Siirry sisältöön
Finnish Special Education in a nutshell – enabling inclusion and the recognition of special needs

Diverse Encounters and Insights – Let’s improve special education practices together!


Sini Bask

lehtori, pedagogiikka
Haaga-Helia ammattikorkeakoulu

Published : 03.05.2023

Welcome to the world of special education! This piece of publication is for you if you’re new to special education and inclusion in education. You will be introduced to the structure of a Finnish Special Education in a nutshell – Special Education further abbreviated as “SPED” – with the authors’ reflection on what they have observed these times in SPED, nationally, and globally.

Outlining Special Education

Let us start with the big picture on how to reflect SPED in the global scope. As a Social Psychologist but most over as a Sociology enthusiast, too, one places much interest in societal structures and global coalitions as the core enablers for any person to be reckoned in modern education, not to mention about the basic need of belongingness for any human being. Being part of a group is an inseparable factor when it comes to our lives for at least as long as we’re identified as homo sapiens. Here, in the very core of belongingness lies the basis of an inclusive SPED, too.

One of the clearest and say, most visible enablers of the goal of SPED and the need for inclusiveness are the global SDG’s which the UN adopted in 2015 “as a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure that by 2030 all people enjoy peace and prosperity” (United Nations 2023a). Many of the 17 goals may easily be addressed when it comes to the questions of equality and equity, with goal number 4 of “Quality Education” representing the very core of inclusive modern education. The goal is to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all” (United Nations 2023b). We are happy that the goal is clear in its statement, but let’s take a short look further to the situation where we are now after the pandemic and the global arena longing for negotiations of peace and diplomacy.

According to the UN, the Covid-19 pandemic has deepened a global learning crisis and, if there were recognized issues in learning before, inequities in education have only worsened during the pandemic (United Nations 2023b). There are certain issues that can be addressed when it comes to learning gaps and many of those have also been recognized in Finland, too, also personally, from the authors’ perspectives in the field of education.

Within the framework of special needs

Although Finland is probably one of the most advanced countries in the world ensuring pupils and students in all levels of education, to have proper access to digital tools mandatory for remote learning, we still have our own issues to work with like any other society. Put simply, much of our current existence as humans takes us back to our genes, upbringing, and the environment our life is being lived in (Also check the concepts of genotype and phenotype for further understanding, Peirson 2012). That’s where we can gently have a look at our own home, in this case, the pupil’s or the student’s home – meaning all that is mentioned in the previous lines.

Outside of the scope of genes, considering just one pupil or a student, there are certain contributing factors which can be highlighted when predicting the need for SPED. To mention a few examples simplified, starting from the conditions at home:

  • Parents’ level of education – the lower the less resources and natural enthusiasm in guiding their child throughout the childhood and youth. The lack of know-how in supporting and guidance
  • Pupils previous need for support at school or preschool/kindergarten (when moving on at the levels of education)
  • The issues related to mental health and mental health diagnosis (such not genetically related. (Parkkila etz. 2018)

The above-mentioned plus the genetic factors predicting the need for pupils’ and students’ active support in education are more or less universal. It is safe but unfortunate to say that the pandemic and the overall global instability experienced among young people, along with national challenges per society, has not made the mentioned existing conditions any better for those in need of support of any kind.

So how does Finland tackle these issues and more importantly, how has Finland arranged the SPED? Finland cherishes the equal possibilities in life as a subjective right, hence for those in need, the special support follows. Let us now have a look at the inclusive SPED in Finland, frameworks administered by the Finnish National Agency for Education.

Finnish Special Education in a nutshell

Support in learning is usually provided in conjunction with mainstream education in ECEC, pre-primary, primary, lower secondary education in Finland. In upper secondary education there are also vocational institutes that have a special responsibility to endow educational support for those students with the most intense challenges in learning.

Everyone has the right for support for their learning, development and wellbeing according to their needs. Although, in higher education there has only recently been an awakening to the need for support also for university students. The need for support of each individual is continuously monitored and assessed in cooperation with parents or guardians and the pupil or student themselves. SPED in primary and lower secondary education is organized by applying three levels of support (figure 1). When moving up the levels of support in the ladder the measures become more sturdy.

Figure 1. Levels of Finnish Special Education (Finnish National Agency for Education 2023).

Figure 2. Special Education process in a nutshell (modified from Finnish National Agency for Education 2023).

Figure 2 represents the process of SPED in Finland. You can see now that the process starts from the fact that any person studying a Finnish curriculum has a subjective right to special support. Support is there throughout the studies and the goal is to reach the knowledge and the skills required to succeed at a certain level of education. The support should always follow the pupil or the student in the next level of their education, whereas the accurate need for support is always re-reviewed once a student moves on to another level of education. It’s a supported journey then!

At the EU level there are also other interesting and fresh projects to promote the support for those in special support needs. One of them is the EfVET led project GIVE “Governance for Inclusive Vocational Excellence”. The project is there “to contribute to the innovation in the VET sector for social inclusion of individuals belonging to disadvantaged groups, with particular reference to learners” (EfVET 2022) e.g. with special learning needs, disabilities and with low skills and obsolete qualifications.

Food for thought in the future

Overall, with respect to differences among us, taking SPED seriously yet treated subtly as an inclusive factor, enabling honest genuinely equal possibilities is something that any society will no doubt benefit greatly from. The inclusiveness of societies and education systems will certainly play a decisive role for the sustainability of our global world. The (LNOB) central, transformative promise of the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) state that no one is left behind (NOLB) (United Nations 2016). In light of this, SPED will be one of the key means to enable participation and wellbeing for all. Even if SPED has a long history of steps toward a more and more inclusive Finland, there remains work to be done.

Hence, by further taking our tiny piece of publication to April 2023, it’s interesting to see what AI says about the inclusive SPED. Having asked OpenAI’s ChatGPT (OpenAI 2023) on what it says about the benefits of inclusive SPED, the following answer was provided and summarized quite nicely: “…The benefits are numerous, including improved academic outcomes, increased social skills and relationships, and greater self-esteem and confidence for students with disabilities”.

Let us also note that according to ChatGPT (a/m) the future of an inclusive SPED looks promising, although some issues, such as “providing adequate training and support for teachers, ensuring access to appropriate resources and accommodations, and addressing systemic barriers that can prevent students with disabilities from fully participating in education” (a/m) need to be addressed.

Finally, in addition to disabilities that are visible, did you know that approximately 5 to 10 percent of us could be placed on a neuropsychological scale, also, representing the majority of diagnoses in need for SPED? Yes, problems with social communication and interaction, restrictive or repetitive behaviors or interests might be signs and symptoms of Autism Spectrum Disorder ASD (National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 2022) actually describing surprisingly many of us. The symptom combinations exist in numerous amounts as there are colors of a rainbow! Everyone needs support sometimes. The best way to guarantee a bright future for us all is by further developing even more inclusive education.

a) Also check the concepts of genotype and phenotype for further understanding (Peirson 2012).

This publication is part of the publication ‘Diverse Encounters and Insights – Let’s improve special education practices together!’. The publication is the result of development work by students in Vocational special needs teacher education. Sini Bask, Eija Honkanen and Leena Nuutila, special needs teacher trainers at Haaga-Helia University of Applied Sciences, have guided the development work and produced the content of the publication.


EfVET The European Forum of Technical and Vocational Education and Training 2022. Retrieved 17 April, 2023.

Finnish National Agency for Education 2023. Retrieved 17 April, 2023.

National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 2022. Retrieved 17 April, 2023.

OpenAI 2023. Retrieved 18 April, 2023.

Parkkila M. etz., Kuntoutussäätiö 2018. Retrieved 18 April, 2023.

Peirson, B. R. Erick 2012, Wilhelm Johannsen’s Genotype-Phenotype Distinction. Retrieved 17 April, 2023.

United Nations 2023a. Retrieved 17 April, 2023.

United Nations 2023b. Retrieved 17 April, 2023.