Students with Mild Exceptionalities: Characteristics and Applications


Sydney S. Zentall

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    I dedicate this text to educators and practitioners working with children with exceptionalities, who wish to be known for all of their complexities of strengths and deficits, hopes, and fears.


    Student readers at all levels want succinctly presented information—information that is not wordy and not watered-down. They want a consumable set of understandings that are interesting and easy to navigate, that get to the point, and that can be used as a future resource. Using these guideposts, I have created this text with the intent of improving early identification and understanding of children with mild exceptionalities. Other available texts present information about special education more generally, the history of definitions, assessment, consulting/ collaboration, legal cases, and so on—but with little information on the ways children with exceptionalities act, talk, think, perform, and respond socially in school settings.

    This text involves a change of content in that it focuses primarily on the academic, behavioral, cognitive, social-emotional, and physical characteristics of children with a variety of exceptionalities, with a secondary emphasis on implications for accommodations and interventions. The text also includes “authentic activities” (case studies) that can provide the basis for independent, small-group, or whole-class problem solving. These are novel snapshot observations of real children using their actual wording and descriptions of their behavior, as well as the responses of their teachers, educational paraprofessionals, and peers. These cases may be especially important for undergraduate students who lack experience with children, but they also provide a rich source for graduates. The challenges of problem solving are highlighted in these cases through the inclusion of younger children who have not received diagnoses and of older students with special needs, whose incorrect labels or background information has sometimes resulted in incorrect conclusions or predictions about them. Some of these cases are complex, because most children attempt to hide their disabilities, and children with special needs typically have more than one disability, especially at older ages.

    This text also represents a change of form and is similar to a field guide in its systematic presentation of information about a broad range of children with special needs. This will allow course instructors opportunities to rally their teachers (or prospective teachers) to think about and apply critical information across subtypes of students within categories of exceptionality. As one reviewer stated concisely about the format and related activities presented here: “The pedagogical features are the strength of the textbook and will prompt strong adoption. First, the end-of-chapter questions lend themselves to independent study for students who miss class or could be used to provide extra credit, to prepare for tests, and, most important, to structure students' learning. The case analyses encourage small cooperative learning group activities that are explicitly connected to textbook material. Third, the vocabulary focus alone is worth the purchase price” (Dr. Patricia O'Grady, University of Tampa).


    I am indebted to my graduate students for what they have taught me and will teach you about the complexities and interesting natures of children with exceptionalities. My contribution to this text is based primarily on evidence from the literature and from my own experiences as an educator of special needs children. However, my graduate students (and a few experienced undergraduates) told me about their experiences—the funny, the tragic, and the difficult. I never would have guessed that a child with traumatic brain injury might be characterized as a liar when in fact he was just filling in memory gaps with a narrative of what might or should have happened in his life (i.e., confabulation, which can occur after damage to an area in the frontal lobes of the brain; Garrett, 2011). For this text, I would like to credit the student authors of the case studies for chapters: 2 & 3, Jodi Hampton; 4 & 9, Konie Hughes; 5, Laura Bassett & Megan Vinh; 6, Jennifer Campbell Gant; 7, Julian Gates; 8, Heather Helmus-Nyman; 10, Becky Brodderick; 11, Jia Liu & Megan Lerch-Gordon; 12, Joy Cedarquist; 13, Melissa Savage-Bowling; 14, Karly Gibson; 15, Kate Kohder & Amy Wilson.

    Throughout the text are original drawings by Susan Gilbert, which I have been privileged to obtain.

    I also wish to thank Roselyn Bol, our administrative assistant, who tracked down references for me and located former graduate students to obtain permission from them to use their case studies.

    Finally, I have been educated by a strong group of reviewers, who have enriched this text with their perspectives and careful review and suggestions:

    Thomas J. Bierdz

    Governors State University

    Morgan Chitiyo

    Southern Illinois University


    Jeong-il Cho

    Indiana University—Purdue University

    Fort Wayne

    Jeffrey T. Conklin

    Columbus State University

    Meenakshi Gajira

    Saint Thomas Aquinas College

    Dodi Hodges

    Coastal Carolina University

    Therese Hogan

    Dominican University

    Molly Kelly-Elliott

    Miami University

    Ann Maydosz

    Old Dominion University

    Ron Minge

    Long Island University

    Patricia O'Grady

    University of Tampa

    Kay C. Reeves

    University of Memphis

    Linda A. Revay

    University of Akron

    Joel Shapiro

    Green Mountain College

    Jennifer Shubin

    Chapman University

    Denise Skarbek

    Indiana University

    South Bend

    Jerry Whitworth

    Texas Woman's University

  • Council for Exceptional Children (CEC) Standards for Core Competencies Represented in this Text (CEC, 1998)

    Standard II Development and Characteristics of Learners

    Standard III Individual Learning Differences

    Standard IV Instructional Strategies

    Standard V Learning Environments/Social Interactions

    Standard VI Language

    Standard VII Instructional Planning

    Data for Case Study 11.1: Lily (“She Shouted, ‘No!’”): (Adapted from an Assignment Submitted by Jia Liu)

    Background. The S Preschool has two classrooms. One is for 3-year-old children and the other is for 4-year-olds. Usually there are around 10 children in the morning in the 3-year-old class; 7 of the children come from China, and the others come from countries such as Egypt and Puerto Rico. In the classroom there are four little tables with several chairs where children sit to do art projects, to play with blocks or puzzles, and to have snacks. The classroom also has a rug area where they play with toys, listen to instructions, and read books. Other items in the classroom are a cage in which a big white rabbit is kept and a little house that imitates a home with furniture. Mary is the young female American teacher of this class. Two adult assistants are also in the class every day. Among the Chinese children, Lily is the only girl. She is the only child of her family.

    Setting 1: Free Play Time

    Setting 2: Group Instruction

    Setting 3: Snack

    Setting 4: Reading plus other Activities

    Setting 5: Playground



    Augmentative and alternative communication. AAC devices provide technological support for the language that the child has: verbal (speech) or nonverbal/gestural modes of communication (pointing or mechanical output systems) and alternative communication methods that bypass the oral system of communication. (Section II)


    The release of emotions by acting out; often a reaction against a set of circumstances. (Section III)

    Abstract thinking:

    The ability to go beyond visually based concrete events or objects to form visual concepts, such as greater than, and symbols, such as understanding that one thing can represent many. For example, a picture of a chair can represent a chair and a color (e.g., red and green) can represent an action (stop/ go). Verbal abstract processing involves making categories, such that a word or group of words can represent an idea (e.g., fairness). (Section III)

    Abstract verbal language:

    The degree to which language involves more than the concrete naming of things and moves to descriptions of objects (adjectives), descriptions of actions (adverbs), and use of abstract prepositions, along this continuum: (a) single words— nouns (objects, concepts, categories), verbs (simple verbs, verb tense), adjectives, prepositions; (b) phrases and sentences (following directions); (c) paragraphs and stories; (d) cause and effect, (e) drawing of inferences; (f) fact versus opinion; (g) absurdities and humor; (h) idioms and figures of speech (“on the rocks,” “over the hill”). (Section II)


    Changes in the setting or task that are made by the teacher to bring out optimal responding from the child. (Section I)

    Acquired language disorder:

    A type of language disorder in which an impairment occurs after a period of normal development as the result of a neurological or other general medical condition (e.g., encephalitis, irradiation, TBI) (APA, 2000). (Section II)


    Immediate and typically short-term. (Section II)

    Adaptive behavior:

    Behavior in the areas of practical everyday functioning that are needed to live independently, care for oneself, and interact with others. Adaptive areas include communication, community use, functional academics, school/home living, health and safety, leisure, self-care, self-direction, social interaction, and work. (Section III)


    Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. (Section II)


    Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, hyperactive/impulsive subtype. (Section IV)


    Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, inattentive subtype. (Section IV)

    Affinity system:

    A child's family members, friends, neighbors, teachers, and other significant others. (Section V)


    A condition causing fear and avoidance of leaving one's home. (Section V)

    Alpha commands:

    Commands that have a clearly stated outcome (e.g., “When you have finished your math homework, you may select one TV program to watch”). (Section V)


    Loss of memory of immediate or distal events. (Section III)


    Taking apart information; critically breaking information into component parts or logical sequences. (Section III)


    Having the behavioral or social/emotional characteristics of both gender groups (male and female). (Section III)


    The lack of capacity to experience pleasure. (Section V)


    The inability to name objects. See also Dysnomia. (Section II)

    Anorexia nervosa:

    A condition causing self-starvation. However, as DSM-IV-TR points out, “The term anorexia is a misnomer because loss of appetite is rare”; APA, 2000, p. 583). (Section V)


    What precedes a particular behavior (time, setting, task, and so on). (Section I)


    Against the social order (e.g., breaking social rules). (Section II)


    Indifferent (without emotion). (Section V)


    A specific language disorder that involves problems with the structure and formulation of spoken language. (Section II)


    Lack of ability to plan the motor movements involved in speech. (Section VI)


    A natural ability or intelligence. Different types of aptitude can be assessed, such as verbal-linguistic, logical-mathematical, musical, spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and naturalistic (Gardner, 1983). (Section II)


    Physiological activation of the child, which has trait qualities (inborn individual differences) and state qualities that depend on setting conditions (e.g., number of people in a setting). Arousal cannot be observed, but it can be assessed through psychophysiological measures, such as heart rate and skin conductance, and can be inferred from the amount of stimulation in the setting or the anxiety that the child communicates. (Section I)

    Asperger syndrome (AS):

    A syndrome within the autism spectrum disorders category that has been considered a mild form of autism (high-functioning autism). Children with AS have a greater capacity to achieve normal-like behavior and functioning than do children with autism. (Section V)

    Assistive technology:

    “An item or piece of equipment or product system acquired commercially, off the shelf, modified, or customized, and used to increase, maintain, or improve functional capability for an individual with a disability” (Beard et al., 2007, p. 4). Provisions for assistive technology are funded by grants to states from the Technology-Related Assistance to Individuals with Disabilities Act of 1968, amended (the Tech Act). (Section I)

    Attentional bias:

    Preference for certain types of stimuli. All humans selectively attend to their own names, and most attend to information that signals potential danger (e.g., loud sounds). Students with the inattentive subtype of ADHD are more likely than their peers to selectively attend to novelty (movement, color, emotion, and so on). (Section IV)

    Auditory errors in composition and spelling:

    Errors in which the words within sentences, sentences within paragraphs, and ideas within compositions are out of order or poorly organized. Also, sounds, syllables, and words are missing or have omissions, additions, substitutions, or ending errors (agreement, tense, plural, possessives). (Section II)

    Auditory perception:

    The ability to identify words/sentences from the sensations of sound. Perception can also require a synthesis or blending of sounds and an analysis or breaking of words into syllables. (Section I)


    A somatic or sensory feeling or a motor response that precedes a seizure and acts as a kind of warning. (Section III)


    A disorder characterized by severe social, behavioral, and communication deficits and lower IQ than is found in children with Asperger syndrome. The word autism, which is derived from the Greek word autos, meaning “self,” connotes isolation within the self. (Section V)

    Behavior modification:

    Strategies aimed at changing behavior that involve the application of learning principles, such as the use of reward. (Section IV)


    The use of books to reduce anxiety associated with some situations or conditions (e.g., divorce, moving, disability awareness) and to provide a human child model (character in the book) who must problem solve alternative responses to a threatening situation or loss. (Section V)


    “A binge is defined as eating in a discrete period of time an amount of food that is definitely larger than most individuals would eat under similar circumstances…. A ‘discrete period of time’ refers to a limited period, usually less than 2 hours. A single episode of binge eating need not be restricted to one setting. For example, an individual may begin a binge in a restaurant and then continue it on returning home. Continual snacking on small amounts of food throughout the day would not be considered a binge” (APA, 2000, p. 589). (Section V)


    Conduct disorder. (Section V)

    Central auditory processing disorders:

    Listening disorders that are severe and involve, for example, poor awareness of, attention to, and discrimination of sounds; poor association of sounds with symbols; poor recall of sound sequences; and overall slowed processing rate. (Section II)

    Childhood disintegrative disorder:

    A disorder characterized by marked degrees of intellectual disability and loss of previously acquired skills, with losses in language, social skills, and adaptive behavior occurring more gradually (Hagin, 2004). (Section V)


    Persisting over time. Chronic behavioral problems differ from short-term acute behavioral difficulties. (Section IV)


    Saying something in a roundabout way (e.g., by describing an object or saying it is like something else rather than actually naming it). (Section II)

    Clinical range:

    The level at which a child's disability is severe enough for the child to be labeled and to receive services. (Section II)

    Cognitive behavior modification:

    A type of behavior modification that involves instruction in the use of self-talk to modify one's own behavior (e.g., “I am brave,” “I am not afraid,” “I have a 1, 2, 3 strategy”). (Section V)

    Cognitive distortion:

    A bias in interpreting events, typically produced by a set of past experiences (e.g., an expectation of negative or hostile interactions, or failure experiences). This is included within the category of cognitive characteristics because it is a thinking bias. (Section III)

    Community-based learning:

    Method of education that uses structured lessons in actual settings (e.g., workplace, home). (Section III)


    The occurrence of two or more medical or psychological conditions in a single individual. Clinical professionals use this term when referring to students with co-occurring disorders. (Section II)

    Compensatory behavior:

    The reliance by individuals with weaknesses on their stronger areas of functioning. For example, difficulties understanding gestures, tones of voice, and facial expressions can be offset by stronger verbal skills. Such individuals compensate for or work around their weak areas of functioning. (Section I)


    The capacity to delay achieving one's own goals in response to the implicit or stated goals/standards of authority figures (Greene et al., 2002). (Section V)


    Seemingly purposeful types of behavior that individuals perform to relieve, prevent, or undo the anxiety or discomfort created by their obsessions or to “magically” prevent some dreaded event or situation (Adams, 2004). (Section V)


    The most common brain injury, which generally occurs either when the head accelerates rapidly and then is stopped suddenly or when the head is shaken. (Section III)

    Conditioned fear:

    Fear that is learned from observing another person's fearful or avoidant response or from direct experience with a traumatic event (e.g., being bitten by a dog). (Section V)


    The reporting of events that never happened (e.g., false memories) although the individual describing them believes them to be true events. Confabulation is a way that people with TBI fill in for losses in memory that typically occur in cases involving damage to the frontal lobes of the brain (Garrett, 2011). (Section II)

    Context cues:

    The meanings of words and pictures that surround unknown words, which children may use to decode the unknown words and capture meaning. (Section II)


    Dependent upon. For example, giving a child attention specifically when he or she is performing appropriate behavior (e.g., compliance) is giving a reward contingent on compliance behavior. (Section IV)


    Bruising of brain tissues. Contusions of the brain can cause bleeding and toxic effects. (Section III)


    Using obscene or socially inappropriate words (cursing); this most disruptive and disturbing of TS symptoms is found in less than 15% of cases and occurs late in childhood (Jay, 2000). (Section VI)


    Using obscene or socially inappropriate gestures, similar to coprolalia. (Section VI)


    The positive association of one factor, A, with another, B, such that the higher the amount of factor A (e.g., intelligence), the higher the amount of factor B (e.g., achievement). One factor does not necessarily cause the other; the two are simply related. (Section V)


    A chemical secreted by the body when a person is under chronic stress. (Section V)


    The ability to sustain a wide array of interests, openness to novel experiences and to tangential ideas, and the ability to apply existing knowledge to novel problems. (Section III)


    The use of cues that precede the desired behavior in time and act as reminders of what is required. (Section II)


    Developmental coordination disorder. (Section VI)


    The process of translating visual symbols (letters) into auditory equivalents (sounds and words) or the achievement of accurate and/or fluent word recognition. (Section II)


    Involvement with the legal system. (Section IV)

    Detailed cue:

    A part of the whole (e.g., a tree that is one of many that make up the forest). (Section IV)

    Developmental expressive language disorders:

    Language disorders characterized by their appearance at different developmental stages. Children with such disorders “often begin speaking late and progress more slowly than usual through the various stages of expressive language development” (APA, 2000, p. 59). (Section II)

    Developmental tasks:

    Accomplishments in life specific to particular ages (e.g., inhibition of activity, attention, establishing peer networks, developing autonomy). (Section IV)

    Differential diagnosis:

    The ability to identify a child at risk for a disability as different from related disabilities with similar or overlapping characteristics. (Section I)

    Disability fatigue:

    The tiredness or lack of energy a child with a disability feels as the result of the effort he or she must expend in attempting to overcome skill deficits or to conform with school requirements. (Section II)

    Discrimination learning and training:

    Discrimination learning involves the ability to perceive differences between two stimuli presented for comparison. Training involves presenting stimuli with few irrelevant details and only a few relevant dimensions, and then directing attention to these relevant dimensions or teaching rules for identifying relevant dimensions (Beirne-Smith et al., 2006). For example, a teacher asked a student with MID to compare the letters T and F . When the student noticed the cross in the middle of the F, he had little difficulty thereafter writing the word Friday. (Section III)


    The inability to stop verbal or motor responses that are often socially inappropriate (e.g., cursing, removing all clothes after a seizure). (Section V)


    A chemical that helps transmit signals from one nerve cell in the brain to the next. (Section IV)

    Drug holidays:

    Periods (often during vacation time) when students with ADHD are taken off their psychostimulant medications. (Section IV)


    The fourth edition, text revised, of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which presents the most widely used medical/psychological classification system (APA, 2000). (Section I)


    A condition that results in unintelligible speech that sounds like gibberish. (Section III)


    A specific learning disability (SLD) in math; also called a math disability (MD) or math learning disability (MLD). (Section II)


    Difficulty with the task of handwriting. See also Memory dysgraphia; Motor dysgraphia; Perceptual dysgraphia. (Section VI)


    A disorder of reading or decoding that is often accompanied by spelling problems. The name in Greek means “difficulty with words.” The main problem for those diagnosed with the disorder in English-speaking countries is an understanding of how sounds fit together to make words (Lyon et al., 2003). (Section II)


    Difficulty in recalling the names of objects (nouns) or people. (Section II)


    Depressed mood. (Section V)


    Poor ability to plan fine motor movements of speech. (Section VI)


    A persistent depressed mood or symptoms of depression lasting 2 or more years. (Section V)


    Emotional behavioral disorder or disability. (Section V)


    Empirically based practice (also known as evidence-based practice)—that is, scientifically tested practice that has demonstrated effectiveness. (Section I)


    The repetition or echoing of others' words or phrases, which can be immediate or delayed (e.g., from a TV program heard the night before). (Section VI)


    Involuntary repetition or imitation of the observed movements of another. (Section VI)


    Emotional disturbance; more commonly referred to as EBD or emotional and behavioral disorder. (Section V)

    Emotional intelligence (EQ):

    The ability to identify and understand one's own and others' emotions by “reading” faces, gestures, and tones of voice—in essence to read between the lines of what is spoken. EQ can also be defined by the child's ability to make sense of things (i.e., common sense) and to understand the emotional aspects of everyday social interactions (Stuss et al., 2001). (Section I)


    The ability to feel with or identify with the feelings of another. (Section V)


    The abilities an individual is born with (congenital). (Section II)

    Epidemiological samples:

    In research studies, groups of individuals recruited from the general population or from community samples and not from special schools or mental health clinics. (Section V)


    The cause of disability, which is biological/genetic, environmental, or, most frequently, a combination of the two. (Section I)

    Exclusionary time-out:

    A period during which a child is removed from the group and placed away from the ongoing activities (so the child cannot see, hear, or learn from the activities). (Section IV)

    Executive functions (EF):

    Self-regulatory processes involved in such tasks as identifying problems, goal setting, developing plans, executing plans, and evaluating or self-monitoring the implementation of plans. EF also encompasses the cognitive flexibility, attention, and working memory systems that guide the individual throughout these regulatory processes. (Section I)

    Exogenous factors:

    Factors in a disability that have their etiology outside the person (acquired). (Section II)

    Expressive language:

    Talking (spoken language) and composition/spelling (written language). (Section I)

    Externalizing disorders:

    Disorders that cause children to act out emotions through aggressive or disruptive behavior. (Section V)

    Extrinsic motivation:

    Impetus to action that is directed toward the goals of others; the evaluation of progress in relation to others' standards. (Section III)


    Demonstration of active, talkative, and acting-out types of behavior (e.g., hyperactivity). (Section I)

    Failure-oriented classrooms:

    Classrooms in which children are punished for trying and not succeeding in addition to being punished for not trying. As well, there may be overuse of strategies that involve making comparisons among children's performance (e.g., by posting children's graded work) or focusing on what is wrong rather than on what is correct. (Section V)


    Free, appropriate program of education, legally required under IDEA. (Section I)


    Fetal alcohol syndrome. (Section III)

    Figurative language:

    Abstract, nonliteral language, such as idioms and metaphors. (Section V)

    Fine motor skills:

    Physical skills involving the small muscles of the hands and the articulation muscles of the mouth and tongue. (Section VI)


    The ability to read text accurately and quickly (automatically). (Section II)


    Functional magnetic resonance imaging, a type of neuroimaging technology that is used to conduct assessments. An individual performs a task requiring specific skills while undergoing an MRI, and the brain activity associated with performing the task can be nonintrusively assessed. (Section II)

    Focal damage:

    Damage affecting specific areas of the brain. (Section III)

    Form rituals:

    Patterns of behavior that involve multiple repetitions of particular sequences. These include physical rituals (frequently washing hands, brushing teeth, checking repeatedly if a door is locked, placing objects just right, touching things, erasing or writing and rewriting letters until perfect) and mental rituals (repeating words, counting objects, or calculating answers) (Adams, 2004; Szechtman & Woody, 2004). Form rituals differ from compulsions, in that compulsions are more often accompanied by obsessions (repeated unwanted thoughts). (Section V)

    Frontal lobes:

    That part of the brain that plays an important role in human behavior, with damage to that region affecting high-level cognitive functions (intelligence) as well as social behavior, personality, personal memories, and self-awareness (for a review, see Stuss et al., 2001). (Section III)

    Functional analysis or functional assessment (FA):

    Assessment of a child's behavior in specific settings, during specific tasks, or with specific persons that produces a better understanding of how the child attempts to adapt his or her behavior to the specific setting, task, or person (e.g., to avoid a difficult task, to get relatedness with peers). (Section I)

    Functional etiology:

    The immediate antecedents of behavior or performance, which typically can be used to understand the short-term purpose of that behavior. (Section I)

    Functional math skills and curriculum:

    Skills and curriculum related to the use of money, time, and measurement. Functional reading involves basic word recognition and comprehension of literal meanings. Functional skills in general might be considered the skills necessary for adaptive behavior. (Section III)

    G factor:

    General intelligence factor. A measure of efficient processing across a number of brain areas, distributed across the frontal, parietal, and temporal lobes, which involves the brain's ability to pull together different functions and types of processing. G is more heritable than specific talents (Garrett, 2011). (Section III)


    The application of information, elements, or problem-solving processes to novel situations or tasks (e.g., from addition to multiplication). Children who fail to generalize fail to extract commonalities across prior learning experiences, tasks, or settings. See also Transference. (Section III)

    Global (or gestalt) cues:

    Cues to the big picture that can be presented as advance organizers, concept maps, general descriptions, or comparisons (e.g., “It is like X”). (Section IV)

    Global damage:

    Damage affecting large areas of the brain and causing major changes in cognitive functions and adaptive behavior. (Section III)

    Global fears:

    Anxieties attached to a wide range of related objects, experiences, animals, or events. (Section V)


    Feelings of superiority and entitlement often accompanied by fantasies of winning, becoming powerful, or gaining revenge for perceived injustice. (Section V)

    Graphic organizers:

    Tools such as mind maps and outlines that allow students to visualize their ideas. (Section II)

    Gross motor skills:

    Physical skills involving the large muscles of the legs and arms, especially needed for coordination in walking and balance. Good gross motor skills are needed for adequate performance in physical education at school. (Section VI)


    Gifted and talented. (Section III)


    The percentage of a characteristic that can be explained by genetics. (Section II)

    Homogeneous groupings:

    Groupings of students who are similar in one or more characteristic(s). For example, in the gifted area, groups that encourage the development and achievement of gifted students are those “cluster” groups with the most advanced learners. (Section III)


    Reading disability involving the failure to understand the meanings of the words (encoding) even when difficult words are easily decoded. (Section II)

    ID and MID:

    Intellectual disability and mild intellectual disability, previously labeled “mild mental retardation” or “educable mental retardation.” (Section III)


    The Individuals with Disabilities Educational Act of 2004, the main U.S. federal law for special education, which mandates schools to find, evaluate, and provide a free, appropriate program of education for each child with a disability. (Section I)


    Individualized education program, a requirement of IDEA. An IEP is a written document with special instructions detailing related services designed for a student with a diagnosed disability; it is a legal document that represents the accountability of the school to the student. (Section I)


    The outcome of a disability in terms of reduced functioning (academic or social). (Section I)


    Personality trait that involves overly fast responding, difficulty waiting to respond or inhibiting responses, and acting without considering possible consequences. (Section III)

    Incidental learning:

    Gains in knowledge that are unplanned or unintended; informal learning. Most children with average IQs “pick up” information from their own observations and from direct experiences. Children with ID are unlikely to experience much incidental learning; they need direct instruction with relevant information highlighted. (Section III)

    Inclusionary time-out:

    A period in which a child is pulled back from the ongoing activity but is allowed to remain in the room and learn from the interactions. (Section IV)

    Inclusion classes:

    Classrooms in general education that include students who have disabilities or who are at risk for disabilities. (Section I)

    Individuals with Disabilities Educational Act:

    See IDEA.


    Directed toward obtaining a goal. (Section V)


    Isolated socially. (Section V)


    Two types of intelligence are generally assessed: performance intelligence, using novel visual stimuli (pictures, blocks, objects, mazes); and verbal intelligence, using auditory stimuli (vocabulary, statements). The Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children (WISC) includes both verbal and performance scales. When the verbal and performance intelligence scales are combined they form a single score called an intelligence quotient (IQ) or the full-scale IQ. Scores from this test are normally distributed, typically with a mean score of 100 and a range that defines “average” from 85 to 115. (Section III)

    Internal cues:

    Thoughts, feelings, strategies, values, and the like. (Section IV)

    Internalizing disorders:

    Disorders that cause individuals to express feelings inwardly and thus increase the likelihood of anxiety and/or depression. (Section IV)

    Internalizing symptoms:

    Symptoms that are directed inward. Somatic internalizing symptoms include stomachache, insomnia, and nausea; mood symptoms include worrying and depression; and behavioral symptoms include crying, withdrawal, and phobias. (Section IV)


    Treatments used to change a child with disabilities (e.g., medications or skill training in weak areas, such as remedial phonics training for reading). Interventions based on functional analysis do not target weak areas but target high-frequency payoffs (e.g., needed stimulation). This might involve teaching the child to perform replacement behavior (alternate methods to get stimulation that are not disruptive) (Stahr et al., 2006). (Section I)

    Intrinsic motivation:

    Impetus to action that is directed toward self-selected interests and goals; the evaluation of progress in relation to one's own standards or past performance. (Section III)


    Demonstration of internalizing behavior (e.g., shyness, anxieties). (Section I)

    Language production:

    The quantity or amount of language spoken or written. (Section II)

    Language quality:

    The content, structure, and pragmatic social (everyday) use of language. (Section II)


    Learning disability, also termed specific learning disability (SLD). (Section II)


    Local educational agency, such as a local school. (Section I)

    Learned helplessness:

    A condition in which individuals attribute their successes to external factors (not to their own efforts) and their failures to their lack of ability (not to lack of effort). (Section II)

    Learning processes:

    Psychological processes or abilities that contribute to the learning of academic skills; these learning processes are intelligence, memory, perception/discrimination, and attention. (Section I)

    Long-term memory:

    The ability to recall information, such as math facts, learned last week, last month, or years earlier. (Section I)


    Least restrictive environment. The LRE for a child is typically the general education classroom, in contrast to, for example, a self-contained classroom for students with disabilities. (Section I)

    Magical thinking:

    Believing that specific behavior, such as rituals, can offer protection. (Section V)


    Mood that is persistently elevated, abnormally expansive, or irritable. (Section V)

    Manifest determination:

    The determination of whether a child's “misconduct” is an outcome of the child's disability. (Section I)

    Marker variable:

    Distinguishing characteristic. (Section IV)


    The hiding of a disability by giftedness or of giftedness by a disability. (Section II)

    Mathew effect:

    The spreading of reading difficulties to other subject areas (e.g., math problem solving), accompanied by a cyclical downward spiral of motivation. Often characterized as “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer” (Cunningham & Stanovich, 199:7). (Section II)

    MD or MLD:

    Math learning disability. (Section II)

    Memory dysgraphia:

    Poor recall of the written forms of letters. Individuals with memory dysgraphia can copy letters. (Section VI)

    Memory strategies:

    Strategies for retaining material in memory. These include rehearsal or repetition; clustering, or grouping similar items to make recall easier (all animals, all things that are red); and associational learning, or the pairing of the meaning of the items to be recalled with past experiences (using the situation or setting as a cue to recall behavior, such as an acronym with each letter representing a word or a mental picture prompting the recall of a word). (Section III)

    Metacognitive skills:

    Abilities concerning awareness of one's own mental states, beliefs, strategies, opinions, experiences, and so on and the relation of these to the mental states, motives, intentions, and experiences of others. Such skills include the ability to reflect on one's own thinking strategies, attentional strategies, emotional and social strategies, problem-solving strategies, and the like. Metacognition is often described as “thinking about thinking.” Subcomponents may include thinking about one's own specific mental abilities, such as memory (metamemory) or comprehension (metacomprehension). Awareness of others' states, which has been termed theory of mind, is thought to be relatively absent in individuals with autism spectrum disorders and in individuals with right-hemispheric brain dysfunction. (Section III)


    Memory “tricks” such as acronyms, crazy phrases, or cartoons that act as global or abbreviated cues and can be used to recall more complex and detailed verbal information. (Section II)


    The observed demonstration of responses to particular objects or events. When a child observes an adult or another child with characteristics similar to his or her own interacting with a feared object or in a feared situation, the child learns responses from the behavior modeled. (Section II)


    Speech without inflection. (Section II)

    Mood lability:

    Ups and downs in feelings that appear to be unpredictable. (Section V)

    Moro reflex:

    The inherited startle reflex. (Section V)

    Motor dysgraphia:

    Poor ability to form letters (owing to poor fine motor skills). Individuals with motor dysgraphia can see that their own writing is poor (adequate perceptual skills). Writing long passages can be painful for them, and they are unable to sustain legibility; letter shape and size become increasingly inconsistent and illegible. (Section VI)


    Mild traumatic brain injury. MTBI can result from an injury to the head that results in a brief alteration of mental state (e.g., transient confusion or disorientation, loss of memory around the time of the injury) or loss of consciousness for less than 30 minutes. See also TBI. (Section III)


    Of different-appearing forms. (Section VI)

    Negative entitlement:

    The feeling that one “deserves” to be protected from bad outcomes or unpleasant experiences because one is special. (Section V)


    Fear of new and unfamiliar people and situations. (Section V)

    Neutral cues:

    Information that is not salient and is difficult to notice, such as the organization of a room or the structure of an assignment. (Section IV)

    Nonverbal communication:

    Communication without verbal language, through gestures, postures, facial expressions, visual symbols, and concepts. (Section II)

    Nonverbal IQ:

    Performance IQ, which is often assessed through testing that involves speeded processing during the manipulation of novel stimuli (mazes, blocks). (Section III)


    A statistical average or the most frequently occurring score or response in a setting or during the performance of a task. (Section I)


    Narcissistic personality disorder. (Section V)

    Number concepts:

    Quantity, more/less (relative magnitude)—related to numerosity. (Section II)


    Number sense, or the ability to understand the properties of numerical problems or expressions without doing precise computations, such as would be involved in estimations of quantity (Gersten & Chard, 1999). (Section II)


    Nonverbal learning disability. Difficulty with the visually based concepts of time, space, gesture, distance, age, and so on, including mathematics and social interactions. (Section II)


    Repeated unwanted thoughts involving feelings, images, or experiences that cause anxiety (e.g., “I am going to drive into the river”). (Section V)


    Obsessive-compulsive disorder; an anxiety disorder causing the sufferer to experience repeated unwanted thoughts and behaviors. The repetitive behaviors, which are called compulsions, can range from overeating or overexercising to checking and rechecking to make sure windows or doors are locked. (Section V)


    Oppositional defiant disorder. (Section V)


    Other health impairment, a category of exceptionality under IDEA. (Section IV)


    The repetition or echoing of one's own spoken words; may sound like stuttering (e.g., “Do my work work work”). (Section VI)


    The ability to take sensory input and convert that input into a recognition of meaningful objects, persons, symbols, and so on. Perception is often assessed through tasks in which students are asked to tell which objects/ letters/sounds are different from or the same as other objects/letters/sounds. (Section I)

    Perceptual dysgraphia:

    Poor ability to form letters accompanied by an inability to recognize that the letters are badly formed. Children with perceptual dysgraphia (also known as spatial dysgraphia) have normal fine motor skills but poor perceptual abilities. (Section VI)

    Performance anxiety:

    Anxiety characterized by high physiological arousal in achievement contexts, excessive fear of negative evaluations, and escape or avoidance from these situations (Faust, Ashcraft, & Fleck, 1996). (Section V)

    Performance deficit:

    Lack of motivation or ability to sustain effort or attention to an area the child already has the skills to perform. (Section IV)


    During the time of childbirth. (Section II)


    Repetition of the same motor or verbal responses. (Section V)


    Irrational fear, such as fear of snakes or of the dark, that is not based on direct or observed experiences and may be associated with, or representative of, a past experience that was fear inducing (e.g., passing too near a cliff edge while driving). Some phobias are temporary and specific to a normal developmental period (e.g., fear of going into the attic). (Section V)


    The smallest unit of sound, which may be composed of one or several letters. (Section II)

    Phonological code system:

    A method of teaching children to read in which they learn the visual letter symbols, their corresponding sounds, and their governing rules in order to decode words and to spell (hundreds of component graphemes, phonemes, syllable types, prefixes, suffixes, and roots). Typically, after a word has been learned through a phonological method, it is placed in long-term memory and recalled visually as the whole word, which produces reading that is fluent; phonics is then used as a backup strategy (i.e., when a child forgets a word or encounters a new word). (Section II)

    Phonology/phonetics and phonics:

    Phonology is the study of how sounds are organized and used within and across languages; phonetics deals with the physical production of sounds. In contrast, phonics involves awareness or sensitivity to the sound structure within words (hearing individual beginning, middle, and ending sounds within words) and making discriminations between words and their sounds (rhyming or finding similar words), blending sounds, and separating sounds into segments. More generally, it concerns the ability to translate visual symbols into sounds in order to pronounce words. (Section II)


    The ability of the brain, especially the brain of a young child, to form new connections between intact areas, with uninjured brain tissue taking over the functions of lost neurons. (Section III)

    Positive entitlement:

    The feeling that one is “owed” good things, such as respect and positive outcomes. (Section V)

    Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD):

    A condition characterized by continual reexperiencing of an earlier traumatic experience that involved death or serious injury or threat to the self or others. In children, behavioral responses to trauma include agitation or disorganization (APA, 2000). In a sense, anxiety stemming from trauma is rationally based and might be considered an example of conditioned responding. (Section V)


    Everyday, practical language that is used for social communication. For students with LD, deficient areas of pragmatics include the use of nonspecific referents and ambiguous messages, failure to take the perspectives of others, nonassertive responding, and difficulty asking questions or seeking clarification. (Section II)


    Dangerous or risky. (Section IV)

    Prescient feelings:

    Sensations that occur just prior to tics that act as warnings (Walter & Carter, 1997). (Section VI)

    Primary and secondary disability:

    A primary disability “causes” or contributes to a secondary disability; for example, inattention can contribute to secondary academic outcomes. (Section IV)


    Predicted or expected long-term outcome, usually described as positive or negative. (Section III)

    Protective factors:

    Those events, attitudes, life experiences, or individual traits that are associated with positive long-term outcomes (e.g., sense of humor). (Section V)


    Intrapersonal (within the person) and interpersonal (in relations with other persons). (Section V)


    Involving the interrelationship between mind and body (e.g., getting headaches in response to mental stress). (Section V)


    See Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).


    Reading disability. This broad term is used to refer to many problems associated with reading, including reading comprehension problems or hyperlexia, but most often it refers to dyslexia. (Section II)

    Reading comprehension:

    The ability to gain meaning from text that is read (understanding or encoding). (Section II)

    Receptive language skills:

    Listening skills (in the area of spoken language) and reading and math skills (in the area of written language). (Section II)

    Regressive behavior:

    Behavior that reflects the behavior associated with an earlier stage of development (e.g., acting babyish, such as thumb sucking, whining, complaining). (Section V)

    Relaxation techniques:

    Strategies designed to reduce anxiety (e.g., slow breathing). (Section V)

    Relevant information:

    Information that is important to correct task performance. (Section IV)

    Remediation training:

    Intervention that takes the form of asking the child directly to practice or learn skills in his or her weak areas of functioning. (Section II)

    Replacement activities:

    Different and socially more appropriate ways to achieve the same goals (e.g., asking questions rather than talking excessively). (Section IV)

    Response to intervention (RTI):

    An assessment of achievement (e.g., reading) as it changes over time as the result of intervention. RTI changes the definition of LD to include diagnosed students as those who do not respond to empirically based intervention strategies and thus need more intense interventions, placing more responsibility on educators to provide empirically based interventions before labeling children. (Section I)

    Rett syndrome:

    A condition that occurs in young females and is characterized by marked degrees of impairment in intelligence, language, and communication, with a characteristic loss in head growth from the ages of 5 months to 48 months and loss of previously acquired socialization skills and fine motor and gross skills (Hagin, 2004). (Section V)


    Seeing something again in one's mind (visual memory). (Section II)

    Right-hemispheric functions:

    Functions of the right side of the brain. Damage to this area can impair pragmatics in language and in the nonverbal aspects of communication (e.g., understanding sarcasm, humor, irony). This area may be particularly important to the development of “theory of mind or inferences about the intentions and feelings of others (empathy) (Stuss et al., 2001). Students with problems in right-hemispheric functions are often those with nonverbal learning disabilities, traumatic brain injury, and autism. (Section I)

    Risk factors:

    Those events, attitudes, life experiences, or traits associated with negative outcomes. (Section V)

    Rote tasks:

    Repetitive tasks that lack variation or novelty, such as math calculations, spelling drills, and handwriting practice. (Section IV)


    See Response to intervention.


    Repetitive negative thinking; going over and over the same negative event. (Section V)


    A child who has special talents or abilities in spite of a disability. The term comes from the French word savoir, meaning “to know.” Savants generally excel in one of the following areas: mathematical calculations, memory feats, artistic abilities, or musical abilities. The source for these abilities is unknown, although repeated practice (e.g., with calculations, dates) accounts for some. However, the ability to play a complicated piece of music immediately after hearing it for the first time is less easily explained. (Section V)

    School phobia:

    A specific disorder of school refusal wherein children avoid school in favor of staying home because of an irrational fear of separation from parents or caregivers. (Section V)

    School refusal:

    A general category of chronic avoidance of attending school. (Section V)

    Section 504:

    A section of the Vocational Rehabilitation Act of 1973 that guarantees physical access and access to the content of instructional programs to all students. (Section I)

    Selective attention:

    Preference for attending to some things. For students with ADHD, selective attention is directed toward external stimulating sights, sounds, smells, tastes, movement, emotion, and aggression, and internally to exciting daydreaming, thought, and emotionality. This can be called an attentional bias rather than an attentional deficit. Average children find it easier to selectively attend to relevant task information—to the underlying structure of a task, the details, the relevant information in directions. (Section IV)


    The state of feeling in control (empowered) and able to make one's own decisions and have one's own plans. This is the opposite of learned helplessness. (Section III)


    Feelings of personal competence in producing outcomes (the opposite of learned helplessness). (Section V)


    The focusing of attention on aspects of the self (e.g., thoughts, behavior, feelings). In an intervention with a child with disabilities, auditory signals (e.g., taped beeps) may be used to cue the child to self-monitor by recording current behavior or feelings at the sound of each signal. (Section III)


    The meanings underlying verbalizations (substance). (Section II)

    Sensation-seeking behavior:

    Behavior that is highly variable and produces additional stimulation for the child. (Section IV)

    Sensorimotor systems:

    Visual systems that guide motor responses. (Section III)

    Separation anxiety:

    An intense fear of separation from a parent or surrogate (guardian or parent substitute); the term often is used interchangeably with school anxiety (Kearney, 2003). (Section V)


    A neurotransmitter in the brain that affects mood and its regulation. (Section V)


    Socioeconomic status; that is, the economic class of an individual. (Section II)

    Setting-specific responses:

    Responses that occur only at certain times or in certain situations. (Section IV)


    A form of damage to the brain in which layers of the brain ride up on each other, cutting nerve pathways. (Section III)

    Sight approach:

    A method of teaching reading that relies on visually based retrieval (sometimes called the basal reading approach). Children are taught to recognize and associate meanings with whole words or word pictures, often using high-frequency grade-level words. (Section II)

    Short-term memory:

    Immediate recall (within seconds when rehearsal is prevented) of from three to nine elements (words, digits, or letters) (Miller, 1956). Short-term memory differs from working memory in that working memory involves holding information in mind in order to reorganize, summarize, or change that information in some way (e.g., mental mathematics). (Section I)

    Simultaneous verbalizations:

    Verbal explanations presented concurrently with visuals. (Section II)

    Skill deficit:

    Lack of ability or lack of educational experience in “how” to do something. (Section IV)


    Specific learning disability (e.g., in math, reading). (Section I)

    Social interpersonal problem solving:

    The generation of multiple strategies for responding in a social situation and the selection of a good strategy that is more effective than others (Edeh, 2006); also could be termed social brainstorming. (Section III)

    Social skills training:

    Direct instruction in the subcomponents of individual social skills (e.g., social greetings involve eye contact, smiling, handshake, verbal statement), which are modeled and reinforced for each step that approximates correct achievement (successive approximation). (Section III)

    Specific anxiety disorders:

    Disorders characterized by fears of particular events, experiences, animals, or objects (e.g., spiders, escalators). (Section V)


    Behavior, thinking, or mood that is temporary and depends on the conditions within the setting, such as time, task, persons, and amount of light or noise. (Section I)


    Repetitive, apparently “nonfunctional” movements (e.g., hand clapping), the function of which is to structure time in the absence of other activities or to reduce arousal; typically observed in children with autism (Zentall & Zentall, 1983). (Section V)

    Strategic reprimands:

    Short, firm, immediate, and consistent reprimands. (Section IV)

    Sustained attention:

    The ability to maintain a consistent behavioral or cognitive response during continuous or repetitive activity (Sohlberg & Mateer, 1989). Damage to the right frontal lobe of the brain has been reported to produce deficits in sustained attention (for a review, see Stuss et al., 2001). (Section IV)


    Grammar and sentence construction, or the correctness of the form of language. Syntax includes rules of morphology, such as how plurals and possessives are formed. (Section II)

    Synthetic intelligence:

    Form of intelligence that involves assembling, or synthesizing, information into whole categories or ideas. (Section III)

    Systematic desensitization:

    The graduated exposure of an individual to feared objects/ experiences/persons/animals in a pleasant or relaxed context, until the phobic individual can tolerate exposure. (Section V)


    Exceptional level of performance in verbal-linguistic, logical-mathematical, musical, spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and naturalistic areas of functioning. Talent is less heritable than the g factor. (Section III)

    Task analysis:

    The breaking down of a task (e.g., how to make a peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich) into its component parts, typically as they can be arranged sequentially, to achieve the overall task. Task analysis can also involve a determination of input (visual or auditory), learning process (e.g., memory, reasoning), and response requirements of a task (e.g., fine motor skill). (Section I)


    Traumatic brain injury. TBI can result from severe injuries to the brain that cause long periods of loss of consciousness, including lengthy periods of coma and frequent seizures. (Section III)


    Biologically based behavioral style that has a number of components, including (a) emotionality, or the degree to which a person can become upset; (b) sociability, or the degree to which a person prefers the presence of others; (c) activity, or the degree to which a person is restless; and (d) shyness, or the degree to which a person is uneasy in unfamiliar social situations (Masi et al., 2003). (Section I)

    Theory of mind:

    The ability to infer the mental states of others, such as their intentions (Stuss et al., 2001). (Section V)

    Tic disorder:

    A disorder typically involving just motor or vocal tics. (Section VI)


    Repetitive, brief, stereotypical movements (motor tics) or vocalizations (vocal tics), including eye blinking, shoulder shrugging, grimacing, head jerking, yelping, sniffing, and making grunting noises. (Section VI)

    Tourette's syndrome (TS):

    A disorder characterized by both vocal and motor tics and typically associated with an inherited pattern (Silver, 2004).


    Habitual pattern of behavior that is associated with personality characteristics (e.g., extroversion) and is relatively enduring over time. Traits can also be physical, such as height and eye color. (Section I)


    The implementation of what has been learned in one setting, context, or task in another setting, context, or task (e.g., from a school to a work environment, from reading to social studies). This term is often considered to have the same meaning as generalization, but the two can be distinguished according to the level of abstraction that is required. Transference is the direct application (copying) of a skill across contexts, whereas generalization is more broadly the application of elements, such as those used in problem solving or in “if-then” thinking. (Section III)

    Traumatic brain injury:

    See TBI; MTBI.


    A specific type of school refusal in which the child leaves the school and goes into the community but does not go home. The term truant is used mainly to describe children who miss school without parental consent (Kearney, 2003). (Section V)

    Twice exceptional:

    Having both giftedness and co-occurring disabilities, such as LD or ADHD. (Section III)


    Universal Design for Learning, a philosophy related to designing and delivering products and services within a classroom that are usable by people with the widest range of capabilities. UDL should be in place before any student enters the classroom (Beard et al., 2007). (Section I)


    A child for whom there are discrepancies between aptitude or IQ and actual performance on everyday schoolwork. (Section III)

    Underrepresented GT:

    Gifted children whose families are economically disadvantaged or are members of a minority or linguistically different culture. (Section III)


    The destruction of another's property. (Section V)

    Verbal LD (VLD):

    Verbal learning disability; difficulty with language-based subject areas of reading, spelling, and composition. Problems with talking and listening may be early indicators. Children with VLD are sometimes referred to as having language learning disabilities (LLD). (Section II)

    Visual errors in reading, composition, and spelling:

    Letter reversals, punctuation and capitalization errors, and spelling that reflects poor recall of sound/symbol inconsistencies with a reliance on good sound analysis (e.g., writing “nite” for the word knight). In other words, students spell words exactly the way they sound and not the way they look. (Section II)

    Visual perception:

    The ability to take what the eyes see (color, form, and size) and give these visual sensations meaning (to identify objects, words). Visual perception also involves completing figures (identifying the whole from a part or blending parts into a whole) and finding a small part in a whole (visual analysis, such as identifying hidden pictures). (Section I)

    Visual reasoning and concepts:

    The ability to understand visual symbols (plus signs, division signs), pictured information (block designs, humor in pictures), and the functions of everyday common objects, such as a hammer or a light switch. (Section II)

    Whole language approach:

    A method of teaching reading that involves using a context of meaningful experiences, which are dictated by the child, written by the adult, illustrated by the child, and subsequently reread by the child. This method is often used with older students who have been unable to make gains through the phonics method. (Section II)

    Working memory (WM):

    Memory that involves holding information in mind to bring hindsight and forethought into decision making (Greene, 2006), to consider personal history and possible future consequences for the purposes of planning, sequencing, summarizing, reorganizing, problem solving, and the like. Visual working memory, which resides in the right frontal lobe (Stuss et al., 2001), involves identifying visual patterns, sequences, mapping, following visual directions, and other nonverbal skills. (Section I)

    Yerkes-Dodson law:

    Developed by psychologists Robert M. Yerkes and John D. Dodson (1908), this law posits that performance improves with increased alertness (arousal), but only up to a certain level, and when arousal is too high, performance decreases. Furthermore, different tasks require different levels of arousal for optimal performance. For example, difficult tasks may require lower arousal, and repetitive tasks requiring persistence are performed better with higher arousal or activation. (Section I)


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    About the Author

    Sydney S. Zentall is professor of educational studies at Purdue University. Her academic training includes a foundation in psychology, a master's degree in the area of emotional/behavioral disorders, and a doctorate in the area of learning disabilities from the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Pittsburgh. Her background experiences teaching children include both general and special education, and she has more than three decades of experience in educating teachers. She is a national/international educational expert in the area of ADHD, and she has published several books and numerous scientific articles in psychology, special education, and education. In 1995 she was inducted into the ADD Hall of Fame by the national organization Children and Adults with ADD (Ch.ADD). Dr. Zentall has also been the recipient of grants from the National Institute of Mental Health and from the Office of Special Education and is past president of the Division for Research of the Council for Exceptional Children (CEC).

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