The Special Education Continuum Explained: How to Determine the Best Placement for your Child-Part I

Determining the best placement for a child in special education can be nerve-wrecking, a process loaded with anxiety and uncertainty.  Many questions flood a parent’s mind:  What if I make the wrong decision for my child?  What if my child cannot adjust to a new, more structured environment?  What if the environment is not structured enough?  These and many other questions are very common and likely to worry a parent’s mind before, during, and after the evaluation and IEP period (For more information about IEPs, click here).  The good news is that these are very common concerns, widely shared among parents, and special education professionals and IEP teams across the school systems are ready to answer most questions posed by parents. 

Now, in order to better understand what would better serve the needs of each particular child, it is important to understand and recognize the importance of the special education continuum.  What is this continuum? you may ask.  The continuum simply refers to the ability to determine what is the best placement for your child, based on his or her individual needs.  In a nutshell, it refers to the amount support that may be needed, the amount of structure, the amount of restriction.  What does restriction mean in this case?  The more restrictive the environment, the less contact that the student with special needs will have with his normally developing peers.  For example, a student who only needs what is commonly called a “resource room,” or in other words, a pull-out program where a teacher may reinforce concepts learned in Math or in English Language Arts, has contact with his normally developing peers for the majority of the school day.  A student who attends a self-contained classroom within a regular school may have contact with his normally developing peers during Gym time, lunch time, etc.  However, a student who attends a specialized school may have a very limited contact with his other peers. 

How is a more restrictive environment more suitable for some students?  Some children require an amount of support that can only be achieved when all attention is devoted to them.  They do better when they have more undivided instruction, and when there is no reason to deviate professional attention from them.  In some of these programs, even periods such as lunch are instructional (“instructional mealtime”).  Other students, who do not need this amount of support may do just as well in other, less restrictive environments. 

What does the continuum look like, in terms of services and class size? In general, from less restrictive to more restrictive, it will look like this:

  1. Resource Room, or Special Education Support Services.  A teacher is in charge of specialized instruction for a student or group of students in a particular subject matter.
  2. Integrated Co-Teaching.  A class that consists of students with and without IEPs, co-taught by a regular education teacher and a special education teacher.
  3. Special Class in a regular community school.  A class that is self-contained, typically with 12 students, within the confines of a regular, community school building.
  4. Special Class in a Specialized school.  A class that is self-contained, that may or may not be within a regular, community school building, but is managed by a specialized administration and team.
  5. Non-Public School.  A more structured, private setting, setting.
  6. Home or Hospital Instruction.  For some students who are homebound or hospital-bound, this may be the least restrictive form of instruction.

A knowledge of the special education continuum helps tremendously when identifying how to place your child.  The professionals that form the IEP team ideally would have assess all of these options and should be prepared to discuss a few of these options with you, to help make this determination. 

If you are preparing for an IEP meeting, or have referred your child for an evaluation, chances are that you are thinking of all of these options, or perhaps just a few.  Be prepared to answer questions based on your child’s needs, as they are evident to you, and the knowledge of the continuum, as you see it on this list.

More to come on this topic!

Best Placement leads to Best Outcomes!

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