How to Prepare Students in Self-Contained Classrooms for Inclusion in General Education


Written By Tim Villegas, Founder of ThinkInclusive & Special Educator

According to the Office of Special Education Programs, seventeen percent of students with any disability spend all or most of their days in segregated environments. For students with moderate to severe disabilities (including autism) it may be even more.

Educators have a range of reactions to this number. Perhaps you are as appalled as I am, or maybe you’re thinking that seventeen percent doesn’t seem so bad. After all, students are placed in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE), giving them the maximum possible opportunity to interact with non-disabled peers.

Damien’s Inclusion Story

During his Kindergarten year, Damian was in a self-contained classroom for the most of the day. He only attended music, art and PE with his typical peers. In 1st grade he began the transition to be included in academic segments in general education. Each year, the length of time increased. These videos give a brief chronicle of his 1st and 4th grade year being included in a general education classroom.

Damian 1st Grade:

Damian 4th Grade:

The Role of the Special Educator

But seventeen percent doesn’t explain the repercussions on their learning while separated from their peers. When students spend the majority of their time in self-contained, multi-grade classrooms, they miss out on vital learning in the general education curriculum. The depth and breadth of this curriculum is simply impossible to replicate in the self-contained classroom where lessons span three to five grade levels at a time, scheduling often conflicts with therapy, and students need support for a concentrated mixture of social/emotional and sensory regulation difficulties.

While self-contained special education teachers do their absolute best, it’s not an ideal situation. In large part, my job is not only to deliver high-quality instruction but to prepare my students to succeed in general education and participate in the life of the school.

There are three main reasons why students are excluded from the general education classroom:
1. Challenging Behavior
2. Academic Performance
3. Complex Health Needs

As special education teachers, it’s our job to help students overcome these barriers and access the curriculum alongside their peers. Facing these challenges, what are the practical steps a special education teacher should take to include students in general education?

1) Which of my students are the closest to grade-level academic work? What are their strongest subject(s)?

In my twelve years of teaching in self-contained classrooms, I have always had at least two or three grade levels at one time. It remains a struggle to differentiate lessons and the classroom to meet the needs of learners who are working on different things (according to the standards). When I start to consider which students to include in general education, I look for the clear outliers in the group.

My classroom may have up to eight students ranging from third to fifth grade. Is possible that one of my fifth graders is working close to grade level in reading, but the rest of my students are one to two grade levels behind. In this instance, I would look to place that student in a general education reading segment (or even a reading-heavy segment like social studies).

2) Find a teacher in general education that you enjoy working with. Do everything you can to develop a relationship with that teacher and grade-level team.

It’s easy to segregate yourself as a special education teacher. At any particular school, there are only a handful of self-contained special education classrooms (mostly likely only one or two). These classrooms are forgotten all the time. It’s not because the school staff doesn’t like you or your students. It’s because you’re not visible. Make the effort to be visible in the school community: eat lunch in the cafeteria instead of your classroom, volunteer for school leadership positions, and go to after-school teacher mixers. You will become an extension of your classroom.

While you’re rubbing elbows with your colleagues, take note of the people who are open to you and your students. Start with the ones who still have a good attitude about teaching. Truthfully, working in collaboration with other teachers is always best practice, but this gives you an excuse. In addition, find a grade-level team that will include you. It’s a good idea is to pair up with the grade level most represented in your classroom. Through this connection, you can find valuable information about special projects, field trips, and curriculum-specific resources.

3) Pre-teach what your student is expected to do and what they will learn. Don’t be afraid to modify their work in order for them to access the curriculum.

Almost everyone likes to know what to expect before they enter a new environment. In your classroom, you can do this in a number of ways: written or picture schedules that explain the order of events for the day, a verbal explanation of the day’s schedule and classroom rules, and even a trial run to model an action or routine (including use of a script).

Whatever the subject your student attends in the general education classroom, try to get the information in advance. If you’re not able to get the information, make sure you are notified of any quizzes or tests so you can account for any changes to the classroom assessments. These should be listed in the classroom accommodations in the IEP. For any special projects, you can either rewrite the instructions for your student or review them with your student during the span of their work. Don’t be afraid to ask the teacher to assist in modifying the assignments. You will know best how to provide your student with meaningful access to the curriculum.

When you are used to having your students with you all day in a self-contained classroom, it’s difficult to imagine what it will be like to support their inclusion in general education. Just do it. It’s not easy, but it is the right thing to do, and watching your students gain new independence will make your experience as their teacher even more rewarding.

Visit Kurzweil Education online for details on who we help to see if our technology is a good fit for your students.



Do you teach in a self contained special education classroom? Do you want to include your students more in general education but just don’t know how? Watch Tim’s webinar on-demand. He’ll help you prepare your students for more inclusive settings. Watch Now

3 thoughts on “How to Prepare Students in Self-Contained Classrooms for Inclusion in General Education

  1. I agree that inclusion is very important. One of the barriers I feel that are put up with inclusion is that teachers are not taught on how best to create authentically inclusive classroom. I also believe that the only way we can build community in an inclusion setting is if we build an awareness of differences. That is why I recently left my teaching job to start a non profit called Changing Perspectives whose focus is on developing disability awareness programs for schools.

  2. I’ve pushed hard to get my daughter from fully self-contained to full inclusion. We’ve got her to 50% gen ed, and we’re hoping by the end of this year that will be 100%. I’ve witnessed the huge difference it’s had on her. She has come out of her shell and interacts more readily with her peers. Her speech has advanced by leaps and bounds. Her behavior has improved dramatically.

    It really is the only proper way a school should operate. Anything less is institutionalized segregation based on disability, something I thought this country decided was morally wrong decades ago, yet we still struggle with it in the most critical environment of all: our schools.

    It is a systemic problem. District leaders are politicians, lawyers, and money managers. Teachers come out of colleges which generally don’t teach inclusion, and only offer lip service to special education practices for gen ed teachers. Very little training for particular disabilities, modifications, or interventions. Special ed teachers often require fewer qualifications than gen ed teachers, so you have this inherent unworkable system with regards to proper inclusive practices in spite of decades of research and laws which demonstrate how it should be done. With no clear vision for practical implementation from the district level, it will remain systemic.

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