Selecting the Right Classroom Placement: Individualization is Key

In our clinical practice, determining the right school placement is one of the more challenging processes our staff and families must undergo. While inclusion in a general education setting is often viewed as the most ideal situation (and for many of our clients, this is something we are striving for), it is essential that the student's individual needs be carefully considered. One important question to ask is: 'In what setting will my child best be able to function and learn in a meaningful capacity?' It may be that general education is the very place where your child will achieve this. However, for some children, this is not the case, and perhaps a specialized classroom may be the answer. Of course, there are other factors to consider in either setting: Will my child have a one-to-one aide? Will modifications be made to the curriculum? Will my child receive resource room pull-outs? Will he/she be mainstreamed for portions of the day? The goal is to select a placement and any necessary accommodations that will best suit the needs of the child. There is no "one size fits all" placement. Individualization is key!

The following is an account of Thomas and his family's journey toward finding a classroom where he truly thrived.

We started working with Thomas several months before the end of his kindergarten school year. He attended a general education kindergarten classroom and was accompanied full time by a one-to-one aide. It was rewarding to see Thomas gain independence with familiar tasks in this setting. At home, Thomas' parents worked with him individually to teach new academic skills; he was able to acquire concrete information with individualized teaching and even generalized these skills to the classroom setting. As the year progressed, it became increasingly more difficult for Thomas to learn the classroom curriculum through group teaching, and he required more and more one-to-one instruction. As his language was limited, he also required adult facilitation to interact with peers. Thomas was successful with structured playground games. He required more assistance with open-ended and imaginative play, or when other students deviated from the rules of structured games. In general, changes in routine or structure often evoked protest behavior, ranging in intensity from whining to loud yelling and crying.

When Thomas entered general education first grade, the curriculum became more difficult, with a stronger emphasis on abstract language skills. As the demands on Thomas' language skills, reading comprehension, and writing increased, Thomas' protest behaviors increased in frequency and intensity. However, a reinforcement system and scheduled breaks throughout the day helped to establish motivation for him to complete difficult or novel tasks, and written schedules offered predictability and facilitated success in the school setting. At home, Thomas' parents continued to work diligently to help him learn some of the skills he was unable to acquire through group teaching.

By the time he was in second grade, Thomas had grown increasingly resolute in his routines and he exhibited high intensity protest behavior (e.g., screaming, tearing paper, throwing pencils) when classroom materials or assignments were novel or deviated from routine or structure. Presentation of reading or writing tasks served as a predictable antecedent for protest behavior. The intense protest behaviors became distracting to the other students, thus Thomas was not allowed to remain in the classroom. Over time, Thomas began engaging in protest behavior in order to leave the classroom several times per day. In addition, because Thomas was in the general education classroom, the modifications that were allowed to be made to his curriculum were limited, leading to a low rate of success with most academic tasks.

After great thought and debate, Thomas' parents looked into a special education placement. As part of his behavior plan, the main focus was Thomas' intolerance to changes in structure/routine and escape-motivated behavior. Initially, he exhibited protest behavior for long durations of time (up to 1 hour), and he required physical prompting from multiple adults to refrain from throwing objects or lying on the floor. However, over the next two months, Thomas learned that protest behavior no longer functioned as escape and he began to slowly cooperate with the minimal tasks he was required to complete. It was amazing to slowly peel back the layers and discover all the knowledge Thomas possessed. Thomas proved what we knew all along - he did have the knowledge!

In the general education setting, Thomas had been expected to perform advanced language comprehension skills when he had not yet acquired basic language discrimination. In the special education setting, as Thomas' cooperation increased, he was able to systematically learn new language skills with great success. As a result, his spontaneous language began to increase, and he learned to communicate his frustration through words rather than protest behavior. Thomas' journey has not yet ended, but he is in a supportive school environment and he has two very supportive parents at home who are willing, ready, and able to guide his success.

Moving from a general education setting to special education can be a very difficult decision, and it is essential that the needs of the individual child be weighed when making any placement decisions. In Thomas' case, special education is what best suited his needs at that time. The following placement considerations were inspired by Thomas' journey. But it is important to remember that no two experiences are identical, and that individualization is key.

1) Can the child learn from group presentation? The pace of the general education classroom setting can be overwhelming at times. If the child is not able to keep up with this pace and follow along, learning will suffer and the child will fall increasingly behind. This can cause the child to withdraw from the lesson and can lead to disruptive behavior.

2) Can the child complete familiar academic tasks in an independent manner? Many of the tasks in the general education setting are completed independently starting in first grade. By second grade, the teacher will teach for approximately 30 minutes in front of the class and expect students to complete corresponding work independently.

3) Could the child exhibit inappropriate behaviors that might interfere with the learning of the other students in the classroom? In any classroom, each child will encounter a typical level of distractions created by the other students. However, a child who exhibits high intensity protest behavior for long durations may take away valuable time from the other students' learning. Furthermore, a child who engages in such behaviors will also be unlikely to learn in a meaningful capacity.

4) Is the teacher capable of making necessary accommodations to the classroom curriculum if needed? If not, is there an inclusion specialist who is able to make accommodations or modifications if the child demonstrates difficulty? The child may be able to remain in the general education setting if they can complete the modified curriculum.

The names of all children in this newsletter have been changed in respect for family confidentiality.

Song Lines!
During teaching, have a toy guitar, piano or drum nearby. When the child responds correctly, pull out the instrument and sing a line from one of their favorite songs. After another correct response, sing the next line. You can do this after each correct response or more randomly to build anticipation! Sing the rest of the song at the end of teaching!

Sneeze Surprise!
Hold a tissue and pretend you are going to sneeze, then blow the tissue towards the child! Or pretend that you're going to sneeze while the child is sitting across from you in a chair, then "sneeze" the child back in his chair or spin the child around while holding hands!

It's Mine!
Place a piece of a favorite snack at the far end of the table, then pretend like you're going to get it first (e.g., "It's mine, I'm gonna get it!!" while hitting your hands on the table toward the snack). Let the child get it first!

That's My Chair!
When the child comes over to sit down for teaching, say, "Hey, that's my chair!" Then quickly switch spots with them. Then change your mind, "No wait, I want to sit there instead!" Then quickly switch spots again! Keep doing this a few more times to get the child giggling!

Use your finger to "write" a letter on the child's back, and have the child guess what letter it is. Each time the child responds correctly during teaching, write a new letter until you have spelled a fun word!