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Tim Villegas
BY Tim Villegas

5 Reasons I Am Still a Self-Contained Teacher

For the last ten years of my career, I go to work every day with a mild case of cognitive dissonance.

This is because while I am a promoter of inclusive education (even for those students with the most significant disabilities) I continue to be a self-contained classroom teacher. This means that in my head, I understand that the setting I teach in is not necessarily the most ideal placement for my students. Yet I continue to teach in this setting because I love the students I work with and desire to give them access to the general curriculum in an authentic and meaningful way.

Why I Fall Short

Unfortunately, I fall short all the time. If you are familiar with any of my previous writings, I don’t sugar coat the fact that the majority of schools in the United States are not ready for the full and authentic inclusion of students in general education. I don’t believe inclusion advocates do themselves any favors but repeating the mantra “All Means All” without also wielding an even larger banner that points the way to “how we do it”. The truth is that there are many schools who ARE doing it. How we disseminate that information is the constant struggle of the proponent of inclusive education.

Why I Don’t Quit

Perhaps you are like me, an inclusion-minded self-contained teacher, who wants desperately to break the mold of your classroom but doesn’t know where to start. So, while I mull around in my dissonance, I’d like to share with you 5 reasons why I have not quit my job yet for a teaching position in a more inclusive school system or environment.

1. There are very few options

Like I touched on in the above paragraphs, I simply love working with students with the most significant disabilities. In the area that I live (the Atlanta Metro Area), there are very few options for someone like me. So rather than move from the school and community where we have already planted roots, I have decided to live out inclusive practices the best that I can in the context that I am. As inclusion advocates we want want change…yesterday! We can only change what we directly have control over and in the words of Mother Teresa, “I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.”

2. We need good self-contained classrooms

Perhaps you would prefer if I used “segregated classrooms”, which I don’t mind at all. Let’s tell it like it is. My classroom by its very nature segregates students from the school community because we are educating students separately.

While some of you may be outraged that this still takes place in the United States, it is my responsibility to give my students access to the general curriculum…not be their babysitter. Since there are many classrooms that still function in the “medical model” of special education we have a long way to go in reforming that practice. As we wait for inclusion to permeate the education reform movement we need teachers who are willing have high expectations for their students and create ways that even in a segregated classroom can provide inclusive opportunities.

3. My students’ parents

There are some parents who read about inclusive education and they experience a bit of cognitive dissonance themselves. They know that they want inclusive education for their children but it is not accessible to them. What do they do? Some families move, some file for due process but some stay put because they know that there are no other feasible options. Should those parents feel guilty for not pursuing an inclusive agenda for their child? I know that part of my job is to support my families and sometimes that is listening to those who I am advocating for…which for them is to stay in self-contained placements.

4. Self-contained classrooms are not the only places students are segregated

A colleague of mine made a very good point the other day while discussing inclusive education with me. There are plenty of examples of students in general education that are segregated (albeit in a more invisible way) due to bullying, religious prejudice, or lack of differentiated instruction. The students in my classroom may be separated from their peers but I can create an accepting classroom environment that may not be available in general education.

5. Who says I need to run my classroom like a typical self-contained classroom?

I’ll give you a brief example. Something that I started recently was to link up with general education classroom to do a co-teaching lesson in my classroom. This way I get the opportunity to collaborate with my general education colleague and provide differentiated instruction on grade-level standards in my very own room.

This benefits everyone! In addition, we work with other classrooms to include my students for a portion of the day in an academic segment. This process is certainly not without its hiccups but allowing myself to have to flexibility has been a more inclusive way to go (all without extra staff or funding). I’ll drop another quote from one of my favorite educators, Paula Kluth, “over, under, around or through find a way, or make a way”. Making a way sometimes means making it make sense for your own context.

Don’t misunderstand me

There is over 30 years of research that says inclusive education is better for everyone. My point is that admitting that inclusion is not available to everyone is not the same thing as saying that is not possible or the right thing to do. I suppose this is why I continue to be the best self-contained classroom teacher I can be. I hope that you can live out inclusive practices in your context.

Tim Villegas

Written on March 13, 2014 by:

Tim Villegas has worked in the field of special education and with people with disabilities for over ten years. Tim has turned his passion for blogging and promoting ideas about inclusive schools and communities into his own website, He believes that we 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. Tim lives with his fetching wife and three adorable children in Marietta, GA. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+.
  • RedRain

    Please explain what you mean by religious prejudice. Prejudice on the part of educators, administrators, students, parents? Prejudice by definition has negative connotations, so I’m not following if you are referring to situations such as where administrators segregate students with a religious background, or parents with a particular faith opt out of certain class instruction, or some other situation that you have observed.

  • lynn

    I think you have to weigh the pros and cons of inclusive classrooms. Personally, if my son were to go in a general education classroom, he would be overwhelmed by the class size and would not receive the hands-on attention he needs to learn. Although I would love to put him in a gen ed classroom, self-contained is the best option at this point, unless we figure out an option.

  • Shari Murray

    As a parent of a child with Autism, I truly appreciate your candor. I do however want to tell you, that while I agree that inclusion should be available to all students, I also truly value the self contained classroom. My son has the opportunity to be included in some general education classrooms such as art and gym, however he has never been able to manage full inclusion, even with the best of supports. If full inclusion was the only opportunity in our school system, my son would fall apart. Academically he is not at grade level (he’s 16 now) and being included in a sophomore level mathematics class would just not do much for him. His self contained classroom that he spends part of his day in has an adapted curriculum, where the math he learns will help him cook his own food, grocery shop, have a budget and other life skills. Fully included kids don’t typically have the opportunity to learn those skills and they struggle when they are out trying to be young adults, because they lack basic life skills. So while I whole heartedly agree that full inclusion should be an option for kids that can handle it, even when it is done well, there are still kids, like my own son, that just cannot deal with that level of stimulation all day long. So I personally am thankful for the self contained classroom teacher, and value what you provide my family and my son more than I can tell you. I think there needs to be a full spectrum of options for all our kids ranging from self contained to full inclusion. There is no one right way to help our children, and being adaptable allows for the program to fit each child versus trying to make a child fit into a program. So thank you for being a self contained classroom teacher, you make a difference!

  • Linda Q

    I get it, too. My daughter’s self contained classroom is the best choice for her! She is included in specials like choir, Spanish and keyboarding, but for basic education, at 11 1/2 yrs old, a self contained classroom is the place that lets her shine. Thank you for making a difference in the lives of kids like mine!

  • gammicca

    Tim, Thank you for your honesty and I’m glad that you discussed cognitive dissonance in relation to this. Someone who was instructing a course on inclusive education once said “Bad inclusion is better than none”. Well I’d personally disagree because I don’t think that it is worth sacrificing a child over as well. As a parent that fought to have our son obtain inclusive supports in general education, I also was able to work with his teacher within the self-contained ASD categorical classroom to get him to be ready to do so. He did show us he was ready however by seeking to play with the children within general education when they would play on the playground. He was the only student in his first grade class who could speak and attend, however he still had many challenges. It did take a year to get him transitioned and another half year to get the school district to let him go into a general education class and be fully included. However without that prep work he’d never be able to do so.
    Additionally he’d never be where he is today, attending college and doing quite well, if he’d not gone into a general education setting. He still struggles with literacy due to lack of supports in that area, but the experience itself for him to be in an environment where he did need to learn expectations and social norms is how he is able to work and really outshine his same age peers even in the area of soft skills.
    I admire your dedication to your students and I do hope that you will allow for your class to be a stepping stone for them to be able to take risks and learn there is dignity in doing so and also in learning from one’s mistakes.
    I’m glad you did write this and share your feelings. You are doing what is right by your students in being there and being compassionate about them acquiring knowledge. Remember too, inclusion is not a place, it’s a service and perhaps some of what you provide is better than what some are obtaining from inadequate inclusion attempts.

  • Christina Townsley Layton

    Thanks Tim! I am also an “Inclusion-Minded Self-Contained” teacher and I really appreciate your honesty on the topic. My students attend general education classes such as specials areas (gym, Spanish, music, etc), an Intervention period (in which they buddy up with peers to complete activities) and portions of Social Studies or Science or Language Arts. However, the bulk of their learning occurs in my classroom in which I provide 45 minute literacy-rich instruction following weekly themes that work with the topics introduced in their general education classrooms. We have hands-on centers as part of our structured classroom that provide additional practice with vocabulary, math concepts, science experiments, and art projects that further promote the content. It is in my professional opinion, that in our self-contained environment students perform at optimal levels–in a quieter environment, with minimal distractions, and catered education. Isn’t that, after all, what education is all about: “If a child can’t learn the way we teach, maybe we should teach the way they learn” -Ignacio Estrada

  • Julie

    Tim, thank you for your piece. As a special educator I have shared your concerns, years ago. Now, after 14 years of self-contained teaching, 10 years of consulting, and three years of birth to three neurodevelopmental work (not in that order)…I am a HUGE fan of self-contained classrooms. Here are a few of my bottom line points:

    1. A student must feel safe and secure to learn! The environmental supports to reach this end become extremely complex and more difficult in a general education setting. And agreed, some of this is due to a lack of resources in the school system. But in my mind, it would just be wrong for some students to be forced into those settings, especially when given superficial supports. Sadly, there are some students who could learn to feel secure enough to process and reach mastery in those settings given proper initial supports and those are often lacking also. (such as para educator support with fading)

    2. A student must feel a sense of belonging and community! A well run, dynamic, and whole-learner oriented self-contained classroom can offer secure relationships, individualized social skill/social thinking instruction, opportunities for successful community contribution and teamwork, and the core community for positive self-concept and confidence building.

    3. A student must feel competent! Competency comes from specially designed instruction, consistent repetition of skills, and participation in the real time practice of the learned material. These rarely can take place in quantity and/or quality in the general education setting for many of our learners. However, to participate in gen ed for those times of day which foster competence, we include them without the cost of losing point one or two.

    When we can combine these core elements within the foundation of an educational program, we can propel a student to reach their highest potential through core respect for who they are! And for EACH student, the combinations are unique. A self-contained program can offer this beautifully, while still providing appropriate inclusion opportunities.

    You are a thoughtful educator and your students are fortunate to have you!!! As you can see, most parents respect a model such as yours and I have found this to be true 98% of the time. I have witnessed the lack of these components all too often and it is at those times that I believe the student has been disrespected, sometimes horribly.

    My best to you!

  • Emilie

    I appreciate your post, but this part: “are not ready for the full and authentic inclusion of students in general education” is just crap. Segregated school systems will never, ever ever say “Ok, we’re ready now!” When would they be ready? What do they need to be ready? Do they even want to be ready? As you point out, “30 years of research says inclusion is best”, so its been AT LEAST THIRTY YEARS. Exactly how much longer are we supposed to wait? A whole generation of students who need supports and services has come and gone in that time.

    • remis-mom


  • Denie Sidney

    I understand. My daughter has multiple physical and cognitive disabilities. Her medical issues make a self-contained class the best learning environment for her. If self-contained was not an option, she would be in the home bound program. Thank you for your dedication.

  • MrDDon

    Thanks Tim for the validation of those of us who believe in inclusion, but teach in a self-contained classroom. I’m in total agreement of how I run my class is not the typical self-contained methodology. I’m constantly looking for ways to include my students (one, two, or the entire group) with others in the school. It’s working for us. Thanks for the post to know we are not alone.

  • I appreciate your article. My caution with self-contained classrooms is to not let it become a dumping ground, or final decision. While the Least Restrictive Enviornment for a student may be a self-contained classroom at a point in their developmental years, the decision must be revisited with each annual review. As teams of professionals and parents who support students with disabilities, we must foster acceptance and independence within the least restrictive environment. Decisions concerning placement need to be made holistically, using multiple sources of data, taking into account academic, social/emotional and physical needs. As the child becomes more independent and self-sufficient, special education programs and services should be faded. Our ultimate goal is to provide the necessary scaffolding for students with disabilities to reach their full potential for living independently post-school.

  • cromer

    Self contained classrooms sound are getting a black eye. It’s as if it’s considered a dirty word. I’m for meeting the student where he is and helping him to progress academically and socially. I don’t care where that takes place. I used to think the answer was the inclusive classroom. But there is no such thing!
    My issue with the self contained classrooms my austic son was placed in was that it was designed for behavior disorder kids. He didn’t have a behavior disorder. But after spending several months in that classroom, he learned a lot of unacceptable behaviors. The school watched him regressed and determined it was an appropriate placement because he now had unacceptable behaviors!
    I never went to due process, but I advocated long and hard for an appropriate placement for him. He needed to learn and be safe. Neither was happening in his current BD classroom. FINALLY, got him placed in a completely different school that contains a classroom full of kids just like him. And he is THRIVING. He was so far behind academically that I never thought he would catch up. Well, in one year, he’s made up several grade levels and in all but 1 subject, he is at grade level and is thriving academically and learning socially acceptable behaviors.
    Once he felt included with like peers where he could see that they were all struggling with similar issues, he felt like he was a member of a community. I have an entirely different child now!!! I’d lost him for many years, but he is back…and not a moment too soon.

    So, whether it’s a self contained classroom or self contained school or a school that truly embraces inclusion (and there aren’t many of them!), where ever my son learns best is where I want him placed!!

  • Cathy Green

    I agree with everything you have to say. I moved from a county in West Virginia where the Director of Special Education believed in total inclusion. It didn’t work and it wasn’t long before we were back to segregating students again. Why didn’t it work? The answer is twofold. First you need special educators that know and understand what a general education looks like and requires. Second you need general educators that understand what special education is and how to instruct these students. Special Education needs to be totally aware of all of the requirements of the General Education Classroom and therefore the Special Education should look and be following the same Standards of Learning as the General Education Classroom.
    I have worked with students on every level and as any Special Education teacher can attest I did it all in one year. General Education teachers are educated to teach on one level at a time if any student doesn’t fit we stick them in the Special Education program and someone there will “fix” them.
    I propose that the first thing we do as Special Educators is throw out all of the “special standards” and find ways to modify curriculum to make the “general standards” accessible to our students. It’s not impossible, I’ve done it. It just takes time and creativity to make it happen. The “self-contained classroom” should be a temporary stop on the way to full inclusion.

  • Becky

    I appreciate hearing everyone’s feelings on this, but I too believe that one size does NOT fit all and I feel that special education, self-contained classrooms, smaller classes, etc are needed as an option to inclusion because inclusion does not work and cannot work for all children…most especially those with ASD issues that sometimes involve sensory overloads, extreme distractibility, the inability to communicate effectively in a crowded classroom, ADHD, social anxiety, performance problems that put the child at a distinct disadvantage with peers and with regard to regular classroom tasks and work that is expected.
    The child is the first consideration…not the path of least resistance. But, Inclusion should be one of the learning options to be considered and tried if agreed upon by the family and the school after proper assessment and due process of IEP and ARD meetings. If a child is acting out in an extreme way in a class of 25 students (due to inappropriate placement), then surely the learning process is inhibited for that child as well as for the class. Some children need a more quiet and less chaotic environment due to their particular learning or emotional issues. Some children have so much trouble communicating with others and with the teacher (both speaking and listening) that it’s almost impossible for them to progress and advance with their peers in a way that makes them feel worthy and valuable. They may be able to do the work just fine…but they need a smaller classroom and more individual instruction where they can feel successful and happy. Or, they may need more intensive OT or speech or social skills help that they can’t get in the regular classroom with 25 kids. The point is that even though every child is a unique individual with unique needs, the schools need to provide equal opportunities for each child to be successful at their skill level in a supportive environment that works for each child…whatever that is. And sometimes the best solution is a self-contained classroom with partial inclusion, to be increased as appropriate based on maturity, assessment, and mutual agreement of family and school. If everyone finds that increased inclusion is contraindicated, then a reassessment and new ARD meeting would be called to discuss appropriate action and the child might be returned to the previous placement or some other option offered. We can’t just have a black or white solution for special needs education (total inclusion or self-contained special ed). There must be room for gray solutions as well with carefully thought-out educational plans and placements.

  • Mary Jo

    I have been involved in the educational system for the past twenty years. I have taught in self contained and regular education . I also have a daughter with Down Syndrome .
    I believe in choices , not every child with a disability can handle the regular education classroom all day and some children with a disability are placed among their typical developing peers and they thrive.
    The children’s team needs to look at what works best for the child.
    We try to include everyone in all aspects of life but can we?
    Just think has been a situation in your life were you were not included or in case when did not include everyone?
    We need choices and we can not compare classrooms, what works for one does not work for the other.
    I do believe that every child should have the right to try to be placed in a regular education classroom and the same with self contained. They are both rights of a special education student and their parents.
    We live in world of choices and every person has the right to make their own choice.

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  • Ettina

    Full inclusion is not better for everyone. It depends on the disability and the individual. For example, most Deaf children who receive full inclusion spend their school hours surrounded by kids who do not share a common language with them, an extremely isolating experience, whereas Deaf children in Deaf-specific classrooms can socialize with children who share a common language and culture. Many autistic children are very sensitive to sensory stimulation, including the noise and activity of other children, and benefit from the smaller classroom sizes and easier accommodation of sensory needs in a self-contained class. In addition, kids who need education on subjects not normally covered in school may also benefit from self-contained classes, at least for certain subjects – blind children in special classes often show better orientation and mobility than blind children in full inclusion. On the other hand, severely multiply disabled children often show better social interaction with a nondisabled partner than with their similarly disabled peers, due to the social scaffolding that nondisabled partners can provide. These children may benefit from inclusion because of the opportunity to interact with and observe nondisabled children. Children with Down Syndrome often show social skills better than expected for their cognitive level, and may have trouble relating to classmates who are much more impaired socially than they are.

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