In recent decades, public schools find themselves facing the greater needs of diverse student populations, with varying cognitive abilities, maturity levels, and academic strengths and weaknesses. While most typical elementary, middle, and high school students find themselves immersed in a classroom of twenty to thirty peers with one lead teacher, most public schools have created “self-contained” classrooms to provide alternative settings for enhanced academic support.
What are Self-Contained Classrooms?
Unlike standard classrooms with a large number of peers, self-contained classrooms are typically smaller settings with a fewer number of students. Created to help foster enhanced support for students with special needs or specific difficulties, self-contained rooms are generally comprised of about ten students with unique struggles who are most commonly instructed by a lead teacher with a certification in special education.
For example, in recent developments and curriculum shifts, some self-contained rooms cater to the diverse needs of students coping with autism spectrum disorder. A lead teacher, who is highly trained to help support students with autism, is able to provide greater assistance than what these students would typically receive in a classroom with a larger student-teacher ratio. Other examples of students who may be enrolled in self-contained rooms include students with developmental issues, behavioral concerns, students with specific academic struggles (i.e. in math, reading, science), or students learning to read with dyslexia.
Subsequently, due to the unique demands of all students enrolled in public schools, many educators have found that self-contained classrooms provide a more positive and supportive environment for academic, personal, and even social development. Traditionally, self-contained classrooms were intended to help students who demonstrated special needs, or to assist students who were struggling with classes or curriculum content. However, as the achievement gap among students continues to span, many public schools question whether self-contained classrooms are the best avenue for student learning and support.
The History of Self-Contained Classrooms
While self-contained classrooms have been used in public schools for decades, these classrooms grew in popularity as the regulations of “No Child Left Behind
” became increasingly severe.
Essentially, the “No Child Left Behind” statute requires that all students participate in standardized tests to rate and rank a school’s performance. As this assessment procedure was nationally enforced, teachers who instructed struggling students with various cognitive challenges frequently had low test score averages, while teachers who instructed average or honors students had higher scores. Subsequently, many schools began placing a greater number of struggling students in self-contained classrooms to ensure that specific class test-score averages remained high.
The Purpose of Self-Contained Classrooms
A self-contained classroom is generally designed to provide struggling students with specialized support and interventions. For example, many students coping with autism spectrum disorder
are pulled out of standard classes in order to work with special needs experts on an array of skills, lessons, and tutorials to enhance each student’s progress. In many other cases, students who are learning to read with dyslexia, students with Attention Deficit Disorder or ADHD
, or students who display a general struggle in “regular” classrooms are also often candidates for self-contained instruction.
In a self contained classroom, public schools generally try to keep the student to teacher ratio low, as the teacher often has to provide each student with one-on-one assistance and support. Students provided with self-contained instruction may spend their entire school day in this setting, part of their day, or may only receive self-contained support periodically. Each case is uniquely adapted to meet the students’ needs.
Which Students Should be Placed in Self-Contained Classrooms?
While most community members and school leaders agree that self-contained classrooms provide struggling students with much needed support, many parents and school leaders are concerned about the target audience for this educational intervention.
As researchers Algozzine and Morsink explain in the journal Exceptional Children, there are specific cases of students who, without doubt, need more personal and unique interventions: “Clearly, there is a need for specially designed instruction for some exceptional students. For example, it is difficult to imagine not providing specialized classroom interventions for individuals who are blind or deaf.” While students with specific needs are provided with interventions and public school support, a new wave of educational experts argue that this approach is leaving out a significant student population—the academically gifted.
” or “TAG” students (Talented and Gifted) often express that their standard courses of study fail to meet their own unique and special needs. While schools address the needs of those who are cognitively, behaviorally, and emotionally struggling, many public schools have not extended this support to students who desire a greater challenge.
As the University of Michigan reveals in their resource “Gifted Education,”
self-contained classrooms for gifted children provide unique instruction and intervention strategies for all
public school students. As many academically gifted kids often feel excluded by peers, bullied
, teased, or taunted for their skills and abilities, self-contained rooms for gifted kids would allow this population of students to work with peers who are faced with the same struggles. This, as research supports, is a benefit that struggling students are able to experience in self-contained classrooms as well.
While many public schools are hesitant to provide gifted kids with self-contained learning opportunities, due to cost, resources, and teacher availability, the debate over equality and education continues to be waged.