Beyond Mainstreaming, How to Best Expand the Horizons of Special Education Students

Ooh Ooh Ooh, They Finally Did It!

I am not entirely sure if it is they finally did it or I finally did it for this post. I have been working this year as a half-time Resource teacher in one elementary school and as a half-time mainstreaming facilitator across two schools (actually, it was supposed to be at one school, but I couldn’t help myself).

Part of that plan I talked about earlier in my Mainstream Decision Tree post, and I appreciate all the feedback I received on that plan and I am happy to report it was very successful in implementation.

When I was hired, my supervisors told me I was part of an ambitious plan, and they hoped we would be able to do great things. Later, I found out I was given the position because I was so adamant about the importance of collecting data so we can release students from special education services once they no longer needed them, so we did not doom these students to a life of low expectation.

This year, I worked to develop a process to get relatively high performing special education students out of a full-time special education classroom and into the general education classroom with as little special education services as the student needed to be successful.  I will detail the process below and link to an academic paper I am writing on the topic to solicit feedback.

What Have I Been Up To?

This has definitely been a year of experimentation and risk taking! Scientifically it has been the most intense time in my career, and I am not even in academic science anymore! My days have been writing behavior plans, implementing them, training personnel (both teachers and paraeducators), and collecting data. I have used each and every one of my data sheets from my Behavioral First Aid Kit in one way or another.

The result of these experiments and chances are two documents I call a Mainstreaming Decision Tree and a Mainstreaming Pipeline that I use to guide students through the process of transitioning from a special education self-contained classroom to a general education classroom environment. The technical term for this process is Transenvironmental Programming and has been advocated for decades now by Fuchs and colleagues at Vanderbilt (Link to Lynn Fuchs Google Scholar Page).

How do I Identify a Candidate for Transition?

I have previously talked about how to identify potential candidates for transition out of a self-contained classroom in a previous post. What I settled on was that we often make the mistake of using IQ scores as a premium and neglect other neuropsychological data we often see in a special education file.

To that end, I developed a Mainstream Decision Tree that lets me make decisions by relying on data that each student should have in their file already. Based on research from colleagues of mine in academia studying neurodevelopmental disorders, I decided on a hierarchy of measures. Their adaptive function was first, followed by full-scale IQ (verbal or nonverbal tests are okay here), academic achievement, and finally behavioral/social/emotional health.

The result of this decision-making process was a starting point for inclusion or mainstreaming. It was a prediction for where the student would be successful if moved to a general education classroom at that precise moment in time without any prior preparation. Preparation and support would then be provided to help students move toward independent access to the general education class full time.

The final Mainstreaming Decision Tree is below.


The Process Itself

I will distill my process to 7 steps below (in simplified bullet point form, you can read the attached pdf for a more comprehensive description of each step.

  • Identify Candidate Students. This step is using the Mainstreaming Decision Tree described above. I looked at the special education feels for each student and waded through the chaff to find information that is relevant for student success. I wrote that down and created a data matrix. I take these successes and start calling parents for permission and signatures to move forward with transitioning their students. Most parents were elated I was showing faith in their students. Others, not so much: but I was able to convince them in the end.
  • Identify Classroom Placements. This step involved me looking at the grade level teachers and deciding which were a great fit for each of the students identified as candidates for transition. Unfortunately, I relied upon the traditions within the schools o tell me whom to choose. So I overburdened a few teachers and left the rest of the school relatively unaffected by my experiment. I feel bad about this, so I am going to try and spread the students around a little better next year and not focus on only 1 class per grade level, but rather 2 or 3.
  • Classroom Ecological Inventory. When classrooms have been identified, I go in and answer a number of questions about how that class is run and what are the expectations. I do the same with the special education class and the two are compared. Then solutions are developed to minimize these differences and make special education and general education classes as similar as possible. I developed this questionnaire on the fly during the year, so only now at the end do I have a version I am happy with, so I made it into a Google Form that I can use for a number of different purposes (it is at the bottom of this post in case any of you are teachers and want to chime in on how your classroom looks).
  • Initiate student placement in a mainstream general education classroom. At this point, I moved the student into the general education class for 50% of the day. I wish I could have done it during the subject that was the student’s strength, but I was only at this school in the morning, so that was when the students started their mainstreaming. This was an unfortunate artifact of my schedule. Next year we will start with the student’s strengths and slowly phase in time in their weaker subjects.

  • The transition from part-time to full-time general education mainstreaming (with or without part-time Resource support). As the students show success, they are given more time in the general education classroom. They are also given time in the Resource classroom as appropriate to fill academic gaps. I favor this system over receiving instruction in the self-contained classes since Resource pull outs also contain peers from the class and tend to be at a higher academic level than the special classes.

  • The formal transition from special education to general education. This is the scary IEP meeting. I moved the students from receiving 6.5 hours of special education services a day to receiving from 15 minutes to 1.5 hours of special educations services as the students needed. These services included time with the speech-language pathologist, social workers, and Resource pull outs. I am not averse to 3+ hours of Resource time (self-contained Resource), but none of my students required this level of special education.

  • The transition from unit school to the neighborhood school. These are end-of-year meetings with the geographical neighborhood school these students will attend the next year. These meetings let me explain the skills, successes, and challenges each student has with the IEP team at the school the student will attend. This lets the student hit the ground running the next year.

So How Did the Grand Experiment Go?

Overall, I consider this year a resounding success!

Of 62 students I was working with across 3 classrooms, 20 were selected as candidates for transition based on the Mainstream Decision Tree. Ten (10) of these students had a special education classification of Autism, 6 had a classification of Specific Learning Disability, 1 a classification of Emotional Disturbance, 1 of Speech and Language Impairment, and 1 a classification of Other Health Impairment.

Overall, this year 9 of the 20 candidates were able to successfully access the general education classroom independently. So we worked with their parents to transition them into a general education placement with only the amount of special education that was necessary to ensure student mainstream, success. Two (2) more students will make this transition early next year, making for 11/20 transitioned students (or 65% of identified candidates). The other students need additional access to the self-contained classroom to show academic and behavioral success in a general education classroom.

For these 9 students that transitioned this year, they went from having 6.5 hours a day or special education services in a self-contained special classroom, to receiving between 15 and 90 minutes (1.5 hours) of special education services. Even better, 3 of these students approached me and demanded that they would be given access to the general education classroom full time. They said they were ready and wanted it. So I obliged happily.

So far, from what I gather when these former full-time special education students approach me and chat, these students are happy with their change. They were ready. They just needed some sort of an advocate to give them the chance at success.

So What About Next Year?

Next year, I will be doing the same thing I did this year half-time, but  full-time. I will be working with 8 academic self-contained special education special classrooms working to help their students access the general education curriculum.

I hope my methods piloted out this year serve me well next year in different schools with different cultures.

My Ideas Worked, So I Wrote an Academic paper, Because of Course I Did!

If you want more information on what I did this year, please click on this link to download a formatted pdf of the manuscript. If you are so inclined, I welcome and am in fact soliciting peer review of this write-up so I can make any necessary changes before I submit it to an academic journal this summer. Feel free to submit any feedback in the comment section below or to my email at

Finally, I made my Classroom Ecological Inventory as a Google Form. I want to get as much data as I can from both special education and general education teachers. I want to be able to use data to develop a set of pre-designed interventions that can be used to normalize the special education and general education environments. Therefore, if you are a Kindergarten through 6th-grade teacher (or if you ever were), please fill out this quick survey so I can use data to start developing new data-driven methods.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this!

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