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.

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