Special Education

The Truth About Self-Contained Special Education Classrooms

The Truth About Self-Contained Special Education Classrooms
What if we were to challenge the assumption that we can't serve students with more significant disabilities in less restrictive settings? Image from Unsplash
Tim Villegas profile
Tim Villegas January 27, 2020

Self-contained special education classes promise things they can't deliver.

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As a special education teacher, I taught in a self-contained special education classroom for thirteen years. Nearly every day, I wished I didn't have to.

It wasn't because I hated my job; I loved it. It also wasn't because I didn't feel supported. For the most part, the three elementary schools that I had the pleasure of working with were loving, accepting places that invested time, energy, and resources in making me a better educator.

Despite the work that we did for our students, there was something in the back of my mind, like an itch that I couldn't scratch. I knew then and know now that non-inclusive classrooms rarely provide the support that is necessary for students with disabilities to achieve the promised outcomes.

The least restrictive environment (LRE) is a legal term in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) which states the following: "To the maximum extent appropriate, children with disabilities, including children in public or private institutions or other care facilities, are educated with children who are nondisabled; and special classes, separate schooling, or other removal of children with disabilities from the regular educational environment occurs only if the nature or severity of the disability is such that education in regular classes with the use of supplementary aids and services cannot be achieved satisfactorily."

That mouthful boils down into two main ideas:

  • Children with disabilities ought to be educated with their nondisabled peers
  • They can't be removed unless we have tried everything to make it work

Under LRE, general education is the first consideration for educating a student with disabilities before moving to more restrictive options.

If you are a parent of a child with a disability, and you have sat in an Individualized Education Program (IEP) meeting, then you know how easy it can be for teams to blow by the placement discussion without a robust debate about whether the general education setting is appropriate. For students who have more significant disabilities, LRE is seldom ever discussed seriously because of the "nature and severity" of disability doesn't lend itself to making any changes other than the most restrictive setting.

But what if we were to challenge this assumption that we couldn't serve students with more significant disabilities in less restrictive settings?

Here we come to the truth about self-contained special education classrooms

The reason why they continue to manifest themselves in school districts across the United States is that families do not know to ask or expect anything different. For students who have intellectual and multiple disabilities in the lower grades (K-2), it is not an unreasonable expectation for families to advocate for an opportunity to interact and learn in a setting with their nondisabled peers. The standards are not so rigorous that the curriculum needs to be modified significantly. While harder for older students, it is certainly not impossible to modify the curriculum for grades 3-8 and even beyond.

According to the most recent data, students with intellectual disabilities and multiple disabilities participate in general education classes at 17 percent and 13 percent, respectively. That is far below the gold standard of 80 percent that inclusionists advocate.

What is disturbing to me is that despite the low averages for students with significant disabilities, the percentage of students with any disability in the general education classroom 80 percent or more of the time ranged from 37 percent in Hawaii to 83 percent in Alabama. The difference between states is more than 40 percentage points!

Moreover, we know that self-contained special education classes promise things they can't deliver on. In a 2011 study, Julie Causton & George Theoharis (among others) compared the literature on the justification for self-contained classrooms. They found that there were four main reasons why students were placed in self-contained special education classrooms:

  • Issues of community
  • Distraction-free environments
  • Specialized curriculum/instruction
  • Behavior support

So, to test the hypothesis of whether or not self-contained special education provides the necessary support, they examined some classrooms.

The researchers found that the students observed were not learning in a location with a protective and strong community, they were in much more (not less) distracting settings, they were not accessing the general curriculum in an individualized manner, and school staff were not using thoughtful behavioral interventions but were using threats, timeouts, and restraints.

Perhaps you think, well, they didn't observe the right classrooms! Speaking from the perspective of someone who has spent the entirety of my time as a classroom teacher in a self-contained setting, I can't disagree wholly with these findings. And I think I was a pretty good teacher. Every year I tried my best to deliver on all of these promises, and some years I was closer to my goal than others. But, when you put students who have intellectual, social, and behavioral difficulties all in one place, what do you think is going to happen?

Here is the other truth about self-contained special education classroom

I can say this with full confidence. If things don't go well, it is the byproduct of a system that is stacked against students with disabilities, not because of a "bad teacher." Teachers are put into difficult situations every day because of the educational system, the one that produces over a 40 percent swing in inclusion rates by state.

By and large, school districts do not train their teachers on how to work with students with behavioral challenges, autism, or intellectual disabilities. This goes for teachers who work in self-contained classrooms as well. So is it their fault that they can't do what they don't know? We wouldn't expect that from our students, but that is precisely what we are doing to our special education teachers.

I have had the privilege of working with some fantastic special education teachers in self-contained classrooms. These teachers love their students, work tirelessly to give their students access to the general education curriculum, and who think up creative behavior support solutions that are child honoring. Great teachers are just that, great teachers, no matter where they are located. We need to keep mentoring, cultivating, and encouraging special education teachers.

But to think that creating more self-contained special education classrooms is the answer we need to produce better outcomes for students with disabilities is short-sighted. If we do that, we are looking backward instead of forward.

How do we fix it?

I have a few thoughts.

My goal isn't to make any parent or educator feel bad about choosing or even preferring a self-contained special education classroom. But if I was able to help you think differently about them, or urge you to think about how you can create a more inclusive environment where you are right now, then it was worth it.

Questions or feedback? Email editor@noodle.com

About the Editor

Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle. He has been managing editor of the Noodle.com website for over four years.

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