Special Education

When Are Self-Contained Special Education Classrooms (Ever) Okay?

When Are Self-Contained Special Education Classrooms (Ever) Okay?
Special education placement decisions are often difficult to navigate, filled with big emotions from both parents and teachers alike. Image from Unsplash
Tim Villegas profile
Tim Villegas February 10, 2020

The reality is that thousands of special education teachers and families confront this dilemma every day.

Article continues here

A few years ago, a colleague of mine asked me if I had an example of an “inclusion readiness” checklist to use when considering moving a student from a self-contained special education classroom into a lesser restrictive environment like a classroom with co-teaching services. For example, when a student shows evidence of being “ready” to go back to a regular class, then the team could have a discussion about what their services would look like.

With a straight face, I told them that the only requirement for inclusion is that the student is breathing. And while this may seem like a snarky answer, I believe it wholeheartedly. There is no checklist. But decisions like this are made every day in Individualized Education Program (IEP) meetings all over the United States.

Placement decisions are often difficult to navigate, filled with big emotions from both parents and educators alike. So, if I believe that students should always be educated in the least restrictive environment, when is it (ever) appropriate for a student to be taught in a self-contained special education classroom?

I can hear my inclusion allies yelling at me from all around the world, “Don’t answer that question! It’s a trap!” But the reality is that hundreds of thousands of special education teachers and families confront this dilemma every time they come to an IEP meeting. Inclusion advocates don’t do anyone any favors by reducing a school team’s options down to a false dichotomy of “included” and “not included.”

Placement decisions are inherently complicated because they depend on several factors. In the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), in conjunction with determining the least restrictive environment, there is something called the continuum of alternative placements. This continuum includes “instruction in regular classes, special classes, special schools, home instruction, and instruction in hospitals and institutions.” It also notes to make a “provision for supplementary services (such as resource room or itinerant instruction) to be provided in conjunction with regular class placement.”

Given that the law provides a continuum, doesn’t that mean that it assumes that at least some children will be served in alternate locations than a general education classroom? The short answer is a substantially qualified “Yes.”

When I explain this to families, I like to break it down in the most straightforward way possible. The IEP team has to ask themselves, “have we tried everything to make this student successful in the least restrictive environment?” If the answer is no, then the team must make changes to the student’s services. If the answer is yes, then the team should consider alternate placement options.

A problem occurs when there is disagreement among the team about the answer to “have we tried everything?” I wish I could sit down with you and have a conversation about your particular child or student. I would give you my opinion about what else your IEP team could try. And there are great resources that can provide you tons of ideas. But all I can do is give you some questions that may be helpful for you when an alternate placement is considered by the team.

Does the curriculum need to be modified?

Modification of the curriculum should not be one of the main reasons why the team decides an alternate placement is required. The law states that “a child with a disability is not removed from education in age-appropriate regular classrooms solely because of needed modifications in the general education curriculum.”

Let that sink in, y’all.

Is the general education classroom too overwhelming?

When I was a teacher in California, a 5th-grade general education classroom typically had 40 kids. Any student would have sensory issues with a class that large. For a student on the autism spectrum, it could be disastrous, even if the teacher had the best classroom management and visual supports. Again, the law states that “in selecting the LRE, consideration is given to any potential harmful effect on the child or on the quality of services that he or she needs.”

One thing that I have learned from autistic advocates is that their input is rarely taken into consideration when the IEP team is discussing placement. If the team does decide to move to an alternate placement because of sensory issues or something else that is affecting the child, make sure that they consider when the student will have time with their peers.

What if people are getting injured?

As a special educator for over 15 years, I have been injured several times by my students. It is part of the job, and in the vast majority of cases, the student was not trying to hurt me or others. But there are cases where the school team has tried everything to help support the behavior of a student who causes injury to themselves or others. So the logical next step, after “have we tried everything?” is an alternate placement.

What you need to know about this consideration is that a student cannot be placed in a different program without parental consent. If the parent disagrees with the alternate placement, a hearing officer can be requested to weigh the evidence to determine if the school district has really done everything.

While that doesn’t answer every question about placement, and when a separate environment should be considered, it is a start. By answering the question, “have we done everything we can to provide supplementary aids and services in regular classes?” you will get your answer. Though, you might get a different answer than the other members of the IEP team.

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.

To learn more about our editorial standards, you can click here.