I realize that for some students a self-contained classroom is the better environment for them to learn in rather than a typical general education classroom. The general ed classrooms can be overcrowded with 20+ students while a self-contained classroom probably has less than 15 students. The faster pace of a general ed classroom can be overwhelming for students who need a slower pace. I know that IDEA states that schools have to offer a continuum of services and that includes self-contained classrooms.
But here are my issues with self-contained rooms based on the experiences and observations of these settings in two schools.
*Please remember these are just details we've either experienced or observed. I am not painting a broad picture of all self-contained classrooms. If your child hasn't entered the school system yet I am not saying that your experience will be like this. Parents need to observe all the classrooms that are possible placements for their child and make decisions on what is best for each individual child. Some self-contained rooms are the best placements for some children and there is nothing wrong with that if your child is thriving and you are happy with it. This blog post is about my own frustration with self-contained rooms in 2 schools.*
How is being in a self-contained (for the rest of this blog post referred to as SC) room any different from the general ed classrooms? They are still a group of students belonging to a classroom, right? They are in a classroom with the same students and teacher every day just like all the other classrooms right? Sort of. But in subtle ways they aren't 'part' of the general feeling of belonging with your grade-level same-age peers.
Here are my experiences and observations:
School A (where Kayla attended 1st and 2nd grade)
- While all of the students in the self-contained room are on an IEP (the I stands for Individualized, but I don't think there is much individualization to their education plans.) The 'standard' (what seems like the standard for this district) for mainstreaming (and that's what this set-up is - mainstreaming - not true inclusion) is the students in the self-contained room all go as a group to the same gen ed classroom for their mainstreaming time. And the amount of time for all those students is exactly the same. They get to join their typical peers for Lunch, Recess, Fine Arts, Social Studies and Science. If all 4 students went to the same gen ed classroom, where was the inclusion time for the rest of the 2nd grade classrooms?
- Meet the Teacher night for the gen ed teacher: the students' names were on all the desks except the 4 students who would be joining the classroom from the SC room. The teacher was just going to put those students at a table. (Thankfully the teacher realized that wouldn't work and found desks for them, but that didn't help on Meet the Teacher night when your child sees all the names on the desks but their own). Later in the school year all the students' names were on the outside of the door - except guess which 4 students didn't have their name on the door.
- During the 2nd grade field trip the students from the SC room were kept in a group with the aide from their classroom. There was no mingling them amongst the other chaperons and typical peers, or even adding a typical child or two to their group to foster some peer relationships. The only reason Kayla wasn't with them and was with a girl from the ged ed room was because I was a chaperon and I had the 2 girls in my 'group'.
- Kayla brought home a lot of 'busy work.' Worksheets on material that she had mastered but was still doing the same thing over and over. Worksheets that had identifying colors and shapes even though she was in 2nd grade and was well past already knowing that information.
- Kayla was in the SC room for 1st and 2nd grade yet she never worked on spelling or had spelling tests. She had minimal homework. At most it consisted of 5 sight word cards a week to learn. But she didn't have to do anything else with those cards ... not learning to spell the words, not even having to write the words 3x or something like that. She wasn't doing anything on the curriculum that typical 1st and 2nd graders were doing. When I asked when the class was going to work on spelling I was
told they did that when they went to the other SC room (which was for 3rd-5th graders). Then when we wanted her in a 3rd grade gen ed classroom they complained how far behind she was and couldn't spell basic words ... well gee, I wonder why!
- This SC room for 1st and 2nd graders was not even in the cluster of the 1st and 2nd grade hallway. They were 3 hallways away. So how could they, or their typical peers, feel like they 'belong' with their peers if they can't even be in a classroom amongst the rest of the 1st and 2nd graders? This set up also fostered a lot of dependence because the students all traveled together with the classroom aide down the 3 hallways to their gen ed room. It wasn't like they could just go by themselves across the hall. (Near the end of the 2nd grade year I did ask for Kayla to go to the gen ed room for ELA and she went for 30 min during their phonics time and was able to go by herself.)
School B (Where Kayla was for 3rd grade last year and will be in 4th grade this year)
Kayla is not in the SC room in this school ... but I observed this classroom 2x because the school team wanted me to consider this placement for Kayla.
- This room is for K-5th grade. Yes, Kindergartners through 5th graders. Wrap your head around that for a minute. You know how little Kindergartners are and how big 5th graders are? In the same classroom. Last year there weren't any kids in K, but there was a 1st grader and there were 5th graders.
- Their mainstreaming time was split (there were 10-11 students in the classroom) between two first grade gen ed classrooms. First Grade. Every student in that SC classroom went to a first grade classroom. Even those big, tall, 5th grade boys. How is that appropriate?
- So, potentially, they could be in this same SC classroom their whole elementary school years starting with Kindergarten and remaining in the same class year after year through 5th grade. That's 6 years of the same classroom. And, some students, if they aren't 11 by a cut-off date, can stay an extra year in elementary school. Potential to be in the same SC room for 7 years.
- How is putting the 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade students in a 1st grade class for all their mainstreaming time teaching them how to interact and be with their same-age peers? Where is the interaction with their same-age peers?
- The kids in this class all seemed to be about the same with their verbal skills. Very minimal and saying 1 or 2 word sentences. There are 3 or 4 adults in the classroom. The majority of their time is spent with the adults and with each other (how much actual conversation can they accomplish with typical peers in a noisy lunchroom, or at recess when everyone is running around?) So all their conversational modeling is coming from each other and the adults in the classroom. How is that helping to facilitate and foster better communication skills with their peers?
- If Kayla was in that classroom she wouldn't have any typical peers to serve as role models to help with speech and language skills. Her verbal skills are a little bit above what I observed.
- Their classroom is located on the corner of where the K classrooms are. Again ... not anywhere near, or in the middle of, a group of gen ed classes. Once again that SC room and 2 others are clustered together at the end of a hallway. Those older students aren't anywhere near their same age peers.
- There was a fundraiser the school did with students running laps. The grade levels were broken up to run at different times. I went to watch Kayla. I didn't see any of the students from the SC class in with any of their grade-level peers. As I left the school I saw their class coming in the front doors.
- The schedule for field day was emailed out and I didn't see the SC classes on the schedules going out about field day. Then field day was rescheduled due to rain. This time the new schedule did list the SC classes, and their time slot was with the Kindergarten classes. The SC class didn't even have any Kindergartners in their class! Again, how is that appropriate to have their field day with the Kindergartners? How does that look? At the minimum why couldn't they have split up and joined their 1st grade mainstreaming class?
- And again ... why are they not even being mainstreamed with their same-age peers?
- My last issue is with the names they give these classrooms. They put students with intellectual disabilities in one of 3 'types' of classrooms. They are self-contained but they refer to them by EMD, TMD, and PMD. Educable/Trainable/Profound Mentally Delayed. Educable and Trainable were terms that should've went out years ago. Supposedly they don't officially call them that anymore. I was told they are "Mild/Moderate/Severe" yet habits are hard to break and they are still referred to as the EMD/TMD/PMD rooms. How do you have a classroom of students that you refer to as 'trainable'? You train pets. And shouldn't all kids, in general, be considered educable? I'm tired of the labels. The gen ed classrooms throughout both the schools we've been with are identified by the grade number and a letter. 1st grade rooms are 1A-1G, 2A-2H and so on (depending on how many classrooms.) Yet at the school we are in now, on the school website, it lists the teacher of the self-contained room as "TMD". It's on the official school website. So much for changing the language.
- This is why I've been advocating so hard for Kayla to be in ged ed classes with resource room support. Not to mention that numerous research over 40 years shows kids with Down syndrome do better in math and English Language Arts when they are educated with same-age peers in the gen ed classroom.