If you’re the parent of a child with significant special needs like I am, one of the many issues you’ll face is whether or not to “mainstream,” or place your kid in general education classes. Often this question is posed as a kind of toggle: Yes or no? General education classroom or self-contained classrooms where all students have disabilities?

To help you navigate this question, I’ll be sharing three tips gleaned from personal experience as a mom of a son with Fragile X Syndrome, a genetic mutation that can cause a constellation of symptoms including developmental delays and autistic-like behaviors.

Student placement isn’t a binary choice. You don’t have to answer with a yes or no when addressing the question. Federal law, called the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), says that special needs students must be placed in the “least restrictive environment.” This means that they should spend their school day with non-disabled peers to “the maximum extent possible.”

But who knows what the “maximum extent” for your child is at any time from pre-K through high school graduation? The answer: You. Not that you’re in this alone: You’ll work with your district’s child study team (typically your case manager, a social worker, a special education teacher and therapists) to craft an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) that best suits your child. This may mean your child’s placed in mainstream classrooms for the whole day, or just for math. It could mean your child’s in a self-contained classroom all day and joins typical peers for art, music, gym or lunch. Or, if you can make the case, this may mean your child’s placed in a private special education school at the district’s expense. Go to asah.org for a full directory.


Like everything else in the special needs world, there’s room for accommodations, compromises and individualization. With the cooperation and support of a creative child study team, you’ll learn to navigate the complex special education system and determine the right fit for your child. No one said this would be easy. Parenting is hard. Parenting children with disabilities is harder. Yet over time, you’ll develop a sixth sense of what’s right for your child so that the program you create—in-district or out-of-district, mainstreamed, self-contained or some combination—maximizes his or her academic potential, helps develop social skills and evolves as your child’s needs change. What works for your child one year may not work the next. In fact, placement can change within a school year and you have the right to challenge a current placement by calling an IEP meeting.

When my son Jonah turned 3 and was deemed eligible for special education services provided by our local school district, we were amateurs. After all, we were still reeling from his diagnosis and had yet to learn to be strong advocates. When an Early Intervention social worker suggested we enroll him in the county self-contained preschool, we numbly nodded. Our county preschool is great for many children. It wasn’t great for Jonah. We realized this early on when his classroom teacher told us he’d never speak and that we’d been mistaken that he was recognizing letters and colors. Bonus tip: When a teacher or specialist puts a ceiling on your child’s abilities, you’re in the wrong placement.

We were fortunate to have an astute case manager. With her help, Jonah enrolled in a private special education school focused on communication disorders and children on the autism spectrum at district expense. This school was, by definition, a self-contained and restrictive environment. But that’s what Jonah needed: a small class in a small school populated by children with similar needs.



As his communication and social skills developed, we started experimenting with more inclusive activities. Jonah played on the township T-ball team (with one of our other kids serving as an aide) and took a music and movement class, both with typical peers. These experiments yielded mixed results, but it was a start.

When Jonah was midway through seventh grade in his private school, we placed him in our local middle school for half a day after long negotiations with our child study team that produced a variety of accommodations and modifications. He spent the morning in private school, was bused back to district for lunch and participated in both mainstream and self-contained classes in the afternoon. This was challenging for him and us. But it worked, and had the added benefit of giving him access to some after-school activities. When he reached the district high school, he was mainstreamed each year for several classes, usually with a personal aide beside him. Sometimes we were happy with his program. Sometimes we weren’t. Sometimes we had great case managers. Sometimes we didn’t. And sometimes we wrote out-of-district resources into his IEP (at district expense) to enrich his programming.


The question of mainstreaming is less about placement and more about what works best for your child. When done well, mainstreaming promotes social skills, acceptance and inclusion. These are all worthwhile goals. But sometimes reality kicks in: General education teachers who aren’t well-trained in instructing students with special needs; school budgets that limit access to speech, occupational and physical therapists and administrators who talk the talk about the benefits of inclusion, but fail to walk the walk by not providing the infrastructure necessary for your child.

Every child is different. Special needs children have an extra dose of difference, and determining the best placement is often a trial-and-error process. Yes, it’s frustrating, hard work. But with determination, strong advocacy and district cooperation, you’ll arrive at a placement that helps your child thrive academically and socially.

—Laura Waters writes about education politics and policy for a range of publications. She was a school board member in Lawrence Township for 12 years and served nine years as president.