Down syndrome

The Case FOR Special Ed

I was like a snarling mama cat, clamouring for full inclusion until just recently. That is, for NOT having Moxie in a “special ed” classroom, in a classroom set aside in which all of the other children therein also have a cognitive disability.

Moxie learns by imitation, I thought, what sense does it make to put her in a room full of kids that are where she is? 

Right? I mean, since she really is a learn-by-watching kind of person, how is she going to learn to talk when she is around other kids that are mostly nonverbal?

And that might definitely be so. It very well may be. Because, like I said, she really does learn by watching.

But I applied my own deafness to this picture. I thought about how I felt, being the ONLY DEAF KID in every.single.classroom I have ever been in, bar none. The ONLY KID who couldn’t hear, then the ONLY ADULT who struggled through a thousand class sessions, millions of minutes focusing on lips, lips, lips, zonking out over lips, lips, lips in this endless quest to get it right, get it down, hear through watching.

I’m not going to lie: it SUCKED.

I got a taste of how awesome it can be to have a friend who is the same as me when Katherine came to work for my program at UC Berkeley. She and I were, I’m sure, completely obnoxious at work parties when we would “converse” with one another completely by lip-reading, emitting no sounds whatsoever.

It gets lonely when you are the only kid – or adult for that matter – that sticks out in some way.

You feel your difference. Hence, I suppose, the appeal of all-girls schools. Or black colleges.

And now, I think, for special ed classrooms.


I think for me it’s more important that Moxie has friends and she feels included, confident and strong than it is that she be all academically stimulated. This is surely a luxury on my part, that feeling, since it stems from my training and background as a teacher. I know I can give her at home what a classroom may lack, academically speaking. Even if it’s the learn-by-watching – she has two brothers, remember?

I want Moxie to know deeply and surely that her extra chromosome is a wonderful thing, bringing with it a bunch of uniqueness that is marvelous!

I want her to embrace who she is, love the gift to the world that her presence brings. I feel that pushing her one way or another – into a room with a lot of other kids with an intellectual disability or into a room with a lot of other kids without an intellectual disability – is not what I want to do. Rather, I want to feel out makes the most sense in a given place. Take each school and classroom on a case-by-case basis.

I want to see what she wants to do.


Perhaps that is the sticker; the stone in my wheel. The feeling that a lot of schools would not let Moxie see what she wants to do, or would not value her own opinion. A lot of schools won’t let individuals with a cognitive disability – or their parents for that matter – decide what is best for themselves. Education is not so much about encouraging beautiful minds anymore as much as it is about dollars and scores.

I’m distrustful of any system that wants to segregate anyone. I think the best and most logical conclusion is to integrate everyone. Because really, with all skills present in a class, with all types of individuals, with a full spectrum of intellect and variations in learning styles at play, kids are really going to grow. They’ll be pushed further by helping one another; they’ll see the strengths in those with cognitive disabilities, not just  a societal-defined weakness. They’ll learn that Moxie might not talk as much as they do but she can teach them a thing or three about getting what she wants. Like all people – ALL PEOPLE – she has skills and contributions that she is bringing to the table.

The question is simply if she will be allowed to contribute or will she be a token inclusion in her class?


There we go. A flawed system and an imperfect world. What I want does not yet exist and if I choose to send my daughter to school, my choices right here, right now, are a segregated “special needs” classroom or a “mainstream” classroom in which Moxie would need help in the form of aides and such.

I have no answers that are solid but I do know that as much as I loathe segregation, I want my girl to feel accepted and valued. If she found that in a special ed classroom and not in a mainstream one, well, then, I’d think about it.

A special ed classroom is not out of the question anymore.


  • originally posted June 18, 2013

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The Case FOR Special Ed: when does a contained classroom make sense? If ever?


Meriah Nichols is a career counselor, teacher and blogger. Single mom to 3 (one with Down syndrome, one gifted 2E), she is also a Trekkie who likes her coffee hot and black.
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  1. I completely understand what you are saying and agree. There is no one size fits all education for any child but especially for our kiddos. I used to be completely ready to fight to have Cate in a completely typical classroom but in the few years we’ve been doing with this I’ve learned a huge lesson. The classroom situation is important but what is most important is the teacher. The teacher is everything – a great teacher in a self contained classroom is a much better situation for us then a medicore teacher in a typical classroom, regardless of the support. We are one of the lucky ones to have a school that does let Cate lead the way in her own education. They have consistantly started her in the least restrictive environment then adjusted to support her in any way neccessary. I know how lucky I am but still always try to keep an open mind to school suggestions while still advocating for the best place for Cate no matter what the label is on the classroom.

  2. I’ve been on both sides of this. I did the snarling mama cat thing and got my daughter out of a self-contained class and into inclusion many years ago, and while it was great for her academically, it sucked socially. She lost her friends with special needs and never really got a solid foothold in the social structure of typicality.

    My son had more behavior issues than I thought a typical class could handle, and so I worked to keep him in self-contained, and it was the flipside of my daughter’s experience — great for him in terms of having lifelong friends who love and accept him as he is, suckish in terms of giving him a complete and adequate education.

    I think there’s probably room for all different types of classes for all different types of students. But if the inclusion classes would work harder on integrating groups of kids with disabilities so that no one was ever That One Weird Kid, and self-contained classes would work harder at keeping kids as close as possible to some semblance of some grade level somewhere, that’d be great.

  3. I get what you’re saying, but wouldn’t it make sense – wouldn’t it be more fair – to start with a general ed setting with appropriate supports and see how that goes first? That’s where I’m at with Finn. Nobody has established that he can’t be successful – or happy – in a general ed setting, and yet our district has decided that he belongs in a self-contained, segregated classroom setting.

    • Lisa, your district sounds HORRIBLE. I’ve been following your IEP thing and it’s a nightmare.

      I honestly think at this point that it is really going to depend on the school and the teacher for me. I care more about Moxie being included, supported and truly happy than I do about academic stimulation, but like I said, that’s a luxury since I am a teacher: I know I can fill in the gaps at home.

      In your case, it sounds like they are not listening to you guys at ALL; they are not even considering what you are saying! They are totally steamrolling. Not. Cool. So glad you said you are bringing and advocate next time.

  4. Being a preschool teacher for kids with multiple disabilities, I would hope your school system would have a variety of classrooms that might suit your daughter with the appropriate supports. The studies do show that most students with DS (I know, I hate to put any kids into a “bunch” like that) do better with models to learn from. However, there is no reason why she can’t go to a classroom with reverse inclusion, one with students who need support in speech and daily living skills and or a typical classroom with pull outs for therapy or extra help. Special ed is a service, not a placement. It’s called an “Individual” educational plan for a reason.

  5. Have you read Courtney’s post on “getting to integral?” It’s awesome. And it’s what all general education teachers should strive for. BUT if that’s not happening, or if Ellie simply wants to be around more “kids like her,” I would love to have her half-and-half as she gets older, especially in high school. I want her to always have a foot in both worlds.

    Ellie WILL be in self-contained next year, with more integration as she gets older. I’ll be curious to see how things change as she gets older as far as my own opinions…

    • Yeah, I liked that post of Courtney’s. It was really good.
      I’m looking forward to hearing about how Ellie’s experience goes.

  6. I have Maddison in a special needs school. They change diapers and the teachers I have encountered chose their profession because they seem to love my special daughter! I have three older kids and I know some of the teachers my older kids had wouldn’t have wanted special needs children included in their class. I agree with above comment, for right now I want Maddison to be accepted. She is totally accepted in her program. I can fill in the gaps at age 3. But as time marches on maybe I will want her to go to a regular classroom. But with her classroom size of 5 and 2 teachers, and county funded, I can’t imagine anything better. I think it super hard because all of us have different state, county, and district allowances. In Virginia we have some really great choices.

    BTW Moxie is so adorable! I love the pictures you share with us. Just when I think she can’t get any cuter, she does! Thanks for sharing your life and our stories.

  7. It is a very complicated decision. We had a great system all the way through 7th grade. It was a mix, full inclusion, inclusion with an aid, pull out in small groups, resource room. We were and are advocates of inclusion, but it has to benefit the child… This year (10th grade) Dev moved into a “contained” class. It was a really hard decision. She is still in a “regular ed” PE and in an “inclusion lab science”, but all of her core classes are in the special ed room. The teacher is amazing, and she has an assistant. There are about 12 kids ranging from 9-11th grade. They all work at their own pace (for Dev this is great as she LOVES school). So individualized instruction, small teacher/student ratio, dynamic teacher, kind classroom culture…. what more could we ask for? And Dev is on the cheer squad (as a full cheerleader) so she gets a ton of social inclusion/exposure. Do what is best for your child, it may change from year to year, teacher to teacher. Good luck and believe!

  8. Such good things to think about. I think each child is different, and parents should consider that in choosing the best environment. There’s no right or wrong answer.

    • I can definitely say segregated settings are WRONG! My boy with Down syndrome is still stressed about being segregated 2 years after having finished there…. when anxious he recounts being called a retard/loser/freak….awful and very traumatic.

  9. Im not all for inclusion personally. My son just finished his second year of kindergarten . His teacher never had one special education class, not one. She didnt know what to do with him. I brought in some work and asked them to do special things. She actually asked me if he would plateau and not learn anymore. Going to the special Ed class was not much better, it was totally silent, all of them non verbal. So, I’m homeschooling him again this year, creating a social group for him to play with children of all ages. Tis way I can focus on what he needs, and I don’t have to fight with a school to teach him.

  10. As a special education teacher who has taught in the inclusion setting, resource room setting, and self-contained setting, and the parent of a child with T21, I can say that there are rigorous resource and self-contained classrooms. And there are inclusion classrooms that are doing a great job of teaching all learners. I think we need to value education in all its forms, especially when the best needs of the student are truly at heart. There IS value in what students can learn and achieve in a specialized setting, which is exactly the reason we allow gifted students to be pulled out for enrichment or placed in AP classes. I do believe, however, that the intent is important–parents and caregivers need to know that if their child is being recommended for a more specialized setting, that recommendation truly comes from a place of caring about what’s best for that student (not in the interest of segregation). Like medicine, there is no one-size-fits-all prescription in education. It’s dangerous for the pendulum to swing too far in any one direction.

  11. Have you ever heard of Camphill communities? It’s a worldwide movement of cooperative communities whose focus is the care & education of those with special needs. There is one in Pennsylvania that is a K-12 school with a day student program ( I work in one in upstate NY & would be happy to talk with you about my experience of it if you’re interested.

    • I would LOVE to learn more. That sounds really interesting. I’m headed to google now… thank you! Are you still working there?

  12. THANK YOU for this perspective, it is heartening, reassuring and so true. It just took me a long time to get here. You are always the voice of wisdom, Meriah!

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