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 “mainstreaming,” is right, or if placing your kid in general education classes is better. 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, I’ve learned a few key tips for navigating this question.

Student placement isn’t a binary choice. You don’t have to answer with a yes or no. 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.”

Who knows best the “maximum extent” for your child from pre-K through high school? 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, and parenting children with disabilities is harder. But over time, you’ll develop a sixth sense about what’s right for your child so that the program you create—in district or out, mainstreamed, self-contained or a 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 might not the next. Placement can change within a school year, and you have the right to challenge your kid’s 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. We were still reeling from his diagnosis and hadn’t yet learned to be strong advocates. When an Early Intervention social worker suggested we enroll him in the self-contained county preschool, we numbly nodded. Our county preschool is great for many children, but 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 the district’s 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 grade 7 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 mainstreaming 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’s different. Special needs children have an extra dose of difference, and determining the best placement regarding mainstreaming 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.