IEP Eye-Opener

Self Contained.

Those are the words that have been looming over me since Charlie’s IEP on Wednesday.

The IEP itself was good–I’m at the point where they can tell me that Charlie’s achieved 24% of the cognitive goals of a two-year-old and I’m just glad to see improvement. Between you and me, I don’t see how a standard test could possibly measure the intelligence of my not-standard child. I’m beyond pleased with Charlie’s teachers/therapists/aides and the incredible work they do with the kids.

But I know these days will come to an end and I said as much at the IEP. Well, I mentioned that there are no special education classes beyond preschool at his current location and his teacher corrected me and said, “well, there are no self-contained classes.”

Now she didn’t say that Charlie would be in a self-contained class. She didn’t, but there it hung and I’ve been unable to let it go.

At my last job, self-contained felt like one step up from an institution. I don’t think there was a physically disabled child in the building, so the entire population of the class consisted of children with varying degrees of cognitive impairment. They had class in the basement and we rarely saw them. Some were friendly, but several were combative and hard to handle. The class was taught by sweet old woman who was retiring at the end of the year and who would often doze off in the middle of class.

At the school before that, self-contained kids cleaned tables in the student lounge. They also made holiday crafts out of Popsicle sticks and passed them out to the teachers.

In both cases I found the whole thing so stereotypical so as to border on comical.

boy in rocking chair smiling at the camera

In my mind, self-contained is not an option for Charlie. The things I want for Charlie are not to be found in that room. I want Charlie to be integrated into this community–in whatever way he can. I’m less interested in him learning how to draw a circle and more interested in him having a place–in the classroom, at restaurants, while shopping. “Containing” him won’t accomplish that. IF he’s got the intelligence they say he has (and I’m not saying I agree), then all the special classes in the world won’t make him normal. And if he’s smarter than they think, I don’t think that a class full of children with with cognitive/social/emotional issues doing crafts is really going to help him out.

My ideal would be him spending some, if not all, of his day with his typical peers. I’m aware that this would undoubtedly involve an aide. I’m aware that school districts hate to give kids their own aide.

And so it sits there, haunting me. Nothing has to be decided now–he’s got two more years where he is and I am very happy with that. But I know what’s coming. I know the decisions that will have to be made and the choices I will face. I just hope that I’m ready when the time comes.

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  1. Katy, I’m an early childhood special education teacher in Iowa. I have a preschool classroom with children of various needs. This year we had nine ‘regular ed’ kiddos (three with speech ieps), and one child with autism. The little boy with autism has a one on one associate. He will be in kindergarten next year and I am struggling to ensure that he remains in the regular kindergarten classroom aT much as possible. There will be a lot of changing of minds and habits through the years as our very small school district (600 students k-12) is not used to a child with needs like his.

    I know the way things work varies from state to state. Here children with special needs are weighted and their weight determines the money the state gives the district to educate them. My student ‘Harry’ is weighted a 3.74, which means the district gets 3.74 times the money to educate him as they would a typical developing kiddo. I remind the district administration that this is ‘Harry’s’ money when they balk at spending extra money for his needs. They usually quiet down then, they just need reminded every now and then. Also his one on one is paid for with medicaid money, but her salary would be covered in the 3.74 money if she wasn’t.

    You have a couple of years to get your ducks in a row. If your district is not used to educating these kids within the regular education classrooms, you may have to advocate a bit more. I believe my students learned a lot from ‘Harry’ this year. And ‘Harry’s’ social skills have really blossomed. Good luck to you!

    • Stacey: Thank you so much for the information about how things work at your school and in your district. I have no idea how it works here, but this helps me figure out what kinds of questions I should be asking.

  2. *hugs*

    I think it’s interesting to see how little creativity there is in assessing our children – don’t get me wrong, my little guy is a lot closer to typical than yours, but we had problems with the school insisting that since he didn’t talk, they couldn’t assess him cognitively (as our psychologist said, “huh?”), that since he wouldn’t follow directions for them, he must not understand language at all (even though they’d seen him follow complex multi-step verbal instructions for others), and that since he wouldn’t use a communication device, he wasn’t communicating. Riiiight.

    If we had that many issues with sorting out the right placement for my son, I can only imagine the difficulties that you’re going to have, but I’m all for inclusion – even if that means they have to provide an aide. I’ve seen plenty of places that have done just that, successfully. You just have to push them for it. Start talking about it now – there’s a space on the forms here for future needs, and I’d put it right on there so it’s documented :)

    • I’ll have to ask where that form is!

      I’m starting to think that I should video tape Charlie when he’s “on,” so that I have at least some documentation of his abilities. He’s not great at performing, but I know he knows more than he’s letting on.

  3. Best of luck to you and Charlie on this journey. It’s good that you have the time to begin preparing for the future. Even if it seems daunting, you do have time to begin preparing and advocating.

    • You are absolutely right–I have lots of time to get ready for this and I think that’s really the most important thing at this point.

  4. Charlie already has a great advocate in you. I remember my Marshall at 2yo, and so many things were up in the air, but he just turned 4yo and we know so much more. I expect Marshall will be “mainstreamed” at our school, but I may not have if you asked me 2 years ago.

    My Sam is roughly were Charlie is now, and we are experiencing that uncertainty again… Ugh. He’s a bit behind Marshall on some things, but he’s starting to make a lot of progress. This reminds me that Marshall went through a huge growth phase from 2-4, and while I know I shouldn’t make too many direct comparisons, I’m looking forward to seeing what Sammy has in store for us. Will hew be able to participate in a regular classroom? It’s too early to know, but it’ not been eliminated!

    • Charlie is three, almost four and I’ve seen huge improvements in about the last year. I hope that continues so that we’ll have a better picture of where he’ll be and what he’ll need once he starts grade school. I know we have a ways to go, but this IEP made me realize that I can’t get complacent.

  5. Katy, I am not sure which state you live in but I live in Texas. I work in Special Education and have for many years worked in a self contained classroom here and in California. I know that things may be different where you are depending on the size of your school district but Self Contained is not what it once was. In a time of no child left behind, even self contained classes are not usually in their classroom by themselves anymore. On our campus we have 10 kids in our room and 1 teacher and two aides. We have students of every level. Our students go to PE with all the the other kids of there grade, they go to lunch with everyone, all go to an elective like art and choir and quite a few of them go out to reg ed or resource classes depending on wether it is the right fit for them not. All of our kids have need to be in the contained class too. It teaches them a lot more of life skills that they will need and have a use for as they grow up. Even self contained classes have to have some inclusion. All kids have the right to be around their peers.

    My suggestion is to ask to go and see the classroom. Go talk to the teachers. Checking things out now will help down the line with your son’s teacher writing IEP’s for him.

    Self Contained can be a good thing. Don’t rule it out yet.

    • My impression of self-contained classes has been so bad so far, but you are indeed correct–I need to see what the classes are like in this district. I am very wary of classes that are separated from the others and where the teachers are left to themselves. If self-contained was bad, I could describe some “behavior” classes in Texas that were borderline criminal.

      I think I would be fine if were in and out of a self-contained classroom, but the very name suggests that they aren’t really encouraged or expected to mix with their regular peers. I will definitely need to find out what schools they would consider and go and visit and see what I think.

  6. I also teach a preschool special education classroom in Iowa. While all the children in my classroom have IEP’s; we are far from “self-contained”! We have outdoor time each day for at least 45 min. with a larger group classroom with children with and without special needs. The children in my classroom also spend time in other classrooms as they become more able to handle the larger classroom size. Until they are ready for that, I chose to “reverse-integrate”, or bring ‘typically-developing’ children in to participate in group times with us as well as centers. The classroom that we do this with is very close with the children in my classroom. They often beg to stay longer in the room and love to seek out and play with the children in my room. Our room is located right along with the other preschool classrooms and is as bright and cheerful as any other preschool classroom! I would look closely at the program, the program-model, the teacher and the climate of the school to determine if it will be the best placement. Remember, as a parent of a child with special needs, you do have certain rights! If it doesn’t feel right, push for another alternative. You need to make sure you find what is right for your child and your family.

    • Pam: The class Charlie is in right now would definitely be considered self-contained, and they do reverse integration as well. I am VERY happy with the situation as it stands–my main goals for Charlie involve things that could be taught in any environment. And his class is also right in the middle of things–not in the basement. I will definitely look at the programs our district offers and see what our choices will look like.

  7. Hi Katy,

    I am sure that many school districts would want my Luke in a self-contained enviornment. In our district every elementary child is assigned a general ed classroom. Now in 2nd grade, Luke still has lots of therapy each day (20 min/day speech, 180 min/day sped, 20 min/day small group, 60 min/week OT) which doesn’t leave much classroom time. Each year he is getting more and more classroom time. This is hard since w/ his developemental delays he isn’t at grade level. This year he is in class for spelling and writing time which are easily adapted for him. He also has a best-bud (who claims non-verbal Luke talks to him!) who will talk for Luke when each student is suposed to read a sentance with a spelling work. Best-bud will also often the sentance for Luke to trace. He is also there for social studies or science type stuff. In K, Luke could have cared less, in 1st grade he had a role in morning circle time and started some observation. This year he is blossoming beyond where any of us would have dreamed. He is even walking to class independently when he gets off the sped bus (that is if some other teacher doesn’t stop him because they think he has gotten loose)

    Paula Kluth has some GREAT resources on inclusion. Check out her web site.

    Dream of where you want Charlie to be, take it year by year.

    • Thank you, Janet for this success story. This is what I’m looking for. Things don’t have to be prefect or all or nothing, but Charlie being locked in a room full other high-need children just doesn’t seem like a recipe for development.

      I’ll definitely be checking out Paula’s site–thank you for the recommendation.

  8. I *love* to hear these stories (in the comments) of special ed integration. It makes me feel so hopeful for the future. I hope it helps you too!

  9. thanks for this post. I had never really thought of it that way. I’m thinking my son will need a self contained class because he won’t be at grade level and needs the additional help and needs the lessons slowed down to a pace he can keep up with. .. but maybe that’s not really what he needs. thanks for opening my eyes to a possibility I hadn’t considered.

    • You know, Susan, in an ideal situation maybe that’s exactly what self-contained would provide–my experiences were overwhelmingly negative, however. From my limited experience, resource classes allowed kids to have a more “typical” educational environment, but I’m sure that would be a bad fit for some children as well.

  10. I had no idea what self-containted meant until this post. And I’m with you–if thats the only sort of thing the school has to offeer (and they don’t) what good will something like that do Charlie? Is it possibly to privately hire an aide and work something out with the school about spending a certain amount of time in the classroom per day or even all day? That might sound stupid; I really don’t know anything about this. But it sounds like you got lots of advice in the comments above and maybe somewhere there’s a suggestion that could help. good luck!

    • Toni, I actually don’t know what all the options are–I’m going to have to do a LOT of research over the next two years to get a handle on all of that. It’s really a blessing that the topic came up now because I can tell it’s going to involve a lot of research on my part.

  11. Kristen says:

    I taught special education for awhile before having children. You and Charlie have so much going for you. 1). You, as the parent and advocate, are educated and are willing to educate yourself further about special education laws. You should definitely get your hands on your state special education laws. You should know them when you sit down at IEP meetings. There are advocacy services in every state that will help you fight for Charlie’s rights. Remember, as the parent, you can allow anyone you want to be present at those meetings. An adovocate or even a lawyer, if it should come to that, can sit beside you. 2). You have time on your side. Charlie has a few years before preschool ends and, by that time, you can have a strong plan in place. Visit the self-contained classroom he would be expected to attend. Visit the public school option that he would attend if he had a one-on-one. Take notes. Decide what your ideal education situation looks like for Charlie and then compare that to what the schools are legally required to do. Unfortunately schools are not required to provide the best educational environment, just one that is “appropriate.” 3). Another option for you if you don’t agree with the school’s testing is to pay for private testing. It is very expensive, but the results can be radically different than the school’s. The school would then have to fight those results if they disagree, but often times they won’t want to take on the cost and will just accept them.
    This can be so overwhelming and time-consuming. I wish you luck and am sending you a virtual hug. You can do this!

    • Kristen: thank you for all this fabulous advice! I was definitely thinking about visiting some classes and I love your idea of thinking of an ideal and then holding that up against what is currently being offered. I am very lucky in that both Charlie grandfather and uncle are lawyers and while I have no desire to get into that kind of fight, they are also really good about pulling up relevant bits of law to help me if I’m worried about something.
      The independent testing is an interesting idea–I am considering documenting Charlie’s accomplishments at home, so we can use them when developing future IEPs.

  12. You are in a time-warp of referencing past experience while trying to anticipate an unknown future. In my best (and unsolicited) maternal tone: looks like you are borrowing trouble. And while pregnant with twins, ahem. But I get how that comment ‘hung in the air’ and sticks to your emotional neurons. Would me, too. But the comments from others in SpEd are really encouraging and I suggest you borrow some encouragement from them.

    Thanks for the photo! MWUH!

    • Well, Barbara, I think we might have to agree to disagree on this one. From what I can see, I have a ton of research to do in order to do my best in advocating for Charlie. I’m sure you aren’t sending any of your boys off to college without some research and preparation–and maybe not two years out, but I don’t think 18 months out is an unreasonable estimate. I think this decision will be just as important and I’m lucky that the teacher’s mention has reminded me of that. I don’t consider this “trouble”–I consider it a gentle reminder not to get complacent.

  13. Based on my experience, I have seen some great self contained classroom that do a great job including children during lunch, specials and recess time. Some classrooms also have some of the children join in for certain subjects that the children are strong in or enjoy. I think there can be a balance between the benefits of self contained and the benefits of inclusion. I have to admit I have also seen children who were in full inclusion classroom who lost out because some of the teaching staff were intimidated or hesitant. Visit the classrooms to make an informed decision for your son. Remember too that once a decision is made you can always revisit it if it is not to your satisfaction. Good luck and try not too look to far down the road or let one comment eat away at you (easier said than done from one mother to another).

    • Margaret:
      I myself have taught children who couldn’t quite “hang” in a full-inclusion classroom setting and we recommended a mix of resource classes and inclusion. But I was also working as a special education teacher with no training whatsoever. I wonder these days what I would have done if I had the knowledge then that I have no. And hey! Maybe self-contained in elementary school is completely different from my experiences in 7-12. If nothing else, the comments on this post have shown me that I need to go visit these classes before I decide they’re a no-go.

      And GOSH! You totally said the same thing I always tell people when they say they’re nervous about IEP’s: nothing is written in stone! Might do well to remember that myself, right?

  14. Hi!
    I am a former preschool and k-2 multiple and severe disabilities teacher. I definitely agree with everyone else to see what the classrooms are like in your district. I also strongly, passionately recommend taking an advocate with you to the transition IEP. Someone who has worked with the school district before and knows how they tend to try to run the transitions. Charlie should be included as much as he can benefit from with a one on one aide – that is the individiualized in IEP and the least restrictive environment in the IDEA law. You also have the right to refuse standardized testing for Charlie at any point as his parents. Instead of looking at him in age equivalents or IQ scores you can instead look at him in his strengths and weaknesses, in observations, and as the diversely skilled child that he is. Educate yourself about the programs, educate yourself about his rights, keep copies of data the school sends you showing his progress, and know that you are preparing to make the best decision for your child not for some “standard” child with special needs.

    • Bethany: I have nothing to say, but thank you! This is a long list of excellent advice and I will definitely have to write all of this stuff done and create some sort of preparation list.

  15. Hi Katy,

    I’m not sure how things operate in NoLa…and I know E and Charlie are different. But I ran into a friend with a child with more substantial needs than E this weekend–and they have him (mostly) included in a typical kindergarden classroom. Frankly, I was a little surprised–but happy, as they were, that they have had the same experience as we have with public schooling–meaning, an extremely positive experience. Not only from teachers, but THE OTHER STUDENTS. I think times have changed, in terms of how typically developing kids view the SN community. I don’t think inclusion/push-in services are rare, per se. I was shocked how accepting and encouraging kids are–when I was in school, it was like you described–one classroom, that we never saw, where they put everyone, and the rest of the student body never knew the SN kids were there. I am relieved that–at least in my experience–that doesn’t seem to be the case.

  16. Thank you for writing this post! It has really got me thinking. I go back and forth about what I think will work for Emily and I think I really need to visit some schools and classrooms to see things in action to get a better idea. I am really enjoying all the wisdom that has been shared in the comments. Gotta love the internet!

    Isn’t it funny how certain things just hit us between the eyes and other things roll off our backs? It is nice to have time on your side in this case. I have really gone back and forth about preschool options for Emily – what on earth am I going to do when she gets to grade school? Better get a handle on things now, right? Thanks for the eye opener!

  17. This is my very strong view that no child should be extracted from their natural setting, they should be attending school with their peers, in the same class, through the same gates with all their mates from their neighbourhood. My son was once described by the State Education Department as the ‘most disabled child ever to be mainstreamed’… so what, I say. He is at school, with children who can be his friend, can assist him, can learn from him, who teach him. No other setting will put him on the path of remaining a valued and included member of his community. There is no scientific or historical background as to why segregated education was created – special education should be considered a service not a place. 2 years on and my son is now doing the same work as his peers but had he not that cognitive ability I would not change his school setting. Disability is just part of the diversity of the classroom – you just need to find a school with the will to teach all children – not just pick and choose who they like.

  18. Veronica says:

    Hi Katy,
    Why don’t you have a look at, there’s very good info on inclusion in education. The site writer, Kathie Snow, has a son with cerebral palsy who is a college student.
    I have cerebral palsy myself, I’m a university graduate. In my opinion, inclusion in a regular ed class with as much support as needed is the best option for a full life. Warm regards and good luck!

  19. I have pretty strong opinions on ESE teaching and learning as a former ESE teacher. And my fist thought was NONONONONO! Granted I’ve been taught that inclusion is the way to go, and I totally am on the inclusion boat, but unless there is a really compelling reason for a student to be separated from their peers, it just doesn’t make sense to separate them!

    From the research I was taught while getting my masters in Special Education, the ONLY group of children that were better off in a self-contained environment were those labeled as EBD (emotionally and behaviorally disturbed). Any other children were seen as more “normal” and accepted as such by their peers when they were included in the mainstream classrooms. Only the kids with EBD were seen as less “normal” by their peers when included in the mainstream classes.

    It makes sense if you think about it. Kids who get to interact with those who have disabilities for the most part get a chance to see that they have a lot in common and get a chance to make friends with someone different than themselves. However if the student in their class has a disability that causes them to be violent or otherwise have erratic and disturbing behaviors, the students exposed to that actually notice the differences more and are often either afraid of them or otherwise shun them.

    This is obviously a big topic in my brain right now as I’m facing my son’s first IEP meeting this friday. I’ve never been on the parent side of the meeting before and it’s totally different! Best of luck to you and Charlie.

  20. Hi Katie. I am going through this right now. Sophie had her transition to kindergarten IEP almost 2 weeks ago. They proposed the following minutes each week…

    900 minutes in the self-contained classroom
    150 minutes of ST
    60 minutes of OT
    45 minutes of PT
    30 minutes of Music Therapy

    So, if you subtract those minutes along with the 270 minutes for “specials” and 300 minutes for lunch and recess. She would only spend about 30 minutes a day in the actual general ed classroom. And they said “no” to an 1:1 paraprofessional. But I want her to have some sort of routine in the general ed classroom. I want that to feel like her “home base”. So, in the last 2 weeks, I have attended a special education law workshop. I have now added IDEA, LRE, FAPE and many more acronyms to my already long list of acronyms that I wish I didn’t know. I now have a mentor (free advocate…usually a mom that has been through this). I have read through too many websites. And wrote a very (hopefully) convincing letter using all the appropriate language** to get Sophie the 1:1 paraprofessional that she needs no matter where she is placed. Though I am debating the minutes in the self-contained classroom (I want her to be in the self-contained classroom only when modifications to the curriculum would not be sufficient…not just a blanket 900 minutes). So now I am waiting for their response.

    So when you get this point (which hopefully you do not because it is a sucky way to start off the school year), call me. I’ll help in any way I can.

    **I say appropriate language because there are very specific reasons why a child should receive a 1:1 paraprofessional in the eyes of special education laws.

  21. Opps “Katy” not “Katie”. I hate that I spelled your name wrong.

    • Elaine–I have people who are talking to me on FB–with my name right there! and they still mis-spell it, so no worries.

  22. Hey Katy,

    So nice to meet you! I’m going to be meeting you for lunch on Sunday with my neighbor Debra. I enjoyed my visit to your blog tonight.

    Charlie is just precious!

    I have an older son who is mentally disabled and we went through the special ed system in St. Tammany Parish.

    He started out in self contained classes and remained there until he was in 6th grade. It wasn’t until I discovered Families Helping Families that I realized all my rights as a parent and all I could do at my IEPs.

    At 16 we discovered a brain tumor and our world was rocked once again.

    He’s now 25 in remission, but has a team of doctors that treat him for the side effects of his tumor.

    Anyhow…just wanted to say hi and visit.

  23. Ruthanne says:


    Just want to stick up for the self-contained classroom teachers…because I’m one of them. :) I teach in IL for a special ed cooperative. We work with 17 districts. Not every district can afford to offer all of the special ed services that may be needed so we work together to provide them. This means that the kids are sometime bussed to get to the school that houses the self-contained classroom that is the best fit for them. It also means that a LOT of kids can stay in their home school and be partially or fully included because the district can purchase the services they need from the co-op.
    I teach students with behavior/emotional disorders. I’ve never fallen asleep in class (too busy) and my classroom looks as much like a regular ed class as I can make it. We use a regular ed curriculum and differentiate as needed. I have students below, at and above grade level. My students go to all specials and lunch/recess with a regular ed class. The amazing thing about inclusion is that kids in the schools do not see my students as different. They never even bat an eyelash at the fact that my students come in and out of their specials classes but are not in their reg ed class the rest of the day. Special education has come a long way.
    Advocate for the best interest of your child (as I know you will) even if that means that he is in a self-contained classroom for a while to gain the skills he needs to be included. Go visit all of the classrooms available to your child. Make a decision based on what you see…not what you think the classroom will be Remind your team that the ‘I’ in IEP means individualized and it is ok to think outside of the box to benefit your child. Self-contained does not have to be a full-time placement. Lots of kids have self-contained as their home room but move throughout the school during the day.
    I’m not sure what state you’re in but there should be a list of your parental rights on line.

    I have an IEP meeting for my youngest son next week. It will be my first time sitting on the other side of the IEP table. I feel ok about it because I know the lingo…but not everyone has that advantage, I know.