Placement Options for School-Age Students Receiving Special Education Services

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Special education is a service and not a placement. If your child has qualified for special education services, where your child will receive those services must still be determined, and there are a number of placement options to consider for your school-age child.

The Individualized Education Program (IEP) team – which includes you, the parent – will decide which placement or placements are appropriate based on your child’s specific strengths and needs. The placement decided upon by the IEP team will be paid for by the school district in which you live as part of your child’s Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE).

When considering an educational placement, the IEP team must decide what is the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) where the student can make progress towards the IEP goals. In making the placement decision, the team should consider the most inclusive setting first and progress to consider more restrictive environments as needed. It is important to remember that an educational placement can change over time. The IEP team must discuss placement at least once a year to make sure that the placement continues to be appropriate, in light of the development of new skills or new challenges.

Regular Education Environment (Itinerant):

Being a part of the regular education classroom is also referred to as inclusion or mainstreaming. Inclusion means that the student with a disability attends a regular education class with same or similar age peers, most of whom do not have a disability. The school district must provide appropriate supports and services in that inclusive environment. A placement will be considered “regular” if at least 50% of the children in the placement do not have a disability.

Many students on the autism spectrum will need accommodations or specific services to be successful in the regular education environment. For example, the student may need the class to be co-taught by a special education teacher, may need a personal care assistant or aide to accompany him or her, or may need modified materials to participate in the class. What the student needs to be successful in the regular education environment will be determined by the IEP team.

Sometimes, the accommodations and/or modifications necessary to make the student successful in the regular education classroom are themselves so restrictive or prohibitive that they make the regular education environment ineffective. For example, if a student needs a 1 on 1 aide to continuously prompt the student to do work or if the materials need to be modified extensively, the student may actually be more independent and be better able to make progress on the IEP goals in an environment with fewer students and more intensive services.

Part-Time Special Education Environment (Supplemental) :

Often, a child may receive services in a combination of environments, for example, when your child attends a regular education classroom for a part of the day, and a special education classroom for certain subjects. Some students may benefit from being outside of the regular education classroom for a portion of the day, for example for academic subjects where the student may need more assistance than can be provided in the regular education classroom. These students may attend a Resource Room or Academic Support Classroom for whatever percentage of the day is determined necessary by the IEP team and attend a regular education classroom for the remainder of the day. Services and supports will follow the student in both settings, as needed. The teacher in the Resource Room or Academic Support Classroom will have specialized training in working with students who need more specialized accommodations, modifications, or adaptations. The teacher in the regular education setting typically has not received specialized training that would be required for students with complex support needs.

Self-Contained Educational Environment (Full-time):

Education in a self-contained classroom means that the student will be placed with other students with disabilities for the majority of the school day. These classrooms may be disability specific – for example, an autism support classroom – or may integrate students with different disabilities. Each state has regulations concerning how many children can be in a self-contained classroom. For example, in Pennsylvania, an autism support classroom may not have more than eight children, unless a waiver is obtained. For a student who is easily distracted, socially anxious, or who simply needs more personalized assistance, having fewer students in a class is an advantage. These classes are taught by special education teachers who have gone to school and have specialized training in working with students with disabilities. They may also have an assistant teacher or aide assigned to help. A school district is not required to maintain a self-contained classroom in each school within the district. Thus, a student with a disability who requires a self-contained classroom may need to attend a school other than his or her “neighborhood school,” but which is within the student’s home district.

Often, students in a self-contained classroom do have some opportunities to interact with students in the regular education environment. Frequently, students receiving special education will attend specials, such as music, art, or gym, recess, or lunch with students in regular education. For a student for whom a self-contained classroom is considered necessary by the IEP team, great care must be taken before choosing to include the student with a disability in non-academic portions of the day. Many of these specials or non-academic times are less structured and held in less predictable settings. Because of this, they may be more difficult for a child on the autism spectrum. Thus the IEP team should consider providing additional supports to the student when he or she is included with students in regular education environments.

Out of District Placement:

Sometimes the appropriate educational placement for a student does not exist within the child’s home community. The child’s home district may not have the appropriate classroom or staff to meet the child’s needs. In this case, the IEP team may decide that a public school in a neighboring town or county is most appropriate. An out of district placement allows the child to attend a public school where children without disabilities attend, but which has the supports and staff the child needs. However, because the school is out of district, it may mean a longer bus ride for the student.

Specialized School Placement:

Specialized schools provide comprehensive special education services for students with disabilities. Many are created around students within certain disability groups, for example, Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), or with special learning, behavioral, or emotional needs. For students on the autism spectrum, a specialized school may provide a more structured environment and may offer the opportunity to work on academic, behavioral, and social goals throughout the day in a coordinated and integrated way that might not be possible in a typical school.

Specialized schools are generally much smaller than public schools and may have a higher ratio of teachers to students. Teachers and staff, as a whole, may have more experience with students with disabilities than their counterparts in public school. Additionally, some students, particularly those with self-esteem issues, may benefit from attending a school where all students have specialized needs. Specialized schools do not have typical peers, which makes them one of the most restrictive environments.

Specialized schools are expensive to run, and it may cost your district a great deal of money for your child to attend. However, cost should not be a factor in determining needed services, and all IEP members should make decisions responsibly. Because specialized schools are expensive, there are fewer of them. This may mean that your child will have to travel a great distance to attend one, which could mean a long bus ride twice a day. Some specialized schools are residential, which reduces travel time for the student, but means that the family is split apart while the student with disabilities is in school.

Some specialized schools are known as “Approved Private Schools” or “APS.” An APS is a private school that is licensed by the state and which has been given special status by the state to educate children, who, by the nature of their disabilities, cannot be appropriately served in public school special education programs. School districts receive state money to help pay for APS placements. Nonetheless, if there is a specialized school in your area, which is not an APS, you may still be able to have your child placed there if the placement is deemed appropriate by your IEP team.

Students placed by the IEP team in a specialized school are entitled to all of the same procedural safeguards that would apply if they attended a public school, including but not limited to the timelines for reevaluation and revising the IEP, mandatory IEP team membership, and discipline rules.

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Last Updated: May 29, 2020

The Center for Autism Research and The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia do not endorse or recommend any specific person or organization or form of treatment. The information included within the CAR Autism Roadmap™ and CAR Resource Directory™ should not be considered medical advice and should serve only as a guide to resources publicly and privately available. Choosing a treatment, course of action, and/or a resource is a personal decision, which should take into account each individual's and family's particular circumstances.


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