive the educational, social-emotional, behavioral, and career planning services for which they are eligible so that they can attain new skills and exit facilities prepared to live a more productive life.8 In what follows, we summarize the challenges and best practices for meeting the diverse educational needs of youth within correctional facilities.

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Key Principles of Practice

The following principles were identified in a review of Guiding Principles for Providing High-Quality Education in Juvenile Justice Secure Care Settings.9

Access to a High-Quality Education

Often, correctional facilities cannot provide a “traditional” school setting, with students in grade-level classrooms; rather, they must provide instruction to students varying in age and academic levels,10 resulting in a heterogeneous classroom. Nevertheless, these students are entitled to high-quality education programs that meet their academic as well as social-emotional and behavioral needs; programs should be comparable with those available to youth who are not in secure settings.11 Therefore, it is essential that teachers be trained to target a variety of instructional needs.12 In addition, youth should have access to the same curriculum by teachers using the same instructional practices as those who are not in secure settings.13

Individualized Instruction

If a youth is evaluated and determined to be eligible for special education services, parents and teachers should develop a written individualized education program (IEP) that is responsive to the youth’s areas of need.14 IEPs must contain the youth’s present level of educational and functional performance, his or her special education needs, the services to be provided, the objectives to be met, timelines for completion, an assessment of progress, and (where appropriate) transition plans.15 Juvenile correctional facilities often struggle with the individualization of IEPs because of a lack of trained personnel to develop, update, and implement IEPs.16 However, staffing restraints, although a common problem, do not exempt correctional facilities from this requirement.18 In addition, under IDEA, parents are to be involved as much as possible; however, within the incarcerated youth population, parents often are not fully involved in their child’s education.19 If parents are unwilling or unable to remain involved, surrogate parents can fill this role.20

IDEA Compliance

As a condition of receiving Federal funds under IDEA, States must demonstrate to the U.S. Department of Education that they have policies and procedures in place to fully comply with the law’s requirements.21 A provision of IDEA ensures that students with disabilities within correctional facilities have access to a free appropriate public education (FAPE).22 To ensure the availability of FAPE, IDEA specifies procedures to identify youth with disabilities, address their needs, and design individualized supports and services to help them meet their academic and behavioral expectations.23 Under IDEA, eligible students are entitled to an IEP that details the specially designed instruction and related services they require.24 IDEA compliance requires the following: (1) the identification of youth with disabilities who have not previously been identified by the school once they enter the correctional facility, and (2) for youth identified, the continued adherence to their IEPs while they are enrolled in a correctional facility.25 In addition, IDEA requires that youth be educated in the least restrictive environment (LRE). For youth with disabilities in correctional facilities, this means that to the extent possible, they are to be educated with those who are not disabled.26 Removing youth with disabilities from the regular educational environment should occur only if the severity of the disability is such that satisfactory performance in regular classes cannot be achieved.27


1 Müller, E. (2011). Reentry programs for students with disabilities in the juvenile justice system: Four state approaches. InForum: An analysis of critical issues in special education. Alexandria, VA: National Association of State Directors of Special Education. Retrieved from

2 Quinn, M. M., Rutherford, R. B., Leone, P. E., Osher, D. M., & Poirier, J. M. (2005). Youth with disabilities in juvenile corrections: A national survey. Council for Exceptional Children, 71(3), 339–345.

3 U.S. Department of Education, & U.S. Department of Justice. (2014). Guiding principles for providing high-quality education in juvenile justice secure care settings. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from

4 Burell, S., & Warboys, L. (2000). Special education and the juvenile justice system. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice. Retrieved from

5 Müller (2011).

6 Sedlak, A. J., & McPherson, K. S. (2010). Youth’s needs and services: Findings from the Survey of Youth in Residential Placement. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice. Retrieved from

7 Read, N. W. (2014). NDTAC fact sheet: Youth with special education needs in justice settings. Washington, DC: National Evaluation and Technical Assistance Center for Children and Youth Who Are Neglected, Delinquent, or At-Risk. Retrieved from

8 U.S. Department of Education & U.S. Department of Justice (2014).

9 Ibid.

10 Ibid.

11 Ibid.

12 Wexler, J. (2014). Ask the expert. Washington, DC: National Center on Intensive Intervention. Retrieved from

13 U.S. Department of Education & U.S. Department of Justice (2014).

14 Tulman, J. B. (2003). Disability and delinquency: How failures to identify, accommodate, and serve youth with education-related disabilities leads to their disproportionate representation in the delinquency system. Whittier Journal of Child and Family Advocacy, 3(3), 3–76. Retrieved from

15 Burell & Warboys (2000).

16 Gagnon, J. C., Read, N. W., & Gonsoulin, S. (2015). Key considerations in providing a free appropriate public education for youth with disabilities in juvenile justice secure care facilities. Washington, DC: The National Technical Assistance Center for the Education of Neglected or Delinquent Children and Youth. Retrieved from

18 Burell & Warboys (2000).

19 Gagnon, Read, & Gonsoulin (2015).

20 Burell & Warboys (2000).

21 Ibid.

22 Gagnon et al. (2015).

23 Smith, C. R., Esposito, J., & Gregg, S. (2002). Advocating for children with behavioral and cognitive disabilities in the juvenile justice system. Washington, DC: National Center on Education, Disability and Juvenile Justice. Retrieved from

24 Ibid.

25 Ibid.

26 Burell & Warboys (2000).

27 Ibid.