Celebrating 100 Years of the Council for Exceptional Children

by Dr. Raymond Heipp


The year 1922 brought two national treasures into existence. The first was Betty White. May she now rest in peace. The second was the Council for Exceptional Children (CEC) which is celebrating its 100th year as an organization. The celebration takes place in Orlando from January 16-19 at the CEC Conference. While it may be something to celebrate, the impact of the CEC goes well beyond just their annual conference.

During the summer of 1922, a group of twelve educators attending courses at the Teacher’s College of Columbia University came together to form the International Council for the Education of Exceptional Children. Elizabeth Farrell, aside from being a founder, was its first president. I highly recommend you purchasing a copy of Elizabeth Farrell and the History of Special Education, 2nd Edition from CEC. In this inspirational story, you’ll learn how Elizabeth Farrell devoted her life to making a difference in the lived on children in public schools. Not only did she begin the idea of teaching “ungraded” classes for students who had difficulties, but she developed the basic principles and concepts under which Special Education still operates.

Over the last 100 years, CEC has focused on making education for exceptional students the best it can be. During that first year, they committed themselves to the design and establishment of “professional standards” when it came to teaching exceptionalities. They have continually sought to take these standards and strengthen them along the way. The current name, “Council for Exceptional Children,” was formally adopted in 1958 and in 1962, they would convene a National Convention with the main focus on addressing the national standards around teaching these students. 

As CEC moved into the 1970s, they saw the changing landscape in the world outside of education and the need for support for those with exceptionalities. Taking that into account, they redoubled their efforts to make sure that teachers, and the students with whom they were working with, had the support needed for excellence in education. Many may not be aware of the impact that CEC had in the passing of The Education for All Handicapped Children Act, also known as Public Law 94-142.  This was significant due to the fact that most students with exceptionalities were not always able to receive the education and opportunity being provided to their neuro-typical peers.

As we moved into the 1980s, we began to see a shift in how exceptional individuals were being seen in the medical community. The publication of the DSM-3 demonstrated a movement toward better understanding of issues facing our individuals. For example, this manual was the first to formally acknowledge Autism as its own category and NOT a sub-category of Schizophrenia. Imagine the impact that had on the medical community. CEC took it upon themselves to focus on the legal aspect of supporting our exceptional students. With guidance and a focused approach, they helped to bring about multiple events and laws for the years to come. In the beginning, they joined with other groups to create the International Year of Disabled Persons. This event in 1981 was created to bring awareness, along with the hope, and helping to change the perspectives of those who did not understand the depth of what individuals with exceptionalities bring to the rest of the world. CEC was also instrumental in the passage of the Perkins Act as well as several other laws which focused on brining services to families with children who had exceptionalities from the time of their birth. These services were not required until a child turned three prior to this time. CEC’s role continued to grow after 1990 thanks to the implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) which brought grants, resources, and free appropriate public education to eligible children. 

For me, the CEC has always been the bedrock to what we as teachers, administrators, and therapists buil upon to make our classrooms and schools the strongest they can be for our students. Personally, I used the standards they discussed as I worked with individuals with autism in the 1980s. I then transitioned into working with students who had reading difficulties in the late 80s. It was often difficult to work with students facing those difficulties as the assessments were not always able to pick up processing delays or conditions like dyslexia. The CEC always provided a sense of hope as they were a group that spoke to what we did as educators and reminded us that we were making a difference no matter what “standardized tests” were saying about our students. Directing programs in the 1990s, I saw the rise of students with ADD (ADHD would be later identified as well). It was not easy to get teachers and parents to understand that attention issues were real and not simply because a child was lazy or bad. CEC guided us as to how to stay focused on the most important aspect of our role as educators, the education of that child. 

In the last two decades, we have seen CEC continue to lead the way globally as well as here in the United States. They supported the use of technologies as early as the 1980s and continued to shape policy so that the assistive technology was available for individuals who needed it. We, as a community, were already overcoming so many barriers in education when the pandemic hit in early 2020. CEC has been there as a guide the entire time by continuing to support educators and provide ideas needed to transition to virtual and hybrid settings. While we may not have been perfect, we did an amazing job with what we had. Now, as we face continued uncertainty, CEC continues to guide us through webinars, conferences and materials.

Good organizations are generational and support groups for a period of years. Great organizations maintain relevancy for multiple generations. The Council for Exceptional Children have been with us for 100 years now and still manage to evolve to the times. They are outstanding as an organization and have done so much for each and every one of our students.

Thank you, CEC, for all that you have done and here is to another 100 years of being a national treasure, supporting all of us along the way!


Posted in School Health, Special Education and SH Special Education Today Newsletter