The Self-Contained Life #001: My Ideal World

There HAS to be better way…

One of my favorite stories to tell is about my very first day on the job.  After hours and hours of meticulously getting my classroom ready… every desk, name tag, bulletin board and work station in their right place, the morning finally came. It was going to be magical. I was fresh out of my teacher training for a credential in moderate/severe disabilities and had read all of the autism books, familiarized myself with TEACCH, Pivotal Response Training and PECS. I was ready.

What I was not ready for…was my paraprofessional not showing up. Here I was…never have laid eyes on my students and the bus driver pulls up, drops off my five and promptly leaves in a puff of exhaust. Picture myself… corralling my kids up the two flights of stairs up to my room at the end of the building, all the while screams and echolalia resonating down the freshly waxed floors of our school’s hallways. We finally get in the room and they really let loose. I was shell shocked…with no one to turn to but the beautiful faces in front of me. I get everyone situated, backpacks hung up, direct them to their seats and minutes later my paraprofessional, apologetic, finds his place as well. We begin…

Now… I realize that were a lot of things that I could have done to make the transition from the bus to the classroom smoother but right now that is not my point. Here is my point. All of my strategies and ideas that would have helped this scenario turn out much better than it did on my first day…work great in the self-contained vacuum.  But what if my assumptions were wrong to begin with?

Here were my presuppositions:

1.  I teach autistic kids (my college roommates joked naively that I taught “artistic” kids)

2.  Their needs are such that they need a specialized environment that only I (the expert) can provide

3.  If I teach in small incremental steps and they are successful in my self-contained environment than they will be more likely to generalize these skills to other environments

4.  If only I could teach them to suppress their stims and vocal outbursts…they could be like everyone else

5.  You are crazy if you think I was going to take them out into a general education classroom (because…who knows what they are going to do)

There IS a better way…

Okay…now let’s get real.  This line of thinking is so far removed from where I am right now…it seems almost laughable as I am typing this but for some educators (this is where they live). We continue to run up against walls of belief that the self-contained classroom is the best place for students with disabilities to learn because of the allure of “smaller class sizes,” “specialized instruction,” and “less distracting environments”.  The belief that grouping students with similar communication, cognitive, and physical impairments will help them to talk more, learn faster, or grow stronger is faulty. Think about in your own life when you have grown the most (physically, mentally, spiritually), it most likely was when you were challenged to go beyond where you ever thought you were able to. This also probably happened when you had the right support system available to you. I believe it is the same for our students, your children, and the people you love.

Recently, my principal asked the teachers at my school to write down their “ideal world” in preparation for their teaching assignments for next year. Usually, no one really takes this seriously and for the past few years, I simply wrote down exactly what I was already doing (self-contained classroom, teacher for students with severe/profound disabilities).  It is often joked what we would actually put if we were being serious…what would my ideal world be? I decided to take the challenge and write something up and see what happened.

Realize that while I would LOVE to get rid of self-contained classrooms completely…there are a lot of things standing in my way…so for the purposes of this document…I did not include that as a scenario but at least something close (see my final remarks for an expanded version of this). Here was my ideal world in a nutshell:

1. Increase time for my student who is included half day in 2nd grade to be fully included next year.

2. Include ALL of my students in general education for at least a portion of the day in a general education classroom (going from 3 to 6)

3.  Use person-centered planning techniques (MAPS, PATH, etc.) to aide with inclusion in general education

4. Begin thinking of my “classroom” more as a hub than a self-contained room

5. Increase the amount of time general education students spend time in my room (at this point we have about a dozen or so students visit during the day every week)

6. Increase my support to other general and special education teachers on inclusive strategies

My main goal: If schools (who have the resources) that are naturally bent toward inclusivity, are not the leaders and innovators in inclusive education…then there is no hope for “underperforming” or “failing” schools. There is no hope for schools who do not have an example to follow.  Therefore…if we don’t start going down this road. Who will?

The thing I love about inclusive education…okay there are many things I love. One thing I love…is that inclusion benefits ALL students. This is really a “Win-Win.” As long as we do it right…which brings me to my next section.

In my perfect world…

So…as long as we are dreaming here. My vision for inclusive education is this:

ALL students (regardless of disability) would attend their home school.  They would be in the class with peers of their same age and grade level. There would be no such thing as a special/self-contained classroom. All the required supports for every child would be available to benefit ALL learners (regardless of disability). Special Education Teachers would primarily be used as consultative and collaborative entities in the school environment. Adequate supports would be available for any health needs to access the education environment. No one would be turned away… No one would be given up on… No one would have to go it alone… The term educator would be synonymous with advocate. Parents would see the school district as a partner in their child’s education rather than the enemy. Technology would be readily available for every student who desires to communicate in that way. The deficit model of treatment would be turned around to focus on the individual strengths of each child (regardless of disability). High stakes testing would be abolished and replaced with authentic assessment that informs instruction and gives immediate feedback.

Hmmm…I could go on.

I know…this is a pipe dream. But I will continue dreaming it…because even if I do not have all the logistics down on how to make this work…

Nothing happens unless first a dream – Carl Sandburg

This is the first part of a series on the ins/outs of breaking out of the mold of the self-contained classroom.  I would love to hear your thoughts and comments. Thank you for your time and attention.

A version of this post was first published at

For nearly a decade, Tim Villegas has worked in the field special education and with people with disabilities. Recently, Tim has turned his passion for blogging and promoting ideas about inclusive schools and communities into his own website. He believes that can create a bridge between educators, parents, and advocates (including self-advocates) to promote ideas, innovation and inspiration to change our world to be more accepting and value each and every human being.


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