Special Education Placements

Special education provides critical services and support to approximately 11% of all students in the United States. These services vary in their level and intensity. There is a continuum of placement options in special education based upon the needs of the child. This article provides a summary of various placements along with pros and cons of each option.

Inclusion Classroom

An inclusion classroom looks very similar to a general education classroom. Students with disabilities are taught in a classroom alongside their peers. Supports are offered inside the classroom in several different ways. First, a special education teacher may come into the classroom and co-teach with the general education teacher for portions of the day. Services may also be provided to the student by an instructional assistant, or aide, working under the direction of the special education teacher. Finally, the classroom teacher may provide services to the student by collaborating with the special education teacher. In any of these scenarios, the instruction and assignments in the classroom need to be differentiated in order to meet the needs of students with disabilities. This is not an easy task, but it can be done.


In an inclusion placement, students with disabilities receive the maximum exposure to non-disabled peers. This placement is beneficial for students who are able to learn in a general education classroom with minimal outside support.


Special education services in an inclusion setting are not as intensive as those offered in more structured environments. Students having difficulty learning may feel overwhelmed or frustrated in an inclusion class.

Resource Room

The resource room is a classroom in the school where a special education teacher works individually or with small groups of students for certain subjects during the school day. Students attend a general education classroom, but receive pull-out services in the resource room for portions of the day. The purpose of the resource room is to provide intensive and individualized instruction to students with disabilities. This level of instruction is not available to students in an inclusion setting. For example, a student with a specific learning disability in reading (dyslexia) may go to the resource room for reading instruction specifically designed to teach students with learning disabilities. The student would participate with non-disabled peers in a typical classroom for the rest of the school day. The amount of time that the student spends in the resource room should be clearly specified on the services page of the IEP.


Students receive instruction in a small group setting at an individualized level and pace. Instruction is tailored for the individual needs of the student.


While in the resource room, students are not educated with their typically developing peers. Students may encounter a negative stigma from their peers for going to the resource room. This is more common in upper grades than in primary grades (K-3).

Self-Contained Class

Self-contained classrooms are special education classrooms designed to meet the academic, social, and behavioral needs of students who would otherwise struggle in a typical classroom. Self-contained classrooms are taught by a certified special education teacher trained to work with a specific population of students. These classrooms often have a specific focus such as autism, behavior, or cognitive delays. There is a lower student-teacher ratio in a self-contained classroom. Typically classrooms have about 10 students with one teacher and several instructional assistants (paraeducators). Students may spend their entire day in a self-contained setting, or may have a combination of time in the self-contained classroom and time in mainstreamed classes with their peers.


Self-contained classrooms are usually highly structured and designed to provide enhanced services to students who require more support than services available in the general education setting. Students receive instruction in a small group environment with a highly trained special education teacher.


Social interaction with typical peers is reduced in a self-contained setting. However, students in a self-contained classroom generally attend several classes such as music, art, or physical education with a mainstream class.

Out of District Placement

Sometimes a student may have educational needs that cannot be met within the programs available in a public school district. In these rare cases, an out of district placement in a private school setting may be necessary. Most communities have privately owned schools that specialize in a variety of areas such as autism, behavior, and schools for children who are deaf or blind. Public schools vary in their available programming. If they are unable to provide the special education services that a student needs, they are legally required to pay for tuition and transportation to an out of district placement.


Out of district placements are highly specialized schools with staff trained to work with a specific population of students. Services are based on best practices and generally use the most current materials and research to serve a particular population of students.


Exposure to typically developing peers is generally not available in an out of district placement. Depending on the location of the school, it may be a long commute for the child. Out of district placements are extremely costly for school districts and take money away from developing local programming.

How is placement determined?

Placement is determined by the IEP team which includes the parents, special education teacher, classroom teacher, and district representative. The team may also include related service providers, administration, school psychologist, or other individuals who have knowledge about the child. According to IDEA (2004) placement decisions must involve the parent and cannot be predetermined prior to the IEP meeting.

Placement decisions are made based on the needs of the child. The law specifies that students must be educated in their least restrictive environments (LRE). This means that to the maximum extent appropriate, students with disabilities should be educated with non-disabled peers in their home school. However, the general education classroom is not always a student’s least restrictive environment. For some students with disabilities, this setting is highly restrictive because the student may not be able to progress in the general curriculum. Placement decisions are extremely individualized and must always take into consideration the unique needs of the child.

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