Self-Contained Classroom Defined
By: Suzie Dalien, M.Ed.
Public schools have a diverse and unusual role in a child’s education. They are in charge of not only teaching the basic concepts of learning, but letting children know how to behave in a social setting. Of course, these are just a few of the duties a school has to undertake, and when you throw special education into the mix things can get stressful for a traditional school system.
Over the last few decades, the general school system’s infrastructure for special education has slowly been crumbling as schools rush to keep up with an increasingly diverse student population, and it has been struggling ever since. As more children become school age in this time of exploding populations, schools will be taxed to keep up with the incoming flow of children, which means redefining how special education services will fit into the new structure.
The term “special education” applies to children with special needs who are attending a regular school, and assists children with a variety of disabilities. How special education is handled, however, changes from school to school. Some schools have still not caught up with the concept of special education; everyone is included in the general school population and given the same opportunities across the board, regardless of limitations, but supportive services are provided to help with individual accommodations. Other schools rely on partial inclusion of children with special needs to best serve this sector of school, giving them a small part of the day in the company of the other children while doing certain activities or subjects.
A new concept in public learning environments has arisen over the last several years, and it is called the self-contained classroom. Regular classrooms have anywhere from 20 to 30 students, on average, which means that children spend a good part of each school day with a group of their peers. For children with special needs, this can become overwhelming and possibly cause them to fall behind in their learning and work. The self-contained classroom focuses on the idea of smaller groups, a more close-knit environment, and one-on-one attention, which can help children with special needs feel safe while fostering creativity and learning.
These groups typically consist of 5 to 10 students and are run by a special education teacher and paraeducator, who takes instruction from the primary teacher. They can cater to a specific group of children who all have the same disability or learning needs, or can be a mixed group with unique abilities. This alternative form of classroom setting provides support and structure for children whose educational needs are not met by a general education, and is a great choice for schools with a special education program.
A Brief History of Self-Contained Classrooms
While the concept of a smaller classroom environment has been around for decades, it wasn’t until the No Child Left Behind Act was signed into legislation in 2002 that self-contained classrooms rapidly grew in popularity. The law states that schools need to be held accountable for more issues than they had been previously, and were to provide a standardized education to all children of eligible age. Schools that might have had a lax special education program were left scrambling to update their school’s infrastructure so it could accommodate more children with special needs while providing a higher quality of education.
In addition to the increased accountability, schools are now required to provide a standard testing for all school-age children to help rank and rate the school’s performance. If a school participates in the full inclusion method for children with special needs, their overall test scores will be lower simply because all grades, regardless of learning disabilities, counted towards an overall rating. Primarily for this reason alone, more schools started to use the self-contained classroom method of teaching as a way to separate special education test scores from those of the general population.
In the past, children who had special needs spent the entire school day in a separate setting from their peers, which helped add to the stigma that there’s something “wrong” with students who have special needs. Students who are severely disabled of extremely disruptive might still spend their day isolated in their own classroom setting, but many schools try to combine the self-contained classroom with regular class interactions as a way to balance the inherent work/social ratio.
Placing select children with special needs into a regular school setting is incredibly important to their self-esteem, confidence and overall ability to handle social situations. This might not always be possible for children who are really limited in their scope of disability, but supervised interactions during the day can do wonders for a child’s sense of self. It’s important to let these children know that there is nothing wrong with them – they simply learn at a different pace from the others, and that’s what makes them special. Efforts should be taken to emphasis a child’s talents, not their shortcomings, which is why self-contained classrooms offer a welcome respite from the jungle that can be elementary, middle or high school.
Deciding which children qualify for a self-contained classroom environment has some controversy surrounding it, as the criteria seems to differ from school to school. Some children are chosen based on their physical or mental limitations, while other learning institutions expand their services to include children with emotional or behavioral issues that keep them from obtaining a general education in a regular classroom setting. There can be a difference of opinion from parent to school about which services the child with special needs should participate in, so it’s important to keep an open and honest channel of communication between you and the educator regarding your child’s best interests.
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