Back to School Part 3: When Self-Contained Classrooms Might Be a Good Option

Hi readers,

Notice anything different? Yup, we’re getting a makeover! The site has a new tagline and is now known as IndependenceChick’s Nest. You’ll also notice the new emerald green background, an homage to my love of all things Irish and to the fact that green represents new life. That’s our goal here–new, real, and vital lives for people with disabilities.

In light of that, you might wonder at the title of today’s post. You know I am not a proponent of self-contained classrooms for their own sake. Too often, they lead to segregation and stunt students with disabilities’ educational growth. However, I also strive to present a view that says very few ways of dealing with disability are 100% bad. Some students and parents choose to utilize self-contained classrooms and it is their right. Some self-contained classrooms can even be enriching, safe, and joyful environments if run correctly. Today, I’m going to examine some situations in which self-contained classrooms may be a good thing, in the name of a balanced viewpoint and helping parents, loved ones, and students decide what they need.

Situations in Which Self-Contained Classrooms May be Beneficial:

If cognitive and physical disabilities are profound enough that a mainstream classroom would be overwhelming. Note here that I am not talking about your garden variety case of Down Syndrome, Fragile X, autism, or any other potentially cognitive disability such as a brain injury. Here, I am talking about those students who not only have low IQs, but also find mainstream education a huge challenge. Remember, IQ scores alone do not determine a student’s intelligence. A child with CP or autism who cannot walk or talk may still get along fine in a mainstream classroom with proper supports. A child who needs a plethora of supports throughout the school day, such that supportive care takes the majority of time and attention, may need and benefit from a self-contained classroom. Note that this is NOT an excuse to skimp on education. My original belief still stands: even if that kid has an IQ of a toddler, treat them with dignity. Read to them from real books. Let them listen to popular and enriching music, participate in art, get appropriate exercise, and utilize appropriate math skills, to name a few.

If the student is using a heavily modified curriculum that is not traditionally part of mainstream education. Disability Scoop’s writer Michelle Diament recently published an article explaining that a new federal rule has ended “modified” standardized testing for students with disabilities. This essentially takes the power out of states’ hands to use modified overall educational standards to determine when students with disabilities have reached academic standards.

I personally don’t agree with the base of this rule. I believe states should individually determine educational standards for all students (which is why I’m not a fan of Common Core, either). But I do agree with the rule’s intention–to make sure that standards are not lowered only because of disabilities. With tweaking, I believe this could help ensure all PWDs are educated in the least restrictive environments and receive appropriate educations.

However, the new standards do state that “children with the most significant cognitive disabilities” will still be tested using alternative academic assessments. Again, I have no problem with this. I would prefer that the student receive those alternative assessments alongside peers, and that those alternatives be as close to the mainstream curriculum as possible. But again, if the disabilities in question are profound, a self-contained classroom may be a good choice.

If behavioral or emotional issues are such that the student cannot learn well in a mainstream classroom.

You guys all know how I feel about behavior plans and calling everything a PWD does “deviant behavior or “a behavior.” 99.9999% of the time, it’s a bunch of bunk. “Behaviors” are often what PWDs use to express themselves because they’ve been given no other choice, or because their disabilities are severe enough that assistive technology, communication devices, and so forth don’t have the desired amount of impact. Essentially, what the TAB population calls deviant, are humans acting like humans, period.

But what about the student with autism who screams to make wishes known, or who has upset or destroyed classroom property on numerous occasions? What about the student with bipolar disorder or ADHD who has understandable meltdowns but whose emotional state legitimately impedes learning? What about the foster child who has struggled with anger his or her whole life, and whose anger management issues make socialization a real challenge?

Again, when the problems are severe, a self-contained classroom can be a good bet. I caution teachers and parents, however:
-Do not make such classrooms seem like a punishment. For example, never say something like, “Isabella, you can return to class when you can control yourself.” Use the classroom as a calming environment. Encourage real learning and enjoyable pursuits. For example, if Isabella loves science and it calms her to read about storms and volcanoes, maybe she can do an extra-credit project regarding these phenomena while in the self-contained room.
-Do not use the classroom as a cop-out. If English class is the only trigger for Jamal’s meltdowns, why is he in the self-contained room all day? If Gianna’s autism can be controlled through short sensory breaks in a self-contained room, that may be all she really needs.
-Do not use the classroom as a threat.
-Work with the student, parents, and guardians so that self-contained learning becomes less and less needed. Remember, just like with psychotherapy, the goal of treatment or self-containing for any student with a disability should be to eventually stop the treatment.

If the student is gifted, and the mainstream curriculum will not or cannot serve his or her unique needs.

I believe gifted students can and should be educated alongside their peers just like students with disabilities and especially twice-exceptional students. As we’ve discussed, pullouts can make these students feel like bigger anomalies and make socialization harder (see summer 2012 archives). However, some gifted students can benefit from self-contained rooms depending on their schools and situations. Many of today’s teachers are overtaxed, trying to serve 28-30 students at one time. More and more of our teachers are taking on combined classrooms. There is now such a thing as a kindergarten/first grade or third/fourth grade teacher who has both grades in his or her room at the same time. Differentiating instruction can be a never-ending process. If that’s the situation, pullouts may be the saving grace for students who need extra attention. Recall, too, many gifted students have a particular need for quiet, concentration, particular intellectual stimulation, and less “extraverted” socialization. Self-contained classrooms may help, though they are never the only option.

How to Run a Self-Contained Room Right:

Every teacher has his or her own style and philosophy. But there are a few key things every teacher in a self-contained situation can, and I believe should, do to make sure his or her students get the best education possible. Here’s the short list:

1. As mentioned, never use your classroom or instruction as discipline or a threat.
2. Give students as much say as possible in their own goals. “Melissande will understand math” is not a goal. But, “Noah will identify X countries on a map with 90% accuracy three out of four times” is not a goal either, if that goal isn’t relevant and meaningful to Noah. Work with the student, parents and guardians, and general education teachers to make real goals.
3. Know your students personally. They are not their “papers”–IEPs, 504s, whatever. They are people. They have names, interests, goals, and dreams. Learn them, and use them. For example, if Alyson hates math but loves sports, use her pedometer, calories burned, distance traveled, or other numbers as relevant parts of math class.
4. Do not tag everything you see as a behavior problem.
5. Facilitate real education with traditional and non-traditional tools. Reread the bonus post on computer-based learning. Use books on tape, music, and real, relevant life skill opportunities. Life skills are great but should be taught the right way. For example, if a student with severe Down Syndrome needs to learn to handle money, maybe he should do it in a school store or other school-based business alongside peers with and without disabilities, just like in the real world.
6. Make the room an environment students want and choose to be in. Self-contained classrooms should not be isolated from the rest of the school; that’s where we get TAB students who refer to it as “the R-word room” or say PWDs “don’t go to real school.” Your classroom, or the places you hold class, should be near or with other students. Its motif should be cheery, but age-appropriate (please, please, PLEASE, no smiley faces or bunnies on the walls for high-schoolers–I don’t care if they all act like they’re five. If you treat them like they’re five, that’s how they’ll act). Use alternative learning spaces when possible–move the desks into a circle, use beanbag chairs or couches, or even let students use the floor. Make it fun!
7. Affirm your students. Give them real achievements and real praise for those achievements. Tell them they can reach their dreams and help them do it.
8. Involve students without disabilities when and where possible. Let them all learn life skills or appropriate academic skills together. That way, the self-contained room won’t be a negative, mysterious place, and students with disabilities will be seen as people with names and personalities, not walking diagnoses.
9. Keep students safe. For example, provide space for students with emotional disabilities to calm down when needed, or avenues through which kids with autism can take sensory breaks. Do not allow bullying or shaming of any kind, even and especially from teachers and aides. Students who need help with self-care should always be aided by a trusted adult of the same sex. If a student needs help with grooming and self-care, allow the parent or guardian to hire their own aide or choose one from the school’s resources.
10. Make sure your own education is complete. Too many special education teacher candidates come into the field thinking disability = dumb and dumb = easy. This is a harmful myth that leads to bullying, lawsuits, and physically or emotionally injured students. Go into this field with pure motives. If you see a teacher bullying a student, report it immediately.

Best of luck students and teachers, no matter what your classroom looks like. Whatever shape it takes, make it a safe, fun, and engaging place to be.


Back to School Bonus: How Computers Can Change the Face of School for PWDs

Hi readers,

Since it’s been only six days since my last post, I’m going to consider this one a bonus. As the title indicates, it’s about the benefits PWDs can reap from computers, especially at school. Some of those benefits, I know from firsthand experience. For example, in kindergarten nobody knew my CP kept me from writing by hand. After all, most kindergartners can form certain letters better than others, and their handwriting tends to be less than perfect. But by the end of kindergarten and beginning of first grade, the teachers and I had all caught on. I could only form some pairs of letters. Some, I could only write in uppercase and some only in lowercase. (If you’re curious, it depends on how much the letter in question uses straight lines or simple circles). A’s, M’s, L’s, O’s, C’s…no problem. Uppercase B’s, D’s, and R’s, or S’s in either case–not gonna happen.) Anyway, the point is, without a typewriter and computer I would not have a way to write and would be considered half-literate.

Because of my own experience I’m passionate about PWDs learning to use assistive technology like talking machines, picture boards, and so forth. Yet I’m even more passionate about these people learning to use technology to further their educations. Most schools agree that this can be done, but within every school there are still a few poor unfortunate souls who are skeptical. They say things like, “We’ve never used technology for this,” “It’s too hard/expensive,” “This student is too severely disabled to benefit.”


I’m going to dedicate this post to explaining some of my favorite school- and educationally-based uses for technology, as well as how they can benefit students with disabilities. Here we go:

Computer Games

I started here because no matter their age or educational level, I’ve never met anyone who didn’t like games. Computer games are some of the best examples because they don’t make the same competitive or physical demands as sports, which takes the pressure off people with orthopedic disabilities, physical disorders, or other problems that influence athletic ability. Yet they do encourage, even force, the player to think. The best ones take skill, ingenuity, and even a little speed.

Some of my favorites are hidden object games like Pearl’s Peril (found on Facebook) or Hidden Chronicles (formerly of FB, since closed, but still fun). The best hidden object games have an intriguing story–maybe you’re the heir to a rich uncle who was murdered and you have to figure out who did it. But they’re also beneficial for people like me who have visual issues such as lack of peripheral vision, lack of depth perception, or low vision. Every scene within a game asks you to find about 12 hidden objects in various combinations every time you play. The more times you see the scene, the better you get at memorizing where the objects are.

For PWDs who can see just fine, certain games still carry plenty of benefits. For example, Lumosity has a game called Word Bubbles where you’re challenged to come up with as many words as you can that begin with three specific letters (bal, con, and so forth). This can enhance reading, spelling, and short-term memory for students with dyslexia, dysgraphia, limited literacy, and other issues. If you’ve got a student who hates math, set them up with games where they are rewarded for completing math tasks. My third grade classroom used to have one where you built circus clown faces based on completion of multiplication tables.

Typing Practice.

This may not sound as fun as computer games, but timed typing tests or set goals work well for students who like to compete with themselves. For example, maybe you’re a teacher with a student who has naturally tight hand and finger muscles. Typing practice can help if done the right way. As in, don’t make everything a prewritten goal or talk incessantly about the therapeutic benefits. Lead in with something like, “Wow, D.J., you’re up to 40 words a minute. I bet if you tried it this way, you could get up to 60.” Some programs, like Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing, use premade drills and games to facilitate this. If you have a student who’s already gifted at English, combine that with necessary skills. Ask him or her to help you catch mistakes in papers or prewritten grammar activities.

Music and Video Files, Including–Yes–YouTube

Obviously, if you’re a teacher or parent, you’ll want to supervise young kids using YouTube, iTunes, and similar programs. School rules may ban these activities for young students and have strict rules for older ones–abide by those. However, music and video are both engaging mediums that cause information to stick in students’ heads and entertain them at the same time. Students with visual or hearing disabilities can benefit, as can TAB students. For example, challenge your class by turning the sound off and asking them to follow the words on a video captioned for deaf students. Ask how well they kept up. For an added learning opportunity, invite deaf or hard-of-hearing students who sign, to teach some crucial signs to the class. (Remember not all these students sign, so don’t assume).

Beyond visual and auditory enrichment, music and video can be calming for students with ADHD, autism, and emotional disabilities. Students with Asperger’s or high-functioning autism can be encouraged to use technological aids in presentations about their specific interests, or to craft such a presentation around their favorite parts of a unit. For example, your student with Asperger’s may not care much about chemistry as a whole. Yet maybe she is fascinated with some aspect of medicine, like how white blood cells work. Videos and interactive diagrams can work wonders for her presentation, grades, and self-confidence.


I personally love paperbacks and will probably be old school until I die, but I definitely agree with the benefits of e-readers. Using an e-reader rather than heavy textbooks can, again, make a basic school task easier for a student with a physical disability. Audiobooks, as mentioned, are often used as a modification for students with dyslexia or blindness/visual issues. Beyond that, e-readers carry benefits for students with speech-related disabilities. If these students would prefer to speak rather than use a technological device, by all means, encourage that. Perhaps they can read back what they hear on an audiobook or read aloud from one of their favorite books via e-reader. Speech therapists and pathologists: be careful not to over-correct if students do these activities with you. Instead of, “No, Peter, it’s pronounced THIS way,” say something like, “Let’s play that back/read that again.” Also, remember that some different speech patterns may never go away. That’s okay–that’s the natural way that student speaks. The goal should be understandability and enjoyment, not perfection.

Additionally, as with most or all of these other tools, e-readers and audiobooks can help build confidence and encourage calmness. Students with selective mutism or other emotional disabilities may hate to speak in front of a class, but may be just fine reading aloud to a trusted person or even an animal. (Some schools have programs where students can read aloud to dogs, cats, or other class pets. If your school doesn’t, may I recommend investigating it)? Over time, such practice can build the student up to feeling ready for a short speech or presentation in front of the class.

Clip Art/Word Art.

Again, these are kind of old school, but they did something special for me when I was in school–they gave me an outlet to draw and design. You see, my hands preclude drawing–at least, drawing so you can tell what the heck that thing’s supposed to be. A lot of kids and teachers assumed I could just draw on the computer using Paint and other programs, but that wasn’t true because manipulating the mouse, plus dealing with visual problems, just would not produce drawings. However, the premade designs and drawings of ClipArt and WordArt made the visual aspects of projects fun. Use them to feed the budding artist in your students or kids. These programs can also help kids who have trouble distinguishing color or shape, and enhance reading ability (recognizing a picture is sometimes easier than recognizing a word).

Online Courses/NovaNet

Increasing numbers of students with and without disabilities are relying increasingly on online classes or online school. Personally, I’m thrilled about this–it allows students to work at their own pace, set their own schedule, and meet new people through video courses, among other advantages. Yet, a student need not go to online school to reap the benefits. For example, specially designed online courses can give students with intellectual disabilities information of real educational value, while not coddling them or pushing them too hard. Interactive diagrams or audio can help visually oriented students succeed in highly verbal classes like English, and it works the other way, too. Specifically designed online courses or modules can bring a verbal or written component to students who are strong in those areas but struggle with visual or kinesthetic activities. A lot of teachers now use other versions of these applications such as Moodle to create their own games, interactive quizzes, and more.

Technologically Enhanced Phys Ed

What can we say–some kids just plain hate traditional gym class. As you know (or could probably guess) I was one of those kids. News flash, gym teachers. Take it from somebody who knows: no kid wants to be sent out in the hall to hit a ball off a cone while her classmates play real games. (Nor does that kid want to wonder, what are her classmates saying about her while she’s in the hall)? Some schools have traditional alternatives, such as letting kids with disabilities use the gym equipment or machines that are best for them. But some schools don’t have full gyms or fitness centers nearby. If this describes your school, your students might benefit from Wii activities, Just Dance, and other forms of technologically-enhanced PE. (Note: get permission and screen exercise videos first, as many show people in revealing outfits. In fact, don’t use traditional exercise videos with elementary or middle school kids at all unless they are “G-rated.” For high-schoolers, don’t make it a co-ed thing). Students should be encouraged to compete with themselves and set their own physical goals, with guidance (i.e., pedometer steps taken, distance covered, calories burned). A final note: never use students’ weight as an incentive or a disciplinary measure, or say things like, “Your CP wouldn’t affect you if you’d lose weight.” The purpose of gym is to build energy and confidence and maintain overall health, not turn boys into musclemen or girls into Barbie dolls.

I could go on, but I’ll stop here. If you’ve got students with disabilities in your family or school, get technological this year. The computer is your friend!

Back to School Part 1: What’s On Your Schedule?

Hi readers,

Back to School month is upon us–yea! I love this month even though I’m not in school anymore. To paraphrase Joe Fox of You’ve Got Mail, it makes me want to buy bouquets of sharpened pencils. Even in the lingering summer heat, August makes me want to grab a cardigan and curl up in a coffee shop with a bestseller and cup of salted caramel cocoa.

Even though I had to take cerebral palsy to school with me, I always looked forward to going back. One of my favorite parts of the summer was getting my schedule, even though it was a bit of a nerve-wracking game of Academic Roulette. Would I get the dreaded math course over with first semester or have to wait until spring? Could I stay in Concert Choir another semester or would I have to drop it in favor of a required course only being offered during one period? Could I eat my lunch at a decent hour or would my stomach end up gnawing on my spinal cord?

I’m guessing other students with disabilities had these questions too, but maybe they also had different ones–questions that no student of any age should have to ask. Questions like:
-How much of my school year will be spent on “behavioral skills?” How long will I have before someone calls normal self-expression a “behavior” and puts it on some plan as something to eliminate?
-How much time will I be able to spend with my friends, with and without disabilities? Will the presence of my aide, scribe, or whoever keep me from having friendships?
-What will I learn this year? Will there be anything new or the same old “life skills” from last year? When will I be ready to move on? It’s so hard to keep hearing “not ready.”
-Will there be classes and activities I enjoy? which ones might trip me up?

We’re going to deal with all of these questions in some form this month, I hope. But for right now, let’s focus on the last one. I believe PWDs need and deserve the opportunities to be in classes and work schedules they enjoy, doing things they choose to some extent. Now, if that person truly needs to be in a “special education” class, that’s fine, but too often, I think “special” classes and “life skills” take away from true education, friendships, and the pleasure that can be derived from school.

No matter what a student’s age, he or she will be expected to follow a schedule at school (and work too, but we’ll focus on school for now). The question is, how should that schedule be handled? For example, should an elementary student with an intellectual disability be required to do simple addition at math time, even though he or she is in fourth grade? Are there better choices? Should a middle school student with dyslexia be discouraged from full participation in a regular English classroom, with modifications and supports? Is it safe to allow a blind high school student choose theater or the dance team as an elective? Should a high school student with ADHD spend a set block of time each day in a separate room with a counselor, going over behavioral skills?

You probably guessed that within this grouping, there were four “no’s” and two “yeses.” Yes, there are better choices for that math student, and yes, it can be safe for blind students to participate in movement-based electives. But let’s break this down a bit, shall we? Here are some key scheduling tips, both for students with disabilities and the people–parents, teachers, and so on–who help them plan a new school year.

Speak to chronological age first. Let’s go back to that fourth grade math student who is intellectually on a first grade level. It’s okay if she–we’ll call her Esther–stays on a first-grade level in some respects. For example, Esther should not be pushed to do fourth-grade problems or shamed for not doing them. However, she’d probably get a lot more enrichment playing a math-based computer game, or doing a modified math activity with a peer, than working on a low-level worksheet or sitting by herself fiddling with manipulatives (blocks, counters, geo-boards, etc.) Also, Esther should not stay on the same level all year if improvement is possible. Her teacher, the special ed department, her parents, and others should work with her to improve the skills she has and capitalize on strengths so that maybe next year, she’s at a second grade level or even third or fourth.
Think outside the box. Most schools have traditional modifications and supports. For example, books on tape might be a modification for students with dyslexia, and it’s a great idea. But mods are not a one-size-fits-all proposition. For example, my math teachers sometimes thought all I needed to “improve” my depth perception issues was for the text to be bigger. Yeah, that helped some, but not always. Recall that mods will not “cure” the disability, and don’t give up if one doesn’t seem to be working. For instance, maybe that student with dyslexia–we’ll call him Jamal–would rather read with peers in reading group than be plugged into headphones. Friends can help coach him, or he can read what he can in a passage and then ask someone else to take over. Oral book reports with illustrations, computer-based learning, and interdisciplinary projects are good ideas, too.
Don’t leave TAB students out. Many times, a teacher will say something like, “Gwen can’t participate well in dance because she’s blind. If we let her participate, we’d have to have everybody wear bells or beepers, and it’s inconvenient.” Or the teacher will allow Gwen to participate in “safe” activities only, with a buddy sticking to her like taffy to a tooth. Both approaches are flawed. If having everyone wear bells or beepers is so inconvenient (and I doubt it is) are there other choices? For example, could a play’s character be blind and use a cane or guide dog without it being a big deal? Can other characters use line cues or song cues to help Gwen know where to go? Of course–or they can wear unobtrusive noisemakers when necessary. White characters play characters of other races onstage, yes? Straight plays gay and gay plays straight, yes? TAB actors play characters with disabilities all the time, for crying in a bucket. Unless the integrity and entire purpose of your class or program is being destroyed, I see no problem. As for the buddy thing, we’ve talked about it. Buddies have their place–and it’s not joined to the PWD at the hip. The buddy system, when used correctly, often leads to real friendships.
Balance “life” and “behavior” skills with educational skills. Very often, students malign special education, saying it’s “not real school.” Most of us get mad about that, but really, why shouldn’t TAB students think that what their peers with disabilities do all day is “not real school?” Sometimes, it’s because the TAB students don’t understand how vital life skills are and the effort it takes to learn them. But other times, this attitude comes from the fact that students see peers with disabilities being nagged and scolded about how to behave or do a task that is simple to them, and they think, “Thank goodness that’s not me.”

We can end this stigma, people. How? Well, in an ideal world, I’d say drop the life skills and screw the behavior plans. Yeah, that’s right I said it, screw ’em. Just because a kid has ADHD doesn’t mean he’s gonna grow up to be a serial killer if you don’t write a preventative plan. But we don’t live in an ideal world. Life skills classes are often needed–many PWDs enjoy parts of them. Behavior plans? Meh…I have strong negative feelings about them but will concede they may help some students. I think the problem is how much emphasis we place on these things. So, some sub-tips on this issue:
Go for inclusion when and where possible. If Corbin, who has Down Syndrome, is assigned to learn to cook, maybe the whole class can do it with him.
Recognize where “behaviors” come from. If Wynter always seems hyperactive and upset before science class, maybe it’s because she’s nervous about doing experiments, or just so excited it’s hard to contain herself. Resist scolding and disciplining. Give the kind of grace you’d want people to give you if you were Wynter.
Praise the good stuff–early, often, and with real enthusiasm. Avoid canned praise–I don’t care if their IQs are 50, kids know when you’re being a big fat phony. “Catch them doing good”–and then say something. Give meaningful rewards–for example, extended time doing something of special interest for a student with autism. (Note: Do NOT withhold special interests or favorite things as punishment; it will backfire).
Focus on the life skills the students want to learn. If Alex is eager to learn to fix a car, is it terribly important that he learn to put his things away neatly right now? Ask yourself: which skill (s) are likely to get this student a job? Which skills are likely to result in happiness and fulfillment? Those are where you focus. After all, the world has plenty of messy auto mechanics.
When students are old enough and schedules have choices, give them as much say as possible. Self-explanatory. I don’t care if it’s “not in the IEP, not in the behavior plan, hard to modify.” Just do it. If you don’t know how, seek help to find a way. Note: if something a student would like to do would really be unsafe–i.e., a student whose CP causes tremors wanting to be in a gymnastics course–you can step in and say no. But at the same time, give an attractive alternative. For instance, if gymnastics won’t work, aerobics might. If foreign languages aren’t feasible because a student has dyslexia or an intellectual disability, choir might be a possibility.

Good luck with scheduling, folks–and remember, PWDs can learn anything the rest of us can. The key is helping them learn it.