When helping students holds them back

Why Haven’t The Done That Yet?

This post comes from my thought process in one of my new positions. I am tasked with helping students transition out of self contained special education classrooms and into the general education setting.

If you love them, set them free

What I have come to notice in my time in special education is that we love to be helpful. In fact, we sometimes get a little too enthusiastic in our helpfulness. I saw a tweet today that really drew my attention. This is totally taken out of any context, but that is how I read it:

This struck me because we often hold students back and deny them certain rights by nature of our “helping”. We choose to help people by doing things for them. We choose to help people by telling or dictating to them what they should be thinking or saying. We squash their creativity, we belittle them, we condescend. In the course of our helping, we are actively holding them back. We are preventing them from growing as people..

For the sake of this post, the help I refer to is the provision of special education services, particularly in self contained classrooms. We often look at our assessments and we fear that our students will fail in the general eduction classroom unless they score 100% correct on every assessment, and even then they have to do it quickly and with automaticity. These students not only have to behave in class as well as their peers, but they have to have perfect behavior…all the time…even when stressed and things are difficult. Anxiety has to go away. They must show perfect attending, even when teacher is not speaking and other students are being disruptive. Depression has to dissipate. Being a normal kid is not good enough. Perfection or bust!

This perspective worries me. In my last position I saw potential in students that other teachers did not. I spoke with the parents about this potential and some were terrified of taking any chances with their child’s education. This is a commendable worry for a parent, but as I see it, moving students into inclusion, mainstreaming, or even a general education classroom full time is the goal. In fact, it is something every child, even those with disabilities, is entitled to.


My perspective comes from growing up with a twin brother that was very autistic. Kyle had a host of adaptive function problems. Kyle had uncontrollable compulsive/obsessive behaviors. Kyle could be aggressive if he lost his temper. Kyle had a need to pace and stim. Kyle was nonverbal-a computer talked for him. And yet…none of that ever held him back. And my parents did not ever let the narrative of a broken little kid enter into the picture when it came to Kyle. An quite frankly, neither did Kyle.

Kyle was a pioneer

My thought processes always seem to comes back to Kyle. When Kyle was little, he needed a lot of help. CBTU was there to teach him the basics of attending and social skills like not attacking the teachers for disciplining other students. Elementary school (K-4) was there to help Kyle learn basic study skills and get the hang of communicating with others using his communication devices. In high school and post-high, Kyle needed training in job skills and to get out into the community. Academically, Kyle didn’t need help. In fact, in 1st grade his teacher wrote in Kyle’s IEP file something to the effect that: Kyle doesn’t test at all, but there is so much in him. We just need to keep teaching him new things and who knows where Kyle will end.

When Kyle was going to enter the 4th grade, the decision was made to hold him back into third again. But, he was to continue to receive spelling and math in general education. The rationale was that if he could spell, he could read (note, even to the end Kyle could spell any multisyllabic medical term or random word perfectly on the first try). Kyle was held back to repeat the third grade because 4th grade is when school becomes abstract and Kyle was not quite ready. However, when Kyle reached 5th grade, the decision was made (by Kyle himself-he let mom know what he wanted) that Kyle needed to embrace the challenges of general education. More clearly, Kyle told mom he wanted normal school. So my mother gave him access-she put her foot down and made it happen. Fifth grade was good. Sixth grade was hard, and Kyle really came into his own in 7th grade. It does not matter that Kyle was nonverbal, it does not matter that Kyle was unable to write with a pencil or pen, it does not matter that Kyle walked down the halls with his ears plugged and his backpack and laptop bags swinging loosely off his arms as he did so; Kyle was going to succeed in “normal” school. And he did.

Interestingly, once Kyle entered the mainstream he never looked back. There was no resource support for him. We would have loved for there to be, but he was not performing at a low enough level to qualify under the discrepancy model (be fair, he would not have qualified under any model, As and Bs do not receive resource). My mother sat down with Kyle for hours after school to help re-teach and act as a scribe for Kyle’s homework. Kyle got good grades in general education classes. He was happy. He made friends. In short, he succeeded. All this was done in the 1980s and 1990s, long before we had the support we celebrate for autistic students today. In fact, my mother had to be rather blunt and stubborn with the school district to make sure Kyle had access to the general education. It was unprecedented, and in many ways still is to some extent. So, on top of all of his accomplishments, Kyle was a pioneer. He did not let his challenges hold him back-and my mother made sure that low academic expectations did not exist to hold Kyle back.

My role in the Special Ed/General Ed transition, listening to Kyle

One of my current positions is working with a classroom of 4-6th grade students in a self contained special education classroom in the mornings. The only job description I have is to help any of these students in the unit that can access the general education classroom do so.

I am not going to cover any specifics of my class here in the blog, I am going to draw on the hypothetical and my own theories on how this process should work. As always, virtually all my decisions are informed by Kyle’s experiences. If he could do it, then I have to give others the same opportunities. It is the least I can do.

My approach to moving students into mainstreaming is actually informed by my other job in the district. In one school I am working to mainstream students in the self contained classroom. In another school, I am a Kindergarten-3rd grade resource teacher. This means I get to see what level students function at that get to stay in the general education classroom but receive resource services. What I am finding is amazing me. Often times, we see students that have been in special education classes (i.e., self contained) for their whole educational career often are closer to accessing the general education curriculum than students that only receive resource services. Specifically, students in resource can be 1.5-2 years behind their peers academically; whereas students in self contained classrooms can sometimes be at grade level or only 0.5-1 year behind their general education peers. That says to me that those students ~1 year academically behind need resource services, not special classrooms. Anything more is far more restrictive an environment than the students deserve (this is assuming no major behavioral challenges that need overcome-that is a different story entirely, but can often be solved by inclusion in a general education classroom).


Overall, here is my thought process for proceeding and trying to develop a rubric for getting kids out of special education.

  1. I look at the student’s placement scores, irrespective to diagnosis, placement, behavioral history, social skills, etc
  2. When I see a student is academically successful (within ~1-1.5 years of grade level), it means I need to start planning for a paraeducator to assist with any potential behavioral issues in an inclusion setting. Based upon my experience in the resource setting, 1-1.5 years behind grade level is not enough to self-contain a student for academics. So if a student tests within those levels, I can act as a resource teacher for them to provide a reteach, but they need to be out in a general education classroom to receive their core instruction.

  3. I look at the behavioral history of the student.
  4. Now, for me, I usually try to talk with the previous year’s teacher to see what really sticks in their mind, I have seen oftentimes that students will have a lot of things written in their files and put as IEP goals, but those behaviors are not all that prevalent. I then get into data collection mode. I break out my Behavioral First Aid Kit, and start collecting data like crazy. If I see it, I write it down.

  5. I specifically assess any sensory needs
  6. This can be either sensory needs typical to autism populations or sensory integration disorder, but also the need for fidgets in ADHD or just a pen to twiddle or thera-putty to help ease the stress for students that may need it. Anything that can help.

  7. I look at the classroom management and students in classes of general education teachers I may mainstream my students in
  8. I want my kids to succeed. So, I will make sure that my students get access to the teacher with the best management skills and teaching practices possible.

  9. Only now do I dig into the IEP and memorize their psychological/cognitive profile as well as any diagnoses
  10. This just helps inform me how to better process my notes from my data collection steps. It also helps me identify potential issues that I may have overlooked. I do not do this step earlier because I would rather not bias my data collection.

  11. I collect as much data as I can on my student’s performance in the general education classroom
  12. The only difference between this and the earlier data collection step is that I focus on how much support each student needs. Do they need behavioral support? Do they need help with assignments (beyond what their elbow buddy provides)? Do they need a gentle nudge to remain focused. These data I collect daily for 2 weeks, then I fade back to random 10-15 minute data collection period cycled across days weekly and then every other week. But these data collection continue until the student is transitioned out of the unit and into a general education class.


I have adopted this approach because it is both fast and efficient. My goal is to get students into the mainstream as fast as possible because the longer they are in mainstreaming, the more data I can collect and the greater number of strategies I can devise to help them achieve success. Future efforts involve making a formal rubric for releasing students receiving special education into the general education classroom full time.

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