Tomorrow Is Too Long to Wait for Inclusion

When Helping Students Holds Them Back

When Helping Students Holds Them Back
A version of the post was originally posted at Why Haven’t They Done That Yet?

By Michael Ryan Hunsaker, Ph.D.

What I have come to notice in my time in special education is that we love to be helpful. In fact, we sometimes get a little too enthusiastic in our helpfulness. I saw a tweet today that really drew my attention. This is totally taken out of context, but that is how I read it:

If You Love Them, Set Them Free

This struck me because we often hold students back and deny them certain rights by nature of our “helping”. We choose to help people by doing things for them. We choose to help people by telling or dictating to them what they should be thinking or saying. We squash their creativity, we belittle them, and we condescend. In the course of our helping, we are actively holding them back. We are preventing them from growing as people.

The help I am specifically referring to is the provision of special education services, particularly in self-contained classrooms. We often look at our assessments and fear that our students will fail in general education classrooms unless they score 100% correct on every benchmark, and even if they do they must do it quickly and with automaticity. These students have to have perfect behavior, all of the time, even when stressed or when things are difficult. Anxiety and depression have to dissipate. They must show perfect attending, even when the teacher is not speaking and other students are being disruptive. Being a normal kid is not good enough. Perfection or bust!

Inclusion in General Education Full Time Is the Goal

The perspective that students must be perfect in order to be in general education worries me. I have seen the potential in students that other teachers did not. I spoke with the parents about this potential and some were terrified of taking any chances with their child’s education. This is a commendable worry for a parent, but as I see it, moving students into more inclusive placements full time is the goal. In fact, it is something every child is entitled to.

My perspective comes from growing up with an autistic twin brother. Kyle had a host of adaptive functioning problems. Kyle had uncontrollable obsessive and compulsive behaviors. Kyle could be aggressive if he lost his temper. Kyle had a need to pace and stim. Kyle was nonverbal (although he used a computer to communicate). And yet, none of that ever held him back. My parents did not ever let the narrative of a broken little kid enter into the picture when it came to Kyle. And quite frankly, neither did Kyle.

Kyle’s Placement in More Restrictive Environments Prepared Him for Inclusion in General Education

My thought processes always seem to come back to Kyle. When Kyle was little, he needed a lot of help. A preschool that specialized in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) was there to teach him the basics of attending and social skills, as well as how to cope with his urge to become physically aggressive with the teachers for disciplining other students. Elementary and middle school was there to help Kyle learn basic study skills and get the hang of communicating with others using his augmentative communication devices. In high school and post-secondary, Kyle needed training in job skills and to get out into the community. Academically, Kyle didn’t need help. In fact, in his first grade teacher wrote in the notes of Kyle’s IEP something to the effect: Kyle doesn’t test at all, but there is so much in him. We just need to keep teaching him new things and who knows where Kyle will end.

When Kyle was going to enter the fourth grade, the decision was made to hold him back into third grade again. But, he was to continue to receive spelling and math in general education. The rationale was that if he could spell, he could read (Kyle could spell any multi-syllabic term or random word perfectly on the first try). Kyle was held back to repeat the third grade because fourth grade is when school becomes more about abstract and higher-order thinking and Kyle was not quite ready. However, when Kyle reached fifth grade, the decision was made (by Kyle himself…he let mom know what he wanted) that Kyle needed to embrace the challenges of general education. More clearly, Kyle told mom he wanted normal school. So my mother gave him access (she put her foot down and made it happen). Fifth grade was good. Sixth grade was hard, and Kyle really came into his own in seventh grade. It did not matter that Kyle was non-verbal, it did not matter that Kyle was unable to write with a pencil or pen, it did not matter that Kyle walked down the halls with his ears plugged and his backpack and laptop bags swinging loosely off his arms. Kyle was determined to succeed in “normal” school. And he did.

Kyle Had Success Despite the Lack of Support

Interestingly, once Kyle entered the mainstream he never looked back. There was no resource support for him. We would have loved for there to be, but he was not performing at a low enough level to qualify under the discrepancy model (to be fair, he would not have qualified under any model, students with A’s and B’s do not receive resource support services). My mother sat down with Kyle for hours after school to help re-teach and act as a scribe for Kyle’s homework. Kyle got good grades in general education classes. He was happy. He made friends. In short, he thrived. All this was done in the 1980’s and 1990’s, long before we had the support we celebrate for autistic students today. In fact, my mother had to be rather blunt and stubborn with the school district to make sure Kyle had access to general education. It was unprecedented, and in many ways still is to some extent. So, on top of all of his accomplishments, Kyle was a pioneer. He did not let his challenges hold him back and my mother made sure that low academic expectations did not exist to hold Kyle back either.

Often time, what I find is that students that have been in special education classes (self-contained classrooms) since the beginning of their educational career are often closer to accessing the general education curriculum than students that only receive resource services. Specifically, students in resource can be 1.5-2 years behind their peers academically; whereas students in self-contained classrooms can sometimes be at grade level or only 0.5-1 year behind their general education peers. That says to me that those students approximately 1 year behind in their academics need resource services, not special classrooms. Anything more is too restrictive an environment than the students deserve. Even if the student has behavioral challenges to overcome it can often be solved by inclusion in a general education classroom.

Here Are Six Ways That I Can Achieve My Goal of My Students Moving into More Inclusive Settings.

1) I look at the student’s placement scores, irrespective to diagnosis, placement, behavioral history, and social skills

When I see a student is academically successful (within 1-1.5 years of grade level), it means I need to start planning for a paraeducator to assist with any potential behavioral issues in an inclusion setting. Based upon my experience in the resource setting, 1-1.5 years behind grade level is not enough to place a student in a self-contained classroom for academics. If a student tests within those levels, I can act as a resource teacher for them to provide a reteach, but they need to be out in a general education classroom to receive their core instruction.

2) I look at the behavioral history of the student

I usually try to talk with the previous year’s teacher to see what really sticks out in their mind. I have observed that students will have a lot of narratives written in their files as well as IEP goals written focused on behavior that are not at all that prevalent. Then, I get into data collection mode. I break out my Behavioral First Aid Kit, and start collecting data like crazy. If I see it, I write it down.

3) I specifically assess any sensory needs

It is important that I address the sensory needs of the student. These needs can be typical to students on the autism spectrum or sensory integration disorder. The need for fidgets, a pen to twiddle, or thera-putty to help ease the stress for students and can be vitally important for them to function in the general education classroom.

4) I look at the classroom management system and students in general education

I want my kids to succeed. So, I will make sure that my students get access to the teacher with the best management skills and teaching practices possible.

5) After all of these steps… I finally dig into the IEP and memorize their psychological/cognitive profile as well as any diagnoses

This just helps inform me how to better process my notes from my data collection steps. It also helps me identify potential issues that I may have overlooked. I do not do this step earlier because I would rather not bias my data collection.

6) I collect as much data as I can on my student’s performance in the general education classroom

The only difference between this and the earlier data collection step is that I focus on how much support each student needs. Do they need behavioral support? Do they need help with assignments (beyond what their elbow buddy provides)? Do they need a gentle nudge to remain focused? These collect this data daily for two weeks and then I fade back to random ten to fifteen minute data collection period cycled across days weekly and then every other week. These data collection sessions continue until the student is transitioned out of the self-contained classroom and into a general education.

Using a Self-Contained Setting to Determine If a Student Is Ready for General Education Is Doing It Wrong

I feel the more typical method of evaluating behavior in the self-contained classroom, to determine if the students are ready for general education, is often unfair. What I mean by unfair is that oftentimes the students that act out in the special education classroom due to boredom are being deprived the very challenges that they need to better themselves. In this way I feel I am giving students the chance to succeed when presented with a challenge, and I am collecting data that will serve useful to provide strategies the students may need when the going gets tough. I have adopted this approach because it is both fast and efficient. My goal is to get students into the mainstream as fast as possible because the longer they are in an inclusive setting, the more data I can collect and the greater number of strategies I can devise to help them achieve success. Providing too much support with a self-contained placement or even paraeducator support is not helping students achieve independence. Sometimes the best thing to do is let our students fly on their own.

Photo Credit: gem fountain/Flickr

MRHMichael Ryan Hunsaker is a neuroscientist applying his skills to Special Education. He blogs about his curiosity and excitement at WHY HAVEN’T THEY DONE THAT YET? Follow him on Twitter @mrhunsaker.

The Real Barrier Wasn’t Language


By John Spencer

When I first volunteered to teach a self-contained classroom of English Language Learners (ELL), I assumed the issue would be a language barrier. After spending a few years learning about the best practices for language acquisition, I developed lesson plans that would provide the right accommodations. I knew all about sentence stems and structured oral language practice. I had experience with word walls and grammar walls and relational strategies that would drop the affective filter.

I was ready to handle the language barrier. However, once I began teaching ELL, I realized that the language barrier wasn’t the real issue. The larger issue was the lack of inclusion that ultimately led to even bigger barriers, preventing ELL students from receiving the equitable education they deserved.

Barrier #1: Perception

I knew something was odd when students scoffed at the ice breaker at the beginning of class.

“We all know each other,” a boy said.

“Well, not everyone,” I answered. “I mean, there are some new students.”

He shook his head. “No, we’ve been together since kindergarten. We’re the dumb class. We stay together and each year we get a new teacher.”

“Why would you think you were the dumb class?” I asked.

“Because we’re the ones who didn’t pass the test,” he answered. Other students said versions of the same thing. A girl mentioned overhearing teachers talk about  the “low group” and the “subgroup that doesn’t ever improve.” Another girl talked about the stigma of being called “Little Mexico” by other kids on campus.

This process of segregating students by language ultimately creates a self-concept of being a part of the “low group.” My students knew it when they walked down the hallway and saw a graph showing the scores of each classroom. True, the teacher names had been wiped from the graphs, but they could easily point out our class and compare it to the honors group.

Because of segregation and labeling, students had internalized a self-concept of being academically less capable than the other groups. Students routinely referred to our class as the “Dumb Group.” For years, the stigma attached to being the ELL class had created a self-fulfilling prophecy of academic failure. There was a dark determinism that after six straight years of failing to pass the exit exam, they simply couldn’t improve.

Barrier #2: Pedagogy

As a part of the four-hour language block, I was required to teach reading, writing, grammar and oral language for exactly an hour each. I had to document that time. As a teacher who preferred project- and inquiry-based learning, I found myself trying to fit an authentic approach into a system that was rigid and traditional.

I contrast this to the honors group, where students were able to blend together math and science into a hands-on STEM lab. They had speech and debate, mock trials and maker spaces while we were diagramming sentences with verb tenses. Ultimately, I learned how to hack the system. We used grammar as a basis for choice-driven blogging and we created our own Shark Tank projects as a way to improve oral language. However, I constantly had to push back against the policies in place.

In terms of pedagogy, the ELL students had to fight against the perception that their lack of language acquisition meant they couldn’t handle creativity or critical thinking. As an ELL teacher, I often heard teachers warn me that my class wouldn’t be capable of the same projects because of the types of students I had.

Barrier #3: Socialization

My students existed in an island, and not just in my classroom. They went to the same elective classes together. In most cases, they hung out before and after school together. During lunch, I would watch my students forming groups away from the rest of the school. It was a sort of de facto segregation. The other students were not always trying to be exclusive. It’s just that my students had no structured opportunities to interact with other students in the school.

This meant that my students never had a chance to work with students who had special needs. They never had the chance to work with students who were part of the gifted program, either. Their social perspective was limited to fellow ELL students who had failed to pass the state exit exam.

Over time, this limited socialization caused my students to be less likely to get involved in extracurricular activities. Because they didn’t play sports at the same time with other kids at lunch, they never tried out for the teams. Because of the stigma attached to language, they never volunteered for the morning announcements or for media projects. Because they felt like outcasts, they never joined student government.

It’s About the Policy

The greatest barrier came from problematic policy. The students’ negative self-perceptions came from years of being forced by policy into a segregated ELL group. This, in turn, led to a barrier in socialization. The pedagogical barrier came from the rigid four-hour block of the hyper-structured ELL classrooms and the expectations of teaching in a way that ignored student voice or choice.

The end result is an educational experience for ELL students that contrasts sharply with that of all other students. They have a different self-concept and a different set of perceptions in front of them to overcome. They experience a more rigid, traditional pedagogy that ignores their need for creativity and critical thinking. They exist in a social island and are less inclined to participate in school activities. Ultimately, they exist in a separate school within the school, over fifty years after we decided that separate cannot mean equal.

Photo Credit: Alec Couros/Flickr

John SpencerJohn Spencer has been teaching for eleven years in Phoenix, Arizona. He is currently a middle school photojournalism and computers teacher with a passion for helping each student find a unique voice in digital spaces. Find more about John at



Does Self-Contained Special Education Deliver on Its Promises?

Does Self-Contained Special Education Deliver on Its Promises?

In this 2011 research article, Julie Causton (et al) examined the reality and rationale of separate educational placements by highlighting the experiences of students with disabilities in six self-contained classrooms. Thanks to for making this article available.

According to Dr. Julie Causton:

After examining the social and academic experiences of students who attended these six classrooms, our response is no. The students in these classrooms are not receiving the purported promise of self-contained classrooms. They were not learning in a location with a protective and/or strong community. There were in a much more, not less, distracting settings. Students were not receiving access to the general curriculum in an individualized manner. Teachers and paraprofessionals were not using thoughtful behavioral interventions but were instead using threats, time-outs, and restraints. Given the empirical and legal preference for inclusive schooling stated above, moving students back into the general education classroom with appropriate supports and services should seriously be considered.

You can read the whole article by DOWNLOADING IT HERE.

Download the PDF file .

What do you think? Do self-contained classrooms deliver on their promises? Tell us about it in the comments section below!

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